Monday, January 15, 2018

A ham sandwich

At this time of year, we usually have at least a bit of leftover ham. It gets made into a few special dishes - one favourite is Claudia Roden's Antico Risotto Sabaudo, with ham, cheese and white wine. But most of it gets eaten with salad or in sandwiches.
    My neighbour Frances recently spent some time in a retirement home, recuperating from a hip operation.  Being the Christmas season, she did get to eat ham there. Unfortunately, it was served warmed up and covered in brown gravy. So I brought her fresh little ham sandwiches, and she devoured them. It set me off thinking about other ham sandwiches in my life...

My husband always hoped to find
A plain ham sandwich to go with his coffee:
White bread, butter, ham, a dab of mustard.
But all they ever had were flat panini
And giant croissants stuffed with cheese and bacon.

The year after he died, I went to Auckland
To see my sister. At the airport Wishbone
Lined up beside the lamb with green mint jelly
And the chicken with watercress and cranberry
Was a proper old-fashioned ham sandwich
With real butter. I carried it off
To a quiet corner of the concourse
Disentangled it from its plastic armour
And bit into its long exposed soft side.

I was seven again, sitting across from my mother
On a plywood chair at a white Formica table.
Hard to say who was enjoying it more:
Her, out on the town, her string bag bulging
With small exciting unnecessary parcels
Or me, freed from school for two whole weeks
Plunging deeply into the heady pleasure
Of a soft ham sandwich and a fizzy drink
In the neon light of Farmer’s Bargain Basement.


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Mastering the mysteries of potato salad

For our Christmas Day buffet, I made potato salad. It was a great success, and I was looking forward to eating the leftovers on Boxing Day - but it was so cold and wet I didn't feel like it, and bought a supermarket pouch of soup instead (because I can't be bothered making any). Still, I learnt a lot of interesting things in pursuit of potato salad mastery, so I thought I'd share the essentials with you, plus a recipe,  because today the sun is out and it feels like salad weather again.

1. Good potato salad requires potatoes that are neither under-cooked nor over-cooked. Starting the potatoes in boiling water is a bad idea, because the outside overcooks before the inside is even warm. So always start the potatoes in cold water.
2. Adding 1 tablespoon of rice or white vinegar per litre of cooking water, as well as salt, both seasons the potatoes and helps to prevent over-cooking.
3. Because potato salad is eaten cold, it needs more seasoning than potatoes served hot. Adding more some seasoning to the hot drained potatoes is much more effective than waiting until they're cold.
4. Mayonnaise needs to be added later when the potatoes are cold, and you can add a bit more vinegar at this stage too, along with pepper.

If you really want to know every detail of the science behind all this, complete with the cellular construction of potatoes and pictures using green dye to show how seasoning gets in, go here.
The Food Lab guy's final word:
Two tablespoons of vinegar in the cooking water, another to dress the hot potatoes, and a final two in the mayonnaise mixture add plenty of layered brightness. Mayonnaise—be it storebought or homemade—is a must... By stirring the salad vigorously, you can bash off the corners of the potatoes, which get mashed up and extend the amount of creamy dressing to tender potato chunks. For heat I add a few tablespoons of whole grain mustard.

Okay, so here's my NZ adaptation of the 'Classic Potato Salad' recipe provided by Serious Eats to go with the lab report:

1.5 kg smallish boiling potatoes
2 litres cold water
2 Tbsps salt
2 Tbsps sugar
2 Tbsps rice or white vinegar

Add potatoes, salt, sugar and vinegar to water in a large saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce to a slow boil and cook until done (test for doneness after about 10 minutes' slow boiling - mine took about 20 minutes to cook through). Drain, peel and cut into chunks (not too small or they'll go mushy).

2 Tbsps vinegar

Transfer warm cut up potatoes to rimmed baking sheet. Spread into an even layer, then sprinkle with vinegar. Allow to cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.
·                          
·      Add extras according to preference - the quantities depend on how many potatoes you're using, but the potatoes should prevail:
      
      Original recipe
      Finely diced celery
·           Finely diced red onion
·           Finely sliced green parts of spring onions
      1/4 cup chopped cornichons (tiny gherkins)
      Finely chopped Italian parsley
     
      Some NZ extras or alternatives:
      Hard-boiled eggs, chopped
      Corn kernels (cut from a cob microwaved for 3 minutes)
      Finely diced shallots (milder than the red onion)
      Capers instead of cornichons
      Finely chopped fresh chives

Mix gently into cut up potatoes, then add:
      Bought or home-made mayonnaise 
      (Not too much, it shouldn't be overwhelming. For super-easy home-made mayonnaise, go here. I made it with the finely chopped garlic, but leave that out if you don't like it.)

Taste and mix in gently, according to preference:
      Grainy mustard
      A little more vinegar or a little lemon juice

Chill for a few hours or overnight - take out of fridge an hour before serving.



Those who know my blog well will recognise that once again, I took the photo only after we'd eaten most of the potato salad!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Chocolate truffle cake

My son was born on 12 December, a bit close to Christmas, but of course he likes to have his birthday properly celebrated.  This year he planned to have friends round for afternoon tea. As it happens, I was at my friend Joan's birthday afternoon tea a few weeks ago, and she had made a remarkably delicious chocolate cake - not one of those great big high ones, but a much denser, fudgy, chocolatey creation I knew my son would love. (After extensive research, he has decided his favourite cafe chocolate cake is Aro Street Cafe's Chocolate Nemesis - another dense, fudgy number.)   
            So I asked for the recipe. In the usual fashion, it was given to Joan by Chris, who knew it as Lilly's Truffle Cake, so it's clearly been passed on to a number of eager bakers. Not that I ever really call myself a baker - what attracted me to this recipe, apart from its deliciousness, was how easy it looked to make. On Saturday, I made it for Sunday afternoon.  

Lilly’s Chocolate Truffle Cake

(Joan's comments in brackets, and mine added in italics. Easily doubled to make a larger cake. In fact I added one third of each quantity, making a cake 25% larger, to fit my 22 cm tin - my quantities in brackets.)


200 g (270g) dark chocolate (Whittaker's Dark Ghana, what else!)
180 g (240 g) sugar
180 g (240g) butter
3 (4) rounded tablespoons ground almonds (almond meal); or flour; or for a slightly lighter cake, self raising flour
(I used 3 rounded Tbsps almond meal and 1 Tbsp self-raising flour - this worked well.)
3 (4) eggs
Icing sugar to dredge

Set oven to 200 degrees (190 fan bake).
Break chocolate into squares and place in microwave suitable bowl.  Add the butter and sugar.  
Heat by pulsing in the microwave until it just melts, stirring between pulses to even the heat.  Stop as soon as it melts so it doesn’t get cooked.
Transfer to a food processor. Blend again by whirring for 30 seconds, then add almond meal, or flour, and whirr again.   
Add eggs one at a time, whirring until everything is mixed.



 Grease a 20 cm (22 cm) round cake tin and flour.  (I lazily use cooking paper.)
(I lined my loose-bottomed tin with baking paper and it worked perfectly.)  
Pour the mixture into the centre of the tin, spread towards edges, and bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes.
Reduce heat to 150 degrees (140 fan bake) and continue cooking a further 30 minutes.  
(Joan: In my oven I do it for only  20 minutes, as the longer time dries it out too much.)
(Anne: As I was making a larger, slightly thicker cake, I found it did take close to 30 minutes.) 
The centre shouldn’t dry out, and the top should be a little cracked and crusty. 
Undercooking is better than overcooking. An inserted skewer or thin knife should come out with a little bit of sticky inside clinging to it.
Leave in tin to cool.  



Transfer to plate by inverting onto one plate and then onto the cake plate. Dredge with icing sugar.  
(Jonathan insisted on having ganache icing, made with 150 ml cream heated just to scalding point, then poured over 150 g of broken-up chocolate pieces (more Whittaker's) in a bowl and stirred thoroughly until chocolate has melted and ganache is dark. Leave to cool in fridge for about an hour until thick enough to spread over cake.)



Joan: Raspberry coulis is great with this ... as well as, of course ... cream!  (Or yoghourt!)

Anne: Jonathan had both, and he also spread sliced strawberries over the top of the iced cake. His friends were very impressed and asked if he had bought it - but of course he pointed out that his mother had made it.  It's extremely rich, so only slender pieces were required - which was just as well, because there was some left for me later (he knew this was a condition of my making it!). Definitely worth the effort...










Sunday, October 1, 2017

Very easy Dutch apple cake

Last weekend was, in case you've forgotten, election night. Harvey and I always used to select who we invited to watch the results very carefully. They not only had to share our political persuasion, they also had to be quietly devoted to watching the results. Jonathan deserted me for his own friends, so I had my neighbour over early on, then a close friend joined us.
      I planned to have soup and then finger food for later, but I also wanted to make a cake. As apples are one of the few well-priced fruits around, I thought a Dutch apple cake would be good - but I couldn't find my old recipe. No problem - one quick search online for "Dutch apple cake NZ" (local baking recipes usually work best) and I found exactly what I wanted. The use of melted butter makes it very easy to mix, and thanks to the cinnamon and sugar topping, it doesn't need icing.


Sue's Dutch Apple Cake
(I don't know who this Sue is - the site says "This apple cake is a favourite supplied by Gemma from the Tui Team.") 

2 eggs
½ cup sugar
125g melted butter
1 c self-raising flour
zested rind of 1 lemon
3 medium apples, peeled and chopped up (my apples weren't very tart, so I added a couple of tablespoons of of juice from the zested lemon)
1 Tbsps cinnamon and 1/3 c sugar, mixed together for sprinkling on top (you may not need all this, but I like it quite thick).

Prepare cake tin, greasing the sides and lining the base with bake paper. (The recipe recommends a ring tin, which gives a higher cake. I used a square tin, lined entirely with bake paper, for a shallow cake which cut into neat squares.)
Set oven to 180C bake (or 170C fanbake).
Melt the butter (a Pyrex jug works well, in the oven or the microwave) and leave it to cool.
Beat the eggs and the sugar together in a largeish bowl, then add the melted butter.
Add the self-raising flour, lemon rind and apples to the mixture, and mix to combine. 
Pour into prepared cake tin. 
Sprinkle with a generous amount of the cinnamon and sugar.
Bake for 30-40 minutes, until a skewer or thin knife blade inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Serve with plain whipped cream or yoghurt.

This is really good, quite light and yet very moist - a cross between cake and dessert. Once again (sigh) I didn’t get a decent photo before most of the cake got eaten, and I couldn’t copy the one that came with the original recipe.  So here are a couple of photos I found online – the first is a similar cake, and the other is exactly the recipe above, but from the Chelsea Sugar site. 



Mine looked like a cross between the two. I don't think the Chelsea one has been mixed properly, because the apple seems to be all at the bottom, but the topping looks right. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Fillo feta rolls for a Middle Eastern feast

Last week came one of the highlights of my culinary year. Ali and Lynn both have their birthdays near the end of July, and as we're all keen cooks and gourmets, we always get together for a themed feast. (Last year it was Spain - see here and here.) This year I had a new edition of Claudia Roden's A Book of Middle Eastern Food (my third, I've worn out the first two) and was giving a copy to Ali, so a Middle Eastern feast would work beautifully.
     
We had it at my place and each of us produced a starter and a main, and I also made dessert. Ali, the bread queen, made Turkish pide bread, herb fritters with haloumi, and grilled eggplant with labneh and za'ahtar. Lynn made red pepper and walnut dip and Morroccan couscous with chicken. I made yoghurt with cucumber and garlic, fillo feta rolls, and lamb and apricot stew with spiced basmati rice. For dessert I made our favourite orange and almond cake, with sliced oranges in syrup. (You may well think this sounds a lot, for lunch for three, and it was. We always cook too much - but we don't care, because we get wonderful leftovers.)
            I need to collect their recipes to share, but for now I thought it would be good to post the feta rolls. In my memoir I wrote about discovering fillo (or filo) pastries in Albania:
Rosia took the greatest pride in her byrek, small crisp three-cornered parcels of golden brown filo pastry filled with meat or cheese. But much as we loved them, we asked for them only if we were giving a proper party or coming back from a holiday, because the filo didn’t come in neat packets. Rosia and Hurimai pushed back the rugs and furniture in the sitting room and spread a white sheet over the marble tiles. They each took one end of a long thin dowel and delicately rolled out the dough into one great layer, so thin you could see through it.
The Albanian name, byrek or burek, comes from the Turkish börek described by Roden - she says the cheese one is the most popular. But her recipe is for rolls rather than Rosia's triangles. I did think about attempting the triangles, but the little cigar-shaped rolls are easier.
        As you'll see from the photo below, because of the rather broken sheets of fillo, and because there were only three of us, I was lazy and used all the filling to make three medium and three larger ones, rather than a lot of little ones - easier, and you get more filling in each one.

Sigara böregi
Little cheese rolls
(fSlightly adapted from Claudia Roden, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, 2001)
Makes 16 little rolls (in theory!)

200 g feta cheese
(I got a genuine Greek one at the Mediterranean Warehouse, but Zany Zeus in Wellington also makes a very good one. If your block is wrapped in plastic, blot it well with kitchen paper before using.)
1 egg, lightly beaten
3-4 Tbsps finely chopped mint, flat parsley, or dill
8 thin sheets fillo pastry
(I could only find Edmonds, which is very thin and tends to break when unrolled. Roden recommends using 4 sheets of a thicker one, but I don't think it's obtainable here. However, I found that using two thin sheets together worked fine.)
4-6 Tbsps melted butter or oil

Take out the frozen fillo to defrost while you make the filling. (I found I had to defrost the whole packet, but could quickly refreeze the leftovers.)
Preheat oven to 190C, or 180C fan bake.
Spread a large oven sheet with baking paper.

Filling: Mash the feta well with a fork and mix it thoroughly with the beaten egg and herbs.

Assembly: Using 2 sheets of fillo together, cut them into rectangles, each about 30 cm by 10 cm. (You are meant to get 16 of these rectangles.) Pile these on top of each other as you cut them so that they don't dry out. (It helps to have ready a damp teatowel to cover them as you go.)
Lay out one pair of thin rectangles. Brush the top sheet with melted butter or oil. Take a heaped teaspoon of the filling and place it at one end of the strip in a thin sausage shape, about 2 cm from the three edges (see diagram).
Roll up the sheets with the filling inside, like rolling a cigarette. When you've rolled about a third of the way along the strip, turn in the sides to trap the filling. (Brushing on a bit of extra butter or oil is useful to help them stick.) Continue to roll with the sides turned in. Repeat with the remaining rectangles of fillo.


Lay the rolls close to each other on the baking paper, with the ends of rolled fillo underneath, and brush the tops and sides with melted butter or oil.

Baking: Place oven sheet with rolls at the middle of the preheated oven or slightly above. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the rolls are crisp and golden. Serve hot. (If necessary they can be reheated later - mine were.)


It was such a pleasure to bite into these and recapture a favourite taste of Albanian life. So now I plan to make the larger rolls again, to serve for dinner with salad...

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Tartology: Leek and blue cheese tart

For my birthday lunch, deferred until June (I like to spread it out), Ali served me an absolutely perfect leek and blue cheese tart. Unfortunately I didn't take a photo, but I was determined to have a go myself, so she gave me the recipe.
         Today I managed to do it. Not quite as perfectly trimmed around the edges as hers (she gives clever instructions for dong this AFTER the case is blind-baked, but I carelessly missed that bit), and it could perhaps have done with slightly longer cooking  to set the filling a fraction more - but my oven tends to run hotter than hers, so I had to take it out slightly early to stop it going too brown on top. Otherwise - well, it really was pretty good.


Leek and clue cheese tart 
(River Cottage, with Ali's tweaks)
For the pastry:
250g plain flour
125g unsalted butter, cut into little chunks
A pinch of sea salt
1 yolk of a medium egg
25-50ml cold milk (I needed slightly more to make the pastry stick together properly)
For the filling:
·        2 large or 3 medium leeks (about 500g), trimmed of tough green leaves, washed and sliced into 1cm rounds
·        A knob of unsalted butter
·        Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
·        100g good blue cheese, grated or crumbled
·         2 medium eggs
·         2 medium egg yolks 
       300ml cream

      First make the pastry: Put the flour, butter and salt in a food processor and pulse until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk, then pour in the milk in a gradual stream. Watch carefully and stop adding the milk as soon as the dough starts to come together. 
      Turn out and knead lightly a couple of times, then wrap in cling film. Chill for half an hour.


      Prepare the filling: Put the leeks into a saucepan with 100ml water, the butter and some salt and pepper. Bring to a low simmer, then cover and cook gently, stirring once or twice, for about 10 minutes, until just tender. Drain well, reserving the cooking liquor.   


  
      Put the eggs and egg yolks, cream and leek liquor in a bowl and beat until smooth. Season to taste.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry out quite thinly and use to line a 25cm loose-based tart tin, letting the excess pastry hang over the edges.
Preheat oven to 170°C. (I set mine on Bake, without the fan, for this stage. If your oven runs a bit cool you may need to set it at 180°C.)
Line the pastry case with a big enough piece of baking paper to have it sticking out enough to lift it out easily later. Fill tart case with baking beans and place in the centre of the oven. 
Bake blind for 20 minutes, then take the tart out of the oven, remove the paper and beans, lightly prick the base all over with a fork and return to the oven for 5 minutes, until the base is dry but not too coloured. (Mine looked a bit too pale, so I shifted the setting to Fan Bake for this stage and for the rest of the cooking.) Carefully trim off the excess pastry with a small, sharp knife. 
Turn the oven temperature up to 180°C (170°C may be better if you are using Fan Bake).
Spread the well-drained cooked leeks in the tart case and cover with the grated/crumbled cheese.
Pour the egg mixture over the leeks and cheese. Put the tart back into the oven and bake for about 30 minutes. The custard should be just set when you gently shake the tin. 

Ali and I both use Mary Berry's trick to get the outer rim of the tart case off easily. 
Let the tart cool a little. Rest the base on a flat-bottomed upside-down bowl or small saucepan, which needs to be a little smaller than the base. 


Use a sharp knife to gently free any bits of the edge that are sticking to the rim. Then ease the rim down to the bench, leaving the tart sitting neatly on its base. 


Serve warm or cool (but not chilled).  All you need with this is a simple salad, but you can add crusty bread and butter if you're really hungry. 

Between us my son and I ate half tonight, leaving half for tomorrow - brilliant.













Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dispelling the myths of food poverty

I wrote this blog for the Child Poverty Action Group, so I thought I would share it with you here. In what they tell me is a remarkably short time, it's had 1710 views on their blogsite.

The New Testament can be spot-on. As usual, the 2017 Budget handed out considerable amounts to those that hath at least a moderate amount already, and only a few scraps to those that hath hardly anything.
Post-Budget, I've been thinking about poverty and food. There's a mountain of research to show that when it's incredibly hard to make ends meet, it's food that takes the hit, because it's the only flexible expense. That's why some kids go to school without lunches, or maybe even without breakfast.
But whenever the food of the poor is discussed in the media, the scornful comments flood in, trying to demonise and place blame on struggling parents. You often see comments such as, "It's so easy to stock up on specials/cook up a pot of soup/make cheap school lunches/come up with simple healthy meals," and: "When we had very little money, we managed perfectly well - why can't they?"
If I suddenly found myself on a very strict food budget - the kind where you spend your whole time in the supermarket worrying about whether you'll be able to pay for what you put in the trolley - I would probably be able to manage pretty well too. But the ability to do that depends on a whole range of factors, most of which have very little to do with my own worthiness or work ethic.
One: Basic income security. Ever since my first marriage there's been enough coming in to cover the bills, the food, and emergencies. Apart from a few times very early on, I haven't had to worry about whether I'd have enough to cover the total at the checkout. And I've always been able to pay the bills for the power and gas I need to cook. Things are so different now. Thousands of families with at least one parent in paid work don't earn enough to meet their basic needs, or never know what they'll earn from one week to the next. And benefits are no longer designed to keep you out of poverty - they keep you in it.
Two: Good housing with a well-equipped, workable kitchen. Our first son was seven and had a little brother by the time we managed to buy a house. But before that we had little trouble finding a series of Auckland flats to rent that were secure, dry, quiet, affordable and had workable kitchens. And we didn't have to share them with other people. I've never once had to cope with damp, freezing, mouldy or overcrowded homes with shockingly bad kitchens - let alone live in a garage or a car, with no kitchen at all. And I've never been unable to afford basic equipment like a big soup pot.
Three: Cheap fresh food. When we got back from working in Britain in 1976, I was so thrilled to be able to buy such good food for so little every week. Over the last thirty years the enormous increase in the real price of fresh food in New Zealand has been phenomenal. We're one of the few countries that imposes GST on it all. When I have overseas visitors, they're shocked by how much fresh food costs here - especially considering how much of it we produce. And if you buy something which is supposed to be fresh but very quickly goes off, it's a total loss. So you'll stick to heavily processed but utterly reliable food instead. Junk food is so much cheaper - if I were chronically poor, I'd be buying it too.
Four: Experience and education. As I explained in The Colour of Food, when I married at the age of 19 and promptly had a baby, I could barely cook at all. Now, I know a hundred ways to make a cheap, filling, reasonably healthy meal, but back then I didn't have a clue. Luckily I'd grown up with a mother who was a good cook, and so was my mother-in-law. And new recipes for exotic but cheap one-dish creations like spaghetti bolognese were just starting to appear in magazines I could afford to buy, so I could learn quickly. This is so far from the case for many parents nowadays.
Five: Food access. For me, shops selling a good range of food have always been within fairly easy reach, even when we didn’t have a car. That's just not the case for hundreds of people now. You try providing bargain-price healthy meals week after week when it takes a huge effort just to get to the nearest supermarket. Easy to reach food shops in poorer and rural areas charge more and may not stock much in the way of decent food.
Six: A good store of extras. What makes cheap, basic healthy food tasty is being able to add all the little extras - spices, lemon juice, vinegar, stock. I have all these in abundance, all the time. If you're on a tight food budget, you can't afford them.
Seven: A buffer fund. If something essential breaks down - the fridge, the stove, the car - I can afford to put it right without having to go begging to Work and Income or an invisible landlord. If I see good specials - often multibuys - I can afford to stock up, and I've got the room to store them safely and securely. When you're juggling your money so precariously that any extra spending one week will mean there's nothing left the week after, this is impossible. 
I don't think there can be anything much more soul-destroying than being responsible for providing your family with food every day, in circumstances that make doing that a constant struggle. So next time you read yet another shocking story in the media about families going without decent healthy food, please pause and have a good think about their reality, which may be very different from yours. Then find out how you can support moves to change it for good.