Saturday, August 16, 2014

A good gratin

This time last Saturday I was feeling nervous. A friend had been given, and had passed on to me, a beautiful piece of sirloin cut into thick steaks. (Actually I wasn't quite sure if they were indeed sirloin steaks, but I took them up to the legendary Gipps St Butcher to make sure.) I was charged with cooking them for him and his partner, two more friends, and me and my son (who is visiting from China).
           I don't deal with meat like this every day. I haven't even tried to take their photo - meat is notoriously hard to show looking good. But I did make a rather good potato gratin to go with them, plus a salad.
            Gratin takes a bit of trouble to make, but it's really good for dinner parties because all the fiddly stuff can be done well in advance. It cooks quietly in the oven and sits there obediently waiting until you've dealt with the steak and salad. It also looks very nice on the table.
             The classic is gratin dauphinois, made with milk, cream and sometimes Gruyere cheese. But I thought its humbler cousin, gratin savoyard, would be better with the steaks. It's made with stock, a little butter and, in my case, a little wine as well.
Gratin savoyard 
(adapted from Richard Ehrlich's recipe in The Lazy Cook)

500g Agria potatoes, preferably even in size, oval-shaped and small enough to go, peeled, through the feed-in tube of the food processor
2 large cloves garlic
250ml good chicken stock (I've taken to using Simon Gault's squeezable plastic sachets of concentrated stock, made up with hot water.)
100ml dry white wine
30g butter

Set oven to 180C.
Peel and crush the garlic. Peel the potatoes and feed them through the slicing disc of a food processor.
(If you haven't got a processor, and don't want to spend a long time trying to get even thin slices, cut them into roughly even chunks about 1cm square.)
Butter a large round or square ceramic oven dish. Spread an even layer of overlapping slices (or a layer of chunks) into the dish. Season very lightly with salt and pepper and scatter over tiny bits of garlic. Repeat until the potatoes and garlic have all been used up and the dish is close to full. It helps to select and keep back a layer of nice even slices for the top. Dot the top with small bits of butter.
Reduce the white wine by half in a small saucepan. Prepare the stock. Mix the two together, tasting to check that it's not too salty.
Pour enough liquid over the potatoes to come a little way up the sides. Reserve any left in case the potatoes start to dry out too much during cooking.
Put a layer of foil over the potatoes, dull side uppermost. Cook for 50 minutes. 
Remove the foil. Check dryness, adding a little more liquid if necessary.

Cook for another 10-20 minutes, until the top is turning a little brown and crisp, and a thin knife or skewer slides easily down through the potatoes to the bottom of the dish.

I turned the oven down to warm and put the gratin on the bottom shelf while I made the salad and prepared the steaks (taken out of the fridge and patted dry when I first put in the potatoes) with a brush of oil, and a light sprinkle of salt. Then I lined them up under the fan grill and cooked them just until they were no longer really soft, but definitely not really firm either. (Sirloin does need a little more cooking than fillet, I think.)
            We didn't need much else - well, just a little antipasto beforehand, with some cheese, a lemon tart and a few chocolates after, courtesy of my guests, not to mention some very fine wine from the steak provider... a Saturday night feast of food and friendship.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Shortlisted for labour history award!!

I just heard today from Awa Press that my memoir was short listed for the Bert Roth Award! The winner, also published by Awa, was Rebecca Macfie's superb book on Pike River. I was so thrilled to have made the shortlist. Here's what the judges said:

"Anne Else’s food memoir The Colour of Food ... explored women’s work. More personal than the rest of our nominees, this beautifully written e-book told Else’s life history through the meals she ate and the meals she prepared. Else describes significant changes in the work of home cooking as New Zealand food culture changed.  As Else was deeply involved in the New Zealand women’s liberation movement, her memoir also explores the politics of unpaid labour, and the monumental challenge women mounted to the status quo in the 1960s and 1970s.  Else demonstrates the importance of personal stories and individual lives."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Colour of Food goes into print!

Best-selling New Zealand “eriginal” food memoir heads for a print edition
From Awa Press

With the help of some mouth-watering recipes and sage advice from the Duchess of Windsor – “If you don’t take care you may serve an entire meal pinkish mauve, from lobster bisque to sherbet” – Anne Else’s memoir of her food-entwined life rocketed to five stars and the No. 1 spot on Amazon’s food memoirs’ bestseller list within a few weeks of its release as an ebook original,  and has stayed there for months. Its publisher, Awa Press, was so impressed it decided to release a print edition. 

The Colour of Food: A memoir of life, love and dinner is due for paperback release in September. Anne Else writes of her life from childhood to marriage, motherhood and now, in her 60s, forging a community of new friends through her food blog Something Else to Eat. Along the way there’s feminism, divorce and remarriage, finding her birth mother, and the heartbreaking loss of her 18-year-old son Patrick and of her husband, poet Harvey McQueen, who died on Christmas Day 2010.

These tales of love, joy and sadness are seasoned with memories of the food that has enriched her life – from “shin meat stew with plump fleshy pieces of kidney” in her childhood, to Harvey’s “venison and sour cherries in a sauce made with cream, Dijon mustard and the cook’s own home-made crab-apple jelly”, and the “salade composĂ©e with good blue cheese, a sliced apple or pear and Waikanae friends’ walnuts strewn over my own rocket” that she eats alone. 

Wellington cook and food writer Lois Daish is one of many who have heaped praise on Else’s memoir. “I love this enchanting book,” she says. “Anne Else’s poignant story shines a light on how food is intertwined with the joys and sorrows of everyday life.” 

Sprinkled with recipes from each era of Anne Else’s life, The Colour of Food is a story that lingers long after the final – printed! – page has been turned.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Scrumptious spicy chicken

I don't always save the recipe pages from the Listener, but I was really glad I saved the one from 24 May. Lauraine Jacobs was featuring a new book by UK-based, multi-award-winning food writer Diana Henry: A Change of Appetite: Where Health Meets Delicious. I have a small problem with that title - it does make it sound as if "healthy" and "delicious" don't normally meet, when surely they very often do. But But the recipes sound very good, and recently I made one of them for myself. It was so easy and tasty and realtively inexpensive that I made it again as the main course for a visiting friend last week.
         I did tweak it a little bit. Even though iI was cooking for two instead of four, I used the same amount of flavouring ingredients - naughty, I know, but there still wasn't a lot of sauce and I like spicy food. I left out the star anise, because I don't like aniseed flavour at all, but I've left it in the recipe because most people probably would like it.
         One of the few foods I dislike is cooked pumpkin, so I used kumara instead, and I thought that worked really well. For the two of us, I cooked four large chicken thighs and two large kumara. I didn't have any spring onions, so I cooked ordinary chopped onion with the garlic.
         If you are making it with pumpkin I suggest that you first chop it into large chunks and then microwave it for just long enough to soften the skin. This makes it much easier to peel. As you can see from the photo (which is the one from the Listener - once again I forgot to photograph mine!) - the pumpkin or kumara chunks should not be too large, so that they cook through in the same time as the chicken.

Chicken and pumpkin with soy and star anise
(Diana Henry, courtesy of Lauraine Jacobs in the Listener, 24 May 2014)
Serves 4.

1 Tbsp peanut oil
8 bone-in chicken thighs
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 Tbsp fish sauce
2 Tbsp soft dark brown sugar
1 red chilli, deseeded and shredded (I used chilli flakes)
2.5cm piece of ginger, peeled and very finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
8 spring onions, trimmed and chopped on the diagonal
900g pumpkin or squash, cut into chunks, peeled and deseeded, or kumara, peeled and cut into chunks
3 strips of orange zest
1 star anise
2 Tbsp orange juice (i used a bit more, and less water)
Black pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C (or 170 fan-forced).
Remove the chicken skin if you prefer (I used skinless).
Heat the oil in an oven-proof casserole dish or saute pan that can go in the oven (large enough to lie all the chicken in a single layer).
Brown the chicken on both sides. Don't try to turn the thighs until they are easy to move, as pulling will tear them. Take them out of the pan and set aside.
Pour the fat out of the pan into a cup. Mix the soy sauce, vinegar and fish sauce with the sugar and stir.
Put 1 Tbsp of the reserved fat back in the pan, heat it and add the chilli, ginger and garlic. Keep some of teh greener bits of spring onion back for garnish and add the rest to the pan.
Cook over a medium heat for a couple of minutes, until the garlic is golden, then add the soy sauce mixture. Return the chicken to the pan, with any juices that have seeped out, plus the pumpkin, orange zest, star anise, orange juice and 3-4 Tbsp of water.
Grind on some black pepper. Cover the dish and put in the hot oven for 40 minutes in total. After 15 minutes, turn the chicken pieces over. (It helps to turn the pumpkin or kumara over too.) Cover again and cook for another 15 minutes. Then uncover the dish and return to the oven to cook for another 10 minutes. (The sauce will reduce to a lovely stickiness. But keep an eye on it to make sure it isn't hardening.)
Scatter with the reserved pieces of green spring onion and serve. Accompany with brown rice, quinoa or wheat berries tossed with lots of chopped coriander leaves and lime juice.
Recommended wine match: Chardonnay.

At my age I don't need masses of carbohydrate, so I didn't add the rice - instead I made a shredded carrot and cabbage salad with a small amount of Asian flavoured dressing, using lime juice, fish sauce , soy sauce and a little sugar. If I'd had any coriander I would have used that too.
          I thought this was a really successful dish, not too strongly spiced, so you get the full flavour of the chicken and pumpkin/kumara, but spicy enough to have you licking your lips with huge appreciation. Thank you, Lauraine and Diana.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Light lemony pancakes

One of the many good things about Moore Wilson is their little stacks of free recipes. Ages ago I picked up one for Lemon Cottage Cheese Pancakes. At home I stowed it neatly away and forgot about it, but a fortnight ago I came across it again, and decided to liven up Queen's Birthday by trying it out on a willing friend for brunch.
      I always wonder if people like the Queen ever get to indulge in such simple pleasures. Does she just stick to the same routine, or does she ask her kitchen staff to surprise her with something new? Somehow I don't get the impression that she's terribly interested in food anyway. I learnt very early on that her actual birthday is 21 April, because that was Mum's birthday too.
       Anyway, the recipe worked so well that I made it again today for my neighbour, who told me she loved pancakes and hadn't had them for years. This time I made bigger ones, but that wasn't quite as successful - a large hotcake size seems best.

Lemon cottage cheese pancakes
 (Moore Wilson)
Makes 6 smallish pancakes, really only enough for 2 people. Double it for 4.

3 large eggs
1/4 cup self-raising flour
3/4 cup plain cottage cheese
1/4 cup butter, melted
2 Tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp grated lemon zest
Butter for cooking (the recipe doesn't say this, but I think it cooks and tastes better with a little butter)

Set the oven on 75 degrees or the warm setting, and put in two large plates.

Separate the eggs, putting the whites into a large bowl and the yolks into another large bowl.
Mix the yolks together with the flour, cottage cheese, butter, sugar, salt and lemon zest until well blended. (Don't over-mix it - the little lumps of cottage cheese are fine.)

Beat the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. Fold the whites gently through the yolk mixture.
Heat a large non-stick pan over medium heat. Add a lump of butter, enough to lightly coat the pan.
Pour 3 large hotcake size dollops of batter into pan, keeping them separate.

Cook gently for about a minute and a half. When little bubbles rise through and the pancakes are nicely browned underneath (lift a corner to see), flip them over and cook the other side.

Place the cooked pancakes in the oven on a warmed plate. Cook 3 more.
Serve with your choice of:
crispy bacon, runny honey, maple syrup, lemon juice, cream, yoghurt (or a whipped mix of both), poached fruit. I had ready a mix of rhubarb, feijoa and pear, cooked with brown sugar and a little lemon syrup.

As you can see, I just managed to get a photo before they started to be eaten. Both my visitors went on at gratifying length about how light and delicious these were. They're a kind of cross between a traditional pancake and a really good pikelet, but the cottage cheese and lemon add something special. Maybe I'll try to invent a savoury version...

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Doing things to oysters

I see that I haven't put a post up since 1 May - shocking. No real excuses at all, simply a fit of winter slothfulness and avoiding coming up here to the main computer (which is much easier to write on than my iPad) because it's warmer downstairs.
        But this long gap doesn't mean I haven't been cooking - quite the opposite. What I tend to do quite often these days is get an idea, look up several different recipes related to it, then pick and choose bits of them and assemble my own version to suit the ingredients I have on hand, the amount of effort I want to put in and my own judgement about what will work best.
        Earlier this month I had a (not very significant) birthday. There have been a series of delightful lunches and other outings with friends, with at least one more to come. But generally the evenings have been spent at home, sometimes cooking for friends. On my actual birthday, though, I was home alone, so I made the most of it.
         Harvey loved oysters, and so do I. But he wanted to eat them in only two forms: completely au naturel, with lemon, pepper and thin bread and butter, or battered and deep fried. (Sent up the road to get a parcel of fish and chips for dinner, he was very good at turning it  into something much more sexy by throwing in a dozen oysters.) So when I saw a $10.95 oyster special at Countdown, I decided I would break out and do something different with them.
          The pottle turned out to contain six very large oysters. I ate two all by themselves as a starter, then set about turning the rest into a sauce for pasta. I looked at half a dozen recipes and came up with my own super-simple version.

Pasta with oysters for one
(Just size it up for more servings - hungry people may well eat 100g of pasta each. The quantities for the wine and cream are only approximate, since it depends on the amount of oyster liquor, the size of the oysters, and how oystery you want it to taste.)

75g linguine, preferably bronze die cut (see here)
tender white and green parts of one small leek, chopped into fine rings
20-30g butter
2 small rashers streaky bacon, cut into small pieces
4 large or 6 smaller oysters, with their liquor
approx. 250ml dry vermouth or dry white wine (I prefer vermouth)
juice from half a small lemon
freshly ground black pepper
75ml cream (or more to taste - if you like a blander sauce, use more cream)

Cook the pasta in a large pan of boiling salted water. When it is al dente, remove 2 tablespoons of the cooking liquid and reserve. Drain the pasta, return to pan, stir in a small piece of the butter, and keep warm.
In a shallow non-stick pan, gently cook the bacon pieces in their own fat, remove, and set aside.
Melt the butter and gently saute the leeks. Remove and set aside with the bacon.
Drain the oyster liquor into the pan and add the vermouth or wine and the lemon juice. Bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer and put in the oysters, cut into pieces if they are large ones. Poach the oysters for 2 minutes, remove and set aside.
Warm a wide shallow pasta plate.
Increase the heat under the pan, add the 2 Tbsp saved pasta water, and boil gently until the liquid is reduced to about 1/2 cm in depth in the pan.
Turn the heat down to low. Put in the bacon, leeks and oysters. Stir in the cream and heat gently through. Check seasoning.
Put pasta in plate and pour over the sauce. Grind more pepper on top to taste.
Eat immediately with a glass of your favourite dry white. (Gruner veltliner is my favourite with oysters, but there are plenty of other good choices.)

This is one of the fastest dinner dishes I've ever cooked - and one of the most utterly delicious. I ate it making small appreciative noises to myself, and telling Harvey's photo that there were indeed more than two good ways to eat oysters.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

How the pork got stuffed

I've always admired stuffed food - literally stuffed, that is, not "ruined" or "gone wrong" or "completely had it". But it can be a bit intimidating to tackle. I'm a dab hand now at stuffed mushrooms, and I can manage to stuff some large veges, but there's a piece in my book about failing to make a stuffed chicken. And until a couple of weeks ago I'd never stuffed a pork fillet.
I had quite a small one on hand for dinner with two women friends, and I wanted to serve it with the lemon risotto in my last post. So I leafed through my Italian cookbooks. The newest one is Easy Tasty Italian, by the very glamorous Laura Santtini, and it had exactly what I was looking for: pork fillet stuffed with artichoke and bay.

Only instead of cutting a pocket in the side, as she suggested, I decided to try making a hole and pushing the stuffing down along the length of the fillet. The cooking method was my own invention, because I didn't want it to dry out. I only experiment like this with very good friends - fortunately it all worked remarkably well.

Pork fillet stuffed with artichoke and bay paste 
(after Laura Santtini. Serves 4 delicate eaters, 3 moderate ones or 2 hungry ones.)

1 small pork fillet (sorry, I forgot to note what mine weighed, but it was about 6 cm in diameter.)
For the paste: 
85g artichoke pieces in olive oil (from a jar), drained
2 bay leaves, as tender as possible
1 garlic clove
1 Tbsp olive oil
1-2 pinches of salt flakes
freshly ground black pepper
To cook:
150ml white wine
large oven bag

Set the oven to 170C.
Blend the paste ingredients together, adding a little more oil if it's too thick.
(I did mine in the food processor. I needed to pick out the remaining larger bits of bay leaf, but most of it got successfully ground up.)

Push a long thin knife into the pork fillet, not quite to the end, and wriggle it around.
Using your fingers, stuff a little of the artichoke mixture into the hole.
Using a long thin wooden spoon handle, gently push the mixture as far down the fillet as you can.
Repeat until you've used up all the mixture and the fillet is full of stuffing.

Put the fillet down into the oven bag so it's resting across the bottom of the bag, and add the white wine.
Fold the bag over loosely so the wine can't escape, and place it in a roasting pan.
Cook it for about 25 minutes.
(The pork will turn pale and be fairly firm to the touch. It will swell and become shorter. Some of the stuffing may ooze out, but this doesn't matter.)
Carefully pour off the white wine and meat juice and save it for another use. Remove the pork and rest it on a warm dish under a teatowel for 15 minutes, while you prepare a long warm serving plate and the accompaniments - mashed or boiulanger potatoes, for example, or that lemon risotto.
To serve, slice the pork neatly across to show the stuffing. Some of it escaped in mine, but that did not matter in the slightest. All very satisfying, to make as well as to eat.