Sunday, October 31, 2010

Getting creative with asparagus

Asparagus time again. It's great to have a treat that's also got to be good for you!
         I got creative with it in the weekend. I had some blue cheese left over from Harvey's launch. (Yes, I know that was a while ago, but it was very good Kapiti blue cheese and it was perfectly fine.) And friends had brought us some walnuts from their tree.

         Harvey was pefectly happy with leftover mince on toast, but I felt like pasta (which he really isn't madly keen on). In my favourite Italian book, Claudia Roden's The Food of Italy, I found a recipe for gorgonzola sauce for spaghetti.

It's extremely simple: melt a little butter, stir in the crumbled cheese, mix well, add a little milk (I put a teaspoon of flour in the milk before adding it), stir well and pour over cooked spaghetti.

Before that, though, I snapped the woody ends of a bunch of skinny asparagus - we like the skinny ones best - and cooked the stalks until they were easy to bite but still crunchy.

While they were cooking, I fished out my ancient nutcracker and got to work on a little pile of walnuts, then finely chopped up the shelled nuts.

Once the spaghetti was cooked, I poured the sauce over it, scattered pieces of asparagus over the top, sprinkled over the chopped walnuts and added a good grinding of black pepper. Magnifico.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The path to creme caramel

Last week I had the luxury of a live-in caregiver for Harvey, the wonderful Marjorie. The idea was for them to get used to each other and what needs to be done while I roamed happily around Wellington. With the willing co-operation of friends booked in to keep me company, it all worked very well, from ....

Petone, and GoBang's rhubarb and custard brioche, to...

Willis St, and Cafe Neo's mini cupcake - I love it when you can have something delicious but small - to...

Porirua, and Pataka's chewy apricot slice...

Brilliant exhibitions at Pataka, go and see them. Two are by women, and "SHEEP - NZ Icons in Art" features lots of work by women too. The one that struck home for me was the "triple portrait", the heads of three raggedy, venerable sheep, all looking haggard and angry, painted in sinister shadings of green and magenta. It's called "The Mothers".

So after all that, I was quite happy to stay home this weekend and do some cooking. For ages I've been yearning after creme caramel, but I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to boiling sugar. So I use a clever microwave version from a really good book Harvey's mother Betty passed on to us in 1989, when she got it as a free gift from Reader's Digest. (She didn't need it because she didn't have a microwave, but her neighbour did. So when Betty gave her one of the ducks Harvey's brother had shot, the neighbour tried to cook it in her fancy new oven. The lead shot exploded, destroying both the duck and the microwave.)

Creme caramel (from Good Housekeeping Microwave Encyclopedia, by Susanna Tee)

For the caramel:
3 tablespoons caster sugar
3 tablespoons water
glass jug
round or oval ceramic dish which holds 750 ml

Mix in a glass jug and microwave on high for 5 minutes until the caramel turns brown. Watch it very carefully - I gave mine 4 minutes, then 30 second bursts and finally 10 seconds. Stop as soon as the sugar begins to darken. Pour the caramel immediately into the bottom of the dish.

For the creme:
450 ml full milk (not trim) in larger glass jug
3 eggs
2 tablespoons caster sugar
natural vanilla essence

Microwave milk on high for 90 seconds, just to warm it.
Lightly beat the eggs with the sugar.
Add the eggs and sugar to the milk and mix in a few drops of vanilla essence. (Or, if you have a vanilla bean, you can heat the seeds with the milk.)
Strain the milk and egg mixture carefully over the caramel.

Cover with two layers of cling film and place in a larger dish which will fit in the microwave.
Using a jug and a funnel, pour boiling water into the larger dish until it comes halfway up the smaller dish.
Microwave for at least 25 minutes until the custard is lightly set. My recipe says to do this on low, but that didn't seem to be hot enough to set the custard, so I used medium low instead.
Leave to stand for 5 minutes. Remove the dish from the water, take off the cling film and leave to stand for 30 minutes.
Refrigerate for 4 to 5 hours until set.

I didn't even try to turn this out, as I'd used an oval dish. I just started eating it straight out of the dish. I could do this because Harvey doesn't like it, so it was mine, all mine. It was a bit too wobbly still, but it tasted and felt exactly as it should, slippery creamy blobs of custard bathed in golden caramel. It should serve four, but I ate half of it yesterday and I'm going to finish it off tonight.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New basil plants for old

From about now I want lots and lots of basil. One plant on a windowsill doesn't quite fit the bill. Here's a wonderful solution from my friend Ali. I'm going to try it as soon as my current basil plant goes woody.

          "For years I tried to grow basil plants outdoors, with little success. Whether I raised my own plants from seed or bought them from the garden centre, they never grew into the big bushy plants you see in the illustrations of Mediterranean cookbooks."
          "So eventually I gave up, and resorted to pots of basil on the kitchen windowsill, courtesy of the local greengrocer. But however well I fed them the plants never produced for more than a few weeks, and I’d be left with a pot of woody stalks, each with a few small leaves."

"Then late last year, as I was about to empty a pot of tired plants into the compost, I decided to put them out in the garden, and see what happened. I chose a sheltered sunny corner, added some compost to the soil, and planted the basil in two rows about 15 cm apart, surrounded by some old bricks to keep out the wind and keep in the heat."
            "The results were spectacular. Within a couple of weeks the plants were shooting up and smothered in big fresh leaves. I soon had enough basil to pick by the handful, just like it says in the recipes! By watering regularly, and pinching out any flower-heads that formed, I managed to keep my basil forest going right through the summer. Such a treat, being able to make regular batches of homegrown pesto! "

"I’ve just bought a new pot of basil for the windowsill, and when the plants have done their dash indoors (and the weather improves!) they too will get a second life out in the veggie garden, just in time for the first tomatoes… "

Friday, October 8, 2010

A feast of poems

Not much cooking is going on around here at the moment, because we're getting organised for Sunday's launch of Harvey's new poetry anthology These I Have Loved: My favourite New Zealand poems, published by Steele Roberts. Beattie's Book Blog today has a really lovely post about it.

To give you a taste of what's inside, I've chosen one poem that just happens to be about food, along with what Harvey writes about why he chose it.

“When I was young a trip to town (Christchurch) by Pop or Mum usually resulted in a packet of butcher’s saveloys. In a regular diet of home-killed mutton, they were a colourful treat. Anne can’t believe that I still like them. Tasteless things, she says. Elizabeth will probably be horrified at my selection of this poem out of her ample array, but like her, for childhood’s sake, I still enjoy my saveloy.”


Elizabeth Smither
Why should one long for something
supposedly composed of sawdust
or sweepings and bulked up with
excessive breadcrumbs? Coloured

like a tart’s lips and typically
when the water in the pot comes to boil
steeping out of her underthings
or worse, looking like a condom?

And yet, sometimes passing the butcher’s
I compose a worthy list: eye fillet
and a nice beef roast (special visitors)
and just casually, like childhood, a saveloy.

For information about Harvey's book, email

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pretty retro: pumpernickel and guacamole

I'm not very good at doing fancy starters. By the time I've come up wth a first course, main course and dessert, I just don't feel like putting a lot of work into something for people to nibble on with a drink when they arrive.
         One good solution is pumpernickel. Apart from its splendid name, it's not too dry, works really well with lots of other flavours, and looks good as well.  Here's a plate I prepared earlier... Cream cheese (in fact I used some boursin I'd made) with tomato and basil, and provolone with tarragon leaves.

I think this photo looks amazingly retro, pure 1950s. It's the colours and the way they contrast. Pumpernickel is very good with smoked salmon, too.
              Another lovely word, and a great thing to start with, is guacamole - avocados are easy to get now. Mine is a made-up recipe. I don't put chile or tomato in it, I love the pale green colour and they spoil it. I make it all in the food processor, but rough fork-mashed is good too. The main thing is to taste it as you go.

Finely chop at least 2 cloves of garlic (we like more) and add:
Flesh of 2 large or 3 smaller ripe avocados (they should be soft but not brown, or at least not TOO brown - you can cut out the dark bits)
Strained juice of 1 large lemon (but you may well want more)
A little olive oil (but you don't want it too sloppy to work as a dip or spread)

Process till smooth, or mash together, taste, add more salt and/or lemon juice if needed. Serve with corn chips or crackers, and black olives are good as well.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Picking up the pieces

I had a tiny taste of the Christchurch earthquake last week. Ironically, it happened because I'd tried to do some earthquake-proofing. My kitchen clock was bought for me by my mother at the vast Farmers' store in Auckland, not long before it closed (I've been trying to find out when - I thought it was 1991). So last week, thinking about earthquakes, I decided I'd better stick on a blob of Bluetack to fasten it more securely to the wall. But I must have done it wrong, because that night the clock suddenly leapt off the wall and crashed to the floor. Its glass was broken, but otherwise it's okay, so maybe I can have it fixed. But on the way down it managed to smash my lovely old china salt box. It's not a family treasure, I bought it years ago in a "collectibles" (junk) shop, but I was very fond of it.

These small breakages made me think how sad it must have been for so many people to lose all their loved, familiar things in the earthquake - not on a par with losing your house and job, I know, but still distressing.   

I've recently worked out a good remedy for when I'm feeling a bit down, as I was after this happened. I take myself off to Martha's Pantry, in an old brick building on the corner of Cuba Street and Karo Drive. It's beautiful, full of flowers and sunshine and white embroidered cloths, and it's quiet - the fabrics soak up sound so that all you're aware of is a quiet murmur of conversation and the gentle tinkle of teacups and spoons. You get your own teapot, in a knitted cosy - they have a good range of teas, plus the usual (good) coffees - and a selection from their vast collection of pretty cups and saucers. And plates, of course - for something to eat from their range of gorgeously retro cakes.  A few times I've had the pleasure of introducing it to friends who've never been there before. They sell things, too - old-fashioned games and toys and lots of pretty flowery stuff. You do see the occasional chap in there, but it's definitely women who love it most - from bright young ones and mothers with kids to, well, mature women of my vintage. Macaroons, butterfly cakes, hot chocolate with the teacup tealight you get late on a winter afternoon... brilliant.