Thursday, April 29, 2010

Real-life rissoles

I grew up with rissoles - usually on Mondays. They're one of those things that I never actually asked my mother how to make. But when I came to make them myself, I realised I must have been watching, because I did know roughly what to do. But I've just been looking up rissole recipes on-line, and I'm shocked. In my view none of them are authentic, because they use fresh mince. That's not what rissoles are made of! The real-life rissole is always made of leftover roast meat (which is why we had them on Mondays, after Sunday's lunchtime roast and teatime cold meat). When I was growing up they were usually made of hogget or beef - pork was for special occasions only, and it all got eaten before there could be any question of rissoles.

Harvey loves any kind of rissoles, and after we've had a roast he always asks hopefully if there's enough meat left over for them. He never wants any potato or bread with them - he argues that there's already enough carbohydrate inside. If he eats three, I know I've got them just right.

I used to put the meat through a mincer, but then we acquired a food processor. The first time I used it to make rissoles, it was a disaster. I put everything in at once, and the result was a kind of brownish paste. You could make patties with it, but the texture had nothing to do with the authentic rissole, which should just hold together and be a bit crumbly when you cut into it. Since then I've learnt to grind up the various ingredients in separate batches before mixing them rogether. There's no exact recipe, because it all depends on the amount of cold meat available. You mince the chunks or slices of meat in the processor first, see how much you've got, put it in a big bowl and add the other things to it.

First you need something to bulk it out a bit. You can use leftover mashed potato, or fresh breadcrumbs (which can be made in the processor after you remove the meat), or either or both of these with a little flour. The crucial thing is not to overwhelm the meat with the padding, or the rissoles will be too stodgy and dull.

Mix meat and padding together well, with plenty of salt and pepper. Then use the pulse button to mince a small onion, garlic if you like it, and some herbs - parsley, thyme, oreganum - together in the processor, and add them to the mixture.

Break in an egg (or two, if you have a lot of meat etc) and mix thoroughly. The mixture should not be too wet or too dry - it should just hold together enough for you to shape it into balls, using damp hands. If one egg leaves it just a bit too dry, you can use a bit of stock, wine or water, but be careful not to make it too wet. Flatten each ball and coat it lightly with flour on each side, or fine dry breadcrumbs if you prefer (but flour is traditional!).

Set the oven to low - about 100C - and put an oven tray in to warm, with a folded piece of kitchen paper on it to absorb any excess oil. Heat a frypan with a small amount of oil. (My mother, of course, always used lard or dripping, but we wouldn't do that now, would we. It tasted good, though.) When it's hot (but not smoking), cook the rissoles over medium heat in batches, not too many at a time - I get five into a large non-stick pan. They should be brown and a little crispy on each side. As each batch cooks, put them on the tray in the oven to keep warm.

We eat them with a salad, and I like some kind of chutney or chili sauce too (at home it was always bought tomato sauce) and some fresh bread and butter. Harvey is a purist - he just wants plain rissoles, followed by a bit of salad because it's good for him. If there are any left over, they're good cold for lunch next day.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pumpkin hurling and soup making

Pumpkin sounds, and looks, like something straight out of a fairy tale. But it’s one of the few foods I really dislike – except for pumpkin soup, with its beautiful thick smoothness and gorgeous orange colour.
Home-made soup must be just about the easiest, cheapest, healthiest and most enjoyable way to do what the nutritionists are always telling us – eat more veges.

One of the very best soup guides is home-made too: the invaluable Digby Law’s Soup Cookbook.  It was in its 2nd edition and 7th reprint by the time I bought it in 1995. Happily (and most unusually) you can still buy it, along with Law’s Vegetable Cookbook (which I use even more often) and his Pickle and Chutney Cookbook, because all three were republished in 2007, twenty years after their author’s passing. (The only section I never use is “Chilled Soups”. The dreadful, ubiquitous 1970s fashion - yes, I was guilty of it too - for these, mostly a very vague take on gazpacho, has mercifully ended and should never be revived.)

Good soup-making, wrote Digby, “is just as much an art as good bread or cake-making, meat cookery or vegetable cookery”. And soups have one great attraction for busy cooks: “they can usually be made well in advance”. His method for pumpkin soup (shown on the cover of the new edition, left) takes this a step further: the basic mix can be turned into lots of different soups. We don’t have much freezer space, so I make a smaller version producing about 1.5 litres. And I’ve come up with a much easier way of dealing with the pumpkin, which is also highly therapeutic.

Pumpkin Soup Base (adapted from Digby Law)
1 small pumpkin (or half a larger one)
1 large or 2 medium carrots
1 large potato
1 large or 2 medium onions
(The original recipe also had bacon rinds or bones, but I don’t think these are necessary. If you want a bacon flavour you can add it later.)

Find a patch of concrete or asphalt and hurl the pumpkin strongly to the ground, while picturing the person who annoys you the most and shouting “Take that, you so-and-so” (insert favourite term of abuse). The pumpkin will split into two or more pieces. If you get big ones, throw the pieces down again to break them up. Remove seeds and the soft fibrous flesh around them (or clean them off the concrete).

Wash the pieces and cut them into roughly even biggish chunks so they fit into a large microwaveable ceramic or glass dish. Add about ¼ cup of water, cover the dish loosely and microwave on high until the pumpkin is semi-soft, starting with 2 minutes and adding 1 minute at a time. (On my microwave I use the “fresh vegetables” setting.) When the chunks are cool enough to handle, peel them with a potato peeler and set aside.

Peel and chop the carrots, potato and onions. Put in a large saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer, covered, until they are semi-tender. Add the pumpkin and cook until all the veges are very tender. Drain, leave to cool and puree in a blender or food processor. Season well with salt and white pepper (so there are no little black specks).

This gives a thick mixture which can have various flavours added, and be thinned with milk, reduced white wine, various kinds of fresh juice, or stock (but watch out for the level of salt). My favourite flavourings (and “thinners”):
• Good curry powder, gently sweated with finely chopped onion/garlic/ginger before adding the base and thinning (milk, coconut milk)
• Tomato puree, passata or paste, with bacon if you like – chopped and fried gently in its own fat first (stock, white wine)
• Freshly grated orange zest, softened in a little butter, and a small spoonful of honey (orange juice)
• Cream or yoghurt stirred in just before serving
• Finely chopped herbs – parsley, coriander, chives, lovage

The cleverly named SoupSong website is entirely devoted to soup. It’s just morphed into a blog, but its recipe backlist has an unusual, really good Turkish pumpkin soup, with the wonderful name of Balkabagi Corbasi. It uses a leek, is flavoured with garlic, allspice, cinnamon and honey, and has a spoonful of thick plain yoghurt stirred into each plateful just before serving. But you could use the base above and just add the flavourings.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mandarin muffins

Most people who are keen on cooking are either cooks or bakers at heart, and I'm a cook. My occasional baking never looks like the picture, though it usually tastes fine. I did bake more when I had hungry boys, but it's just not my thing (though I eat it with gusto). I used to make a pretty good scone - I had the knack because I made them all the time. Now I've lost it completely.
       Like scones, muffins seem simple enough. But as cafe frequenters know, they're not that easy to get right - how often do you get a really good muffin? They turn out to be too cakey or crumbly or lumpy or dry, or taste of baking soda, or are just plain boring.

I've tried a range of muffin recipes, without great results. I couldn't seem to get the hang of mixing the batter just enough, so that the muffins didn't become tough and chewy. They're an American import - they weren't around when I was growing up, so I never saw Mum make them.
         Three years ago I found Pat Churchill's recipe for citrus muffins in the Dominion Post. It's become one of my small store of really good baking recipes that are as close to foolproof as possible. Even so, I have to concentrate when I'm making it, and I'm prone to forget something.
         Today I was making them for visitors, and I did everything properly - until I put them in the oven without taking note of the time, so I had to guess how long to leave them in. But except for being different sizes, and only one of them coming out of the pan with a perfect bottom (I got impatient and scooped them out too soon), they turned out really well. Though you can make them with oranges or tangeloes, I like mandarins best. The little ones are beautifully sweet now, but they go off quickly, so it's good to use some up.

Orange, tangelo or mandarin muffins

Set the oven to 200C.
Grease a 12-cup muffin pan.

Weigh out:
200g fruit - remove stalky bit, and cut into eighths (or quarters for small mandarins - you'll need 5 or 6 of these)
Put into food processor with:
1 cup sugar
and pulse to process until fruit is finely chopped.
Then add:
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
100g melted butter
Pulse  briefly to mix.

Into a large bowl, sift:
1 and 1/2 cups plain white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Mix well.

Add the liquid mixture to the flour mixture and mix very lightly together, just to combine the two. Spoon into the greased muffin pan cups and bake for 12-14 minutes, just until a thin knife or skewer inserted into the centre of a muffin comes out clean.


And although I'm not much of a baker, it's imensely satisfying to see, share and eat these beautiful crisp-edged, orangey-brown, moist, tangy-flavoured creations (slightly broken bottoms and all).

Friday, April 9, 2010

The magic quince

No fruit looks less promising than a hard, knobbly, slightly furry quince. But treated properly, they're magic. When I was asking my friend Ali about her renowned quince jelly, she reminded me that I was the one who first urged her to buy some when we saw them in her local greengrocer's. I'm glad I did - every year I get a fresh supply of jelly.
       Ali's notes on each year's batch surround her copy of Lois Daish's jelly recipe from the Listener. "The amount of jelly you get from a kilo of quinces seems to vary – I find that early in the season they produce more liquid (and the jelly sets faster) than later in the season when the fruit is riper. I usually buy about 3 kg of quinces as soon as they appear, around the beginning of April. This makes about 15 small to medium jars of jelly, enough to share with family and friends. You can of course make much smaller batches."

Ali's Quince Jelly
(adapted, with gratitude, from Lois Daish, 13 April 2002)

Quinces, water, sugar (you’ll need about 1 kg of sugar per 1 kg of fruit – but see exact formula below)

Wash quinces and chop them into small pieces, skin, cores and all. Put into a preserving pan or large heavy pot, and barely cover with cold water. Bring to boil and simmer (uncovered) until fruit is very soft and pinkish in colour – about 1 hour.

Allow to cool slightly, then transfer fruit and liquid into a jelly bag placed in a large bowl. (You can make a jelly bag yourself, out of muslin or cotton, or use an old cotton pillow case or even an old tea towel, with diagonal corners tied together.) Make sure the bowl is big enough – 3 kg of quinces should produce between 2.5 and 3 litres of liquid. Tie the neck of the bag securely with string, and suspend it over the bowl to drip for several hours or overnight. (I tie the top of the bag around an old broom handle, which I place across the bath with the bowl underneath.) Don’t squeeze the bag – it will make the jelly cloudy.

Meanwhile, wash enough jars and lids (I always prepare a few more than I think I’ll need). Just before you start the next step, put the clean jars in the oven and set the temperature to 100 degrees Celsius. Leave them at that heat to sterilise until the jelly is ready. Boil the metal lids for 5 minutes, then drain and leave in the saucepan to dry.

Pour the lovely pink liquid from the bowl into a measuring jug, note the quantity, then pour it into the clean pot. Bring to the boil and add 1 kg of sugar for every litre of liquid. Bring slowly back to the boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. (At this stage, put a saucer in the freezer, for testing the jelly later.) Turn up the heat and boil briskly. A white scum will form around the edges. Skim it off occasionally with a slotted metal spoon. (Put the scum in a small bowl – it will set, and is delicious.)

Start testing to see if liquid has reached setting point after about 10 minutes (or 5 minutes for a small quantity), then at 5 minute intervals after that. There are two ways of testing (I use both):
(1) Place a spoonful of liquid on the cold saucer, let it cool a little, then run your finger through the middle – if the two sides stay separate (i.e. the liquid doesn’t run together again), the jelly is almost ready.
(2) Scoop up some of the hot liquid with the slotted metal spoon and let it drip back into the pot. If the last few drops thicken, drop more slowly, and start to clump together, the jelly is ready.
(When I make my usual large batch early in the season, the jelly is ready after about 20-30 minutes of steady boiling. But I always start testing earlier, just in case – if boiled for too long, the jelly will be rubbery.)

When the jelly is ready, turn off the heat at once. Pour the hot liquid into the hot jars, using a stainless steel or pyrex jug. Fill jars nearly to the brim, and seal with the sterilised lids. When cool, label the jars and store in a cool place. Once you open a jar, keep it in the fridge.

* The drained fruit pulp needn’t go to waste – I usually empty the jelly bag onto the compost heap, but one year, after getting a disappointingly small batch of jelly later in the season, I used the pulp to make a batch of quince paste!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Masterchef: chill biscuits and gramanie

No, this is not what the contestants had to produce for tonight's Masterchef episode. According to the Masterchef page on Throng, a commercial PR website “serving the production, broadcast and viewing of television”, it was:

“A chocolate marquise with roasted pistachio and orange, cocoa & vanilla chill biscuits, poached rhubarb and gramanie and orange, a traditional ,classic spun sugar, glucose based raspberry marshmellow and vanilla cream Bubbles”.

When I saw the actual Alien-Spacecraft-Has-Landed creation, I couldn't help thinking that if Cake Wrecks ran to desserts, this would end up on it. Even with everything properly labelled – tuile biscuits, Grand Marnier, spun sugar decoration (well, I think that’s what it was) – and properly made (not surprisingly, only Steve managed this feat) – I wasn’t at all sure that I would want to, you know, eat it.

Some of it, yes. The marquise, definitely. The spotted wavy-wing tuile biscuits, probably (though how not to end up with them broken into unappealing little bits could be a problem). But the rest? Crunchy rhubarb topped with pink marshmallow blobs and cream frog spawn, anyone?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The cost of eating

When I go to the supermarket, unless it's a special occasion (and sometimes even then), I automatically reach for the specials, especially on meat, then build our meals around those. But we're lucky -  I don't have to worry that I won't be able to afford the bill at the checkout.

There have been times in my life when I did have to worry, and I still feel very relieved that it's not like that now. But I've certainly noticed the seemingly steady rise in food prices, particularly the healthy fresh stuff.

If GST is put up to 15% in May, food prices will go up yet again. There's no exemption for food in New Zealand. Yet most other comparable countries do have some kind of food exemption. I've just read a very interesting piece by Gordon Campbell about this.

Why, he asks, does New Zealand, "virtually alone in the developed world, think that it’s a good idea to tax the food on the family table"? Most other comparable countries "think it's a terrible idea – for families, and for society."

He looks closely at the example of Australia, where "basic food for human consumption" is free of GST, and a computerized model makes compliance really easy to manage.  It would be good for health, too. A major New Zealand research study shows that cutting GST on food is likely to have lasting health benefits, because people would buy more healthy food if it were cheaper.

PS: The picture above is from one of my favourite retro sites, the Gallery of Regrettable Food. I wish we had an NZ equivalent!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter rabbit

The centrepiece of our Easter Sunday lunch was lapin aux pruneaux, rabbit with prunes, cooked by my friend Diane de Bellerive. Her version, she says, is based on "watching my mother prepare the meal for Easter Sunday in Valenciennes or at our country house in Janlin, le Nord-Pas de Calais. My relatives all came from this region, and spent the whole afternoon talking about their food experiences - when they weren't talking about politics. Between courses we kids would go and play in the garden, which was full of fruit trees and walnut trees. Other favourites for Easter Sunday were pigeons aux petits pois as an entrée (a specialité of my cousine Lucienne of St Souplet) and gigot d'agneau aux flageolets, my mother's succulent garlic and rosemary leg of lamb."

Lapin aux pruneaux à la Diane

1 rabbit of about 1.5 to 2 kg, cut into pieces (the butcher will do this if you ask nicely)
Salt, pepper
Dijon mustard and flour to coat rabbit pieces
1 level tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 small onions
150g carrots
150g smoked bacon cut into pieces
12 pitted prunes
3 tablespoons whisky
250 ml (1/3 bottle) white wine
1 500ml carton vegetable stock (or use home-made stock if you have it)
Flat-leafed parsley

One hour in advance, soak prunes in warm water. Peel and chop onions. Peel carrots and slice into rounds.
Salt and pepper rabbit pieces and coat them with Dijon mustard and flour.

Heat oil and butter in a large cast-iron casserole and brown the pieces of rabbit. Once the pieces are browned, and the pan is still hot, add 6 prunes and then the whisky, and light it to flambee the rabbit. Remove rabbit pieces. Add the bacon pieces to the juices at the bottom of the pot. Add onions and sweat in the juices. Add carrots, thyme, and the other 6 prunes, and cook briefly.

Put back the pieces of rabbit and add white wine, then enough vegetable stock to just cover the meat.
Simmer over very low heat for 2-3 hours until rabbit is just ready to fall off the bone.
Check liquid - it should be slightly thick. If it is too thin, remove rabbit to a warm dish and turn up the heat to reduce and thicken the liquid a little. Remove any thyme stalks, return rabbit and sprinkle chopped flat-leaf parsley over the top.

Serve with small plain boiled potatoes, or fettucine, followed by a refreshing tossed green salad.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Dark chocolate

Buying two blocks of dark chocolate on special before Easter, I saw the woman ahead of me at the checkout had three. We looked at each other and she said, "It's a basic food group!" My friends divide into any kind, milk only, dark only, and fair trade only. I waver between the last two.

Tomorrow, Easter Sunday, we have friends coming for lunch. Diane is bringing a dish of rabbit (of which more later) and I am in charge of the rest. It seemed fitting to have a chocolate dessert, so today I made Jo Seagar's chocolate creams. She suggests making them in little espresso coffee cups - they're so rich that the servings need to be kept small. But my little coffee cups are really tiny, so I used glass teacups instead.

Providing you have a food processor or blender, this recipe takes all of five minutes, but you do need to make it in the morning, or preferably the day before, so it's well set.

Espresso Cups of Chocolate Cream (adapted from Jo Seagar)
250 g dark chocolate
(It works just as well with 150g. You can use flavoured chocolate - orange, peppermint - but I prefer plain dark)
3 egg yolks
3 tablespoons of matching flavouring - liqueur, brandy (my favourite), strong sweetened black coffee
(I use 2 tbsps if I'm using less chocolate)
A few drops of vanilla if liked (and I do)
300 ml cream

Put chocolate (broken up if you're using a block) into food processor or blender. Add egg yolks and flavouring.
Heat cream until just about to boil.
Pour cream into chocolate, yolks and flavouring.
Run the machine until the racket stops.
Pour into espresso cups or ramekins or small teacups. It serves 4-6, depending on how much chocolate you use and how large the servings are.
Cover with clingfilm and chill in fridge for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
Take out of fridge about 15 minutes before serving.

I made three teacups plus a small ramekin for Harvey, who may or may not eat it - he probably won't have any room left after the rabbit. But it won't go to waste...