Sunday, November 28, 2010

Christmas pudding time again

As things change, we find we have to keep changing what we do at Christmas. With no family in Wellington, we used to follow a wonderful plan, introduced to us by dear friends. It involved a succession of guests and at least five well-spaced courses, appearing as people came and went according to their other commitments.  Doing it that way meant we could make Christmas dinner last all day. We still do it, but with adaptations.
              Over the years a large roast of pork gave way to two ducks, and then to a fillet of beef. Last year I tried having the beef warm, with salads, instead of having everything hot, though I did hot spuds for Harvey, who unlike me does not enjoy potato salad. It was a fine day, fortunately, and it was much easier for me to manage. But Harvey admitted later that he missed his roast (he used to do the whole main course himself, with assistance from at least one male helper, but now of course it's all up to me).
               So this year there's going to be a radical innovation - early dinner, starting about 4 pm, instead of late lunch. That'll give us time to have a properly leisurely morning, and I won't need to start cooking until after brunch. More of the old crowd will be able to come, after they've done their rounds elsewhere. And I think we'll go back to roast pork, Harvey will be really happy about that.
                A Light Dessert of some kind used to follow, and maybe some cheese before or after. Then we gathered reverently (not) in front of the TV for the Queen's Message. We might skip the Light Dessert this year, but keep the cheese, it will go very well with the great red wine that usually appears.
              The traditional Holly Walk has to happen at some point, to get a spray of holly for the Christmas pudding which follows the Queen's Message (I know better than to mess with this bit, Harvey loves his pudding). It used to be a drunken foray in the dark to the holly bush growing near the Northland tunnel. Now it's a reasonably sober early evening stroll up to the Karori Anglican church grounds and back round the block.                
              After that will come the flaming pudding, always made by me, complete with its holly and brandy sauce.  I make it at least a month in advance, mixing it and letting it stand overnight (this step is essential, as I discovered one year when, a bit pushed for time, I left it out - not good). The next day it steams for four hours.
               The only problem is remembering that it has to steam for another two hours on Christmas Day. After all that wonderful food and drink and company, I'm likely to forget, and one year there was no pudding till 10 at night. Harvey was not amused. Then there was the year I got very slaphappy with the brandy for the brandy sauce - you could almost have lit that too.
               I always use the same recipe. It originally appeared in the Edmonds Cook Book, but disappeared some time in the mid-1980s. I made it last weekend, but if you want to make it now there's still time. It used to be called "Christmas Pudding (Rich)" but in later editions (the one I use now is 1982) the "Rich" has gone. This recipe serves eight people. You need a traditional metal pudding basin with a lid and a large lidded saucepan to steam it in. The slightly odd measure of "125g" was originally 4 ounces.

Edmonds Rich Christmas Pudding
50g plain flour
125g plain white soft breadcrumbs
125g brown sugar
125g grated suet (the kind you buy in the supermarket - it only appears around Christmas now)
125g chopped apple
125g raisins
125g sultanas
125g currants (I put in some dried cranberries this year as part of this measure)
50g whole, unpeeled almonds
25g mixed peel (I often add a bit more)
grated rind of 1 large lemon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 Tbsps brandy

* Put sifted flour, breadcrumbs, sugar and suet into a large mixing basin. Add chopped apples and dried fruit. Add spices and salt. Mix gently.

* Beat the eggs well and add them with the lemon juice. Stir well to mix. (Everyone in the house should have a stir at this point, for good luck in the New Year.)

* Cover the bowl and leave to stand overnight.
* Next day, add brandy, put mixture into a lightly buttered pudding basin, and put on the lid.

* Place enough water in a large saucepan to come halfway up the sides of the pudding basin (test it). Bring the water to a gentle coninuous boil.
* Stand the pudding basin in the water, cover everything with a lid, and steam for 4 hours, making sure the water stays at a gentle boil. You will need to add more boiling water about halfway through to keep the level roughly halfway up the basin.
* Turn off the heat and leave to stand for another hour. Then remove the basin and put it in the fridge until Christmas Day.
* Steam for 2 hours on Christmas Day. Turn out onto a large dish.
* Gently heat about 2 tbsps of brandy, pour over the pudding and light it so it's flaming as you bring it in to serve.
If you want brandy sauce, make a classic buttery white sauce, but with brown sugar, and add brandy to taste. Serve on the side.
         I can't show you the pudding now, of course - it's sitting in its basin and won't appear in all its dark fruity glory until Christmas Day, when I will try to remember to take a photo.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The last of the whitebait

I thought we wouldn't be eating whitebait again this year, but a little while ago a friend brought round - wait for it - a whole pound, over 500 grams. It was amazing whitebait, the biggest I'd ever seen, with a thin stripe down the back. The picture doesn't do it justice, it was still a bit frozen in its packet, I should have taken another one when it had thawed.

What I like is where it came from. He knows a woman farmer who lives in Westland, and she has a creek on her land. She gets a pair of pantihose, sets them in the creek with the top part opened wide, and the whitebait swim in and up the legs. Perfect.
          I was a bit nervous about cooking it after my previous less-than-brilliant efforts, but this time I had help - the farmer sent her own recipe for the batter. For this much whitebait, it was two large eggs, two dessertspoons of flour, and salt. (She said pepper too, but as I explained last time, Harvey doesn't approve of that.) And here - ta-daa! - is the fantastic result - I made three of these.

For the first time in his life, Harvey had more whitebait than he could eat. So the whitebait-bringer and I  finished his off between us.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tarted up for lunch

I had a brilliant time in Tauranga - you can see some pix on Elsewoman - and it's been very busy since I got back. On Wednesday Harvey's brother Bruce and sister-in-law Margaret came up for the day from Methven to see him, so I wanted to make something tasty for lunch. I remembered a very good Harriet Harcourt recipe for potato, brie and onion tart. It's from a book called Mission for Entertaining, a fundraiser for Wellington City Mission, with a great collection of recipes from the capital's top chefs, caterers, restaurateurs, food retailers and food writers.
          A friend gave it to me for Christmas two years ago, and it's proved very useful. It has one excellent feature which is notably lacking in every one of the lavish new celebrity cookbooks I've looked at recently. There are no pictures, but the recipes are clearly printed in black on white, so you can read them easily while you're cooking.
           Now isn't that a novel idea! Without exception, the new books by Jamie, Nigella, Annabel et al. feature coloured or grey type, often in quite a small font size, printed on coloured backgrounds or even over photos, making the recipes difficult and in some cases impossible to read. Obviously the designers don't cook - or at any rate, not from these books. And I won;t be cooking from them either.
             So, to the tart. I cooked the potatoes and the onions the night before, making it very quick to assemble next day. And (forgive me, Harriet) I added a bit of chopped lean bacon on top as well, because I had some and thought it would be good - and it was. This is more substantial than the usual quiche, so it worked very well for hungry people who'd left home about 5 am to get here.

Potato, onion and brie tart (slightly adapted from Harriet Harcourt's recipe - hers serves six, mine serves four)

Two sheets of savoury shortcrust pastry
About six small gourmet potatoes, each cut into 4-6 even chunks depending on size (no need to peel them)
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 large onions (or more small ones) thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2 Tbsp grainy mustard
125g round of brie, cut into smallish chunks (I sliced it in half horizontally before cutting it up, and didn't use it all because I had bacon as well)
2 rashers of lean bacon cut into small pieces (optional)
2 large eggs
150 ml creme fraiche
salt and pepper

*Heat oven to 200C and lightly butter a 27 cm flan dish (I use one with a loose bottom)
*Use one sheet of pastry to line the flan dish and the other, cut into strips, to join to the edges and neatly cover the sides of the dish. Put the pastry lined dish into the fridge for 15 minutes. (I used to skip this bit, until I discovered that the pastry then shrank down the sides of the dish and didn't hold the filling properly.)
* Put potatoes in a pan of cold water, bring to the boil and cook for 8-10 minutes until just cooked. Drain and allow to cool slightly.
* Gently heat oil in a non-stick frypan, add onion and cook gently for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add crushed garlic and half the thyme leaves and cook for another 3 minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool slightly.
* Take pastry lined dish out of fridge and spread the mustard over the base.
* Spread the onions over the mustard.

* Scatter over the pieces of potato, then add the pieces of brie and (if using) the bacon.
* Beat together the eggs and creme fraiche, season with salt and pepper, and pour carefully over tart.

* Sprinkle with the rest of the thyme and bake for 25 minutes until golden and set.
* Serve warm with a simple salad.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Spring is sprung

I'm going off to Tauranga (Garden and Art Festival!) for a few days tomorrow. In place of a proper new post, here are some tastes of spring in Wellington.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Aubergine sounds nicer than eggplant

As I think I've said before on this blog, Harvey hates aubergines. But lately there've been gorgeous ones gleaming out at me from the greengrocer. So I managed to organise a little series of something elses for Harvey, and made myself aubergine with tomato and parmesan (parmigiana di melanzane - it took me quite a while to realise that melanzane meant aubergine, not melon) one night and moussaka another.

Both the recipes come, again, from Claudia Roden - the parmigiana from The Food of Italy and the moussaka from her invaluable Book of Middle Eastern Food, the first "foreign" cookbook I fell in love with. This is the revised edition replacement for the first one I owned (which fell to bits), and as you can see it's been well used, though I can't imagine how I managed to tear off the bottom corner.
I won't give quantities because I was making small helpings for myself (even so, using just one large aubergine altogether, each dish lasted me two meals).

Preparing the aubergines
You do this the same way for both dishes, so it made sense for me to do it all in advance.
* Slice the aubergines lengthwise, sprinkle the slices with salt and leave for half an hour to let the bitter juices run out.

* Rinse and drain the slices, dry them, and fry them in hot olive oil, turning them once. Drain on absorbent paper. (Roden says to deep-fry them but I never do that, I just shallow-fried them in a pan until they were starting to turn golden brown, and they were fine.)

For parmigiana
* Make the tomato sauce: Fry garlic in a little olive oil until the aroma rises. Add one can (more for a large dish) of chopped Italian tomatoes, 1 tsp sugar, a little salt and pepper, and a bunch of basil or mint leaves, chopped. Cook vigorously to reduce.
* Arrange the slices of aubergine in an oven-proof dish, cover with the tomato sauce, sprinkle with diced mozzarella and grated parmesan, and bake at 180C for about 30 minutes.

I didn't have mozzarella but I did have cream cheese, so I used that. I had a little good parmesan and added some crumbled blue cheese to it. The result was brilliant: rich, creamy, tasty. The uabergine seems to melt into the tomato and cheese, so you're aware of the flavour but not the texture. Very good reheated, too.

For moussaka
Badly made moussaka was the bane of 70s parties, with lumpy bland mince, potato, and few or no aubergines. This is much nicer.

Prepare the aubergines as for parmigiana. Fry chopped onions in 2 tablespoons olive oil until pale golden.
Meat sauce: Add minced beef or lamb and fry until well browned. Season with salt, pepper and cinnamon or allspice. (A bit of sumac is good too.) Add tinned chopped tomatoes, plus 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, and a little chopped parsley. Stir well, moisten with a little water and simmer for about 15 minutes until the meat is well cooked and the water is absorbed. Allow to cool.
*At this point I do something Roden doesn't mention, but it works really well. I grind the meat sauce in the food processor, making it finer and less lumpy. This makes it taste exactly like the sauce I had in Albania - it's called kime and it's the basis for many different dishes.
White sauce: see my earlier post on bechamel for how to get this right. I used about 2 tablespooons of butter, 2 of flour and 1/2 a pint (300 ml) milk (Roden uses twice as much, and 2 eggs). Season with salt, pepper and a little grated nutmeg. When the sauce has thickened, beat an egg, stir in a little of the sauce, beat again, and pour slowly back into the white sauce, stirring constantly over low heat (don't let it boil).

To bake: Put alternate layers of aubergine slices and meat sauce into a deep baking dish, starting and ending with a layer of aubergines (I just had three layers, a sort of aubergine sandwich with the meat in the middle). Pour over the white sauce and bake, uncovered, at 180C for about 45 minutes. You can sprinkle a little grated parmesan - or cheddar or gruyere - over the top before baking. I did, and it was indeed, as she says, "very rich", but completely delicious.