Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lemon heaven

For Julio's last dinner here, I invited round friends he'd already met (I'd been meaning to have them to dinner for ages) and roasted a nice piece of pork. I knew he liked light desserts, so the night before I made my favourite lemon mousse. It's a recipe I cut out of an impulse-buy copy of Vogue Entertaining and Travel in March 1999, and have used scores of times.
            I suppose it's not really "light" at all, with 300mls of cream, but the delicate lemony fluff seems to float out of the bowl, off the spoon and into your mouth all by itself.  The other thing I love about this is that it's made from basic, cheap ingredients that don't need to be hunted down.
            You'll need a lot of bowls - two large, one medium and one small. Although it says "whisk", I use an electric beater for everything except the gelatine.          

Lemon mousse
(This quantity serves 6 moderate people, or 4 greedy ones, or 4 on the night and a cook's reward next day)

185g castor sugar
3 large eggs, separated into two large bowls
juice and grated zest of 2 good-sized lemons or 3 smaller ones
1/3 cup boiling water
3 tsps powdered gelatine
300ml cream

Take the large bowl with the egg yolks and gradually whisk in the sugar until it turns pale and thick.
Add the lemon juice, a spoonful at a time, while whisking continuously.
Stir in the lemon zest. (The original recipe doesn't say so, but it's a good idea to blanch the zest for a minute in boiling water so it becomes softer and less bitter. Drain it thoroughly before mixing it in.)

Pour the boiling water into a small bowl. Sprinkle over the gelatine and whisk until it dissolves. Gradually stir this into the yolk mixture.
In a separate bowl, beat the cream until soft peaks form. Gradually fold the cream into the yolk mixture, using a metal spoon.
Take the large bowl with the egg whites and whisk them until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold into the mixture.

Pour gently into a serving dish (glass looks lovely). Cover with cling wrap. Refrigerate overnight or until the mousse is set (at least 4 hours).

Much to my relief, the pork was perfect (my oven seems to be getting less and less reliable), and we had it with roast potatoes and red cabbage with apple. Julio loved it, he said it's what his family eats on New Year's Day, though they have it with rice and salad.
         I made two-thirds of the mousse recipe, because I knew that given my sensible guests (Julio, like Harvey, never seems to eat too much of anything), if I made it all I'd probably end up scoffing far more than was good for me. There was barely a bowl-scrape left.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Pudding on a plate

What a week. On Monday my friend Rosemary came for Wellington on a Plate; her plane landed in sunshine but by the time we got to the Te Papa carpark, en route for lunch at Hippopotamus, snowflakes were falling thickly. Lunch was terrific from start to finish, completely different from Arbitrageur - no second-class treatment, a perfect table with the best view of the harbour (slate-grey, with a strange snowlit sky over the dark Eastbourne hills) and excellent service to go with the faultless food (Wairarapa lamb shank tortellini, bluenose on sautéed Ōtaki leeks with beurre blanc sauce). After a trip to Moore Wilson, we got home just before the snow covered the drive to match the garden.
           We had some more good lunches, but the star turn was the concert and dinner put on by La Bella Italia at the Lower Hutt Little Theatre. By then the exotic snow had given way to relentless sheets of rain and a howling southerly, so we were incredibly grateful when two of the four friends we were going with drove us out and then insisted on driving us back, even though they live in the Hutt. Four soaring songs from soprano Julia Booth, prosecco and antipasta nibbles in the foyer, another four songs, then dinner at beautifully set tables right on the stage itself. (I think that's my black back right of centre - I was wearing warm velvet with layers underneath, and I needed them!)

We had risotto with taleggio cheese, pears, and walnuts, roast pork stuffed with prunes, and almond panna cotta. It was great fun as well as great eating, I was so pleased I'd managed to organise it.

The other highlight came courtesy of Julio. I hadn't had much time to get ready for Rosemary, and he offered to make a dessert for Monday night. I thought he said "pudding", but in fact it was "pudin" - a brilliant Brazilian version of creme caramel, again featuring condensed milk.

Pudin de leite condensado - Julio's creme caramel

150g sugar
1 cup hot water (poured from a boiled kettle)
Butter to coat the dish - you need a deep round china or glass dish with straight sides

Melt the butter and brush it very thinly over the base and sides of the dish.
In a small heavy-based saucepan, heat the sugar with a splash of water until about a quarter of it has melted.
Using a wooden spoon, give it a gentle stir and continue to cook and stir until it's turned to liquid and is a dark golden colour (10-15 minutes in all). Take the pan off the heat and carefully add enough water to give you the amount you need to thickly coat the base of the dish. You might need to remelt it over the heat and stir to get rid of any lumps. (I like LOTS of caramel. If you're a bit scared of this process, use the microwave caramel recipe I gave here.)
Carefully pour it into the dish, turning the dish to coat the bottom evenly and go a little way up the sides.

3 eggs
1 tin sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp flour
1 tin milk (not trim milk - use the condensed milk tin to measure it)

Preheat oven to 220C.
Sieve the eggs into a bowl.
Add condensed milk, stir well, and blend in the flour with a whisk.
Add milk and blend it in too.
Pour into the prepared dish, leave it to cool a little, and cover the dish with foil (dull side up).
Stand the dish in a metal roasting dish. Pour enough boiling water around it to come 3/4 of the way up the sides.
Bake for 1 hour or until the creme is well set. Remove from water, leave it to cool, cover with cling film and put it in the fridge. Take out at least an hour before you want to serve it.
To serve, carefully run a thin knife blade around the creme. Place a large plate with slightly raised sides or a rim (to hold any runny caramel) on top of the dish. Holding the plate firmly in place, turn the dish over so that the creme settles neatly onto the plate with the caramel on top.

This was just as delicious as any of the professional creations I ate this week. Rosemary was very impressed. Obrigado, Julio!

PS: I wrote this whole post last night but Google threw a hissy fit and lost the lot!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Les longeurs d"Arbitrageur

Ali has had a birthday recently, and she's also retired, so as Wellington on a Plate was coming up, I asked her to choose wherever she'd like to be taken for a celebratory lunch (which would also be a thank-you to her for being such a wonderful friend). She chose Arbitrageur in Featherston Street, so I booked a few weeks ago for 1 pm today. Here's what happened.

12.55 I arrive. The restaurant looks pretty full. The waiter consults his bookings and crosses ours off.
W: "You're here for Wellington on a Plate?" A. "Yes."
Waiter leads me right through the long room and gestures to two high stools side by side in front of two place settings on the end of the bar.
A. (calmly and pleasantly) "We're getting on a bit, and this isn't what I had in mind. We'd like a proper table."
Waiter consults a colleague and leads me back to a perfectly satisfactory table for two at the first banquette, behind the cash register, alongside another table for two, where a couple are waiting for their order.
A. "That's lovely, thank you."
Ali arrives, and we chat happily. Beyond us stretches the long banquette, with every seat full. Beyond the bar and in the front, there are two more spaces with smaller tables, but I can't see whether they're all full too.
1.15 Waiter comes back to take our order. Though it wasn't mentioned in the WOAP programme, we're pleased to see there's both a two-course and a three-course option, as we plan to do this properly. So we order all three at the very reasonable price of $45, including a glass of (in our case) the Ata Rangi chardonnay: Castlepoint-caught blue warehou with crushed potatoes, fennel, tomato, capers and kalamata olives; roast pork belly with apple and fennel compote; meringue with Schekter's lemon curd, creme vanille and passonfruit. Yum.
1.20  Some little slices of bread arrive (there's already olive oil on the table) and water is poured.
1.25 Our wine arrives.
1.45 Our waiter passes by. Anne: "Might some food be arriving soon?" W. "We're very busy."
2.00 Our neighbours have finished their food, which arrived some time ago (they were clearly not having the Wellington on a Plate lunch). A different waiter clears their plates. I know I should not speak to the different waiter, but by this time I am feeling distinctly odd.
Anne: "Excuse me, we've been waiting for an hour." New W. (after short silence): "I'll ask." Neighbours: "Goodness, you still haven't had yours? That is a bit slow." Anne: "And we did book. " Neighbours:  "We didn't!"
2.05 The large party starts to leave. They queue beside us to pay. This takes some time. Our waiter passes by. Anne: "Will our food be arriving soon? I'm thinking of collapsing in a dramatic faint." Waiter (who is not amused): "I'll check that it's being made."
2.10 Female waiter approaches with two plates of what look like our fish. Just as we start to perk up, she goes on past us to the front space.
2.13 Anne to Ali (who is, bless her, amused rather than embarrassed by my efforts, but is also getting very hungry): "If it doesn't arrive by 2.15, I think we'll go."
2.14  Our first course arrives. It is delicious and we polish it off reasonably fast. By this time the large party have all gone and the staff are resetting the long table. We may well be the last lunchers left.
2.25 Our second course arrives. We eat that a little more slowly. The pork belly is beautifully cooked and goes very well with the exquisite tiny morsels of apple, etc.
2.35 Waiter brings out our desserts, hesitates, takes them on past us and presumably puts them somewhere in the space out front to wait until we're ready for them. Fortunately, they're cold.
2.40 Our plates are cleared and the dessert is brought. The waiter also brings us two complimentary glasses of dessert wine, "because of the wait". I could be wrong, but I don't recollect hearing any actual words of apology. Still, we are suitably thankful.
We finish our desserts and wine slowly - perfect meringues with soft centres, like miniature pavlovas - follow them with coffee (promptly produced), pay (with nothing about our experience said on either side at the till), and leave about 3 pm.
Very good food, yes, and definitely a long lunch - but certainly not the relaxed experience I'd planned. Thank goodness Ali and I have been friends for such a long time.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Eating in and out

Last Friday I left pasta and creamy fish sauce in the fridge for Julio and took off. I struck it doubly lucky - the first night it was my brother-in-law's birthday dinner - fillet steak, mushrooms, mashed potato, broccoli and red pepper, brilliant baked parsnips with walnuts...

...then my other sister (who had just had a birthday) took me out for toothsome Thai, while her husband watched the rugby; and on Monday I went into town early and took myself out for an excellent breakfast. 

Monday night it was back to cooking happily for Julio, who has of course neatly solved my solitary dinner problem for the time being, and greatly enjoys almost everything I give him (not so keen on lamb, though).

The parsnip recipe came from that great New Zealand classic, Digby Law's A Vegetable Cookbook (I have the well-worn original hardback, pulished in 1978, but it was reissued by Hachette in 2007). I've still got some Waikanae walnuts, so I'll be making these soon.

Buttered parsnips with walnuts (Digby Law)

750g parsnips
1/3 cup water
6 spring onions, chopped
salt and pepper
50g butter
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
50g walnut pieces

Heat oven to 180C. Put scraped, sliced parsnips (best cut lengthwise through the core) in an ovenproof dish and add water, spring onions, salt and pepper. Dot with butter. Bake, covered, for 50 minutes or until parsnips are tender. In the meantime, toast the walnuts in a shallow dish in the oven for about 10 minutes.    
Just before serving, stir the parsley into the parsnips and sprinkle them with the toasted walnuts.