Monday, September 29, 2008

Simple guilty kitchen pleasures

I recently read, in some famous chef's bio somewhere, that one of the end of service treats was to mop up the pan juices with a slice of bread accompanied by a cold beer.

Does this mean I'm ok?

Hi, I'm an addicted cleaner of pans. For years now, I've justified the uncontrollable sopping up of simmered sauce remnants with bread as just good quality control. I recognise that rationalisation of obsessive or compulsive (or both) actions are typical warning signs that I might have a problem because it doesn't end there.

There are also the pan juices of roasted or sautéed meat, the aromatic herbal oil from potatoes, those few drops left in the mussel pot, frypans where I've *gulp* browned butter (a shameful favourite - I blame years of deprivation during a near decade of training), or the little bit of extra browned cheese around the edges of ANYTHING.. it's terrible really, and if theres a little bit of bread lying around, flatbread, olive panini.. makes no difference, I'm away. I have no restraint.

The pot, after making this sauce (a wonderful long-simmered salsa di capra destined for the worker's lunch) was not spared.

I'm through making excuses and, after reading that I'm not alone, am learning to accept that there will be days when this weakness will get the better of me. But just so you know, as limited as my willpower may be in this regard, this guilty kitchen pleasure DOES make washing up much, much easier.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hail Caesar!

My brother-in-law, Domenico, loves salad and his favourite is a garlicky, anchovy and bacon laden Caesar.  Regardless of the ingredient list, which IS long for salad.. it's 'easy as' but so rich that I rarely make it. Occasionally though, as an accompaniment to a pizza night, a barbeque (grilled rib-eyes or herb lemon marinated chicken kebabs), as a bed for grilled prawns, or Dom's 50th Birthday, this is the salad I go for.

Cos (romaine) lettuce is THE green for Caesar.  Well-chilled, crisp leaves are the perfect foil for the richness of the substantial dressing: an egg yolk and oil concoction.

No store bought, dry, bland toothbreaking croutons here.  It's so simple to rub seasoned wheat bread with garlic, spray down with olive oil and cut into cubes then brown in a 180C oven (or under the grill, watch closely!) until tan and toasty.  Just make sure that these are added last as the dressing will quickly be the undoing of your efforts.

Bacon.  Good streaky bacon.  Use a brand (or butchers bacon) with a short ingredient list for best flavour. Although I've seen recipes for Caesar without this little extra, I always use it.  Fried or oven baked until crisp then crumbled over the greens, bacon is a very complimentary and savoury addition.  Back in the day when all that came out of fried bacon was fat (and not the virtual ocean of salty water released by some supermarket brands), my auntie (moderation not being in her vocabulary) used to fry the croutons in the rendered bacon fat.  Yay!  They tasted great but I'm happy with my olive oil.

And the cheese.  Parmigiano reggiano (and nothing but), grated or shaved over the top, is essential.

The dressing (this makes enough dressing for 2 good sized heads of cos):
  • 2-3 large cloves of coarsely chopped garlic (for a less pungent flavour, you could roast them or use a combination of raw and roasted),
  • a generous teaspoon of dijon mustard,
  • a dash of worcestershire sauce,
  • a teaspoon of red wine vinegar (any wine or cider vinegar really),
  • a few tablespoons (2-3) of lemon juice (to taste)
  • a couple of anchovy fillets (to taste)
  • a few tablespoons (3-4) of finely ground parmigiano reggiano, and
  • a whole egg (the egg can be added raw or placed in water and brought to a boil for 1 minute and scraped out of its shell).
Using a stick blender, I add the oil (1/2 c or more to preference) and when blended, I stir in another tablespoon of finely ground parmigiano reggiano for texture. The dressing can easily be tweaked to personal taste. You might have noticed that I didn't list anchovies as optional (as most recipes do) and I would encourage even non-anchovy lovers to try them here where they enrich this dressing with their subtle savoury saltiness. A little salt would probably be required if not using them.

Immediately before serving, dress the washed and torn cos with the crumbled bacon and croutons, mix and garnish with a few shards of (or more grated) Parmigiano reggiano.

Buon cinquantesimo Domenico!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Muffin monday

Possibly the easiest banana chocolate chip muffins in the world??

I think so.

1c mashed banana (about 2 medium)
approximately 1c mayonnaise (in 1 Tbsp of vinegar)
3/4c sugar
2 c all purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt.
1c best chocoate chips

Place the tablespoon of vinegar in the 1c measure and add mayonnaise, blending until 1c is full.
Using hand mixer, blend banana, mayo (with added vinegar) and sugar until creamy and well blended. I use apple cider vinegar.
Add all-purpose flour sifted with 2tsp baking soda already added.

Begin to mix dry ingredients into the banana mixture until they just begin to come together and then fold in 1 c chocolate chips. Do not over mix batter. Place in a paper lined muffin tray and bake immediately in a 180C oven, approximately 20-25 minutes.

When baked, these will spring back when lightly pressed. Remove from pan and place on rack to cool. These are easier to peel out of the paper liners when cool (avoiding the need to gnaw some of the muffin off the paper..) and allows for better development of the banana flavour.

Great with mid-morning coffee.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Fish Guide revisited.

A few years ago, I wrote a tiny bit on the NZ Best Fish Guide. It seems that a few other people have also been thinking about the sustainability of the fishing industry lately.

Here's the updated version of the Guide to help Kiwis make decisions about the consumption of local seafoods.

It takes a great deal of research to assemble these guides. I agree that anyone selling food should know something of its origins and that it is best to frequent establishments that can help you put something more palatable on your plate. However, even knowledgable and responsible fishmongers and wait staff are not the people who determine policy or allocate the funding for continued research into sustainability of our resources.

While the mere mention of politics generally causes me to lose my appetite, I have to say it:

Sustainability needs to become an election issue and elected governments need to support departments and conservation groups who 1) allocate research and resource protection funding and 2) those that determine environmental and foreign trade policies. For so broad a problem, the solutions will be multifaceted.

Fishing methods that have minimal impact need to be evaluated and applied across all species. Our ocean borders need protection from overfishing by foreign fleets. Consideration needs to be given to the sensitivity of fish stocks when including their access in lucrative foreign deals. The state of the fishing industry also depends on ocean transport and the removal of other resources from beneath our ocean floors (impacting feeding grounds, breeding and migratory patterns) as well as many land based activities. Much of the damage to our oceans has been caused by years of thinking that the ocean simply 'carries away' all that we can dump into it. Even if fish are plentiful, we have to consider the impact of introduced species on their health and the effect of industrial and marine effluent on food safety and toxicity. Also to consider are the involvement and possible alternatives for the regional fisheries workers whose living depends on it.

From an all round environmental, economic and humanistic standpoint, the sustainability of our edible ocean resources needs to come to the forefront.

Here's how the NZ system works.
Unlike our fish stocks, the debate as to whether it's too late or not can go on forever. Whether you live in a small coastal town where you still get fish from the wharf, are a rural consumer trying to wade through the plastic packages of supermarket offerings or are an inner city dweller with no connection to the fishing industry save for noticing the rising prices of Chilean seabass on your favourite restaurant menu.. I think it is unquestionable that the situation is grim. We do know what our actions of the past 50-100 years have achieved and logically, continuing along the current path can only cause the situation to worsen.

Eating as local as possible is one way to reduce stress on the planet and increase the freshness of your food. And when you cannot, making informed choices about where your all your food comes from and how it is grown and harvested is the best way to minimise the impact and ensure that sustainable products are the ones that are in demand. Where there is a demand, other producers will follow suit. 

So how can the local species swim forever?

Consider the big picture: use your guide, ask where your fish comes from and VOTE accordingly. 

TIAKINA NGA TAONGA O TANGAROA: The phrase comes from the title of a report by the New Zealand Fisheries Task Force (1992): Sustainable Fisheries: Tiakina nga Taonga a Tangaroa.

Photo credits: André Gallant (unless otherwise specified).

Monday, September 15, 2008

basta pasta

Surprise! We had pasta for tea last night. Ok, so that really isn't an epic revelation seeing how we eat heaps of pasta. Something's amiss if we don't have pasta at least 2-3 times per week. Comfort food, I guess (like when someone's packing a sad, say when Reggina loses to Chievo).

So first, the pasta: fileja. Filei are a traditional Calabrese pasta 'fatta in casa' (usually home-made).  They are similar to pici (Toscano) and various other regional styles of egg-less pasta (not unlike maccheroni inferrati) that are rolled by hand using a thin metal rod or skewer . This was a second solo attempt at making the fileja (the first wasn't a huge success). For me, it's more difficult than ravioli or rolling and cutting other egg pastas and I find the trick is all in the texture of the dough. There is a definite knack to this puppy.

To prepare the pasta: mound the flour on your work surface and add enough water to form a dough. Per pound of (I prefer a fine semolina) flour, I add about 250mL of water. This amount can vary depending on the humidty in your kitchen and the moisture level in your choice of flour. Knead until smooth and allow to rest for 30 minutes covered with a tea towel. After this rest, knead again for a few minutes. Take a small knob of dough, only slightly bigger than a marble, and make a short rope, about 2-3 inches long and barely a 1/2-inch in diameter. Repeat with the remaining dough. Gently (using only light pressure from your fingertips) roll each piece around a skewer or knitting needle to form the fileja (a loose unsealed tube or 'casarecci' shape) and stretching it a little as you go. Slide (minimal gentle coaxing might be required) the pasta from the skewer and allow it to rest for 30 minutes.

And the sauce. With it's long twist, this pasta is a perfect hiding spot for any favoutite sauce.  But a long simmered sugo, made even more rich by the addition of lamb ribs (stewing or neck bones work well too), is the business. Using the 'lesser' cuts of lamb adds an extra degree of flavour (that only these bits can) and an unctuous quality to the sauce. I find it results in a sauce that coats the pasta even more luxuriously.

Cook pasta in well-salted water until desired doneness and mix with a light coating of sauce. Pass grated Parmigiano or Pecorino (or an aged Crotonese if you have it) at the table. Divine with merlot or a merlot cab blend.
And finally: the vino. We chose the above 3 Hawkes' Bay beauties to try with dinner. I preferred the 04 Trinity with it's bit of age to accompany the pasta (and the ribs) but the more youthful and fruitier Church Road and Mills Reef worked best with the cheese (more lovely aged Pecorino) and were the favourites among everyone else. Another new world wonder to try, especially with lamb, is Pascual Toso Merlot from Argentina.
Photo credit: Vallebona Sardegnian Specialties

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Pear shaped meatballs..

No, not really, but that's the way the experiment went. I started out wanting to make something greek inspired, flavour-wise. I had ground lamb, black olives, lemons, brined goat feta, oregano, aubergines, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, thick yoghurt and a huge bouquet of fresh mint and dill..

Easy right?

Not so much. I started with meatballs, I had herbal lemony lamb skewers in mind but that didn't happen. Instead of roasting a small aubergine, I used up some extra baba ghanouj (in the meatballs) and some smashed, pitted black olives (also in the meatballs) plus the usual suspects of egg and breadcrumbs in 500g of ground lamb.

Then, I might have got a little carried away: I zested a lemon, added the juice and seasoned it with oregano, dill, salt and pepper, a little crushed garlic, few more black olives and I shared a splash of white wine (Domaine Costantin Lazaridi Amethystos 2006 - a lovely sauv/sem blend) from my glass.

After all this, it tasted great, but no way was my little bit-o-lamb going to stay in meatball form.

Solution: Little individual 'greek' meatloaves. I set the oven to 180C, filled 4 ramekins with the wildly fragrant mixture and baked them until the tops were golden.

Alongside fresh pita, sliced tomatoes and olive oil, crumbled feta and more kalamata olives.. I turned out the meatloaf and served it with a dollop of homemade tsaziki.

What's Greek for 'mangia'?

and sides..

Monday, September 01, 2008

Baba ghannouj

Baba ghanouj: One of our favourite dips when there are too many melanzane. This recipe is the first one I ever used, however, since then, I've (never made it the same way twice) adjusted the levels of everything. I prefer to roast the eggplant whole until it collapses, add more olive oil to the actual dip and completely omit the water. And some days that's different again, I experiment and use more lemon for tartness, tahini for earthiness or less of everything to better taste the star ingredient. Just don't be shy with the salt.

Adapted from "Lebanese Cuisine" by Madelain Farah
1 large eggplant (Western, "globe" variety or Italian works here)
Olive oil to taste
1-2 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
2-4 tablespoons tahini (roasted sesame) paste
1/4 cup water
Juice of 1/2 or whole lemon, to taste

optional garnishes: chopped parsley, pomegranate seeds, black olives

Preheat oven to 200-225C.  You can simply pierce the skin of your eggplant(s) and roast whole or you can slice the eggplant in half, lengthwise, and place on a baking sheet.  Either way, roast until flesh is extremely tender and thoroughly cooked, about 1 hour.  If you've sliced your eggplant, check it frequently and if the halves seem to be drying out excessively, brush with olive oil. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. (They can also be roasted in advance and put in the fridge overnight.)

With a spoon, scoop/scrape out flesh and place into the bowl of a food processor (a stick blender also works well).  Add garlic and salt, and puree gradually, using pulse setting.  Add tahini and pulse. Finally add lemon juice, and pulse-purée.  Taste for salt and tartness, and adjust according to preference.  Drizzle with more olive oil if you like.

Use any fresh bread, pitta or other flatbread you like to mop up this wonderfully savoury dip.