Monday, January 30, 2006

Wasabi Peas or Let Me Blow Your Mind

this is a really rubbish photo but there's something about wasabi peas that makes the macro function on my camera BLOW ITS MIND. Seriously. This is the best of a crap bunch.

Wasabi peas are such a delightful crunchy snack that it's a pity the picture doesn't do them justice. I was introduced to them a couple of years ago in a Hip Bar in Balaclava. You know, the kind of place that's full of concrete and dim lighting and doesn't have a name outside because all the truly Hip people can find it anyway?? I don't spend much time in Hip Bars these days, so when I do, I have to Shout It From The Rooftops (I was in a Hip Bar, did you hear?). Anyway, enough rambling from a demented housewife.

The wasabi pea handful has to be measured carefully. Get it right and you have an addictively good pre-dinner nibble. Pick up the wrong two peas in a pod however, and feel the wasabi blast through the space behind your eyesockets! I mutter obscenities, chew frantically and swallow. And reach for another handful. Hmmmn, not too bright am I?

But when they're good, they're soooo good. And available at most Asian groceries and sushi stores.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Staying Sane: Raspberry Smoothie

There are few things that keep me sane during detox. The foods permitted on this one are ultra restricted and so utterly boring that it is hard to believe it's ME sticking to it. Well, mostly.

It's all raw/steamed vegies and a limited amount of fruit. Lean protein three times a day. Eggs, eggs and more eggs, especially the omega enriched kind. But no oil apart from flaxseed, no sugar whatsoever and no carbs apart from those found naturally in fruit and vegetables. I am enjoying the pure taste of simple foods again (for me that is, I cooked duck and ginger lemongrass noodles for the rest of the family last night!) but there isn't much zing in my diet at present.

Except for this: raspberry smoothie. I was introduced to the protein smoothie by this very detox a couple of years ago, and after I reduced the cranberry juice (unsweetened) to about a tenth and upped the frozen berries, it went from a watery shake to a creamy pink smoothie.

It's hard to give precise measurements here because I find that each time it changes and I add the berries bit by bit until it's the consistency I'm after. But basically, it's a splash of unsweetened cranberry juice and a tablespoon of flaxseed oil into the blender. I then start the blender and add about a cup of frozen raspberries. Once these have been mushed, I add 2 to 3 tablespoons of vanilla protein powder (or unflavoured when available). This goes in last as I find if it's added too soon, it fluffs up and the mixture becomes more like meringue and less like a smoothie. Once blended, I stop the motor and have a look at the consistency. It might need a little more cranberry or a few more berries yet.

When I'm feeling very indulgent, I add another half cup of berries and reduce the cranberries so that I can close my eyes and pretend that I'm eating raspberry ice cream! And actually, it's not half bad. And you'd never believe it was good for you!!

Friday, January 20, 2006

Day 17 Detox

It's not as bad as it sounds. This may be because I haven't been as good as I should. You know, a handful of raisins here, bite of bread there. Not to mention a spoonful of Cunliffe Waters Spicy Blood Plum Sauce! Oddly enough, the cravings I have had have been for wholegrain foods - a loaf of brown bread on top of the fridge, the Weetbix I prepare for Plumbaby's breakfast every morning.

And the chocolate thing? I am surprised that I haven't missed it more, ached for it, demanded it, thrown a Full-On-Hissy-Fit and given in to it. But I think that's part of the detox; once you get these beautiful gorgeous chocolately bits out of your system on a daily basis, you stop to crave them so intensely. I must emphasise that this is a temporary situation and I in no way recommend or espouse denying yourself chocolate on a long term basis.

I don't think I've eaten as many raw green leafy vegetables as I should have and will wander down to the markets this morning before it gets abominably hot. A basketful of summer fruit and vegetables should see me right for the next few days. Days of 30 + and 40+ degrees Celsius weather. When I turned on the cold tap this morning to wash out the Plumbaby's cup, the water ran warm on my hand. At eight o'clock in the morning!! Fortunately, the one good effect of this is that it firmly quells any desire for thick, stodgy comfort food - stews, mashed potato, anything like that. It'll be salad, salad all the way for the next week.

With no chocolate. Seriously.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Peking Duck Salad

Do you know when something seems SO obvious that you cannot believe you didn't realise it in the first place? Take tonight - I had some duck breasts and was looking to throw them into a quick salad before Figman expired from hunger. I tossed them into a hot pan and cooked for 6 minutes on the skin side. I then removed the duck fat from the pan (knew I should have bought that silicon baster) and put the breasts back in, on the other side, to cook for about 4 minutes. This is longer than the guidelines given in Stephanie Alexander's Cook's Companion, but I like my duck cooked. I left the breasts to sit in the pan while I got the salad ready.

A bowl full of mixed mesculun. Some olive oil and white wine vinegar. I ferried around in the veggie drawer for something solid and came up with a cucumber. This was peeled and julienned, in pieces about the length of a matchstick. My usual sauce had run out but I thought "Oh I'll just use the lovely Cunliffe Waters Spicy Blood Plum Sauce". As I continued slicing the duck into lovely thick chunks, my eyes wandered across the strips of pale cucumber and I thought "Oh my goodness, it's Peking Duck salad! How could I miss it??".

Okay, it's not stricly authentic. And I'd like to work on it a little when I am not restricted with my dietary intake. But for me, the changes are obvious: five spice powder on the duck as it sizzles; something crunchy - maybe diced bread fried in the duck fat; and the harsh bite of onion. Spring onion would be usual, but I'd like to try spanish onion for the texture and colour against the greens. Anyway, here it is for now, in all its imperfections.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Cookin' Chilli Crab!!

Rolling in exhausted after a day out watching country cricket, the absolute last thing I wanted to do was cook crabs. Grab some takeaway for the boys and a piece of fruit for me and that would be about it. I've only come to cooking crab in the last year or so and my seafood confidence is not exactly, well, booming out of me. I've bought crabs four or so times in the last year, at $5 a tray when the fishmongers are clearing out stock at the markets before closing time on Saturday. Today is Sunday, and that means it's time to roll up the sleeves and get cracking, literally.

For me, the only way to truly enjoy crab is to cook it chilli-style. This is a dish I've eaten in family homes, but when I've tried to replicate it, the results have been disappointing. I've consulted a handful of cookbooks but nothing's satisfied me. Mostly because the recipes have involved black beans, which to my palate, overpowers the chilli sauce. Eventually, after much frustration, I just gave up and cooked it MY WAY.

Now bear in mind that this recipe is for an overcautious type who would rather feed her guests mushy crab than give them food poisoning. Despite the crabs smelling fresh, I cooked them for a good 3 or 4 minutes more than I usually would, simply because they were a day old. This difference can be crucial - but next time maybe I'll be more daring. Or get around to cooking crabs on the day I buy them!

4 crabs, uncooked, cleaned
7 cloves of garlic, peeled and diced
About the same amount of ginger, also peeled and diced
1/4 jar Christine Manfield Chilli Jam (75g)
Coriander, chopped
Soy sauce

I always give the crabs a bit of a further clean, because as seen above, I am picky. I heat a large pan (wok would be great here), add a little oil and then 2 of the crabs. Cook on medium heat for 3 minutes then turn and cook on the other side for another 3 minutes. Remove crabs from pan and add the garlic, ginger and chilli jam. The pan may get a bit sticky, so throw in a little soy sauce or water. Add remaining two crabs and cook as above. Then add about half a cup of water to the pan and return the other crabs to it as well. Cover and cook for 4 minutes or until crabs are done.

Ah ha! See, I got out of it there! It might be that the crabs are done after one minute, but it's up to you, isn't it? No responsiblity taken here!! I might be a clumsy cook, but I am also a cautious cook (when it comes to seafood anyway!) Garnish with coriander and sprinkle with salt.

The last times we've eaten blue swimmer crabs, which are smaller and more delicate. These were hefty and orange, maybe sand crabs? The claws, which hold that tender sweet meat, were too hard for me to break open. Figman used his teeth, but after my dentist's warning I wasn't risking mine. I think I might have to invest in some cheap crab crackers. After all, there's nothing more frustrating than seeing that succulent meat and not being able to get at it. Unless it's coming home late in the afternoon and finding day old crab in the fridge ...

Friday, January 13, 2006

My New Chicken Frying Skills

Now don't get all excited - this isn't real fried chicken, you know, the sort coated in batter and seasoning and deep deep fried. But it's still pretty good - thighs with the skin on cooked in a hot pan with just a little garlic thrown in towards the end.

I was flicking through a "Chefs' Secrets" book the other day, which featured different hints and "secrets" from about 100 chefs. It sounds ideal but most of the tips I'd already picked up along the way. Although there were one or two I considered buying the book for before deciding it clearly wasn't worth it. But this was one such tip.

Previously, when frying chicken, I'd throw the oil in the pan at the same time I turned the heat on and when the oil was hot enough, in would go the chicken pieces. However, this chef advised to heat the empty pan (though not Teflon, never never Teflon!) and once it was hot to add the oil. The scientific reasoning behind this is that apparently the metal in the pan expands to fill any microscopic gaps and then when the oil is added, the food just glides on over.

I've tried this with chicken skin off and on, fish, meat and all sorts of things and it does work a treat. I cook with a 32cm stainless steel saute pan and hardly anything sticks if I do it properly. I had a couple of these boneless thighs for lunch today with the remainder of the salad. Skin side first for 3 to 4 minutes, flip onto the other side for another 4 minutes. A handful of roughly chopped garlic's thrown in 2 minutes before cooking's over. I find that adding garlic at this point means it gets golden brown without burning.

And I know I am doing detox, I pulled the skin off, okay? But I do love the flavour it adds to the juicy chicken. It's worth the extra calories (don't tell me what the First Lady of Nutrition says about animal fat and how terrible it is, I buy good chicken and it can't be that bad!). The remainder was supposed to be for Figman's post cricket match snack. But a small child who looked disdainfully at his own dinner, ate four pieces of chicken, standing up in front of the tv. When Figs gets home from the match I'll simply tell him - like father, like son.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

AH HA!! (or chickpea and avocado salad)

I was peering into the fridge this afternoon as I threw together lunch in a kind of desultory way. And it was desultory. Finding soggy tomatoes and broccoli that had seen better. There was little left in the way of protein unless I went the tinned tuna (again) and I wasn't in the most hopeful of moods. And then I found an organic avocado that I had bought at immense expense and promptly thrown into the fridge and forgotten. A couple of the tomatoes proved salvagable. And I was suddenly taken by a craving for chickpeas, quite possibly because they were the only canned pulses on the shelf (oh people who think I spend all my time cooking fresh from scratch, laugh, laugh away!).

I threw the three together, drizzled some olive oil and a little vegetable salt and let me tell you, it tasted amazing! And this took me completely off guard. Because I expected it to be a "thrown-together-out-of-tins-and-overripe-produce" kind of lunch and instead it was one of the best salads I've ever eaten! It still lacked a little zest and I found my one remaining onion and diced about a quarter of it and threw it in. So simple and yet totally on the mark.

The "AH HA!!" in the title actually refers to the fact that a photo appears and not to the fabulousness of the recipe. Thanks to kind Christmas gifts, I finally went and bought a camera of my/our own. So let the photos recommence! And I was surprised at the lengths that Rachael went to when plating up for the camera, but do you know what I found myself doing? Since avocado makes such a mess, I tipped the salad into a clean bowl for the pic. Which was kind of ridiculous because my favourite photo didn't even show the bowl! But here's one, just so you can see how clean it was.
And so, now hopefully no more incidents over getting my film processed!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Something New

I don't mind branching out every now and then but I tend to stick to the tried and true. Particularly when it comes to suppliers. I shop at the Prahran Markets a couple of times a week and after several years of buying here there and everywhere, I think I've got my sources sussed. And there I tend to stick. Like glue.

Take Christmas. My mother accompanied me to purchase some seafood for the festive feast and was making eyes at the middle fishmonger. "No, no, no" I said and shoved her in the right direction. "This is the best place to buy prawns." And they were pretty good. I have a long history with this place and by now I don't even glance at the other fishstalls in the markets. But on Saturday, stocks were a bit low and nothing grabbed my attention at my regular vendor. Unlike the boisterous fishmonger shouting out "$10 a bag, 2 for fifteen". I turned my head and he pounced. "Rainbow trout, 2 for $5!". Now I haven't bought fish from these people in ages, but the trout were so plump and glistening, shiny with freshness, I could not say no.

Now I had 2 rainbow trout and I have to confess, cooking fish is not my thing. In a house where I like to prance around in what I claim is my kitchen, the Figman reigns supreme when it comes to seafood. I don't have much confidence in my ability to judge when each side is done, though under Figgy's tutelage, I'm coming along. I decided to cook the trout simply, just as they were with a bit of olive oil (trust me, my heart was singing out for butter and almonds, but this IS detox month after all). "Five minutes a side" said Figman and went back to his computer game. A little later he called to me "don't have that flame up too high" and I adjusted it accordingly. (This, by the way, is the only time I can be considered meek in the kitchen). And the fish was, amazingly, perfectly cooked. Succulent, fresh, and reminding me why I like fish so much. A simple salad of rocket and avocado and lunch was done.

So, this year I'm going to try to get out of my piscatorial rut. And shop around a bit more for fish. Becase who knows what I've been missing?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Day Three Detox and a Two Pear Dressing

Okay, it's been three days without chocolate and I haven't smashed anything. I have cheated (a little) but it's been low-fat icecream, a mouthful of soft drink, that kind of thing. But apart from this, I feel somewhat brighter and fresher, or is this just the Smug Delusion of a Dieting Dilettante?

And you know, entertaining still has to go on. Today there was an evening picnic and I had been asked to bring a salad. November's Gourmet Traveller featured a recipe in the request section "Fare Exchange" that I had been wanting to try and this seemed the perfect opportunity.

I have made heaps of pear and rocket salads, but this one featured an unusual pear dressing, which involved peeling and chopping four pears and simmering them with 200g of caster sugar and 250 ml of white wine vinegar. Oh and a star anise and cinnamon quill. It was supposed to also contain a cardamon pod but as you know, I Do Not Like Cardamon. Oh, and some ginger peeled and grated. This simmers along and makes the house reek, like vinegar boiled vinegar I suppose, until it settles down to a glaze-like consistency.

At this point, the liquid is drained off and the pear chunks and aromatics dumped separately for later use (with more sugar to caramelize, this would be fantastic with ice cream or custard). The rest of the salad is a standard construction - rocket, olive oil, parmesan, pepper, sliced pear and so on. It is a very subtle yet sweet salad and I'd like to work it up a bit - something with crunch (pinenuts) or something with bite (just a tiny hint of chilli) would be great.

But there you go. And I didn't even eat any of the birthday cake. Which I had to go out and buy. And was made of chocolate. Enough said.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Blah ... It's Detox Time

You remember that opening scene in Trainspotting when ewan Mcgregor is nailing himself into a room to kick the habit? Well, that's kinda how I feel right now.

Yes, you read right, today was the first day of Operation Detox around here. Technically it should have started on Sunday, but there were other distractions and when I eventually rolled out to the shops, the selection was pretty minimal and hey, if you're going to do it, you should do it right?? (Oh the justifications!). I suppose that the turn of the year is a time for many to reflect on their goals and waistlines and it's no different for me. Or rather, I have been doing so for months now but haven't gotten around to actually doing something about it. And I could always think "Oh in January I'll do a detox month". But now January is here and I have no choice but to get healthy.

I'm generally following a detox designed by Ann Louise Gittelman. She's an interesting author and I've learned a lot about nutrition from her, but who goes around calling themselves "The First Lady of Nutrition"?? I mean, honestly. I've been down this path several years ago and I remember that I had very good results. I had tried to block out the memories of the sheer sensory deprivation (no dairy! no soy! no vinegar!) but until today I didn't realise how hard it would be to have NO CHOCOLATE.

That's right, not one piece of chocolate has touched these lips today. Oh, I have stared at the block of Lindt in a vase in the lounge room (yes I know I have very weird storage). And at a very low ebb this afternoon, I came into the kitchen, grabbed a container of Callebaut and just inhaled. Long deep breaths until I knew I could put it down.

And this all goes against my nature so much because I am into indulgence. Particularly of the culinary kind. But unless you are lucky, an obsessive interest in food and eating and cookbooks and food shopping and reading food blogs leads down a particular path. The Half-my-clothes-are-under-my-bed-because-I-haven't-worn-them-since-last-Easter path. And apart from sheer vanity, there are health considerations to finally kick me into gear and co-host this month of torture.

So, for the next 27 days or so, it'll be more like the healthy picture above and less like this

But don't go thinking that I am a lady of virtue or something. I have decided to give myself a break once a week, to be saved for social occasions. The severe restrictions brought friends to the verge of breakdown last time. And I won't describe the pained expression on Figman's face when we ate out in a Thai restaurant and I carefully listed to the waiter what I could and could not eat. He ended up bringing out the chef who cried "But that's not Thai!". Enough embarrassment. And I've already cheated today. Okay, half a cup of couscous doesn't fall into the same category as a block of chocolate but everything in my body is screaming "We want more sugar! We want more fat! Where the fuck is the salt?". So, if you have any tips on how to quell the discord, please let me know.

Only 27 days to chocolate ....

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Boxing Day Sandwiches

I've discovered that what I love best about Christmas food is the leftovers. Not to discount the amazing dishes I had at various tables on Christmas Day, which apart from the traditional, included Morroccan lamb cutlets, Swedish seafood platters and Thai curry.

But the nicest of all was waking up on Boxing Day with a fridge full of food, knowing that the nearest thing to cooking would be spooning some cranberry relish onto white bread (I know I don't usually eat it, but this is a must) and slapping a couple of thick slices of turkey breast down. Maybe some ham, mustard and lettuce later. Bliss.

The weather in Melbourne at the moment is simply unspeakable. Niki and Cin, enjoy your snow and frost!! Yesterday, the temp went up almost 20C in the space of 2 hours. Yes 2 hours. And a bar of Lindt chocolate I'd left open on a counter began to melt of its own accord.

But tomorrow brings cooler weather and perhaps I'll start to think about cooking. Seomthing besides a sandwich and a Splice.