Wednesday, March 29, 2006

White Chicken Barley Soup

Now it sounds ridiculous to call this white chicken soup, but bear with me. I was expanding, if you will, on an idea I found in Michel Montignac's Food Lover's Diet. (Why was I even reading this book? I blame Jeffery Steingarten) The recipe section contains many gorgeous pictures of food that seem as far from a diet as you could imagine, and one of the soups caught my attention.

The instructions were clear that this was to use a "white chicken stock" and ensure that no carrots were included. Carrots are a staple of my chicken stock, as are onions, celery and leek. As I read further, it became clear that the lusciousness of the soup lay in the pour in of 600ml of good cream. I love cream. Simply adore it. But if I am going to eat even a portion of 600ml of it, it will be in creme brulee or caramel. A stunning chocolate mousse or truffles. NOT SOUP. Sorry.

But this gave me an idea, to drop the carrots from my current soup. I was pleasantly surprised. It gave this old favourite a slightly new kick and you certainly couldn't tell that anything was missing. I threw in some pearl barley as well but it was a simple soup of green and white. Curled up in front of the new season of Survivor, who could ask for anything more?

Recipe White Chicken Barley Soup

3 leeks, white part only
2 medium onions
Half a head of celery

I had a tray of chicken wings in the fridge, so I put those in the stock pot with a little olive oil first. Browned slightly and then added the sliced vegetables. Covered with water and brought up the boil very slowly. Simmer for an hour or so.

I then scooped the wings out and let them cool (they were fried quickly the next night and enjoyed with satay sauce). In went a whole chicken, cut into 10 pieces by my darling chicken man, and about a cup of organic pearl barley. Simmered for about an hour (you can take the breast parts out earlier if you are fussy about them overcooking). Salt, stir, serve.

Pork And Other Acts of Love

The Figman loves pork. I do not. Often, a purchase of pork indicates that he will be dining alone that night and it is truly an indication of some sort of love that I gracefully conceded to his wish.

I present to you: FIGMAN'S WEEK OF PORK !!!!

It all started off with my search for a celebration dish. One glimpse at these ravishing photos at Nordjus and I knew I had found the main star. And the recipe, from Jamie Oliver's Italian papa, Gennaro Contaldo, was online and ready to go. Now this recipe provides for 10 to 12 helpings and a 5kg piece of meat, which even for Figman, is a bit much. I asked my butcher for a 2 to 3kg piece of Otway Pork belly with ribs and excess fat removed. Now I don't much care for the sight of raw meat, but this was a beautiful thing, sitting here glistening with salty crystals.

This is where the sage came in, along with chopped rosemary and thyme, garlic and fennel seeds. I'm not a fan of fennel either, but it worked really well in this dish and it was not overpowering. I might have halved the amounts of herbs and spices in accordance with the smaller pork belly if I had been paying attention, but as I wasn't and only realised mid-way, I left things as they were.

Trussed like a bastard. (I don't know why I said that, it just felt right!) There was a bit of controversy at this point, as the good Gennaro said to "tie it very tightly with string in the middle of the joint" and "then tie at either end about 1cm/½ inch from the edge and keep tying along the joint until you have used up all the string". Now the Cook's Book said to tie in the middle, but not tightly, and to work outwards from the middle instead. The Cook's Book had some nice step by step pictures so I decided to go with that. The string lengths were way too long, but that could have had something to do with the fact that my belly was missing several kilos. Ahem.

Now I like to at least pretend to follow recipes faithfully the first time, but I was a bit worried about the lack of piercing the fat. For crackling. But there were references throughout to crisp crackling and so on and I decided to wait respectfully. Until it became clear that no crackling was going to appear without my assistance and I pierced the now sizzling hot roast. I do not recommend this, but at least there was some crackling action in the end. I threw some chunks of pumpkin in when the temperature was reduced and they caramelized around the edges brilliantly.

The hot porchetta is pictured at the top of this post. Below are slices of it cold, the next day. I will find it hard to ever buy porchetta from the delicatessen again, this is so superior. It's fantastic for sandwiches or with a salad. This had quite a large layer of fat on top and reheated briefly in the microwave it became sizzling and delicious all over again.

And the rest of the WEEK OF PORK? Well, there were Pork Country Ribs baked in Plum and Lime Sauce with Garlic Hunks. There were Porchetta leftovers for a couple of days. The One Pan Sage-and-Onion Chicken and Sausage dish featured pork chipolatas. And some Otway Pork cutlets turned up with herbed mustard sauce. Do you think I can now get away without cooking pork for another year??

Sunday, March 26, 2006

WHB: Suddenly Sage

I've always had sage growing in the gardens I've lived in but it was generally left unplucked. Despite its genus name Salvia meaning "health" I found an overdose of of sage more revolting than restorative. Truthfully, it turned my stomach. But I've been wooed back by an abundance in the herb spot and this week found myself cooking with it not once, but twice.

The first was in the classic Italian porchetta. A mix of rosemary, thyme and sage, chopped and sprinkled over pork belly with garlic, then rolled and roasted. This was part of Figman's Week of Pork and will, if I get my act into gear, be tomorrow's post. But today is Sunday, and the traditional roast sprang to mind, despite the 32C heat outdoors.

Flicking through Feast, I'd come across a Nigella Lawson recipe for One Pan Sage-and-Onion Chicken and Sausage featuring a jointed chicken and sausages, roasted in the flavours of sage and onion stuffing, minus the bread. She suggests a lengthy marinade for this, but I didn't have the time and it didn't seem to suffer too much as a result. And it was easiness itself to prepare.

Simply toss the chicken pieces into a large roasting pan with the sausages and generously sliced onion. I then mixed 2 tablesoons of mustard with 100ml of oil and added balsamic vinegar as I was missing the stipulated lemon and Worcestershire sauce. (Note to self: I just cannot get it into my head that I have to buy lemons now!). Finely sliced sage and a few sprigs of thyme finished this off and it was into the oven within 10 minutes of starting. I then left it to its own devices for an hour and a bit. It does give me such a delightfully smug feeling to wander around the house in the knowledge that lunch is cooking away and I don't have to do anything more to it!

The flavours are quite strong and I recommend a vibrant green salad to balance this. Nigella pairs it with a Bread Sauce Potato Gratin, but to me , that is simply too much stodge. It brings to mind the traditional groaning from the table and the subsequent Sunday afternoon lie-down. Whereas I was able to spring up and go and check out a chocolate shop. Which I think is much better.

Tune in tomorrow for Pork And Other Acts of Love! And check out the other contributions at Weekend Herb Blogging over at Kalyn's Kitchen.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Hot Smoked Trout and Wasabi Ricotta Toasts

My sister and I are entirely different food shoppers. I wander around with a few vague ideas and pick up whatever interests me. She plans a week of meals and sets off, list in hand. When I found this out, I was baffled. "Really? You do?" It just puzzled me that we could have such different styles. She cooks from recipes mostly and while I own an entire bookcase of cookbooks, I use them mostly for techniques and inspirations - I very rarely actually cook from them.

I think that this is spilling over more and more into my entertaining life. On several occasions recently, when called upon to compose a menu for guests, I've stumbled. Absolutely blocked. Poured over the books most likely to help and still nothing. But once I'm in the market, I see the produce in front of me and suddenly it all falls into place. Trout. Wasabi. Ricotta.

One of the delights I picked up at the Collingwood Children's Farm Market was Buxton Smoked Trout. Figman and I have pigged out on this before and I knew it would be perfect for a little snack before dinner. (Does anyone, incidentally, still refer to these as hors d'oeuvres? It makes me feel like I'm in the 70's!). As I popped the whole trout into my calico bag, I was mentally assembling these little toasts and they came out according to plan.

An Illiwarra Sourdough baguette. Wasabi swirled through fresh ricotta. Trout flaked and boned. Handful of chopped coriander. A couple of drops of sesame oil. Easy peasy. I also bought a bottle of the Buxton salmon roe (hand milked) and used them to decorate. The one pictured above doesn't have the roe because I hadn't thought of it at that point!

These were a hit at the dinner. The richness of the hot smoked trout is balanced well by the light bite of the wasabi and the zing of the little balls of roe bursting in the mouth. Although next time I'd like to use the Lemnos Organic Ricotta as it has a smooth creamy texture which would complement the wasabi and trout perfectly. I found it in the supermarket of all places!

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Staring at the vegetable drawer in the fridge. It is half full of limp, droopy produce. I Have Done It Again - bought too much in a fit of enthuiasm and now I am paying the price.

I had ordered and paid for a box of organic vegetables. But en route and on the spur of the moment, I decided to drop in at the Collingwood Children's Farm Market (another post, trust me!). As per usual, I was overwhelmed with all the gorgeous, simply gorgeous stuff. Now when I saw the best broccoli I have seen all year at 4 for $5, how could I resist? Into the bag they went, along with a cauliflower, red cabbage and four bunches of coriander. I bought as much as I could carry and my shoulders ached for days. But it was worth it, I thought. Until I collected my boxes of fruit and vegetables and went "oh oh".

We've worked our way through most of it but the first bloom has definitely worn off. And I am now just tired of opening the fridge to see the same soggy stuff staring back at me. Bored bored bored with it. I know this sounds very petulant and Western, but guess what? That's exactly what I am.

But the remains of my conscience won't let me throw anything out until it actually has moulded, so tonight I picked out the by-now-very-bendy zucchinis and threw them in a pan sliced, with mint and spring onions. I figured this would help hide their limpidity. It wasn't bad, but I can't wait to empty that drawer and fill it up with new, exciting, fresh stuff.

The really appalling part about this is that it's nothing new. I do this all the time. When am I going to learn?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Happy Birthday Pavlova (well sort of anyway)

Someone near and dear to me professes to loathe desserts and yet cannot resist this one. I had had it with the oven in our old house and swore that when we moved, I would bake a pavlova quick smart. While this new house is large and newish, the kitchen is its definite downfall - small in a HUGE open plan area, inadequately planned and cramped. When we inspected it, I opened the oven, grimaced and asked the agent if she had anything bigger. But everything else was right and so here we are. And I even managed to get my fancy French stainless steel baking tray into the oven (though only just).

So without any excuse to hold off on the long-promised pavlova, I set out with Stephanie Alexander's recipe from the Cook's Companion. I had made meringues years ago and this seemed like a breeze. It must be a Melbourne girl thing - Cin had just made this same one and I might move on to Niki's Nigella Chocolate Pav as soon as I tossed this one off the tray and slathered it with cream. Yeah, that was the theory.

When I assembled the ingredients on the bench top, I discovered that there was no caster sugar in the house. Half a cup of brown sugar for visitors' tea and coffee, but nothing more. So I grabbed the Plumbaby from his bed (he was supposed to be having a nap) and drove off to the supermarket with him still in his Bonds Wondersuit. When we were in the fruit section, a little girl looked up at him sitting in the trolley and said in bewilderment to her mother "Mama, he's in his 'jamas!". Sugar in hand, baby back in bed, I got down to business. The recipe calls for the egg whites and sugar to be whipped to "satiny peaks". Now I know soft peaks and stiff peaks, but this was a new one to me. And at some point while I stared at the beater going round and round, I must have passed soft, stiff and satiny, and moved onto "overwhipped". At least this is the theory. Several frantic whispered phone calls to a cousin who is an old hand at these (she was at work) made it clear that the soft marshmallowy mixture was not prime pav material. She advised throwing it out and starting again. But I was reluctant as (a) it was so very sticky (b) I was working under time constraints and needed the oven for a 3 hour porketta roast soon and (c) I just really couldn't be bothered and honestly, how far from the original could it be?

The glop spread all over the baking paper and for a moment I feared that it would spill over the sides. But the hot oven soon worked its magic and it began to look more like a large flat meringue and less like an accident with a glue pot. It rose, it crisped, it caramelized and while it's not perfect, you'd never know the disaster it appeared to be a hour earlier.

Covered in cream and fruit, the base was crisp on the outside and chewy in the smaller than usual middle. And very very sweet. I tend to like my desserts heavy on the chocolate and cream and light on the sugar, hence the lack of the white stuff in the house. (Actually, I was horrified when I realised that I'd served guests a different flourless chocolate cake every single time they'd visited over six months. A part of my brain doesn't even realise that there are desserts other than chocolate pots, chocolate mousse and heavy chocolate ice cream). But tonight wasn't about me.

Also, happy birthday to another Melbourne girl - Claire Robertson at Loobylu was baking her own cake for today and I hope she had better luck than me. Although, as I've discovered, cream and passionfruit can hide a world of cracks.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Lobster treat

Nigella Lawson has a real thing for cook's treats - the sweet succulent bit that the cook gets to devour greedily in the kitchen on her own. Before pasting a smile on her face, taking a deep breath and clasping the dish in both hands, going out to face the guests with what may or may not be a successful dinner.

Today at the Prahran markets (you see, I may live in the country but you can't keep me away!) I snapped up half a lobster. For five dollars. And I got to wondering, is there such a thing as a marketer's treat? An extra tasty morsel to be devoured in private, perhaps in the car, as a little reward for all those hours of traipsing up and down market aisles, prodding produce and querying vendors? All those bags hauled to the car, red onions spilling out across the seat before the door slams. For the time I put my hand in my shopping bag to grab my purse and inserted it into an overripe tomato? Hmmmmmn .....

For the record, I did share this one with the Figman. This being the operative word.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Fourth Loaf

We drove to another country town this afternoon, the Plumbaby and I, for a change of scene and a different park. Not being too interested by all this sporting stuff, I was surprised to find the town blocked off, shut down and all ribboned and streamered up for the Commonwealth Games Baton Relay passing through. This didn't bother us, we went and had a pleasant time in the playground and then, when the heat got too much, wandered up to the main street to see the crowds gathered for the relay. Children, bouncy castles, the works. As we walked along, Plumbaby was looking more and more reluctant to take one more step without a balloon. After all, every child in sight had an orange or green one, why not him? Even some adults were waving bunches of the things.

I spied a supermarket and hustled him in, saying "I'm sure we can buy you a balloon in here". We did find them, and also a suprisingly good array of organic products and unusual breads. I picked up a dark rye and headed for the checkout. However, the salesgirl asked if I'd noticed the loaves on sale - there was a trolley full of bread marked down at half price. She helped me sort through them and I left with a couple of sale loaves for toasting and a different style of darker rye.

The bubs and I kept walking (he was temporarily distracted by the juice I'd opened after a desperate fight with the lid in the midst of an aisle) but eventually he demanded his bounty. We were looking around a busy bakery but I stopped and blew up a giant balloon and tried to tie it around the juice bottle (this was less awkward than it sounds). I struggled for a bit, fended off questions from the staff and then realised I'd pushed the sippy lid to "open" and while I'd been tying the balloon end, half a bottle of orange juice had spilled onto the floor. Of their very busy bakery. It was wiped up with a smile, but I still felt obliged to buy a loaf of sourdough. To add to the three I was already carrying. And with no freezer space at home. The things I do.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Quick Easy Dinner: Chicken Breast With Lentils and Spinach

This isn't the sort of thing that would usually get a mention here. It's a very quick thrown together dinner, made up of leftovers and bits and pieces in the fridge. But it was simply so good that I need to jot it down here before it disappears onto the backburner in my head.

I had a couple of large Lilydale chicken breasts sitting around which I wanted to use up. (I get edgy when raw chicken's been in the fridge for a few days.) I tossed them into a pan with a splash of olive oil and fried on one side. When I turned the breasts over, I added slices of a Spanish onion and three anchovies in chilli oil. It sizzled and the pan was dangerously empty. I needed to add something to fill the rest of the pan before the oil started burning. One of the remaining containers in the fridge had half a tin of brown lentils from several nights ago. I thought of Nigella's recipe for sausages with lentils and dumped the rest in. A bit of salt and stir. When the dish was almost done, I washed the handfuls of wilting spinach and tossed it in. Two stirs of the spoon and turned off the heat. I came back to it a little later and served it up.

The flavours come together very well, the sweetness of the onion and the earthy robustness of the lentils. Quick. Easy. Delicious. QED

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Parsley Dancing: Weekend Herb Blogging

This is a picture of parsley dancing in the wind. And what it signifies, apart from the fact that our parsley shot to seed, is that I eventually got around to participating in Weekend Herb Blogging, as kindly arranged by Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen. Every week I'd see other people's entries and think "I forgot AGAIN! How can I be so disorganised?" And Herb Blogging is really the only one for me, given that I don't have a cat or a dog. I have a small child but I'm not about to start putting up the Plumbaby's picture everywhere. Although I wouldn't mind an event to capture tried and tested recipes for children once a month or so. Should I do it? Or will it be one more event for me (and the rest of the food blogging world) to forget and then feel guilty about?

Anyway, back to the parsley. I grew up with curly parsley, of the Petroselinum crispum variety. The kind which decorates 70s plates as a tasteless garnish. It revolted me and I learned to push it under my plate, before I could be upbraided for ignoring it. It was not until I realised that there was indeed another kind, flat leafed parsley, that I understood that some parsley is edible, although in limited circumstances. I am still not at the point where I could endorse eating it by the handful, such as Nigella suggests in this salad, but I can see its use. Most often, it's in flavouring, not as a full star ingredient, and my favourite is in chicken stock.

For this, I dice a couple of brown onions and 3 or 4 cloves of garlic and throw them into a stockpot sizzling with a splash of olive oil. Then I add five to eight raw chicken carcasses (depends on how many can be crammed into the pot), 3 diced large carrots, a couple of diced leeks and a big handful of parsley. Throw in fresh bay leaves, and a few twigs of thyme and cover with cold water. Bring up to the boil on a low heat and simmer away for two to three hours.

Most recipes will advise skimming the stock scum off the surface during cooking, but to be honest, I can never be bothered. Strain, refridgerate and remove fat if desired. When organised, I reduce the stock down and freeze in ice cube trays for future use. But as I freely admit, I'm not that organised.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Chips and Chocolate: The Classic Combination

On the edge of seventeen, I finished high school and after a summer of full time drudgery, departed for Europe for a year of work and travel. These days, with the backpacker culture and gap year becoming more popular, this seems almost normal, but back then it was slightly bizarre. Even now I am astounded that my parents allowed it. (Their defence is that they couldn't stop me, but as I point out, there is a big difference between not stopping someone and handing over a plane ticket and a cheque!)

While travelling through the Germanic countries, I became rapidly addicted to Paprika flavoured potato chips. These and Joghurt Milka chocolate. Yes, it is very sad to say, but my first European food experience was more about gelato, chips and chocolate than Michelin starred restaurants. Quelle horreur!

I don't remember eating the chips again in Europe, although a few years ago I had a good scout around for the Joghurt Milka (a yoghurt flavoured filling squashed between two layers of milk chocolate). I was disappointed to find that not only it had disappeared, but so had many of the other local chocolate bars. It might be comforting to some, but I was unimpressed with the offered assortment of M & Ms and Mars Bars! I don't go to Europe to eat chocolate I can have at home!!!

So I was pleased and surprised to find these Dutch paprika chips at an organic store last week. I hadn't seen the things in years but I could barely wait to get home and rip the packet open (I was too afraid of what might happen if I started eating them in the car). I ripped open the packet and inhaled. Yes, it was the same. And then I scooped up a handful and tasted. Stale chips. I tried to persevere but there was no hiding the stale fustiness of a packet which hadn't been completely sealed. Or ripped open in shipping. Or, I don't know, maybe Paprika-Ribb means "Yes paprika chips and also a bit stale" in Dutch.

I was disappointed, but the most outrageous part is that the 100g packet cost ... I can't bring myself to say it, just have a look for yourself ... So revisiting the past may be expensive and also a bit pointless. Remind me not to look up Stefan from #@*&%burg while I'm at it. But in the same week, I was browsing in a deli and came across a good selection of Ritter Sport blocks. As Saffron says, "a chocolate with the word sport in the title is not lost on me". I was only gazing casually when my eyes fell on a Joghurt block. Ten minutes later I was home, curled on the couch with the block and bliss. Some tastes of the past aren't bad at all.

Afterword: This photo was taken on a VERY HOT day. And when I saw the smears on the chocolate from my fingertips touching it for the merest second, I hesitated to continue with the shot. The thought flashed into my mind that I could just lightly wipe it with olive oil to restore that chocolately sheen. Then, sanity returned and I realised that I was about to become one of those obsessive food stylist types and from here it would be one step away from basting raw chickens in browning essence and photographing "dinner". So I gave myself a mental slap in the face, took the shot and sat down and ate the rest. And it was good.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Golden Morning

Tea over at Tea and Cookies had me giggling away this week at her Diary of a Mad Food Blogger. I'm not even going to start going on about the bits I identified with, because then this post would slide into a long repetitive ramble and you'd leave thinking "didn't I just read that? Although Tea said it better?".

So go read for yourself if you haven't already (the entire food blogging world seems to have dropped by), but for now here is one tidbit from Day 13:
What would people say if they knew I eat the same thing for breakfast each and every day: steel-cut oats and a banana, raisins, walnuts, a splash of milk. Am I too boring to be a food blogger?
This made me consider my own breakfast and how often I eat the same thing. Not that often, as it turns out. After I got over my addiction to tomato and cottage cheese sandwiches as a teen, I've flipped from here to there, eating come what may. This week for instance, I've had shank stew for brekfast on one occasion and this morning it was chocolate. Ah hem. But here's one I prepared earlier this week - a gorgeously ripe peach, biodynamic yoghurt and a healthy sprinkling of toasted muesli. Perfectly scrumptious in the early morning light. Worthy of a food blogger? Absolutely. But then again, so is half a can of Heinz tinned spaghetti on white bread (my favourite hangover cure). To each her own!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Twice cooked lamb shanks

Now don't get all excited, thinking that this is tale of some fancy-schmancy lamb shanks, cooked slow and deep fried restaurant style or something. I am still in the process of restocking the pantry (I have a walk in pantry in this new house! Exciting!) but occasionallly I get taken by surprise. I let a lot of bottled staples run low in the old place as I could not be bothered dragging up one more jar than was absolutely necessary. And while I compose mental lists of "get more soy" and
"we're out of sesame oil" I completely forget others until I open the fridge, mid-dressing-mixing and find that we have Not One Jar Of Mustard in the place. There were about seven previously, so you can understand why I might find this perplexing.

And even something as common as the tinned tomato is in short supply. I (foolishly) bought up a big bag of half-price lamb shanks from Hagens Organic Butcher on Saturday and late one night decided that I absolutely postively had to get them started. I threw them in a pot with garlic and tomatos and ras al hanout and cooked them until I was desperate to go to bed (this is not exactly quantifiable but it was nowhere near long enough for the slow tenderising required). I drained the shanks and popped them in the fridge but could not face putting the broth in as well. I simply covered the pot with foil and decided that if I boiled it up first thing in the morning it would be fine to receive the shanks back again for their second simmer. I promptly forgot all about the shanks for another 24 hours. At this point I was not keen to reuse the shank broth, given the amount of time which had passed.

So I ditched the tomato shank soup and started again. I cut up half a head of garlic and chucked it in the pan. Some more ras al hanout and the shanks followed. But this was the point where the gaps in my store cupboard became obvious. There were no more tomatoes, not even some sugo. So I topped up with water and hoped for the best. After an hour or so I put in some brown rice and salt and waited for it to cook. I had planned to add brown lentils, but it needed something green so I tipped in that most stapley of staples, frozen peas.

It didn't have promising beginnings but this evolved into something tasty and substantial, particularly with a generous dollop of plain yoghurt. Figman has practically fallen in love with it. He ate it for dinner last night and at least twice more today. I've had my share so I might even concede the last leftovers in the fridge to him. As long as he doesn't want them with mustard.