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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Luscious Leftovers

Last Saturday night, we had a Christmas party.

I made dinner. A LOT of dinner (those of you who know me well will understand that very rarely do I make a little bit of dinner, so this is hardly news). And, well, a few less people turned up than expected, so there we were on Sunday faced with an entire fridge full of leftovers.

You name it, it was sitting in my fridge or somewhere on my kitchen bench (except the mince pies - they were in the bedroom, under the air conditioner, nice and cool and, I suppose, at the ready for a little midnight snack or a bedtime reading accompaniment). Turkey breast stuffed with pork, apple and sage; an (almost) full leg ham, baked in Guinness and glazed with cardamom and ginger; prawns; scallops; lovely snapper with leeks, carrots and white wine; the best potato and bacon salad; florentine slice; chocolates; tiny chocolate-dipped gelato cones and the aforementioned mince pies.

But what I want to talk about today are the vegetables. Not usually the star of the leftovers parade, the sad-looking mound of charred barbecued vegetables in the fridge could easily have been passed by in favour of the shiny glazed ham or creamy potato salad.

But then, on Sunday afternoon, I saw Jamie Oliver's Family Christmas special. I love Jamie. Yes, he has his detractors and is known to some in the UK as a bit of a crusading pain in the ass who should be put back in his box, but I am and always have been smitten and inspired by his approach. Anyway, Jamie's mentor and friend Gennaro was on screen, mushing up leftover roasted vegetables to smear on bruschetta, and I knew instantly what I was having for my leftovers dinner. It was perfect - there were a few slices of stale ciabatta loaf on the bench, and those unpretty but delicious vegetables, barbecued the day before with olive oil, garlic, rice vinegar and chilli. And to top it off, a spoonful of mayonnaise brightened with herbs and a bit more chilli.

The result was so good that next time I may have to barbecue my veg just to make this dish - it was the perfect Sunday-night-on-the-couch dinner.

Hope everyone had a great Christmas day yesterday, and that your leftovers inspire you to create something special.

Leftover Mixed Vegetable Bruschetta
enough for a light meal for 2

4 slices stale ciabatta loaf

1 clove garlic, halved

the best olive oil you have

2-3 cups mixed leftover vegetables, chopped as roughly or finely as you like and seasoned with salt and pepper to taste
You can use whichever combination you have - my bruschetta had Spanish onion, leeks, asparagus, yellow baby squash, zucchini, aubergine and roasted capsicum, and as you can see from the photo, I chopped everything quite finely. And although I have used barbecued/chargrilled vegetables for this, you could also use leftover roasted vegetables, or make it using fresh vegetables instead.

A couple of spoonfuls of good, whole-egg mayonnaise
I added some rice wine vinegar, chopped chilli, sage and parsley to my mayonnaise, but plain would be fine, or you could substitute sour cream.

Parsley to garnish

Toast your bread. When it's done and still hot, rub one side of each slice with the cut garlic clove, then drizzle a bit of olive oil over each slice of bread.

Pile as much of your veg mix as you dare onto each slice of bread, top with a dollop of mayo and scatter some parsley over the top.

Monday, December 14, 2009

All about the chocolate

Several months ago, I made some truly delicious little treats for a party. We were giving take-home boxes of goodies to our guests and these delights formed part of the offering.

Everyone loved them, and a few guests requested the recipe. And then, when I went to dig up the scrap of paper I had the recipe written on, it was gone. Gone somewhere into the depths of my home office, and certainly not where I swear I had left it (among the many other 'recipe paper scraps' and clippings, obviously - where else would I put it?).

So the other day I was cleaning out a few bits and pieces from said home office, where the towers of books, papers and random miscellany had become, lets say, mountainous, and lo and behold, there it was. Quietly sitting atop a file of old accounts and business paperwork, and very definitely NOT with the countless other food-related clippings I hoard like gold dust for the distant-future time when I will collate, file and organize every recipe I own.

Nonetheless, I think this little gem was just waiting for the right time to show itself again, and with Christmas baking requirements entirely upon us, these Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Bites might just be the thing you've been needing to add to the season's repertoire. They are simple (providing you have a food processor and a stand-mixer), rich and present beautifully in little beribboned boxes, either alone or as part of a holiday baked goods selection.

Oh, and now that I've put the recipe up here, I need not worry about losing it again, and nor will you!

Dark Chocolate and Hazelnut Bites
makes a few dozen, depending how large you roll them

I would like to credit this recipe to someone, but I cannot remember where the original came from, only that before I adapted it, it contained almonds rather than hazelnuts, and rum instead of Frangelico. I am sure that either way will work just as beautifully.

240g dark chocolate, chopped
As the title of the post suggests, it really is all about the chocolate - you will very much taste the chocolate in the finished cookies, so make sure you use something that you really enjoy eating. I went with a Barry Venezuelan 72% couverture.

50g unsalted butter

45ml Frangelico or other hazelnut flavoured liqueur

2 large (59g) eggs, at room temperature

1/3 cup golden caster sugar
you could use normal caster sugar at a pinch

1 heaped cup hazelnuts, toasted
Best way to do this is pop them single-layer on a tray in a 180C oven for 8-10 minutes until fragrant, then wrap them in a tea towel and rub most of the skins off while they're still warm. You can use pre-roasted nuts however they won't give as fresh a taste to the finished cookies.

1/2 cup plain white flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

a pinch of salt

white caster sugar and icing sugar for coating the cookies
Mine needed somewhere between half a cup and a cup of each sugar.

Melt the chocolate, butter and Frangelico together in a metal or glass bowl rested over a saucepan of simmering water (don't let any water or steam get into the chocolate mix or it will seize and you'll need to start again).

In a stand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar together until they are very pale and thick (around 5 minutes on medium speed). Slowly mix in the melted chocolate mixture.

In a food processor, blend the nuts until ground finely but not a paste. Tip the nuts into a large mixing bowl and stir in the flour, baking powder and salt.

Stir the nut mixture into the chocolate/egg mixture until well combined, then cover and chill the mix for a couple of hours or until firm (I leave mine overnight and it doesn't hurt the mix at all).

When you're ready to bake, line a couple of flat baking trays or cookie sheets with baking paper and preheat the oven to 170C. Fill a bowl with white caster sugar for rolling the cookies in.

Roll heaped teaspoons of mixture into balls, then roll each ball in the sugar before placing on the trays, leaving 2-3cm between each cookie.

Bake for 12-15 minutes - the cookies are done when they are set at the edges but still a little bit soft at the centre (don't overbake them or you'll have dry, crumbly cookies instead of chocolatey, tender ones).

Let the cookies cool slightly on the trays before filling another bowl with the icing sugar and rolling each warm cookie in it to coat generously. Over a number of days (if they last that long!), the icing sugar coating may start to look a bit 'greasy' - if this bothers you, just re-roll the cookies in some more icing sugar before you serve them.

These will keep, sealed up somewhere cool (but not the fridge), for a couple of weeks easily.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Chook Challenge

Are you afraid to roast?

Being a cook, I am always surprised when people tell me they are scared of roasting a chicken. To me, a gorgeous plump bird (free range, please) is one of the easiest roasting cuts to master, and almost looks after itself in the oven. Plus, while you can do a lot of different things with red meat and pork roasts, I find that a chicken will lend itself to the greatest number of cuisine types with generosity and happiness.

That said, though, I have eaten enough badly cooked chickens in my life to know that there are a few simple rules which people often neglect to follow, and which will ensure that your meat is cooked through without being dry, and that the skin of your bird goes a beautiful burnished brown in the process.

So here are my tried and true methods, with a few variations and comments about the way I like to do things.

Number One.

Buy a happy chicken and give it some love. By this I mean spend the extra money to get a free range bird (or even organic if you're feeling really flush). Generally speaking, a free range chicken will be cheaper, or at least comparable, in price to a beef, lamb or pork roast, and buying well means you've won half the battle already. The love refers to how you deal with your bird after you bring it home, which we'll go into detail about below, but essentially means that if you pay just a little attention to your seasoning and preparation you will reap the rewards in eating it later.

Number Two.

Prepare your bird and your kitchen. Turn the oven on to 180C and let it come up to temperature before you put anything into it. Pat the inside cavity and all over the outside skin of your chicken with a paper towel to ensure it's clean and dry. Get a roasting tray and either set a roasting rack in the tray to put your chicken onto, or roughly cut up a couple of onions and carrots into large pieces, strew them in the bottom of the tin and sit the chicken on top of these. The rack and the vegies serve the same purpose, which is to lift the chicken off the bottom of the tray and let the heat circulate all around it.

Number Three.

Season your bird well. If you're in a rush, feeling uninspired or just want a bit of plain unadulterated chicken, this means sprinkling generous amounts of salt and pepper all over the bird (and the inside cavity), throwing a couple of bits of lemon into the cavity, and rubbing the lot with olive oil. That's fine, and will give you a perfectly delicious roast chicken. If, though, you are prepared to take things just a bit further, why not pop a few extra flavouring bits under the skin? Choices are endless, but I will often put a few nice pieces of unsalted butter in between the breast meat and the skin (cut the butter into 'sticks' and insert it when it's cold - it will look funny with the big chunks under the skin but is much easier than when the butter's soft and still cooks beautifully), which both flavours and keeps the breast meat wonderfully tender. Or you could slice a cacciatore or chorizo sausage; mush up fresh pork sausage (take it out of the skins); use halved dried apricots; or just get a big handful of mixed herbs. To insert any or all of these things under the skin of your chicken, gently poke your finger around between the skin and the breast meat on top of the cavity, which will loosen it and give you a little pocket. You want to get your finger as far under the skin as possible, but without tearing it. Then just carefully put your chosen flavourings into the pocket and using your hands on top of the skin now, work them down and around over the breast meat as far as you can.
At this point, you need to know the total weight of your chicken so you can work out how long to cook it (times are below). If you've minimally seasoned the bird you won't need to add any weight allowance for your seasonings, but if, for instance, you've put a lot of sausagemeat or something else dense under the skin, or lemons in the cavity, you should add the weight of this to the weight of your chicken to get a total.

Number Four.

Time to get things cooking. If you've put seasonings under the skin, leave the chicken sitting upright (breast facing upwards). If, however, you don't have anything under the skin, you can start your roast off with the bird turned upside down, which will help the juices stay in the breast meat and prevent it drying out too much. With the upside-down method, you'll need to remove the chicken from the oven about 30-40 minutes before it's done, and carefully turn it over, trying not to tear the skin. It's not glamorous, but I have been known to perform this task wearing a big, thick pair of rubber gloves - it gives you a manouverability which tongs will never achieve, and you still need to be quick to avoid burning yourself but it's certainly better than trying to turn the bird with bare hands!
Put your well-loved bird into the preheated oven. Somewhere in the middle of the oven is best, this stops things getting over-browned on either the top or bottom of the roast.
Now, if you want to roast a lot of chickens in future, here's what you need to learn and remember about timing, provided that your 180C oven is actually running at the correct temperature: 20 minutes for every half-kilo, PLUS another 20 minutes in total. That's it, and has never failed for me yet. My only exception is if I were roasting a very small chicken (under 1.2kg), I'd give it the 20 minutes per half-kilo and only another 10 minutes in total. And remember the weight discussion from point 3? That goes for stuffing too (which is a whole other post to be dealt with separately) - if you've stuck a great big handful of goodness inside your bird it needs to be calculated as part of the cooking weight! No food poisoning here, people.

Number Five.

Have a glass of wine (or three), and enjoy the 'proper kitchen' smells coming out of your oven.
You could roast some vegies with your chicken if you like (again, something for another post), or just pop a green salad and a loaf of good ciabatta bread on the table in readiness.
When things are done, or you think they should be, take the roast out of the oven and put a skewer into the meat between the breast and thigh meat. Pull it out, and if the juices that run out are clear, you're done. If they're pinky-coloured, put your roast back into the oven for another 10 minutes and check it again.
And, I know you've been doing this for the past hour or two, but here it is again: wait. Ideally, you want to give the chicken about 15 minutes sitting in a warm place (on top of the still-hot oven is good), covered in foil, before you start carving it. This allows all the fibres of the meat to relax a bit and will give you much more tender chicken.

Number Six.

Serve your bird.
If you want nice, thin slices of white meat you can carefully carve them off each breast with a very sharp knife. I tend to be a bit less elegant, though, and cut down either side of the breastbone and along the ribs to remove each breast entirely before cutting it into chunky slices. Then pull each drumstick and thigh away from the carcass and separate them if you wish. Remove the wings and then pull the remaining meat from the carcass (for us this is usually what we do after dinner when the chicken has cooled, and these little bits of meat are eaten in sandwiches later).

And you're done! All I can say to finish things up is that it might take a couple of goes to feel comfortable with adapting your roast to try different seasonings, but once you've nailed the basic method you can do almost anything flavouring-wise.

The challenge is on...let me know your favourite things to flavour a roast chicken with.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

How to make (and lose) a booking at Australia's best restaurant

I had intended for this post to be an exciting and detailed food review, but as you will read, things don't always work out as planned despite our best intentions...

Below is a copy of a recently-sent letter to the 'Food Detective' column at The Australian newspaper. Although I am under no illusions that the Food Detective will respond to (or perhaps even read) what follows, I feel all the better for having aired my issues and sent them out to the world! **current update 12/12/09 - the Food Detective has indeed read my letter and responded to say that she will be forwarding it on to Tetsuya Wakuda, as she feels he would be very disappointed to hear of our experience! I will update again if I receive any further response...

Dear Food Detective

Following is a story of how one can make (and lose) a booking at one of Australia’s premiere restaurants. Lest you think I am writing to have a whinge about my personal experience, let’s clear this up at the beginning – I certainly am. I would, however, much appreciate if you’d take the time to read on (it’s a little long), as it seems there is a statement to be made about how a well-regarded restaurant treats its clientele based on reputation and the ability to fill tables.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Mr Restaurant-Goer (henceforth to be known as Mr RG for ease of writing) and myself reside in Perth. Perth is small and does not offer such a vast array of dining options as many cities, so when we travel Mr RG and I enjoy seeking out interesting places to eat.

A little while ago, Mr RG and I decided to get married. We would have a destination wedding in New Zealand – a great plan ensuring lots of nice holiday time and the chance to dine out at several fantastic restaurants. ‘Where shall we go?’ we asked one another. Saffron in NZ’s Arrowtown was a given, along with Martin Bosley’s in Wellington. ‘And’, we thought, ‘how about we go home via Sydney so we can finally eat at Tetsuya’s? We’ve always wanted to go, and it’s months away so we should be sure of getting a table’.

So, in February this year, I made a booking at Tetsuya’s for the end of October. Downloaded, filled out and faxed back the booking request form as per their protocol, and received a phone call from a very nice female staff member the next day to confirm that yes, we did have a reservation for three people as requested (planning, as we were, to take a Sydney-based foodie friend who wanted to pick up the bill as a wedding gift).

And that’s where things started to go wrong, although we didn’t realise it at the time.

Early on the morning of our booking, we flew into Sydney from New Zealand, and I switched on my phone. Said phone does not have international roaming so had been switched off for a couple of weeks, and I expected to find some messages and missed calls to attend to. What I did not expect, however, was a curt SMS, sent the previous afternoon, to inform us that our table at Tetsuya’s had been cancelled.

The horror! ‘Must be a mistake’, we thought, and promptly called the restaurant. ‘No mistake’, Mr RG was informed – apparently we had neglected to be available to confirm our booking the afternoon before and our table had now been given away.

Now, we are not ‘fancy restaurant virgins’. We understand that busy and in-demand restaurants need to confirm their bookings in order to avoid empty tables, and have no problem with this process. Perhaps we were na├»ve to expect that a restaurant of Tetsuya’s calibre would confirm our booking only on the day of reservation, and had we known they would need confirmation a day or two prior, would have given Mr RG’s phone number rather than mine so they could contact us while we were overseas.

But here’s the problem – nobody from Tetsuya’s, at any point, advised us of this procedure, so it seemed we had come to Sydney specifically to eat at a place which now would not recognize our booking.

Thus ensued not one, but two, lengthy phone calls between Mr RG and the Tetsuya’s booking manager, wherein Mr RG explained our position and the fact that, being as we had only come to Sydney to dine with them, we certainly would have adhered to their confirmation policy had we known about it. Why, he asked, would we have booked a table a full nine months prior, and arranged flights and a hotel to match our booking, only to not bother being available to confirm?

Sadly, we didn’t feel that the response we got to this argument was in any way helpful. Instead of a genuine apology or some accountability taken for not having explained their booking policies, Mr RG received the statement that ALL booking staff at Tetsuya’s inform ALL customers of these policies when a booking is made, both verbally and via email, that it was unthinkable that a staff member would not have done this, and it was unfortunately not their problem if we had provided incorrect contact details or not taken any notice of this information. Additionally, Mr RG was told that when confirming tables, staff will make every effort to reach the customer numerous times by both phone and email before cancelling a table.

We move on to the next point: there was a single missed phone call and voicemail on my phone when we arrived in Sydney, made the day before, approximately one hour prior to the SMS which told us of the table’s cancellation. No extra phone calls, no emails (which I do check and which would certainly have avoided the whole sorry mess in the first place). In fact, I have never received a single email from the restaurant, despite the original staff member I spoke with way back in February checking all of my contact details.

Impasse. Both sides maintained their stance, with Tetsuya’s only concession being that they could squeeze us in for lunch that day (it was now 11:30am, we were flight-dirty, had no hotel room to check into, bags everywhere and the third member of our dining party at work), or they would try to find us another restaurant to go to that evening. Alternatively, we may be able to come on a weeknight the following week (when we would have left Sydney to go home). We declined all offers on the grounds that they were very poor substitutes for our original booking.

So what becomes of the desire to eat somewhere after an experience such as this? For our money, we’ll be going elsewhere for dinner next time we are in Sydney. No matter the reputation of a restaurant (and we don’t doubt that all the good stories of Tetsuya’s are true, it’s why we wanted to go), poor handling and lack of accountability when an error is made - even a seemingly small one involving lack of information given to a customer – can have a significant impact. For us, it meant a good deal of planning and money to travel to Sydney was effectively wasted. And the better the restaurant’s reputation, the worse the impact when something does go wrong.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, we did go somewhere else for dinner (even managed to organize it for ourselves, aren’t we clever?). We tried Bodega in Surry Hills. It was fantastic.

Kind regards,

Mrs Restaurant-Goer

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stories of muesli

The foods we make and eat are the end products of personal stories. Ok, so last Wednesday's toasted ham and cheese sandwiches might just tell the story of a long day at work and an empty pantry when you got home, but that's a story all the same (and one with which I'm sure most of you will identify).

Today's story, though, for me, has a unique personal history which will forever make it special in my mind. And the minds and tastebuds of those who came along for the ride in ways big and small.

I've been making my own muesli for what seems like forever. I always liked the idea of it as a breakfast food, but found the commercial ones bland or too sugary. When I was a teenager I tried making my own, and it was great. Easy, relatively cheap and SO much better than anything I could buy. So I kept making it, adapting and improving the recipes, and over time my family and a few friends also benefited from my semi-regular cereal production.

Then I started my own business, making healthy home-delivered family meals for people who liked to eat well, but often didn't have time to do it themselves. The mueslis seemed to fit with my other offerings so I added them as occasional menu items. Then regular items, and eventually things evolved so that the muesli became the core of my business rather than just an add-on (don't be fooled though, the few lines above in no way detail the massive efforts of a few key people in getting the business to that point!!).

Anyway, in July last year, after 4 years of trading, I quietly closed the doors to my first ever business. And while it was sad for me, I think in some ways it was more sad for the people around me, the ones who cheered me on for all that time only to see it not 'work out'. You see, from the outside, I guess it looks like that, but I learned a lot in my time that no amount of watching someone else's business could have taught, and on reflection I really don't feel unsuccessful about the whole thing. My experience landed me a great job when I closed up, and it gave me a real understanding of the joys and the pitfalls of small business should I ever be crazy enough to attempt it again. And besides, I've still got that muesli.

Unfortunately for my nearest and dearest, they don't have that muesli anymore, at least not on tap like they were used to. Wistful, slightly guilt-inducing comments have been made, and their muesli stocks now rely on my occasional baking frenzies to keep them in supply.

So in tribute to the the great support I've received, and a little bit in hope that at least some of those loyal followers will attempt to make it themselves, below is the recipe for my bestseller - Toasted Nut Crunch. And if you aren't already one of my muesli addicts, try it. It's got a great story.

Toasted Nut Crunch Muesli
makes about 3-3.5kg
(yes, it's a lot but your friends and family will thank you for the lovely gift, and it doesn't really take any longer to make than a small amount)

This is the only one of my muesli recipes which calls for a brown sugar mix when baking (all the rest are lightly toasted with honey). You could use 200-300g good liquid honey instead of the sugar mix and it will still be great, but you won't get that same deep, toasty crunch which is the reason its followers love it so much.

1.3kg rolled oats
(not instant oats)

300g rolled barley
(I have occasionally used rolled spelt which is just as good, but harder to find)

150g flaked coconut 'chips'

150g pumpkin seeds/pepitas
15g ground cinnamon

10g ground mixed spice

140g whole raw almonds

140g raw Brazil nuts, chopped into large chunks
(you want almond-sized chunks, so each nut can be chopped into 3-4 pieces. Doing this by hand is tiresome but gives the best result)

300g sultanas

140g dried cranberries

140g dried apple, chopped into sultana-sized pieces

500g dark brown sugar

250ml boiling water

60ml canola or vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 180C and have 2 or 3 large roasting trays ready to go.

In a very large bowl, mix the oats, barley, coconut chips, pepitas, spices and nuts. The easiest way is to get in there with your hands and give everything a good turn to combine.

Mix your dried fruits in another bowl and set aside.

In a third bowl, mix the brown sugar, water and oil.

Put your cereal/nut mixture into the roasting trays - don't overfill them as you'll be doing a lot of mixing while they cook, and they also take much longer to toast the deeper the trays are filled. It's best to half-fill them and do more batches if you have to.

Evenly distribute the brown sugar mix among your trays and give everything a really good mix to ensure all the bits are coated with the sugar. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove from the oven and mix thoroughly, scraping the bottom of the tray to make sure any stuck bits are loosened (I can't stress enough the importance of stirring really well while you cook the muesli - the better you mix it, the more even and toasty the final product will be. So don't get lazy!).

Return the trays to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes before mixing again. Repeat this process 2-3 times until all the moisture has steamed out and your muesli is loose and 'dry' - what you're looking for is an even brown colour with all the grains and nuts separate and free-flowing (no stickiness, this means it's not quite done). The total time the muesli needs in the oven will depend on your tray dimensions and how deep you've filled them, and could be anything between 30 and 60 minutes. Don't worry if it doesn't seem really crunchy yet as it will harden up while it cools.

Tip all your cooked muesli back into the large bowl and mix in the fruit, then let the muesli cool before packing into airtight containers or bags.