What is it about bread? It's so alluring, appetising, aromatic. And it's so photogenic.
This is not a recipe blog simply because there are far too recipes out there -thousands of new cook-books every year and an uncountable number on the net. If I want fresh inspiration (or want to keep up with emerging trends) I will trawl through newly published books. If it's a classic or regional dish, perhaps something I've read about in a novel or seen on a program such as Italy Unpacked or Rick Stein - Mediterranean, I go to the net.
On the net of course you’ll find everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. Lately, for example, I've enjoyed “researching” the following…
Sunshine Salad - Retro Sunshine Salad –read in a novel set in the American mid-west. As my life is lived in a totally retro midcentury modern house, I enjoyed the retro recipe. Note, I enjoyed reading about it, rather than making it. Perhaps one day.
Sugee Cake – Sugee Cake – The recipe wherein, to begin, semolina is soaked over-night in melted butter. (I simplified it by using almond meal rather than chopping my own.) This was from an “airplane” novel (you know the sort, thick, hot pink cover, raised gold lettering) – Crazy, Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Not only is it fabulous - the book and the cake - (OK, it’s not Pride & Prejudice) but it introduced me to some great food, three forms of architecture and two ceramic traditions I knew nothing about.
Timpano (or Timballo) as seen in the film Big Night and described beautifully in the novel The Leopard by Lampedussa. (A recipe I’ll give attention to in the new year.)
“The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a smoke laden with aromas, then chicken-livers, hard-boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken, and truffles in masses of piping-hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat-juice gave an exquisite hue of suède.”
But I digress. Now to the bread.
Fancy making a loaf without getting your hands sticky, without kneading, just a bit of hanging around? This method, with a 24 hour rising time, was "invented" by Jim Lahey, a NY baker . It was a huge hit and was taken over by scores of bloggers, subtly hinting they may have been the instigator. "Jenny" is such a one and is actually worth watching - no-knead-bread - as she's a bit of a hoot, but below is my adaption, even easier (after you've got the idea from Jenny or Jim).
Important - you need a heavy cast iron casserole (or Dutch oven) such as Le Creuset or Staub.
400gm plain flour (any sort - play around)
generous 1/4 tsp dry yeast
1 tsp salt
1 2/3 mls (1 2/3 cups) hot water (not boiling)
Have ready two similar sized bowls, a tiny bowl and some parchment-type baking paper.
There are more and more great, small artisan bakeries around so why bake some bread? No other reason than you can and it's fun!
We could make cheese next time. Why? Because we can and it's fun.
The occasion was really to celebrate the 19th century fish service; 12 plates, a long platter and a sauce boat. This has been sitting in a glass-fronted cabinet in a room of Barbie’s rambling house, set in possibly Hobart’s best garden.
We were there for a four-day break. I cooked a simple dinner, trying to put as little pressure as possible on the kitchen. Fortunately, Tasmania has a thriving food scene. We started with half capsicums stuffed with cherry tomatoes of many colours, thyme sprigs and feta, roasted with local olive oil.
Next was the pièce de résistence, a whole Blue-Eye Trevalla pre-ordered from the local fishery. This went with creamy pink-eye potatoes and sauce vierge. Apart from the fish plates themselves, the hit of the night was the sauce. (See below.)
We finished with an extravagant Pavlova and huge, perfumed strawberries. The evening was meant to be easy so I bought the Pavlova base. (There I’ve said it!) With tons of cream on top, deep red, sliced strawberries and passion-fruit pulp, no one could believe that I’d bought the base. I should have kept quiet.
There are many versions on the net (Jamie Oliver, Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Michael Guérard, even the Irish Times) but this is what I did, because the herb garden held an embarrassment of riches. The sauce will turn fish, scallops, chicken, beef fillet, cauliflower, haloumi, anything into a masterpiece.
For eight people
(Quantities of ingredients are very “flexible”. Chop, then measure.)
150 ml EV olive oil
3- 4 ripe tomatoes, in tiny dice (Keep juice & seeds)
1/3 cup finely chopped shallots or red onion
2 tbsp rinsed small capers
½ cup chopped herbs
(I used tarragon, marjoram, chives. I could have also used basil or parsley – all together or singly.)
Mix all together and check if you’d like seasoning – salt or even a splash of sweet vinegar (I won’t call it balsamic) or brown sugar (depending on the tomatoes). It will sit patiently until you need it.
The fish service is unmarked but probably French, 19thC. It is wonderfully vulgar with an acid green edge, pink orchid-like flowers and realist underwater scenes of different fish, seaweed and anemones. The sauceboat is very OTT. Very petit bourgeois. We all adored it and I’m sure the service was happy to have come out of seclusion for the evening.
The Calm Before The Fish
My mother died two years ago. She was 96. The mind went a bit fuzzy but until very near the end, the body was strong. My brother reminisced that when she set out to cook dinner, the first thing she did was peel an onion and a few cloves of garlic. (Who ever does just one clove of garlic?) It's hard to imagine any of the dishes we ate without garlic and onion.
She was a particular whizz with vegetables. We liked potatoes of course but they were not automatically part of every meal. There were other ways to have a starch or something to soak up the sauces.
For a long time Australia killed vegetables by boiling (and more boiling). When the backlash came in the '80s, keen cooks served hot raw vegetables with crunch (which some people pretended to like). No, that's for salad.
Look to Turkey for great vegetable dishes. Rick Stein noted on his food tour of the Mediterranean that he hadn't set out to do a set of vegetarian T.V. programmes but that was what had been most delicious.
So as a family, we got used to lots of delicious vegetables. My mother's peas are a standout and I'll share with you that there's no 5 minute boiling here. They simmer for 3/4 hour with spring onions, lettuce and optional bacon pieces. Heavenly.
Tomatoes stuffed with parsley, garlic & breadcrumbs
(And I think they are classically called Tomates Provençales).
4 ripe tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped parsley
3-6 garlic cloves depending on taste and size
1/3 cup coarse breadcrumbs (home-made or Panko)
The plate is a small oval platter, part of a 48 piece service for 12, - Sarguemines Royat, Faïence c.1910
What did we have for dinner?
When friends come, we hope for left-overs the following night. (This time we had pie, tomatoes and salad.)
Last dinner, we served...
Pappadams as pre-prandial nibbles with Cloudy Bay Pelorus sparkling (fried off 30 minutes beforehand and arranged in a teak bowl - the pappadams, that is, not the sparkling.)
Eggs mayonnaise (from our girls out the back), my mayonnaise, topped with anchovy and capers.
Pork & veal pie (but one guest suggested it be called Hot Pâté en Croûte), red wine gravy, tomatoes baked with parsley, garlic & breadcrumbs, ragout of assorted mushrooms in sour ceam.
Cheese - Irish blue cheese (Cashel), a washed rind & a goats’ cheese (or to be posh, Chèvre) the latter two made by me, large golden sultanas and a salad of baby cos and “frizzé” dressed with vinaigrette.
Coffee and tisane of lemon verbena (from our garden bush) and various bonbons & sweeties brought by Rosa.
Standout wines (amongst others) Pierre Brévin Puilly Fumé 2014, Bleasdale “Generations” Malbec 2014 (Langhorn Creek), a Spring Vale Pinot Noir 2014 (Freycinet Coast Tasmania).
Pie Recipe (there are no secrets) - for 8 guests
1 ½ kilos Italian-style pork and veal hamburgers
1 packet Carême sour cream pastry
quatre épices (optional)
Mix together the hamburger mix with one egg and ½ tsp quatre épices. (Blend some up yourself.)
Make the pie with the just de-frosted pastry, brushed with a beaten egg. Hold in the refrigerator until needed.
Bake until golden. (Put into the oven when the last guest arrives). I loathe anaemic pastry.
Sour Cream Pastry – We first made it in 1986 at Petaluma Restaurant, recipe brought to the kitchen by Libby Tinsely who thinks her mother got it years ago from the Women’s Weekly. (Back then, fabulous recipes, all tested twice in the “Test Kitchen”.) It’s now become well-known enough to be part of this frozen pastry range. It’s a great, no compromise product. If I’m tired I use it. It has a strange quality, probably from the sour cream (and butter). It doesn’t need resting and it flakes deliciously.
My pie filling came from Marino Meat & Food Store, a high quality butcher in the Adelaide Market. If I’m tired I use this.
Any good Italian-style butcher will be able to offer you sausages (squeeze out the filling) or meatballs or hamburger. Doctor them at will with more herbs, orange zest or spice. Play.
Notes on the tomato recipe to follow with “Parsley”.
Asparagus Minmosa (with egg & coated breadcrumbs)
For every four people…
2 to 3 bunches of cooked asparagus (warm or room temperature)
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
¼ cup coarse breadcrumbs
2 tbsp chopped parsley
For the bread-crumbs, I use the Japanese-style panko crumbs. Easy.
In a small frypan, with a little olive oil, lightly brown the breadcrumbs.
Just before serving, lightly dress at the asparagus with vinaigrette.
Mix together eggs, breadcrumbs and parsley. (Keep the crumbs crisp.)
Arrange on top of the asparagus.
Serving platter - a "Barbotine" by Sarguemines c.1950
Couscous steamed in my battered old couscoussier.
Couscous is the national dish of the Magreb, the area of North Africa comprising Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It’s a long simmered stew of assorted vegetables, cut into large chunks along with meat (generally lamb or in Tunisia, often fish), spiced perhaps with cinnamon or saffron. The stew is served over a “grain” confusingly also called couscous and doused with the cooking broth. Statistics show it’s the third most popular dish in France, just as Chicken Tikka Masala is Britain’s most popular dish (and in Australia, it could be pasta).
This “grain” is made from semolina, the “hard” interior of durum wheat. Semolina is rolled with dampened hands to form tiny, tiny balls. Tell your conservative old uncle it’s really like mini pasta. Women used to gather together to make large batches, which they dried and stored for months until needed.
Today, you can buy “instant”, packet couscous, machine made, pre-steamed, dried, ready to go. Most likely it will become a salad base, like tabouli or a quick alternative to rice. And that’s where the trouble starts.
Couscous should be light and fluffy and smell like freshly baked bread. It is not damp, sticky, gluggy and washed out.
The packet can be a quick fix but the instructions are vague and you won’t know what the final result should look and taste like. (See post “Cooking outside my culture” 5 October 2017) If you’re serious, cook it properly once and then do it the fast food way but at least you’ll know what to aim for.
Cooking couscous (the “grain”)
Only a couscous nerd will do this every time but as I said before, just once will show you what real couscous is like.
As children, we hoped there would be enough grain for the following day to eat it reheated with nuts (pistachios), cinnamon, dates and sultanas.
This year, we have around 300 avocados on our tree compared to 30 last year. Must be the bees we "hired" in to pollinate the garden. Roger wants the classic half avocado with vinaigrette in the centre but with so many, I need some variety. I've been playing with this chilled soup (no cooking) and sent it to Meryl (Tankard) for further deliberation.
Avocado & Coconut Soup
For 4 people
1 large or two small ripe avocados
1 spring onion, roughly chopped
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
salt to taste
To garnish - 1/2 green apple, finely cubed, some pink pepper corns and/or espellette pepper, (ground roughly in an electric coffee grinder or by hand). BUT while the apple is good, the rest could be anything. The recipe is still on the drawing board.
In a food processor (or blender) mash up the avo with the spring onion and help it along with some coconut milk. (This will chop the onion for you.) When it’s smooth, add the rest of the coconut milk and the stock, either in the blender or all moved to a bowl and whisked. Check for seasoning and check for texture. It might need more liquid so as not to be one of those very thick hippy soups we all suffered in the seventies. It should "flow" like velvet. Chill. For some reason, it won’t go brown like a cut avocado. Must be the other ingredients.
I'm a fan of tap stock (i.e. water) in vegetable soups but here more flavour is needed so get some chicken or vegetable stock. I buy it .
If it’s just RTV and me, I serve it in individual bowls and top it with the apple, in the centre, along with pepper (1) and pepper (2) but when you were here, I used a soup tureen. I put the garnishes at the bottom of the empty individual bowls, and ladled in the soup at the table.
What else could we put on top? Crispy bacon? Fried shallots? Cubed pear? Finely chopped chilli?