Tuesday, September 25, 2007

NIGELLA EXPRESS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Woohoo! I have had Nigella Express for a whole week now, thanks to a gorgeous friend of mine who ordered it for me online. It's already out in the UK, but won't make it to Australian shores until the end of the October. How could I wait?

Needless to say, I absolutely love it! It's got heaps of gorgeous pictures, and really great recipes and ideas. The chapters all have different themes - e.g. breakfast, Mexican, cooking in advance, holidays, parties, workdays etc., and there is a large variety in terms of the type of recipes. I've been reading it voraciously, and cooking from it a lot. Even though I am quite busy at the moment, I've been able to try heaps of the recipes, because they are all express - easy and fast, but still delicious.


Lunchbox Treats



These little babies were made on request of my friend who bought me the book. They're a mixture of rice bubbles, cornflakes, quick oats and sesame seeds, held together with some melted butter, chocolate and rice malt syrup. Interestingly enough, I had the rice malt syrup in my pantry, whilst I had to make a shopping trip to get the rice bubbles and cornflakes. The finished product was chewy and moreish, and a good alternative from the usual tea-time treats.


Fast Fries


Fast fries - bash a few potatoes with a rolling pin, and shallow fry in oil for 6 minutes a side, partially covered. It's one of the fastest way of making potatoes that I've tried. We had these for dinner one night to go with a marinated chicken from a semi-gourmet poultry shop and some mushrooms. I fried them in some northern European rapeseed oil, which I recently received from a friend of mine. According to the label, it has a feinem butteraroma, is low in saturated fat, has a high smoking point, and is full of those good omega-3 fats that my doctor says we're supposed to eat more of. Perfect for making you less guilty about eating fries. The fries themselves had a great contrast between soft interior, and crunchy outside, with lots of crunch coming from the irregularly bashed potatoes. Fabulous.


I made the following menu when I went over to my friend Frances' house for dinner and a girly chat / catch-up / gossip session.

Scallops and Chorizo
Chickpeas with Rocket and Sherry
Flourless Chocolate Brownies

The scallops and chickpeas were super-simple, taking only 30 minutes to put together. You chop, you fry. That's about it! My friend also made a salad of finely sliced celery, Neil Perry's Classic Mayonnaise and walnuts. (See the background of the photo below). I wasn't sure if I'd like the salad, but the combination was superb. Thank-you Frances!


Yummy! The strongly flavoured chorizo went well with the milder chickpeas, which prevented the saltiness from becoming overpowering.

We then made the flourless chocolate brownies; mainly because we had all the ingredients at hand. The only appropriate baking dish we had was a ceramic pie dish. It was slightly smaller than the recipe requires, and took a bit longer to bake. We added white chocolate chips to the mixture because white chocolate is awesome. It was crusty on the top, and meltingly soft within. If you let it set overnight in the fridge, you'd end up with firmly sliceable brownies. We, however, ate it straight out of the oven like a molten chocolate pudding.


Linguine with Lemon, Garlic and Thyme Mushrooms

I had been wanting to make this pasta dish ever since I spied it in the TimesOnline.co.uk previews of Nigella Express. I absolutely love Nigella's pasta recipes and couldn't wait to try it. For this, you steep sliced chestnut mushrooms (I used the cheaper, fresher-looking Swiss browns at the market) in olive oil, lemon juice and zest, salt, pepper, and thyme. Then, you simply toss hot pasta through the mushrooms, sprinkle with parsley, and eat.

It was absolutely wonderful. I will definitely be making this again!

Finally, we have the meal I made for my good friends Daniel and Kevin last night. Absolutely easy peasy.

Chicken Cacciatore
Tarte Fine aux Pommes

We found all the ingredients at the local Safeway, did the shopping in half an hour, and got dinner ready in about 45 minutes. We had mashed potatoes to go with, made by Kevin "I'm-Irish-so-I-know-how-to-make-mashed-potatoes". I was very impressed with the stew. For something that only simmers for 25 minutes, it had a surprising depth of flavour.

For dessert, we had the tarte fine aux pommes. It's just a sheet of puff pastry, pricked all over and covered with thin apple slices. (Nigel Slater has something very similar in Appetite). However, according to Kevin, this tart is "totally a Ready-Steady-Cook thing". Whatever, despite its total simplicity, it does look very fancy..
8 recipes in 7 days! Almost feels like How to Eat all over again.
But wait! There's more... I currently have some pork ribs and chicken marylands marinating in the fridge, to become Maple Chicken n' Ribs tomorrow night. Stay tuned!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Healthy Food: The Chef vs. The Nutritionist


This may be stating the obvious, but one of the things I've noticed about the healthy recipes I've been collecting lately is that the majority aren't particularly inspiring to read, and can taste a bit boring. Conversely, the gourmet recipes that I love so much tend to be expensive, difficult, and fattening. Eating exclusively healthy recipes would leave me bored (and possibly depressed), whilst eating only gourmet recipes would leave me fat and broke.

As always, it is a fine balance. Whenever I find a healthy recipe that happens to be gourmet, or a gourmet recipe that happens to be healthy, I just have to try it.


Balsamic Pork

This recipe, from the latest issue of Diabetic Living, was part of a 'Meat-a-licious' feature. Apparently, meat recipes don't feature heavily in the magazine, in general, because lean and healthy cuts of meat are expensive, and thus not suitable for everyday family cookery. Aside from this, the recipe was easy to make, and delicious.

So, you get a fillet of pork, and marinate it in balsamic vinegar, a touch of olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Then you grill it! Once it's cooked, you brush the fillet with reduced balsamic vinegar and let it rest. It is served with a mixture of vegetables - eggplant, capsicum, onion, Swiss brown mushrooms and tomatoes - which are grilled with the least amount of oil possible, and doused in a herby, vinegary dressing. The judicious use of herbs and spices is a good way of preventing healthy food from becoming disappointingly bland.


No matter what Diabetic Living says, 100g of meat per person doesn't seem like enough. Portion control may be depressing, but it is important. However, with the vegetables and some multigrain bread, it felt like a complete meal. And it tasted great!

Seared Salmon with Cucumber and Mint Salsa

Next up we have a fish recipe from Neil Perry's latest book, Good Food, which I am really enjoying at the moment. This particular recipe is healthy and tasty, and far easier than the impressive result would have you believe.

Salmon searing. Stove protected by Tempura Screen purchased at Japanese grocery store.

The dish consists of quickly seared salmon, served with a salsa made of cucumber, herbs, and various vinegars, some olive oil and mustard. I followed Neil's serving suggestions, and served it with boiled green beans, and (shhh!) a potato gratin.

Having made a proper, sliced-potato gratin once before, this time I wanted to try something a bit easier. Bring on Nigella's gratin (Nigella Bites). There is no nervewracking measurement of cream-to-potato ratio, no finicky slicing, no worrying about the dish dimensions à la Jeffrey Steingarten. Rather, simply cut the potatoes into approximate 1 cm slices, boil with cream and milk until tender, then tip into a dish and bake in a superhot oven until brown and bubbling. The liquids become absorbed into the potato, which themselves become delightfully tender. Easy.

Al fresco fabulousness. Yay for the warmer weather!

The relish

The entire meal was wonderful - the acidity of the relish complementing the rich oily fish. And, incidentally, oily fish are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are, I'm told, vital for brain function and heart health. I have no health-related justification for Nigella's fabulous gratin. It just tasted good. Perhaps some plain boiled potatoes, or roasted sweet potatoes would be more appropriate for healthy eating.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Brownie Bonanza


I have been going brownie crazy over the past couple of months! I just love baking them, and most importantly, I love eating them. Very few people can say no to a brownie. Of course, brownies are definitely NOT in keeping with my new semi-healthy family eating plan. Full of chocolate, butter, eggs and sugar, brownies are some of the most decadent treats imaginable.

My general brownie-coping strategy has been such. I'll bake a batch, and share some small fresh-from-the-oven slices with my family over coffee. The remainder will either be donated to the staffroom at work, or stashed in my freezer for a metaphorical rainy day. Brownies freeze very well, and freezing them prevent them from being completely devoured in one go. (Very possible).

Here are the brownies I have been baking these past couple of months. (Click here for my other brownie-related posts.)

Yoghurt Brownies

These brownies contain no butter or eggs, but rely on yogurt for moisture and leavening. I chose them from The Ultimate Brownie Book, thinking they would be low in fat and a good healthy treat. (I try to avoid those artificially "low fat" brownies from healthy magazines, which contain lite margarine, lekvar and other spooky ingredients). I was wrong. They were totally minging and feral! They were bizarrely chewy, dense, hard and very dark. I am loath to throw food out, but these had to go.

Mexican Brownies

These babies, also from The Ultimate Brownie Book, were a vast improvement. They are regular brownies, with part of the melted chocolate replaced by Ibarra brand Mexican hot chocolate. The chocolate comes in discs, and is a mixture of cocoa, sugar, spices, and cocoa nibs.
I received this hot chocolate as a gift from the lovely Lisa in America. Thank-you Lisa! Luckily, they are now available at specialty shops in Australia, so I can feed my Mexican chocolate fix at any time. You simply melt a few rounds of Ibarra with some regular dark chocolate, and add it to the brownie mixture. It adds a wonderful spice and aroma to the finished product.
These were perhaps my favourite brownies. Soft within, crunchy on the outside, delicately flavoured. Muy bueno.


White Chocolate and Macadamia Brownies

These brownies only containe white chocolate, and no cocoa, so I think these techinically count as blondies. But who am I to argue with Nigella? These are from her fab baking book, How to be a Domestic Goddess. The white chocolate in question is melted and folded into the batter - hardly enough! I threw in a good handful of large Lindt hexagonal white chocolate chips for that wonderful white choc-macadamia combo. (Have you ever had a white chocolate and macadamia cookie from Mrs. Fields? You should.) The batter is a lovely golden colour, with a warm buttery vanilla scent. I dubbed them Moon Brownies, because we ate them whilst watching the recent lunar eclipse.




Moon brownies... what a time to be alive.

As you can see, some of the brownies (from the centre of the pan) were very, very fudgy. If you have the patience, I'd recommend leaving the whole baked brownie to set overnight in the fridge before slicing it. Don't bake it for longer, or the edges will go dry and feral! I obviously didn't have the patience, and cut the well-cooked edge pieces away to eat straight out of the oven, before stashing the rest in the fridge. Because the inner pieces are so incredibly fudgy, they taste great frozen. Ooh yeah.


Chestnut Brownies

Finally, we have the brownies in the picture at the top of this post. Chestnut brownies, (again from The Ultimate Brownie Book), contain a tin of unsweetened chestnut purée, which gives them a densely grainy-yet-smooth texture, rather like a chestnut. Additionally, the purée seems to ensure that the entire brownie is moist, right from the edges to the centre. Fab. I iced them with a vanilla drizzle icing - a mixture of milk, icing sugar and vanilla extract. They don't exactly need extra sweetness, but the white drizzle did lift the apperance of the brownies and made them more appealing. (As if you'd need extra encouragement!)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Healthy Food


Hello all! It is time for something new. You may have noticed that I tend to like baking, eating, fried food and cheese. (Mmm... cheese). And whilst the food on this blog is by no means a balanced representation of my family's daily eating habits, I've decided that it wouldn't be a bad idea for us to include a few more healthy meals in our regular repertoire. You see, my brother works at a Malaysian restaurant, and seems to live on a diet of fried noodles. My dad loves chocolate. At my mother's most recent check-up, she found out that her blood glucose levels and cholesterol were a bit high. And I... well, you've read the blog.

Here are some of the simple guidelines the doctor gave us for healthy eating, which should help manage weight, blood sugar and cholesterol. Basically, you have to eat high fibre, reduce sugar intake and eat good fats (oily fish, olive oil, other unsaturated fats). This type of eating plan is, luckily, also beneficial for people without any pressing health concerns.

Obviously, my preferred recipe source (Nigella), is pretty lacking in this type of food. So, I've spent the last couple of months picking up magazines I ordinarily wouldn't even have looked at - Super Food Ideas, Diabetic Living, Table, Health and Fitness - basically any magazine containing low-fat, low GI recipes and some health tips. As a bonus, they're all easy recipes with rather cheap and readily-available ingredients. I've left them in strategic places around the house, hoping that my mum will read them and get some cooking ideas too. No luck so far, but I have faith.


I have since tried a few recipes from these various magazines - some good, some passable, some downright munting - and will share them with you now.

The first photo was from the Women's Weekly Wellbeing Diabetes Cookbook, a tofu stir-fry. No, it wasn't as gross as it sounds. But, it wasn't great either. On the upside, it was quite easy to put together. Just a matter of chopping up some basic vegies and stir-frying them together with various asian sauces, tofu squares and egg noodles.

Next up, we have penne with salmon and broccoli, from the September 2007 issue of Super Food Ideas. It consists of boiled penne, mixed with a tin of salmon, cooked broccoli and a cheese sauce. The cheese sauce is made of flour, skim milk, light cream and lite cheddar cheese. The recipe also says to use low-fat spread, but you know I used butter because I think low-fat margarine is evil and wrong. Anyway, it's only 1 tbsp of butter between 4 people; not a huge amount. So, you mix up all the different ingredients, and place them in a dish, sprinkle them with multigrain breadcrumbs and bake. Easy!

It actually tasted really good. My family didn't realise it was low fat - score! It was also an easy way to include oily fish (remember - good fats!) in our diets. I thought it was a little insubstantial though; next time I will use wholemeal pasta.

Next is another pasta bake, a chicken tetrazzini from Diabetic Living magazine. It is similar, in principle, to the salmon bake above, but with different ingredients. Here, wholemeal spaghetti is used (Organic L'Abruzzesse Spelt Spaghetti, thank-you very much), and the white sauce is based on light evaporated milk. The protein in question is chicken breasts, and the vegies are mushrooms and capsicums. Looks a bit odd...
... but the finished product, sprinkled with a touch of parmesan and baked until golden brown, is very yummy. I've found this blueprint for making low-fat, high-fibre pasta bakes to be a very useful one, and think it could be adapted for a variety of ingredients and tastes. On an aside, if a low fat pasta bake recipe asks you to add a can of cream of mushroom soup - DON'T DO IT! I tried it, and it was soooo feral.

The final recipe is, again, from the Women's Weekly Diabetic cookbook - dhal with egg and eggplant. It takes an hour to cook, but for most of that time the dhal is simmering away by itself. The dhal is served with a boiled egg per person, steamed basmati rice and some cucumber raita (low fat yogurt, cucumbers and cumin). I quite liked the dish; it tasted like regular dhal and didn't feel low-fat. It is also very high in fibre, which is always a good thing!


More healthy recipes to come...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Lasagne


Recently, I have been going lasagne crazy. They take a little bit of time to make, but aren't difficult, and can be made in large quantities and freeze very well. They're easy to adapt, and everyone seems to love them. Fab.

A lasagne is made up of 3 components: lasagne sheets, sauce and cheesy béchamel. Obviously, change quantities to suit your own cooking. I usually make a lasagne that will feed 8 people and freeze the leftovers for mid-week lunches.


1. Lasagne sheets

These can be fresh or dried. I would avoid at all costs those ridiculously overpriced lasagne sheets from gourmet fresh pasta stores - they're about 3 times the price of other types, and once they're swathed in sauce and cheese, it's hard to tell the difference between them and their cheaper counterparts. Dried pasta needs to be boiled before being layered up, which isn't difficult, but is annoying to do. I leave that choice up to you. (I've done it once, and found L'Abruzzese to be a good brand). Those instant cook hard lasagne sheets from the supermarket don't need boiling and can have satisfactory results, but can end up crispy and hard if you're not careful. To avoid this, use a lot of sauce, making sure every inch of pasta is covered. Then, let the lasagne sit for an hour or so once assembled before baking it. This will let the pasta absorb some liquid and allow it to soften. For me, the best type of lasagne to use is that soft Latina Fresh pasta, readily available at the supermarket. They come in a sealed packet, and are easy to store, don't require pre-cooking, and don't get crispy or hard.


2. Sauce

Now, as much as I love supermarket lasagne sheets (and budget cheese - see below), it is very important to use a good tomato sauce. You need a good quality, slow-simmered sauce, made with ripe tomatoes and a few choice flavourings. If you have an Italian nonna or neighbour who makes their own sauce, now is the time to ask for a bottle. Failing that, you will need to make your own, or go to an expensive gourmet food store to find one. Any sauce made without care or love will end up tasting cheaply metallic and sour. (I've tried Dolmio and believe me sister, it does not work).

To make your own tomato sauce, simply sautée 1 finely chopped onion with a whole peeled clove of garlic, one dried chilli and a pinch of salt in a good amount of olive oil for about 10 minutes, until soft and translucent. Pour in 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes (Italian, if possible), and simmer for about 15 minutes, until slightly thickened. Fish out the garlic clove and the dried chilli, add some torn up basil leaves, and your tomato sauce is ready to go.

For a meat lasagne, brown some mince in a pan (I find 750g mince for an 8-person lasagne to be a good amount), before adding your sauce and letting it simmer until harmoniously combined. I usually use beef, but I guess you could use any meat - pork, beef, veal, turkey, chicken or a combo depending on what you like to eat.

For a veggie lasagne, I layer the pasta and tomato sauce with all sorts of vegies - cooked chopped spinach, roasted eggplant, mushrooms, roast capsicum, whatever - and sometimes replace the cheesy béchamel (see below) with ricotta. This makes it healthier, but without béchamel, the lasagne can then tend to dryness. So, you may need to increase the amount of tomato sauce.


3. Cheesy Béchamel

Melt 50g of butter in a saucepan, then add 2 tbs plain flour (continental or '00' flour works best - it cooks faster because it is more finely milled than regular flour), and stir over a medium-low heat for 1-2 minutes, until the flour is cooked. Take the pan off the heat and add 600ml milk, whisking until smooth. Return the pan to the heat and stir until thickened. If you want to add grated cheese, you could do it now. Otherwise, just sprinkle it between the layers. As for the choice of cheese, do not even think about using an expensive ball of buffalo mozzarella, or even a ball of cow's milk mozzarella. What you need is budget cheese. Really budget. Bright yellow grated mozzarella from a supermarket packet. Don't feel ashamed to use home brand cheese. Expensive deli mozzarella is undeniably delicious, but it's just not right here. Budget grated cheese gives you the requisite stringiness, is easy to deal with (doesn't need slicing) and distributes evenly throughout the whole lasagne.


So, once you've sorted out your pasta, sauce and béchamel, you can just layer them up in a lightly oiled baking dish. I usually go tomato-béchamel and cheese-pasta, finishing with a layer of béchamel and a generous covering of grated mozzarella and parmesan for the top. I suppose it doesn't matter what order you go in, as long as there is enough sauce for the pasta, and you finish with béchamel and cheese. Then bake it at 180C for 45 minutes, and you are done!

I am aware that lasagnes are quite high in fat; if this concerns you, here are some tips for keeping the fat content down.

- use lean mince
- use skim milk in the béchamel
- use reduced-fat cheese

Some recipes I've read suggest using lite margarine as a substitute for the butter in béchamel to reduce the total saturated fat content. Feel free to do this if you like; I cannot bring myself to use super-processed margarine - have you ever melted it and smelled it? Feral!!! Using 50grams of butter between 8 servings of lasagne doesn't seem like a huge deal to me.

Happy cooking everyone! A good lasagne is one of the most satisfying ways to feed your family.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Lunch

Last week, I made myself a special little lunch as a treat for work.



It contained:

Super-crusty Baguette from Brioche bakery
Maille Dijon Mustard
Virginian Ham
Rocket
Triple Cream Delice de Bourgogne cheese

I also made a fab little tomato salad, including macerated red onions to go with. I made both baguette and salad the night before work, and was greatly looking forward to it. This was until my boss suddenly decided that the staff room fridge needed to be cleared out (even though it wasn't the fridge-clearing-out-day), and promptly threw everything unlabelled into the bin. Ahem!

Luckily my baguette was salvagable - it had been double wrapped and paper bagged, and had only been in the bin for the merest second before I pulled it out. It was still good! Phew. My tomato salad, however, had been emptied into the bin and could not be saved. It was a sad day.

And that is why, kiddies, you always label your food!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Brasserie


Last week my family went out to celebrate. The reason? My recent graduation from uni. Woohoo! The restaurant? My favourite, The Brasserie at Crown.

Bread rolls with olive oil and dukkah

Entrées
The Brasserie's assorted duck chacuterie (sausage, prosciutto, prosciutto rolled with duck foie gras, duck liver paté, cornichons, olives, duck rilette, duck soup with a crumbed duck fillet) with toasted sourdough bread


Snails Provençale tomato fondue, garlic and parsley butter, puff pastry


Farmed rabbit and foie gras ravioli, mustard and asparagus vinaigrette

Prawn fritters in a crispy pastry brick papillote, served with tomato and capsicum chutney and cos lettuce

Main Meals

Slow braised Wagyu ox cheek served with truffled mash and carrots
Pan-fried fillet of gold band snapper, chestnut crust and veloute
Pan roasted beef tenderloin with fresh green peppercorns, raisins and salsify
Medley of duck – roasted breast, poached leg and handmade sausage with ragout of Victorian green lentils

Traditional topside wagyu steak tartare (150gr), toasted sourdough, french fries

Side Dishes



Cauliflower Gratin

Desserts

Apple crumble tart, caramel ice cream
The brasserie’s dessert tasting plate

Selection of three local and imported cheeses. Served with yummy fig paste, and good, sturdy lavoche.

Petits-fours to have with coffee

As always, a delicious and satisfying meal. It was well priced, with good service and a great setting. Lunch at The Brasserie is a great way to spend a lovely Spring day. Merci à Phillipe Mouchel!



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