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Variations on a theme of pasta: asian style

One of my favourite pasta dishes is a Thai flavoured version of spaghetti marinara.  I  have a fabulous fishmonger who always has beautiful fresh seafood in his marina mix – o extenders, just really good fresh produce, a mixture of scallops, prawns, octopus, calamari, salmon and white fish.  Its always so fresh you could eat it raw (but dressed).

I finely chop lemongrass, ginger, garlic and chili and saute in a pan.  Once its fragrant I add some passata and fish sauce, a touch of sugar and lime juice.  Then I throw in the seafood and cook for about 5 mins.  Then finish it off with finely chopped lime leaves and serve with chopped coriander and an extra dash of fish sauce and lime juice.

I cook the pasta at the same time as the marinara sauce so that they’re ready within minutes of each other. Cooking time (all up)? 15 minutes. Jamie Oliver’s not the only one able to make great meals in less than half an hour.
This is a truly delicious fragrant and light way to have a marinara.  An asian twist on an old time favourite, but please, can we not call it fusion?

Bon apetite.

Jellies for adults

Today I went and packed up my office.  Having just been made redundant at work – effective immediately – I had no opportunity to think about ‘what’s next’ or about what I would do with all the things I had accumulated in my office , my personal space for the last 5+ years.   It was where I spent the majority of my time.  Full of paintings, books, reference material, a pinboard with postcards I had collected on my travels and from colleauges from theirs as well as momentos from exhibitions and celebrations.  The usual stuff.  And my Bose stereo system. A quick half hour and a station wagon loaded and I was gone.  So much for 5+ years work.

The thought of just going back home to unpack was unappealing.  I needed to do something nice – a drink and nibble somewhere.  We headed to 4Fourteen (or is that Four 14?) in Bourke st – Colin Fassnidge’s place where at first opening it was difficult to get a seat. A few years on and its just walk in and not a fashionista in sight.  Pretty empty by the time we got there at 2.30 but kitchen staff all working hard.  Its an open kitchen so you can see everything.  The place is large and bright and beautifully set up – the banquettes at the back are gorgeous tan leather, they serve wine in proper glasses and the place has the feel of a NewYork loft.  But its the food that really makes this place worth coming to.

We just wanted a drink and something light: seared bonito with ginger ale jelly and apples accompanied by a glass of Duval Leroy champagne. It was a perfect match – more so because my husband had ordered the champagne before we had considered what to eat – champagne being the  drink for all occasions, and in this instance, to toast the end of one phase of my life and the start of something new.  What that new is, I don’t yet know.  But the dish was certainly one that suggested good things to come. When did jellies become so adult?  The flavours and textures just sang in my mouth.  It was so playful – beautifully cooked slices of just just cooked bonito scattered with the jelly and grated green apples in a dressing I couldn’t really figure out, but absolutely perfect. It was joyous.  How do people think of these dishes?  Its what makes the difference between just good food and really exciting food. Food worth celebrating and food for celebrating.

Our other dish was a chargrilled lamb tongue – and I’ll bet if this was presented to you without knowing what it was you’d just think it was perfectly cooked meat that your knife sliced through like butter – tender and succulent. Accompanied by a glass of Spanish red, again a perfect match and a perfect way to farewell 5 years of dedication and welcome my unkown future.

Occasions are worth celebrating, no matter what the event.  This quick meal did that for me.  Good food, good wine, good company.  Life’s OK.

Easter indulgences

Easter is an opportunity to wind down, relax, reflect, be. There’s nothing to do. Gone are the days when we would go away on holidays, camping or otherwise with kids. Now its just the two of us and there’s something very indulgenet about being able to do nothing for 4 days. There are no expectations – everyone is away or with their families, shops are closed – well for 2 days – on the other days its like armageddon is about to strike and everyone heads for the supermarkets and grocery stores and specialty stores for their supplies of food and chocolates and buns and breads.

So for us its just a matter of what shall we do and cook/eat. Our plan was simple enough: on Friday there was a lunch time yoga class (12.15) which we could easily get to after a lie-in and late breakfast for which we bought a baguette, some chevre, tomato and fresh figs. After yoga, back home for a small picnic in the local park. This wasn’t planned but it was such a beautiful day and our apartment is dark and cold. There’s something special about April – the sky is blue, the weather is warm and sunny and there’s a sense of quiet and stillness.

So some leftover baguette, tomato, white anchovies, chevre, ham, a couple of plums, a bottle of verdhello and off we went. A short walk, a picnic rug, kindles and wine and food and glorious sunshine. Then back home to prepare dinner.

I had decided that a whole poached salmon would be nice – and simple. I had hoped that my daugther and her boyfriend would join us for lunch but they had other plans. Who could blame them. I sent my husband off to the shops on Thursday to get provisions and instructed him to go to the fishmarket for salmon. There’s a very good fish shop in our local shopping centre but I didn’t think they would have whole salmon and if they did, they would only have huge ones. Hence the instruction to go to the fishmarket. We only needed a smallish salmon.

My husband went to the local fish shop and was impressed with the two huge salmons they had and decided he would save himself a trip and so he bought one of the two salmons: 3.3kg. That’s a huge slamon. It was more than 60cm long. I don’t have poaching equipment for such a huge fish. I don’t even have an oven that’s big enough to hold such a big fish. Hell, I don’t have the ability to lift one of those into a pan. What to do? He helpfully suggested I could cut it in half. But the whole idea was to poach a whole salmon. So I cut the salmon in half. I removed the fins and then I left the half with the head for poaching and went about attempting to fillet the tail end to gravalax it. Honestly, If I had known I would have suggested he just buy fillets. Some rather bad knife skills later I had 2 half fillets of salmon ready for gravalax. Orange rind, lemon rind and a bit of lime, chopped dill, salt, sugar and vodka. Salmon now ready to be cured.

As for the poached salmon, I made a court bouilion and brought it to the boil then turned it right down and immersed the slamon and slowly poached it. Still there was enough fish to feed a family. I sauteed some leeks, blanched fresh green beans and chopped some heirloom baby tomators and then made a hollandaise sauce. The fish was delicious. But we have enough fish for dinner tonight (I’m steaming some baby potatoes and making a cos, cucumber and dill salad to accompany). There’ll be plenty fish left for another day. Tomorrow I’m cooking pork ribs with a Balinese spice rub and some long beans in a traditional Indonesian sauce (belacan). I’m hoping that my daughter will turn up for lunch (it was going to be dinner) otherwise, there’ll be leftover ribs to eat another night.

I’ve also made some traditional Russian easter breads and coloured some eggs. Its for Sunday lunch. Esater is a time of celebrating, traditions mainly. I like the festivities this festive season affords. Even though we celebrate alone, I still enjoy the sense of occasion. And with only the two of us, it really doesn’t matter when or how we eat. What matters is that we enjoy.

Happy Easter.image

Winter indulgences

I haven’t bogged for ages about food – I think I lost my way a bit.  It all became about eating well and fitting food around activities – yoga/gym/work etc.  Lots of advanced planning and quick meals – what to cook when you’re only home at 7.30pm? All fairly pedestrian.

This weekend has afforded me the luxury of indulging in winter foods.  I suddenly thought “beef cheeks” with red wine – lots of it both in the cooking and in the cook.  I have a fabulous recipe for a Spanish beef cheek dish that uses annatto seeds/oil, manzanilla fina sherry  and green olives and is served with tomato bread and a parsley and anchovy salad (delicious); and another one that I think is gorgeous but very decadent because it calls for both red wine and gorgonzola.  Delicious, but ….hmm …

So I went looking for recipes and came across one from Frank Camorra of Movida.  No blue cheese, instead:  red wine adn Pedro Ximinez sherry.  How decadent is that?  500m good quality shiraz (well, there goes a bottle – just a bit leftover for a glass for the cook), 500ml sherry and 500ml water (plus thyme, bay leaves, onion, garlic and carrots).  And a long slow cook. Its served with a cauliflower puree and the cauliflower is cooked in cream and butter !  Did I mention “decadent”? For those who know me, you’ll have thought I’ve gone troppo – I don’t use butter and avoid dairy and fats and carbs, etc, etc,…. yawn.  So this is definitely a aberration.

But winter weather (not that we’re having much of it here in sunny Sydney) calls for comfort food – big rich meaty dishes that can sustain us.  Full of flavour and readily accompanied by equally big flavoursome reds. And given its a long weekend, why not indulge?

I thought I may as well make extra so that we could have another meal of it during the week and then decided that perhaps we needed something lighter in between.  Some lovely looking chicken thighs at AC Butchery caught my eye and I marinaded them in a mixture of lime leaves (the only herb still growing in my garden), lemongrass, galangal, chilli, palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice and then pan fried them before finishing them off in the oven.  They might sound rich but I served them with a salad of rice stick noodles, chopped cucumber, chilli  and asian herbs with the usual Vietnamese dressing.  Bliss. I just love the way these flavours dance in your mouth – each one complementing the other. It was a dish to savour and then sit back and sigh over.  Perfect.

Today some beautiful bright red rhubarb stalks captured my imagination.  I chopped  and cooked them in orange juice with sultantas (you need to add a few drops of water or the rhubarb will stick to the bottom of the pan) and am looking forward to having them over my oats in the morning (and possibly with the leftover cream for desert – would that be too much?).

I also quickly made some more preserved lemons – these are a staple of mine and I love that you can just make a jar or two and have them in the pantry for use. I also gift these to people – after all, who doesn’t use them?

So now its finally time to indulge in my Modiva-braised beef cheeks and cauliflower puree.

Tomorrow I go to the gym.

Beef Cheeks with Ximenez sherry

The geese have gotten fat

Christmas Day began with some white peaches poached in lemongrass syrup. I’d made the syrup for martinis we were going to have later in the day so it seemed easy enough to use some of the syrup to poach the peaches in. Accompanied with a bottle of Lamandier champagne they were beautiful. Some fresh mangoes and perfectly ripe cherries followed.

And then it was time to prepare. Snapper carpaccio with shaved fennel, clementine segments, salmon pearls and shiso leaves. A white wine of some description to accompany.

I had planned on searing some tuna and serving it sliced with a jalapeno dressing and garlic mayonnaise but the range of fish available at the fishmarket the day before was limited. Apart from the ubiquitous prawns, crayfish, lobster etc. there was very little in the way of either whole or filleted fish. We did indulge in some prawns with a lovely presto of coriander, green chilli and preserved lemon the night before. And a most interesting bottle of champagne: Pierre Peters (there are so many good French champagne houses that I haven’t heard of.)

So Plan B became scallops seared with ginger and soy/mirin and served in their shell on a bed of finely grated cucumber and radish and topped with shredded nori and toasted black sesame seeds. Truly delish. The delicate texture of the scallops is a perfect match for the crisp and crunch of seaweed and seseame seeds and the mirin/soy dressing added just enough flavour to enhance the experience of these equisite sea creatures. I never knew how good scallops were until I tasted them just cooked. Why is it that so many people over cook them? They loose all flavour and become rubbery and dull.

And then it was on to the ham. Glazed with maple syrup, brown sugar and mustard it was warm and unctuous. To accompany I made a variation on a waldorf with celery, apple, red grapes, walnuts, witlof and raddichio. I cant’ remember what we drank with this. There was another bottle of champagne (Mumm) at some stage (earlier I think with the scallops) but it paled into insignificance compared to the Lamandier. I do recall drinking a rather nice French pinot (yes, they’re called burgundy over there). And then we had the lemongrass martinis. And then it was time for a nap. Which turned into a sleep. I woke at 8pm. It was time to get the feast going again.

I had marinated a neck of pork in some wonderful smoky chillies that someone had told me about (from northern Thailand) and palm sugar, fish sauce and galangal for about 48 hours and it had been slowly cooking for about 2 hours. It was the most wonderful flavour experience – all those sharp, salty, sour and sweet Thai flavours with the succulent pork served with chopped peanuts, fried shallots and fresh coriander. Oh, and a green mango salad. A lovely bottle of Vouvray set this off to perfection.

And then it was time for desert. I had made basil pannacotta and raspberry jelly. As I was straining the raspberries through the sieve I wondered why? I recalled that you could buy raspberry jelly in little packets in the supermarket. All you had to do was add boiling water! However, the taste, is not the same. Trust me. It was like eating gelatinous raspberries. I know that doesn’t sound very appetizing, but it was like mouthfuls of flavoured fun.

More drinks and then more couch time with videos till finally slices of American fruitcake and glasses of sauternes appeared. Our Christmas feast took well over 13 hours. It was quite a day. Relaxed, companionable, full of good flavours, tastes, sensations, easy going conversations and veg out times. All Christmases should be like this.

I’m hungry!!

A few weeks back I embarked on a diet. Its one of those weird ‘eat as much chicken soup as you like’ diets with very specific foods each day.  Eg, the first day is fruit.  The second day is vegetables.  Third day is fruit AND vegetables.  Day 4 is bananas (you’re meant to have smoothies).  Day 5 is beef and tomatoes.  Can’t remember what day 6 is but day 7 has rice.  So essentially, no fat, no carbs, high protein.  Oh, and no alcohol. 

Hmm.  My chubby hubby needed to loose weight and I thought this was a good way to kick off a detox.  It has been many years since we had an alcohol free day.  Seriously. 

And so we began.  I made huge quantities of chicken stock and then made soup.  Surprisingly, fruit in the morning followed by soup at lunch time, more fruit in the afternoon and soup again at night was manageable.  As was the no alcohol.  Day 2 was challenging.  What to eat in the morning?  I ate so many sticks of celery and carrot – and of course soup but god I was hanging out for a banana.  I think I really needed a sugar hit.  The alcohol free day was tolerable (though I must confess I did feel like having a swig out of the bottle).    Day 3 was fine.  Day 4 we decided would be fruit and veg. I just couldn’t do the banana smoothie thing. 

And Day 5 was good – eye fillet with wilted spinach and oven roasted tomatoes and capsicum (I know it was meant to be just tomatoes, but honestly, there’s nothing like a bit of creative interpretation).

And then on Saturday we had dinner booked at Bambini Trust.  I had a delicious papadelle ragu – one of their signature dishes – accompanied with a bottle of St Emilion.  Oh, and a lovely Vespa martini to start.  So having broken the diet there was nothing to it but to continue in decadence on Sunday with real food and alcohol.

Since then we have been pretty much (more or less) sticking to this food regime Monday through to Friday and having weekends off. Its been both easy and challenging.  Is that an oxymoron?  I should clarify.  I’ve cooked some wonderful vegetarian dishes from Ottolenghi’s wonderful book “Plenty” – mostly using chickpeas and avoiding all starches.  Fruit in the morning has been good; a carrot and celery juice mid-morning; soup for lunch; fruit mid afternoon, and so it goes.  But I miss bread!  And those dips and biscuits I used to have with a glass of wine when I got home.  And sometimes I feel hungry.  But I know its not really hunger – its just a want for things (much the same as I sometimes just want a new pair of shoes).

On the plus side, chubby hubby says the fat is melting off him like the proverbial snowman.  He’s lost about 8 kilos.  I’ve lost a couple.  And our food bill has gone down.  And our wine stock has not diminished. In fact, now we’re running out of storage space!