Sunday, November 6, 2011

The beauty of bread and butter

There are a handful of things in life that bring a person a great ammount of content. That indescribable warmth you get in the pit of your stomach when you cant stop cracking up for instance. Watching the sun go down, watching the sun come up. Escaping to a another place with the help of a book. For some its being busy and for others its the relief of having nothing to do. For me content can be found simply in the intoxicatingly comforting smell of fresh bread baking in the oven. That savoury yeasty waft so unlike anything else.

As if the smell wasn't already enough, then comes the taste. Still warm bread out of the oven, smeared generously with butter is nothing short of ectasy, as if my taste buds has found their lover. So perhaps I'm romanticing a little too much in the description of something as simple as bread and butter but so often the simple things are the ones which have the most affect on a person. Plus I like to exaggerate.

Anyway, I recently baked a loaf of bread which to my surprise and delight came out near perfectly. (I pretended not to be surprised though so as to look more impressive).

As Ive expressed in the past, baking makes me nervous as hell. I'm always worried the proper reactions won't occur and I'll be left with a bowl of sad looking flour and wasted time. This particular recipe was on my side though, every step working in my favour. The yeast fizzed and foamed letting off the appropriate fermenting beer like smell after being bathed in tepid water. The dough came together after a thorough kneading into a satisfying shape that can only be likened to a breast and after an hour of sitting sleepily under a damp tea towel it successfully doubled in size. Hurrah!
This recipe is simple and can be easily transformed into anything you want. I added some rosemary into the dry mixture. Next time I think I'll add some olives and tomato paste just to jazz it up.

Simple bread recipe

-5g dried yeast
-400ml warm water
-3 cups white flour
-1 1/2 tsp salt
-1/2 tbs white sugar

Preheat your oven to 200C.
Add warm water to the yeast to activate it, it should foam and look a bit busy.
Sift flour and salt in a large bowl, add the sugar and yeast mixture.
Mix well to form a soft doughly ball. Add more flour if its too sticky.
Knead the dough until its suffciently breast like.
Leave it to rest in a greased bowl covered with a tea towel or gladwrap for about an hour or until its doubled in size.
Knead it again (this is when you can add other flavours) put it in a greased loaf tin and allow it to rest again for another half hour or so.
Bake the beauty for ten minutes then reduce the temp to 180C for 30 minutes or until the loaf leaves the sides of the tin.
It should be slightly golden and if you tap the bottom of the loaf it should sound hollow (if that makes sense).
Wait until you can't resist (I lastest five whole minutes) dollop on a smudge of butter and feel comfort run warmly through your veins.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Chillies anonymous

I love a fiery curry. Infact I'd go as far to say that I often crave the heady, savoury comfort a bowl of curry brings. I suppose thats because its in my blood. My Grandfather was a handsome caramel coloured Anglo Indian man, with a booming voice and a wild laugh. I remember as a wee one, going over to my Grandparents place and the whole house would be strongly perfumed with spice. A giant pot would be bubbling away on the stove; deep auburn liquid spluttering away merrily, chicken or lamb swimming within. I remember classical music and serious conversation from the national radio playing in the background; all the while the bubbling in the witches cauldron would turn a deeper darker colour and the smell became more and more intoxicating as hours passed. I am certain they would have been some of the best curries I would ever have eaten, if only I'd been a little older and wiser to appreciate them at the time.

I remember thinking that chillies were quite a frightening thing and something to be avoided. My Grandad used to dare my brothers to eat whole chillies and as I watched their eyes water and the pained expressions on their faces I was certain that chillies cant possibly taste good. 
My opinion has changed dramatically since then, as nowadays I have a dangerous addiction to chillies. I get a great deal of pleasure from the burn and bite the pretty little things give off and often need a chilli fix more than twice a day. I have a problem. I am known to even add chilli to baked beans. (Try it!). 
Anyway, Ive made a great number of curries in my 22 years but I was determined to come up with just one that resembled the memories and smells from my Grandparents house. And this is how this recipe was born. I made a vegetarian curry but ofcourse you could add whatever protein that gets you excited aswell as any vegetables you are fond of. Its so damn easy and if your house doesn't fill with a provacative and belly warming scent, then you have done something wrong. I reccomend eating this with someone you rather fancy, tucked up on a couch with the televison on, a glass of wine in arms reach and all problems and worries forgotten. Comfort food bliss.

A rather lovely curry

-1 large onion, finely chopped
-4 fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped
-A chunk of ginger, grated
-2 red chillies (or as many or as little as you like), finely chopped
-1 tablespoon of mustard seeds
-1 cinnamon stick
-4 cloves
-2 heaped teaspoons of cumin
-2 heaped teaspoons of paprika
-2 heaped teaspoons of coriander
-1 heaped teaspoons of turmeric
-1 400g tin of tomatoes
-2 large handfuls of spinach, roughly chopped
-1 small courgette, chopped into cubes
-1 cup of pumpkin, chopped into cubes
-1 cup of eggplant, chopped into cubes
-1 handful of green beans
-1 small tin of chickpeas
-2 teasppons of garam masala
-Natural yoghurt
-Fresh coriander

Heat oil in a pan and add the onions, cook gently on a low heat until the onions turn a heavenly golden brown and caramelize slightly. This step is important because the onions add sweetness. 
Add the garlic and ginger and fry off before adding the mustard seeds. Let the seeds dance in the heat, they will spit and splutter. Then add the chilli, cinnamon stick, the cloves, cumin, paprika, coriander and turmeric. Fry gently until aromatic. Add the tinned tomatoes and bring up to a simmer.
Let this pungent gravy simmer gently for 20 minutes to allow all the flavours to mingle and marry. Add water if it gets too dry. (If you are using meat, add it when the gravy first comes to a simmer).
Add the pumpkin and eggplant to the sauce first as they take the longest time to cook. They should take about 15-20 minutes. Then add the courgette and spinach, continue simmering for another 10 mins before adding the beans and chickpeas. Cook for another 5 minutes; the beans should still have a satisfying crunch. Finally add stir in the garam masala and cook for another minute or so.
Serve with a generous hand into big bowls and dollop over a spoonful of yoghurt and fresh coriander.
Get comfortable and enjoy.
Serve with rice or roti. Bloody lovely. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A sometimes sweet tooth

I rarely bake. The precise measurements and techniques required for doughs and pastries and dainty little morsels has always intimidated me. I prefer to taste and adjust, watch things simmer and bubble, hear sizzles and splutters, jab at things and be generally a bit slap dash; it makes me feel in control. With baking I get nervous I will add a quarter of a teaspoon of baking powder too little and the proper reaction wont occur. 

I've only recently realized the sense of satisfaction and reward that baking can give. At cooking school I was faced with the extremely daunting challenge of making different pastries, doughs and cakes. All of which I approached with a large amount of panic and a general feeling of annoyance. However after the initial anxiety had passed, a sense of tranquility took over. There is something quite calming about being precise. I watched chux pastry turn into perfectly golden profiteroles and eclairs, kneaded dough until my arm muscles gave in and lifted the cloth after hours of proving to reveal that yes, it had in fact doubled in size and now resembled a single voluptuous, milky white breast. 

I'm fairly certain that my baking successes were all flukes but never the less I've gained huge respect for the patisserie students and the delicate wee master pieces they create, that frankly look too beautiful to eat.

Anyway, recently Matt voiced a craving for something sweet "some choccie chip bickies or something".  I myself have never really had much of a sweet tooth, in fact I'd go as far to say that I've spent at least 5 or 10 years of my life on this fine earth never having really craved a sweet treat. However over the years my sweet tooth has developed, encouraged especially by living with someone who too often buys a bag of starbursts or a block of chocolate. 
So I did some sugary research, looked over dozens of recipes and decided to get a bit experimental. And thats how my Fudgey chocolate and blueberry brownies came to be. Fudgey, chocolate and blueberry are all very tasty words. This was a bit of a throw some yummy things into a bowl, stir and hope for the best type of situation and what a delightfully gooey and smile inducing result! 
I was conscious not to use too much butter, so I upped the chocolate volume and added some natural yoghurt to ensure moisture. This is a 2 tablespoons of butter brownie and you would never guess as much. The result was a chewy outer layer and fudgy, sticky centre. The blueberries cut through the richness, with a satisfying burst of tartness. Holy nomness. 
This is the kind of chocolatey treat that makes you giggle and feel like a little kid again. Silliness is encouraged while eating this.

Fudgey chocolate and blueberry Brownies

-3/4 cup of plain flour
-1/3 cup of good quality cocoa powder
-1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
-1/4 teaspoon of salt
-60 grams of good quality dark chocolate
-2 tablespoons of butter
-1/2 cup of caster sugar
-1/2 cup of brown sugar
-2 tablespoons of natural yoghurt or sour cream
-1 large egg
-1 egg white
-1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
- 1 cup of fresh or frozen blueberries

Preheat oven to 180C. 
Place baking paper at the bottom of a cake tin and lightly grease it with oil or butter.
In a bowl sift flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. 
Melt butter and chocolate over a hot water bath, transfer into a large bowl and add the sugars and yoghurt/sour cream. Add eggs and vanilla essence. Get whisking. 
Add the flour mixture and combine, gently fold in the blueberries. 
Spread the brownie mixture in the cake tin and bake for around 20 minutes.
You want it to be soft to the touch when you take it out of the oven because it will firm up slightly.
Let it cool, then surrender to gluttony. I urge you. 

Ommy nom nom. Nommy nom nom fest. 

Savoury baking to come.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A soup that cures everything

Melbourne town has turned bitter. A sour sort of cold which hits you hard in the chest and turns your hands an unhealthy blotchy red. This is the kind of cold which makes me want to hibernate for the winter. In fact more than once, after discussing heading out for dinner, we have swiftly turned right around and back into our cave after feeling the freezing punch of the evening air.
I do have a soft spot for winter though, there is something rather snuggly about it. A season where everybody just wants a little warmth, its quite romantic.

Other whimsical winter treats include: Winter clothes; the best season for attire, indulgent amounts of time spent in the bath, being able to light candles without feeling a bit gay about it and last but most definately not least, comfort in a liquid form: SOUP! Good ole belly pleasing soup. Just looking at the word 'soup' makes me picture a couch, a blanket, a familiar body to nestle against and an episode of The Sopranos ready and waiting to watch. Sweet jesus what a beautiful image.

I have made and have had a great deal of soups made for me. My mother makes a killer pumpkin soup, better then any I've had or have tried to make myself. Sometimes there is no point in trying to out cook your own mother.

Recently though I have discovered a new soup, a revelation of a soup, a soul stroking, wellbeing booster of a soup. Vegetarian pho! Pho is a Vietnamese staple, usually made with beef and a great assortment of aromatic spices and vegetables cooked for hours to produce an out of this world heady broth which warms every cockle in your body. 
The vegetarian pho which I make is simpler but equally as addictive and I think everybody should try to make it at least once. Its as easy as throwing stuff in a pan, covering it with water and waiting for magic to happen. My cat could make it, although he is very smart.

The broth is the heart of the soup; the pungent array of spices and herbs slowly permeates the liquid, turning it into a deep gold potion. Be prepared for wafts of aniseed and cinnamon to float through your house and into your lungs.

Vietnamese Vegetarian Pho

The broth 
-Two white or red onions, roughly chopped
-A chunk of fresh ginger, roughly chopped
-Eight cloves of garlic, bruised
-A handful of dried shiitake mushrooms
-Four star anise
-One tablespoon of coriander seeds
-One tablespoon of fennel seeds
-One tablespoon of black peppercorns
-Three cardamom pods
-One stick of cinnamon
-One whole chili, bruised
-A handful of coriander roots, bruised
-A handful of basil roots, bruised
-Three- six tablespoons of soy sauce, taste and adjust
-Two tablespoons of rice vinegar
-Four- six cups of vegetable stock

To finish
-Rice noodles
-Bok choy, finely sliced
-Spring onions, finely sliced
-A handful of fresh coriander leaves, chopped
-Chili flakes, a pinch
-Lime, cut into wedges

Put all the dry ingredients for the broth into a pan, dry fry the ingredients until the spices become aromatic and the onion begins to char. Cover with 4 cups of vegetable stock to begin with, the soy sauce and rice vinegar and simmer for around 45 minutes. 
The longer you simmer the more intense the broth will become. You will need to add more stock though, as the liquid will reduce. 
Strain the soup, and discard the ingredients except for the shiitake mushrooms. Put the broth back on the heat, chop up the mushrooms and add them back into the broth. Add the rice noodles, vegetables and the chili flakes.
You can use what ever vegetables you fancy really. I've used cabbage, green beans, broccolini, spinach, tofu...
Get creative. A handful of chubby prawns would also work a treat.
To finish, scatter over the spring onions and coriander and serve with a juicy wedge of lime and feel good health begin to run through your veins. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The tofu conundrum

Tofu is a funny wee ingredient really and one which spurs a fair bit of debate. Matt often tells me rather moodily that 'Tofu isn't food Gemma!" and whenever I tell my Mum that I am making tofu for dinner she reacts with a longs drawn out 'toooooofu?', I don't think either of them have really tried it. For the large majority of people who hold similar opinions, I urge you to step back, open your mind and give tofu a break. And don't be such a bloody baby...

I am a rather dedicated tofu fan, (Don't judge me), since I'm not the biggest meat eater tofu is often my meat substitute. It is low in calories and high in protein, blah blah blah health stuff, blah. I'll be honest though, tofu is bland. as. hell. It has no distinctive taste or smell but thats what makes it such a good flavour carrier, it soaks up spices and sauces and I love the melting texture; there is something rather satisfying about the way it dissolves into a tasty mess in your mouth.

I think tofu works best in asian style recipes, it needs fiery, in your face flavours to boost it up. I have a few tofu staple dishes, including 'Otsu' which has a punchy honey scented asian dressing, served with soba noodles, crunchy slices of cucumber and spring onions, garnished with a heady and generous handful of coriander. Its flavour packed and refreshing not to mention embarrassingly good for you. This is also the kind of dish I'd serve to someone who felt a bit apprehensive about little old tofu because the zingy sauce and layers of crunch and bounce, kick the tofu up the backside a little bit.
In the past when I've cooked this dish at home and I'm feeling particularly selfish, I tell Matt I'm cooking hippie food (which naturally puts him off) so I don't have to share it. Sorry, sometimes I just want to be alone with my food.


1 lemon, the zest and one tablespoon of juice
A thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 Tablespoon of honey
3/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper (or alter the amount depending on how tough you are, I'm REAL tough).
A pinch of salt
1/4 cup of rice vinegar
1/3 cup of soy sauce
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sesame oil

350 grams of soba noodles
350 grams firm tofu, cut into cubes
A generous handful of fresh coriander
3 fat spring onion, finely chopped
1/2 a large cucumber, chopped

Make the dressing by adding the lemon zest, ginger, honey, cayenne and salt into a food processor, blend until smooth. Add the lemon juice, rice vinegar and soy sauce and gently drizzle in the oils.
Alternatively you go do this by hand, by mixing all the ingredients into a bowl, it will be slightly chunkier but there aint nothing wrong with chunks.

Cook the soba noodles in boiling water until tender, drain and rinse under cold water so they don't turn into over cooked claggy moosh.

While the soba noodles are doing their thing, heat up a frying pan adding a little olive oil (or use a non stick pan). Add the tofu and cook quickly until they are golden on each side but still trampoline bouncy, remove from the pan.

In a bowl combine the soba noodles, half the coriander, the spring onions, cucumber and as much dressing as necessary to coat everything.  Add the tofu and toss it all together; I prefer to use my hands, it feels nice and I like to get amongst my food. Add more dressing if need be and garnish with the rest of the coriander.

Tofu is your friend. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Home is where the hunger ends

My deepest apologies for my lack of posts recently. The sad truth is, I have been busy as hell. I started studying commercial cookery at Melbourne's William Angliss Institute. ( I am learning buckets loads but unfortunately it takes up most of my time, making it rather hard to indulge in my long food related spiels. I am determined to make time though.

For the last few months I have had disgustingly early starts; as in its still dark when I get up, as in the birds have only just opened their beaks to let out their first tweet of the day, as in every time my alarm goes off I scream softly, stay in bed for 5 more minutes in denial, then count to 30 three times before I force my feet to touch the floor and walk to the bathroom. There I stand under the shower with my eyes closed, waiting for my brain to start working, that usually takes a cup of strong tea and some muesli. To all the people who get up this early on their own will, respect. You are a better person than I. You are also a freak.

When I finally do get to uni, I have a 4 hour practical class, meaning we cook for 4 hours, which is a fairly long time on ones feet. After this we have theory classes until 5 most days. In conclusion by the time I get home I cant really stand up.

Anyway, thats my excuse. What I really want to talk about though is a recent trip back home to my country of birth, the great and glorious country of New Zealand. It is ridiculously beautiful, different shades of green everywhere, no dusty desert roads in sight, which you see so often traveling around Australia and the smell of salty ocean air is enough to make a grown man cry.
Being home was like one long warm embrace, spent grazing with my family and friends. We weren't back for long enough and it went super sonic fast but I came home well rested and with a slightly fuller belly.
One of the first things I did when I walked into my parents kitchen was open the fridge and pantry and stare open mouthed at the array of treats staring back at me in all their nommy glory. Now having said that, my folks aren't greedy guts, I just hadn't seen a properly loaded fridge or pantry for about 6 months, it was a beautiful thing.

The first night home we had a barbecue in the backyard, nothing could have made me happier, how wonderfully kiwi of us. My Dad made his famous garlic prawns (I had requested them weeks before our arrival), New Zealand prawns are plump and sweet; the candy of the ocean. Garlic and a pinch of dried chili or cayenne are cooked gently in olive oil before the prawns are added and cooked until they have just turned rosy pink, still juicy and succulent. (Never trust a person who over cooks a prawn). The golden garlic infused oil bathes the prawns, making them even more delectable. All you need is a scattering of parsley and some crusty bread to soak up the aromatic liquid, simple things are so often the best.

We also had lamb cutlets, marinated in dijon and rosemary, the smell of them sizzling away on the barbecue would have made any passerby salivate and then run home to cook up some red meat. Watching Matt pick up his lamb with his hands and chew away hungrily with a cocky look on his face, completely unaware he had sauce running down his chin, made me feel very at home indeed.
We also had a meaty red snapper, cooked with ginger, chili, lemongrass and coriander. It was wrapped in tin foiled, so none of the precious juices were lost. The aromatic herbs made the snapper sing, giving it a slight warmth and freshness but not overpowering the delicate flesh.

To serve with our proteins we had minted new potatoes and roasted beetroot, a match made in culinary heaven. To top perfection we also had a generous amount of wine, mostly red. After drinking embarrassingly cheap wine back in Melbourne, my Dads wine tasted like bottled chocolate, or cherries, or blackberries, or other such rich and heady things.

To finish this heart warming feast, my Mum made carrot cake, the best I've ever had. So moist and moreish that my brother who complained carrot cake was hippie food had two extra servings. Eat before you speak.

We were only home for 10 lazy days, a tease more than a holiday. I had my first swim in the ocean for about 7 months, there is nothing more refreshing on this earth. Each meal we had or made was cooked with a lot of love, as cheese ball as it sounds.
Some more happy tummy moments:
-My brothers home made pizzas, (the dough made by him too of course) crispy crusted with blood red rich tomato sauce and simple ingredients, so addictive it isn't even funny.
-My Mum and I's attempt at sushi, fairly rustic looking but still extremely fresh and light, eaten up within minutes with the occasional moan caused by a wasabi brain freeze.
-One of New Zealand's best fish n chip shops in Mangonui, holy Moses the fish was fresh! Like biting into the ocean.

Home is comfort, especially when you live faraway. I always know I can come back and be looked after and fattened up and can indulge with the help of my Dads generous wine pouring hand. Also people tend to like you more when they haven't seen you for awhile.
A prawn hasn't really tasted the same since I was home.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A merry Moroccan festive feast

I am a sucker for Christmas and I hold no shame. It marks the end of a year and everybody (well mostly everybody) seems a little lighter, a strange sense of togetherness floods the city. Christmas to me means the comforting smells of a fresh Christmas tree. In fact Christmas isn't really Christmas without that fresh heady waft of pine floating through the air. Christmas means sparkly lights, red gold and silver, candles, overplayed carols, spending money you don't have, being with your favourite people and most importantly, it means food and indulgence and plenty of it.

This year was my first Christmas spent away from my family, so naturally it felt a little bit strange. However orphan or not, I was determined to make it a special one. Matthew and I decided to host an orphans Christmas feast at our humble abode. I was in charge of the menu.
I must admit that as much as I love Christmas, I am not the biggest fan of traditional Christmas food. A giant lump of ham doesn't really do it for me and turkey just isn't my fav. However by no means was I going to cut back on the debauchery, this was to be a feast after all, never will I be called a stingy person. So this year we decided on a Moroccan theme. And what an idea it turned out to be. Moroccan food is fresh and uplifting and at the same time screams of flavour. Grassy spices like cumin and coriander are used in abundance which are balanced refreshingly with herbs like parsley and mint. In other words, a party in your mouth.

Our Merry Moroccan Festive Feast menu:
-Spicy aubergine and tomato salad
-Chickpea salad with red onions and paprika
-Marinated olives
-Vegetable tagine with apricots
-Whole snapper with chermoula
-Lemon Chicken (
-Flat bread
-Strawberries dipped in chocolate

Holy smokes, this was easily one of my finest hours. Proof: A friend of mine who hadn't eaten fish for 10 years had a third helping of our proud snapper and licked the plate clean. Its always a beautiful thing when conversation is put on hold as forks clatter against plates, 'mmmmm's and 'shiiiiiiiit this is goood' are the only sounds spoken. A room full of happy stomachs.

The rest of the evening was spent sipping on red wine we couldn't really afford but thought we deserved (Cause its Christmas). And soaking up the last of the sun in the park with our fellow orphan friends. It was a strangely lonely Christmas being away from my family but at least I didn't go hungry.