Sunday, June 20, 2010


As it's a cold, wet day up on the mountain, I thought it appropriate to tell you about my relationship with soup. I'll cut to the chase and say that it's love/hate, to say the least. Let me explain.

My mum is the best maker of soups that I know. She doesn't hold out - thick, hearty bowls that should be called stew rather than soup, with lots of meat, barley, vegetables and other goodies. She also makes the only delicious broccoli soup I've ever tasted, and her mushroom soup is one of those dishes people cook for other people and pretend it's their own recipe. What's not to like? I'll tell you. It's when you know that this is probably all you're having for the rest of the week, and as good as it is, come Friday, all you want is a sandwich.

Fast forward to my life with The Fabulous Man, and the plot thickens. Any conversation with him that involves food, soon turn to Nanny Jessie. Now, if you believe all the stories about Nanny Jessie and food, which I tend to do, you'll be overcome with the feeling of absolute futileness, as try as you might, you will never be even half as good as she allegedly was. She was Maltese (which might be the explanation) and the best cook to ever walk this earth. Or so I'm told. Reportedly, any polite decline of a fourth helping of her food would be met with "What? Don't you like it?", and her question of "Have you eaten?" was highly rhetorical, as it was always followed by "Let me make you something".

I think it was probably during my first week in Australia when I first heard about Nanny Jessie's Minestrone. The most delicious thing ever, it made you swoon and the heavens open up and the air fill with the singing of angels. Various descriptions of the sort do the rounds in the family, so I guess they can't be all exaggerating. Right, I thought, naively, we'll show them minestrone. I researched all the best sites and blogs, and came up with a recipe which I thought looked fabulous. Sunday lunch arrived, and I very nonchalantly announced that I made minestrone.

This announcement was met with a sceptical air, but I stuck to my guns, stupidly. Steaming, delicious bowls of soup with fabulous crusty sourdough was met with oooh's and aaah's, but I could tell that I was being compared. And that the comparison did not turn out in my favour. The Fabulous Man actually said (out loud!) that it wasn't quite the same as Nanny's. My lovely mother-in-law quickly added that it was delicious nevertheless, but my heart was broken anyway. Haven't made it since.

Another soup my husband likes is good old-fashioned chicken, with lots of veggies and pasta. Impossible to mess up, right? I've been making chicken soup for him on a fairly regular basis, easy as it is. One day when the discussion of what's for dinner came up, and I suggested chicken soup, I was met with the following: "I don't really like your chicken soup". Now, I'm not a negative person, but that's not what I call a compliment. He quickly suggested that it might be the stock I'm using, but my heart is still broken. Haven't made it since.

The next weapon in my arsenal: Nigel Slater. I dare anybody not to like any of this wonderful man's wonderful recipes. I tried his recipe for Tom Yum, a favourite of The Fabulous Man's. Delicious, I thought, relieved, after my first mouthful. "This is not how I remember it", from the other side of the table. Hmmm. Haven't made it since.

What makes this whole thing so much worse is that I never make a meal without him saying "This is great", or "You're a wonderful cook", or something along those lines. This is a man who's generous with his compliments, which is one of the reasons I love and adore him. That is, until I make soup.

So please excuse me for retiring from the soupmaking arena for a while, nursing my pride. The only soup I make very occasionally is this one, and a lentil and chorizo soup, when it's cold and I want something comforting but easy, like today. I think it's quite good, but I've never been wrestled to the ground and threatened to hand over the recipe, or else. Maybe one day.

Lentil Soup

Olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 bunch of celery, with leaves, chopped
6 carrots, chopped
500g brown lentils (I used some lovely du Puy I had in the cupboard)
a chorizo sausage, chopped
2 tins of chopped tomatoes
50ml brown sugar
50ml red wine vinegar
2.5l water

Cook the onions, celery and carrots in the olive oil until soft.

Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to a boil, then simmer for about 2 hours.

Serve with crusty bread.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Prawn and Linguine Parcels

There are some things in life you can't go wrong with. The little black dress, diamond earrings, fine bone china. Chocolate tart. Bubble baths. A good book. Fresh flowers. And prawns with garlic, chilli and white wine.

I try to always have a bag of prawns in the freezer. Fresh from the market, preferably bought at 4am, is better, I know, but let's pretend I have a Little Girl, and I can't remember the last time I wasn't at least half-tired. Therefore, fresh from the freezer is the best you'll get at my house. I always look at prawn recipes, and apart from the occasional green curry, I mostly end up cooking it with garlic, chilli and wine. Why mess with a winner?

That was the plan last night, until I had a quick look at my go-to website for recipes, Lovely site, this one. Whatever I look for, I often end up using a recipe from here. So I typed in "prawn", and this great recipe came up: Prawns cooked in tomato sauce, and then baked with pasta in little parcels. As I mentioned before, I don't really "do" tomatoes, especially not with fish, but I really liked the idea, and thought I'll use my normal recipe and finish it off in the oven. I do realise that this is nothing new. In fact, I'm sure most of you guys think that cooking in parcels is SO 2007. Please bear with me. I'm sometimes a bit slow.

You know what? It was fabulous, if I may say so myself. I thought it would be good (the basic recipe is a winner, after all), but this was beyond a winner. This was like Titanic winning 11 Oscars. You'd think it will be your basic pasta dish, only served in a paper parcel. Not so. The final blast in the oven combines all the flavours beautifully, and the pasta itself becomes infused with the flavours of the garlic, chilli and wine. I used only enough chilli to give the pasta a nice warmth, as I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to heat. Feel free to up the amount based on the toughness of your tastebuds.

If you, like me, prefer to see if a new trend (like cooking in parcels) stands the test of time before trying it out, and haven't tried this before, let me assure you that this one is a keeper. Think of it as the pasta version of an interesting twist to the little black dress.

Prawn and Linguine Parcels with Chilli, Garlic and Wine
Adapted from Taste
Serves 2

250g linguine
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes, depending on taste
300g frozen prawns, defrosted, or fresh, cleaned prawns if you are that way inclined
a glass of white wine
a small handful of chopped parsley

Preheat your oven to 200°C. Cook the pasta in a large pot of water for 7 minutes (you want it slightly undercooked). Drain and keep seperate.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a frypan until bubbly. Add the garlic and chilli, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the prawns, and cook until they just turn pink. Add the white wine and pasta, cook until heated through.

To make the parcels, cut 2 pieces each of baking paper and aluminium foil, about 35cm square.

Place a piece of baking paper on a piece of aluminium. It helps to put this into a bowl, to prevent the juices going everywhere. Place half of the pasta in the parcel, and fold over the edges to seal. Repeat with the other parcel.

Place both parcels on a baking sheet, and bake in the oven for 6 minutes, or until the pasta is cooked through. Serve in the parcels, sprinkled with a little chopped parsley.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On the Edge

I almost gave up today. I had defrosted beef mince to magically transform into dinner tonight, and I just couldn't be bothered to come up with something nice to do with it. Normally we do the nice but very, very boring tagliatelle bolognaise. Easy peasy. Defrost mince, fry with some onions, add sauce (from a bottle, we'
re not into being virtuous these days), serve with some pasta. It's quick to make, tastes good, and is Little Girl friendly.

I used to be quite proud of the usual suspects in my little freezer cubby hole: mince, chicken breast fillets (the Fabulous Man doesn't like the brown meat), prawns. Maybe some lamb chops. It's amazing how many recipes are out there to jazz up your boring beef mince or boring chicken fillets. I have quite a stash of them, and I used to be able to make a few different dishes with some basic ingredients. But you know what? I'm bored with beef mince and chicken fillets. So bored, I felt like throwing the defrosted mince in the bin and get take-away pizza.

Good thing I'm not into waste. I vowed to come up with one last mince dinner for at least a month. Maybe two months. Browsing the internet, I saw that there are basically two kinds of mince recipes out there: different versions of savoury mince, usually with pasta, and different versions of meatballs, including that horror of all horrors: meatloaf. Boring. I persevered. More Google searches of Best Mince Recipes. Still boring. I racked my brains, and came up with this brilliant idea: hamburgers.

Yesterday we went for lunch at a pub the Fabulous Man wanted to go to for ages. As soon as I set foot into the place I was unimpressed. Dirty carpet, cold room. Unfriendly waitress. Boring specials (I can't even remember now what they were). I decided to have a hamburger, because it's pretty hard to mess that up, right? Not in this place. Stale roll, limp lettuce, blah meat. I had a few bites, and politely left the rest. Good thing the waitress didn't ask me if I enjoyed my meal, because it's tough if you have to choose between being rude or to downright lie. Surely it can't be that hard to make a decent hamburger?

So, I decided that I am going to make proper burgers for dinner. Not a burger with the lot, which in Australia means beef patty, bacon, cheese, egg, beetroot (!), lettuce and onion rings. Just a normal burger, but a bit fancy. We had some brie in the fridge, and I vaguely remember eating hamburger patties as a child which was stuffed with cheese. I thought it would be nice to bite into the meat, and finding a creamy cheesy centre.

I wasn't wrong.They turned out fabulous. I was really surprised by how good they tasted. They were spicy, meaty and creamy, all in one. I made four, meaning to save two for lunch tomorrow, but we had them all, they were that good. You'll see that the brie is the only slightly different thing about this recipe. The rest is pretty basic. This is not rocket science, and it makes me wonder how people justify serving bad food to paying customers.

So, a pretty good recipe to say au revoir with to my former freezer staple, methinks. Now I just have to use up the last of the boring chicken breast fillets, and I'll be back with something a bit more interesting.

Hamburgers with Brie
Makes 4

500g beef mince
1 onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 egg, beaten
a small handful of chopped parsley
50g brie

4 hamburger rolls
roasted tomato jam

In a bowl, mix together the mince, onion, cumin, egg and parsley, using your hands. Divide the mixture into four.

Cut in the brie into four pieces, and form each share of mince around a piece of brie, making sure the cheese is well covered. Flatten the patties. Cover, and rest in the fridge for 20 minutes.

Heat some oil in a pan, and cook the patties for about 5 minutes each side, or until done.

Serve with the rolls, lettuce and tomato jam, and any other topping you like. I served them with some butternut roasted with olive oil and cumin, which was fabulous.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Anna's Banana Bread

I was one of the very lucky girls who had more than one woman looking after me while growing up. My mum, of course, who also soldiered on all alone when my dad died, my grandmother, who kept us stocked up on the most delicious homemade fudge, and, for a while, Anna.

For a few years, Anna was our housekeeper, and we all loved and adored her. She looked after us during the day while Mum was away at work, gave us lunch, and kept the house neat as a pin. Lunch was always something cooked, usually some sort of meat with loads of vegetables, sometimes some pasta. Run of the mill healthy stuff. I do remember Anna's puddings though. Looking back, I'm sure we couldn't have had pudding every day, but it felt like it. Custard pudding, vinegar pudding, baked chocolate pudding, bread and butter pudding. They were delicious. When I think of Anna I think of pudding. Hopefully one day somebody will associate me with something as nice.

Somewhere along the way a bought a lovely little cookbook on a whim (not the first or the last time this happened, mind you), called Winnie-the-Pooh's Teatime Cookbook. It is filled with lovely recipes like Warm Milk with Honey and Vanilla, Chocolate Tea Bread, Strawberry Butter and Cucumber Sandwiches.

It also has the loveliest quotes in between the recipes. I am a bit of a Winnie-the-Pooh fan, so please allow me to repeat my favourites:

"By-and-by Pooh and Piglet went on again. Christopher Robin was at home by this time, because it was the afternoon, and he was so glad to see them that they stayed there until very nearly teatime, and then they had a Very Nearly tea, which is one you forget about afterwards, and hurried on to Pooh Corner, so as to see Eeyore before it was too late to have a Proper Tea with Owl." The House at Pooh Corner

"Pooh always like a little something at eleven o'clock in the morning, and he was very glad to see Rabbit getting out the plates and mugs; and when Rabbit said, 'Honey or condensed milk with your bread?' he was so excited that he said, 'Both', and then, so as not to seem greedy, he added, 'but don't bother about the bread, please'." Winnie-the-Pooh

" ' Pooh', Owl said, 'Christopher Robin is giving a party'. 'Oh!' said Pooh. And then seeing that Owl expected him to say something else, he said, 'Will there be those little cake things with pink sugar icing?' Owl felt it was rather beneath him to talk about little cake things with pink sugar icing." Winnie-the-Pooh

One of my favourite recipes from this lovely little book is one for Banana Bread. Whenever we had some bananas starting to get too ripe, Anna would make Banana Bread for us. When I left the house and moved to the big bad city, Anna came to my apartment once a week, and I always made sure there were enough too-ripe bananas for two banana breads: one for me and one for her to take home. They were good times, and she was a good friend, and whenever I make this bread, I think of her.

Banana Bread

225g plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/2 teaspoon salk
100g butter
225g sugar
2 eggs
2 ripe bananas, mashed
2 teaspoons lemon juice
100ml milk
100g chopped dark chocolate, optional (not part of the original recipe, but I had some extra, and these days I can have as much chocolate as I want)

Preheat oven to 180°C.

Sift together flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt. In another bowl, cream butter and sugar, then add eggs and bananas. Add lemon juice to milk. Add flour mixture and milk mixture to banana mixture alternately, ending with flour mixture. Stir in the chopped chocolate if using.

Pour into a greased 1kg loaf tin and bake for 50 minutes to an hour. Allow to cool in tin under a clean tea towel.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Julie/Julia & Martha Stewart

A few years ago I decided that going to England to work would be an adventure. I applied to an agency who organised everything for me: job, work permit, medical examination, and all the paraphernalia necessary to convince UK immigration you're a) not a terrorist, b) not going to deplete the national budget by claiming welfare and c) generally an all-round OK person with nothing illegal on/in my person. Easier said than done, which I'm sure many of you are aware of.

Once through the immigration obstacle course, I plunged into my job with all the enthusiasm that befits a foreigner, and found that the job I chose was actually terrible. The job description was something like "Medical officer on duty at all hours to provide medical care should the attending physician be unavailable", but should really have been "The idiot they're going to call at 3 in the morning to discuss with Mrs. Smith in Bed 7 the recent surgery her daughter's roommate's cousin's mother had to undergo in a hospital in Portugal. Also, while you're at it, all the other odd jobs nobody else could be bothered to do". Then again, they paid a lot of money, so I probably would have done it anyway.

During these long, lonely hours with limp brussels sprouts and overcooked beef roast swimming in bland gravy (UK Hospital food 24/7 is everything you expect and more) and Maltesers from the vending machine as my only sustenance, I found the comfort of online book clubs. In particular the Big Read Messageboard on the BBC website, sadly not in existency anymore. I got to know a whole lot of interesting people, and read many books I otherwise wouldn't have, all from the privacy of my converted private hospital bed next to the hospital kitchen with the limp brussel sprouts smell. I loved it.

Later in Australia, when I fell pregnant with the Little Girl, and got so ill that I only moved from the couch to the bathroom for 7 months (as this is a food blog I won't go into too many details), I started looking for a nice online bookclub again. I never really found one I was happy with, until I started this blog and came across This Book Makes Me Cook. I have found my nirvana - books and food in one, and I joined as quickly as I could press Enter.

The book we read for April was Julie/Julia, the one from the food blog (No, that's no typing error. I am about 2 months late with this post) Baby Brother rented me the DVD during our recent trip to South Africa, and I loved it, so when it turned up as one of the choices for this month's book, I voted for it, bought it, and started reading with joy. My joy slowly dimished over the next few days as I progressed, until I couldn't wait for the book to finish. And not in a good way.

What?! Somebody not loving Julie/Julia?! Yes, I know. I'm weird that way. Some books everybody seems to drool over, I sometimes just can't see the point of. Like The Lovely Bones, The God of Small Things, and Angela's Ashes. But I think you have to give me Julie/Julia. Let me explain.

First of all I need to get the dirty kitchen off my chest. All through the book Julie talks about her dirty house. She describes dustiness, stickiness, and cat hair everywhere. Including the kitchen counters. In fact, at one stage it's so bad that she discovers maggots breeding in the dish tray. Now, I don't want to give the impression that I am a clean freak, because my mother will assure you that I'm definitely not. However, even I have never let my house go to the point of maggots. Reading all this didn't make me want to cook as much as it made me want to get up and scrub the kitchen counters with hospital grade disinfectant. Yuck!

I was also very disappointed not to read more about Julia Child herself. After watching the DVD, which has quite a lot of her, I looked forward to getting to know more about this extraordinary woman. No joy. The only reference is a few short letters throughout the chapters, with the only purpose of leaving you wanting more. I'll have to ask my good friend Google.

The book ends with a chapter on how Julia Child changed Julie Powell's life. She talks about the absolute joy of making some sauce, and the sense of accomplishment she felt mastering all the recipes. I was really surprised when I read this, because battling through the chapters I didn't come across joy, or really much sense of accomplishment. Lots of swearing, lots of throwing things, Julie trying to console cheating girlfriends, a husband walking out. Joy? Not so much. I read about one huge struggle, and honestly, I was glad when it was over.

And now for the question you've all been dying to ask. After reading about eggs poached in red wine and baked cucumbers, how on earth did I end up making Martha Stewart cookies? Well, this is the recipe that Julie uses to cheat on her husband. Seriously. In her own words: "I can't imagine anyone - a few of the more repressive Islamic societies aside - who would consider baking an act of adultery. Still, for Eric, knowing what he knew of my proclivities, watching me roll out thin layers of cornmeal dough, sprinkle them with chopped pecans, cinnamon, and melted butter, then lay another layer of dough on top, and repeat over and over with infinite patience, must have been a little bit like noticing I'd gotten a bikini wax and a tight red dress before leaving for some business convention in Dallas." But please don't blame the cookies. From the beginning of the book I wondered which dish to make, but when I read this description (the cookies, not the bit about the waxing), I thought it my duty to change these cookies from "stalker food" to the fabulous little things they really are. I made them for mother's day (my first!), and they were fabulous indeed. Remarks included "Amazing!" and "Delicious delicious!" and "Why didn't you make more?".

I liked them too. The cornmeal in the cookie was really, really good. It remains slightly chewy, which is a great partner to the crunchy nuts. I substituted mixed spice for the cinnamon in the recipe, and will do so again. Not that I will ever contradict Martha Stewart in anything. She is after all the queen of the cookie recipe. But I am looking forward to getting to know Julia Child better.

Cornmeal and Spicy Pecan Cookies
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen

1/2 cup whole pecans
110g butter
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon or mixed spice
2 tablespoons packed dark-brown sugar
1 large egg white, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water

Toast the pecan halves in a skillet until warm and fragrant. Be careful not to burn them
In the bowl of electric mixer, cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 4 minutes. Add egg and vanilla, and mix until combined.

In medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. On low speed, add flour mixture to butter mixture. Mix until combined, about 30 seconds.

Transfer dough to clean work surface, and divide into 4 equal portions. Place 1 portion between two 30 cm square pieces of parchment. Roll out dough to a 10 by 20 cm rectangle. Repeat with remaining 3 portions of dough. (I found the dough very difficult to role out, and ended up just patting it into shape, which worked perfectly) Transfer to baking sheets; chill at least 10 minutes.

In food processor bowl, process pecans, cinnamon and brown sugar until nuts have been finely chopped, 12 to 15 seconds. Transfer mixture to a bowl.

Remove top pieces of parchment from dough. Brush one lightly with egg white; sprinkle 1/3 cup pecan mixture over top. Brush second rectangle lightly with egg wash. Invert second rectangle over first; remove parchment on top. Repeat layering process, leaving top rectangle uncoated. Trim the stack so you have straight edges. Wrap and chill overnight, or at least for a few hours.

Preheat oven to 180°C. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Cut brick into 1/2cm slices; place slices on baking sheets, with some space for spreading. Bake biscuits until light golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to wire rack to cool. Bake or freeze remaining dough. Store in an airtight container up to 2 weeks.