Thursday, March 25, 2010

Get your buns in the oven: SBS Food Online

Get your buns in the oven: SBS
"The weather is cooling, the leaves are turning and the long hot days of summer are receding into the distance. In Australia this can only mean one thing... Easter is on its way and with it, hot cross buns."

Writes Jane de Graaff 
Read the full article on SBS here.

Note: Article featured at

With special thanks to Tony Dench and the team at Dench Bakers in Melbourne for allowing me to see how the pro's do it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Finger lickin' Chinese chicken:

Occasionally when I have a little free-range bird on hand I'll be thinking roast chicken, but not the usual rosemary and lemon with veg type deal.
Sometimes the little chook calls for a treatment that is a little more pungent, a little more spiced, a little more.. exotic (to me anyway).
This is where the trusty soy sauce comes in handy. It's one of those things that I panic without. What can I say... me and salt- it's a long romance- so here comes the Chinese chicken.

  • 1 x 1kg chicken - washed and patted dry
  • 1 Tablespoon seasame oil
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce - you can vary it up with light & dark combos
  • 1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 1/2 Tablespoon Chinese five spice
  • 2 cloves of garlic - finely sliced and a little smashed
  • A good slug of shaoxing/Chinese cooking wine
  • A healthy grind of fresh cracked pepper
  • Fresh or powdered ginger to taste - I like it quite gingery

Mix all the ingredients except for the chicken in a bowl and make sure they are well combined- no one likes chunks of powdered ginger- whisking is good. Then place the washed chicken in a glass bowl and pour the marinade over. Tip a little into the cavity too and rub it around to get the flavour inside and out. Cover the dish tightly and place it in the fridge for a few hours or until ready to cook.
Thoroughly preheat the oven to 180degC. Place the chicken on a wire rack over a dish of hot water- using boiling water helps to get it up to temp and to keep the oven hot. 
Roast on the middle rack of your oven for about 45mins, basting with left over marinate every 15mins or so.
Turn the chicken and place back in the oven until cooked through, maybe another half an hour, basting as before. Just before you're done, turn the gorgeous chicken right side up again to let it crisp up a little. 
Take it out of the oven and allow the chicken to rest, covered, for ten mins or so. 
Serves with wilted bok choy and steamed lotus root, or any lovely Asian greens that take your fancy. 
Just as easy as a roast chicken, but just a little bit different.

Tomato Paste - save the season!

I don't have a one track cooking heritage. I don't have a cultural tradition that I savour and salvage and store away.
For anyone who's followed my bits here and there, I am slowly discovering my Dutch heritage- but it's a slow process owing to Holland's lack of 'wow' factor on the world culinary stage and a family that has not had the hugest focus on their Dutch roots.
On my mothers side (Aussie, Scottish, possibly Jewish) we have little traditions of our own- but they are more family tradition grown from a love of exploratory and intrepid cooking than closely guarded, heritage specific cooking traditons passed on.
But I am NOT complaining- more marveling at the places where we find connection and tipping my hat to the friends who willingly hand on their own food culture traditions at my (I'm sure often prying) insistence.
In the meantime I start up little practices of my own- wonderous culinary gems gathered willy nilly from the things I love and have a great desire to know more about.
Today I am glowing with the red jewels of the tomato season. Kilos of them heap on my kitchen bench. And in an effort to make the most of this and stock my own little larder- I am making tomato paste.
Why bother I hear you ask, when buying the stuff is so convenient and cheap? It's simple really. I like to know where my food comes from and what's in it above and beyond colouring and preservative #60214378 etc. To this end hear the pot sizzle and steam away on the stove and watch the wet goodness reduce to a brick red thickness.

Homemade Tomato Paste:

  • 2.5kg super ripe tomatoes 
  • 1/4 cup of olive oil - extra virgin is always best
    Wash and chop the tomatoes into rough chunks. Heat the oil in a large soup pot and add the tomatoes. Cook the tomatoes covered for 10mins and then give a good stir. The y should be breaking up and have released a lot of liquid. Make sure the liquid is boiling and leave it to cook uncovered for a further 20mins. Allow to cool slightly and then using a stick blender, puree the tomato mixture until nice and smooth. I cover the top of the pot with a cloth so that hot liquid doesn't splash up and burn me. Some people like to run the mixture through a sieve here to remove seeds and skins, but I like to leave these in for a chunkier paste. 
    Thoroughly heat the oven to 150degC. Lightly oil a large flat baking tray that will hold the tomato mixture and then pour it all into the tray.
    Put the tray in the oven and cook it for roughly 3 hours, turning it over with a spatula every 30mins or so to make sure the moisture is removed evenly and you don't end up with over dried scabby bits- eewe. You'll see it slowly begin to thicken until it is a paste, just monitor it towards the end until it reaches the paste consistency you like.
    Then spoon it into sterilised jars (check the Jam post for simple tips on sterilising jars) and top with a little oil to seal. Store in a cool, dry place -or the back of the fridge if you have room- until needed for pizzas, pasta sauces and soup flavour boosters once these balmy days are gone!
    There you go- homemade tomato paste with no nasties- at a total of about $2 for 4 jars!!
    It's more about flavour than cost, but if you do it at the right time of year, it's a damn sight cheaper and better than the last mad rush at the supermarket.

    Note: Please excuse the undecorated bottle caps- I've run out of fabric, but not cooking initiative, and so I plough on regardless of the lack of frills!

    Friday, March 5, 2010

    I am a bandycoot! Neighbourhood figs:

    Patience listened to my muffled giggles down the phone line; "You've been bandy-whating?"
    "Bandy-cooting!" I reply, stuffing my bag of ill gotten gains into the boot of the car. "I'll be there in 5 minutes to get you." I disconnected, jammed the keys in the ignition and sped away from the scene of the crime!
    Just to put it all into perspective, I was running late to collect him (Patience with a capital 'P') from some late-night work because I had decided that I was going to do something that had been niggling at me for weeks. I was going bandycooting!
    Let me explain- bandycooting isn't quite what it sounds like, especially if you think it sounds like I am packing heat and hunting bandycoots. Oh no.
    Bandycooting is acutally the rather poetic name given to people who (in the world wars) stole fruit and veggies from other people's backyards and crop patches during the night.
    Snowdroppers stole other peoples underwear and clothes from the washing-line.
    Bandycooters stole the food they were growing to try and make rations go further.
    In fact, I am reliably informed by my mother (who takes tours for the Sydney Historic Houses Trust) that to be suspected of 'badycooting' was the worst kind of shadow you could cast on a persons good name in these times- after all, if other people had put in the hard work to grow their own supplies, why hadn't you?

    Just to be clear, I wasn't technically a total bandycoot. I wasn't climbing fences onto private land and raiding the hard work of the unsuspecting backyard gardener. We have out own little hard-won plot of veg and I know how much it would hurt if someone pillaged our tiny crop.
    I was being a little more thoughtful in my 'cooting'- raiding an unloved local tree for suburban figs. This tree sits by the side of the main road, on public land outside an office block and is just groaning with fruit.
    In fact it is begging for people like me to stop by and unload it of it's juicy burden- after all, if we don't it just ends up as half-eaten bat-bitten rot on the roadside.
    But don't worry, there's plenty of fruit higher up for the batties to continue feasting on, it's a tall tree.
    What is discovered when I got to the tree under cover of darkness was twofold.
    1.) I am not a very good bandycooter- having neglected to change out of my sparkly metallic silver top and hence standing out like a reflective beacon in the night (so much for being inconspicuous).
    2.) I wasn't being quite as resourceful or as innovative as I thought, someone had beaten me to the punch and much of the ripe fruit from lower branches was gone... this wasn't the work of bats.

    Still, I was there and I wasn't leaving without my prize! So I jumped and jiggled, reached and stretched to net what was ripe and within my grasp. I managed to gather a neat little pile of about 10 beautiful, sticky-ripe figs... and they were subsequently delicious!
    Sure it mightn't have been the biggest haul, but it was certainly one of the more satisfying. I'm even keeping one little figgy to see if I can strike a tree of my own. You never know, might be my tree that's causing a little roadside joy in the future.
    In the meantime I'm keeping an eye on that tree for the next round of fruit. Just as soon as the green ones come good I'm hoping I'll get in first for the harvest, and considering I saw a little old woman out there in broad daylight just a few days ago, I won't be so shy about it either!

    Get down and Jam with it: Plum & Rosewater Jam

    There's a lovely expression called 'bottling the season' that creeps under my skin when things are ripe and just begs me to dance a tango with fruit, sugar and the stove top. Bottling it, jamming it, preserving it- I just love taking fruit when it's fresh and stockpiling it as jams and chutneys for a rainy cold day with open fires and crumpets.         
    That's the joy of seasons, you can look forward to the ones ahead, whilst still enjoying the one currently on offer.
    Today at the local IGA I was greeted by a tray of ready-to-go blood plums; perfect to eat right now, but sitting there at a discount price it seemed a tray just made for jamming.
    Jam making is one of those things that you either have time for, or you don't. Luckily today I was in research mode for an article I'm writing and had plenty of time at the computer ahead of me. So what better way to be doubly productive than to get a pot of jam on the boil and babysit it while I'm working?
    Now I recognise that not everyone has a kitchen at their disposal during work hours -sadly I don't always have this luxury either- but jamming is a great thing to do whenever you've got stuff that's holding you at home. I grew up in a house where mum made marmalade (mum-alade) whilst helping us with our homework, and I reckon I might give it ago next time I've got a bit of DVD watching planned.
    Trust me, home made jam is totally worth the odd break or two in a movie.

    Easy and relatively quick Plum & Rosewater Jam:
    • 1kg ripe blood plums- washed, quartered and de-stoned
    • 2 cups boiling water
    • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
    • 3 cups sugar
    • 1 teaspoon rosewater (I usually just add a dash of my own measure, but if you don't have it, just leave it out)
    Five ingredients- that's it! No stuffing round with pectin in this recipe! And the rosewater just gives it that extra-sexy aroma to tanalise and warm you in the winter months. What could be better than a jar of rose scented plums? It's just that tiny point of difference.

    First- place a small plate or saucer into the fridge to chill, this is for the set test later on.
    Next- make sure you have some clean and sterilised jars on hand so that the jam will keep when bottled.
    *See note below on sterilising* 
    Place the plums and boiling water into a heavy based saucepan on high heat. Bring to the boil and then simmer uncovered for about an hour. Check occasionally to make sure it hasn't done anything weird and is just happily bubbling away.
    The plums should be nice a soft by this time, the skins will have mostly peeled away, but the quarters will still be holding their shape a little. Some people like to take the skins out, but I reccommed leaving them in for the rustic feel and for colour. Jams are just better when they are chunky and full of real bits.
    Reduce the heat to low and add the lemon juice and sugar and stir- without boiling- until the sugar is completely dissolved. If you taste it now it's like really syrupy plum cordial.
    Then bring the pan up to a rapid boil, reduce to a steady boil and leave bubbling away uncovered for 30mins.
    Check to see how the set of the jam is going *see note below on testing jam set* and if it's not quite at setting point, boil it for another 15mins and do the set test again. At the last minute stir through the rosewater just to give it that wonderful (extra) sexy fragrance- a little bit of Eastern flair with your scones.

    Once your jam has a good set, spoon it into the sterilised jars (I always spill plenty) and seal it up whilst hot to create a good seal and then let it cool for storage.
    Just think of all the joy those crumpets are gonna get come mid-winter tea and toast!

    Wether you choose to decorate the lids with little fabric caps is up to you- I can't help myself, if I'm playing Nanna, I just have to go the whole hog. So yes, I am one of those neighbours who pops in with a jar of jam... tea anyone?

    *Setting test: Place a dollop of the jam onto the chilled saucer from the fridge, pop it back in the firdge for a minute, then take it out and run your finger through it to separate it in half. If it stays in two distinct parts then it's ready and has a good set. If not, just boil it a little longer. How much set you go with is up to you. I don't like my jam to get too jellied up.

    *Sterisling bottles/jars: You can do this by heating them in the oven for 15minutes or by boiling them in a pot on the stove for 5minutes or so. I'm no expert- but fingers crossed my jams don't seem to have any problems if they are stored in cool places. Either way, just remember to heat the jars slowly otherwise they might break, and jam making is messy enough without broken glass everywhere too.

    The first roast chicken & heating a UK kitchen:

    My first shot at roast chicken was as a traveller living overseas in the UK in 1999. We liked to refer to ourselves as 'dirty backpakers', despite the fact that we had a fixed address most of the time, for most of the year.

    It was Easter and I was homesick. My girlfiend and I considered ourselves to be not half bad in the kitchen. So in a bid to feel closer to our roots at this family time of year, we invited the local priest of the girls boarding school we worked at round for dinner. Father D was a lovely guy in his 50's with a penchant for whiskey and telling bad jokes. We loved him and he certainly had time for us in the holidays when the girls from the boarding school were home with their families. 
    We all shared mango for dessert as a nod to our homesickness for sunshine and beaches- sadly it was unripe and tasted remarkably like fruity cardbaord- still, the spirit was there.
    What I remember most about our flat in Ascot was the kitchen.
    Windows down one end overlooked the large flat lawn leading to the woods behind the house. We were three floors up, top floor hidden under the eves- but the kitchen window was bright and clear with a perfect view of the squirrels and the back-burning below. Burning off days were my favourite, with the groundsmen in their gumboots piling bonfire heaps of refuse and then watching it smoulder away in the mist.
    Somtimes I didn't even mind being on the weeks washing-up duty because of that view. 
    The heating in our flat was intermittent at best- wall heaters would fail in the night and hot water was questionable and limited for a house of five girls. Do the washing up and there were no hot showers for a while. On really cold days I would turn on the oven and sit in the kitchen with the door sealed shut, reading a book. Somtimes I might even bake a cake while the oven was on, depending on what groceries we had. Homemade croissants were a favourite after we'd all done a cooking class on them. No wonder we all put on weight. 

    Still, the roast chicken Easter lunch was a success- despite the poor tools we had and the unripe mango. In many ways getting this dish right through pure luck and a 'lets just do this' attitude was a right of passage. It proved to me that with the right kind of will, you can cook anything, anywhere.
    You don't need fancy pots, good knives, matching plates or even an oven with even temperature. What you need is the desire to do it, people around you with a good sense of humour and a willingness to at least give it a go.
    Being sensible about reading the way your oven distributes heat also helps- a little jiggle and shift here and there got our bird evenly browned and cooked through, without burning it to a crisp.

    To this day the memory of that meagre and somewhat haphazard feast is one of joy and it stands as one of the better meals I have eaten in my time. Nothing quite like a roast with friends to banish homesickness and enjoy the moment.

    Roast Chicken with salt and lemon:
    The best rule with roast chicken is always just to keep it simple.

    1. Rub salt on the chicken inside and out and leave covered in the fridge for a few hours until ready to cook.
    2. Thoroughly preheat the oven to 190degC
    3. Rub the chicken with oil and season with salt and pepper
    4. Stuff the cavity with two halves of a whole lemon- feel free to squeeze the juice around the cavity 
    5. Place the chicken on a wire rack over a tray of water (use boiling water so it's up to temperature)
    6. Place the chicken dish on the middle tray of your oven and bake for 45 mins
    7. Turn the chicken and leave for another 40min
    8. Turn the chicken right side up again for another 5mins
    9. Rest for 5min and the joint and serve with a salad/veg of your choice

    NoteMango for desert is a geat idea, as long as it's ripe.
    Chook chook.

    To never taste again

    Backdate: 8th of February 2010-

    I can't stop thinking about my uncle. He can no longer speak and he has lost the opportunity to eat. He who already lost his sight and walked haltingly with a cane and dark glasses- he can now no longer speak, eat or taste.
    The result of 40-odd years of smoking.
    Because cigarettes will do more than kill you.

    Over the phone my mum tells me horrific stories of him, her big brother, mouthing words like 'help me' and the panic in his eyes when he realised that he could no longer make a sound. Her happier stories tell of moments that say 'i love you'- great strides for a relationship stranded by years of pain, his alcoholism and her hurt.
    I was sitting at a favourite cafe as I thought all these things, musing over C the barista slipping me a sly latte that magically didn't show up on the bill. Wallowing in a bowl of spiced breakfast cous cous.
    We make friends in the strangest places, particularly when there is food involved.
    C is a kisser. A toucher. But I still didn't expect the outpouring of love with a big hug that I received when I told him about my uncle. In a world of food lovers, the thought of never eating again, much less speaking, is a terrible reality that strikes a chord.
    C never even met the man, and still my sad news was met with a genuine need to show solidarity and support. Maybe my sadness and confusion were more evident than I thought. Perhaps the idea of never being able to speak, taste or eat again strikes harder than we can imagine.
    I am conflicted.
    Happy that the medical profession can ease the suffering of my life-long smoking uncle, horrified by the life that this help confines him to.
    Apparently he jokes that there is only so much pureed bolognaise that one man can take.