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Archive for the ‘winter’ Category

chicken & barley soup

In autumn, soup, winter, year-round on 23 April, 2012 at 7:10 pm

It’s hard to believe we’re already almost at the end of April, the days are getting shorter and darker, I’ve finally re-embraced wearing tights. It seems like just yesterday that we were all complaining about the lack of a summer, and now here we are, thigh-deep in autumn, whether we like it or not. I like it. Despite the deliriously frantic pace of the last few weeks, this autumn has been nice – that sort of settling-in feeling has set in, I’ve been making soups and curries and braised meats and bringing out the woolly jumpers and savouring every bit of it.

This time last year was much the same: April sped by at a breakneck pace, just shy of overwhelming. But this time, though it’s crept up on me, I’m in a bit more control. If last April started with a bang and a headlong descent into a chaotic busy-girl frenzy, this year’s April started with a whimper and a steady crescendo to a controlled pandemonium. Which is better, I guess.

At the beginning of the month (and I can’t believe it’s already three weeks ago) I found myself huddled under the duvet in a friend’s* bed in Auckland, that horrible alternating between shivery cold and feverish sweat, dreaming weird feverish dreams in which I didn’t make it back to Wellington alive. Of all the times I could possibly get sick, of course it had to be on a weekend away.

So that was awful. But despite my fever-induced delusions to the contrary, I did live to see the morning (and an excellent breakfast at Kokako in Grey Lynn, and the Degas to Dali exhibition at the art gallery, and some amazing turbot sliders at Depot), and I managed to make it back to Wellington alive.

And when I got home, I made this soup. It’s a simple chicken soup, simple enough to make when you’ve got nothing in the fridge, just as long as you get some bone-in chicken pieces and a carrot or two. It was super delicious, and it saw out the rest of my cold, and the rest of that crazy-busy week when the only thing I wanted was the thing I didn’t have time for: rest.

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You see, chicken soup is the best thing for when you’re sick, tired, hungry, stressed, overwhelmed, all those things that happen to people all the time but to me especially when the seasons are changing and it’s getting colder and darker and things are getting busy. It’s down-to-earth, pure, simple comfort food, and it’s kept my feet firmly planted on the ground during what was an incredibly busy couple of weeks.

This recipe is really more of a loose method than anything else. You might have your own favourite chicken soup recipe; for those who don’t I’m sharing mine. It’s simple enough that you can make it even when you’re too feeble to do much else, which is an important thing for this kind of food.

Feel free to get creative and add or subtract ingredients – the key thing you’re looking for is a deeply soothing broth with chunks of meat and vegetables. Things like barley, noodles, rice, little alphabet pasta, etc are an added bonus – I really, really like the almost-chewy, wholesome quality of barley though.

*so many thank-yous to Sophie for looking after me! x


CHICKEN & BARLEY SOUP

Get a bone-in chicken leg quarter, or 3 or 4 drumsticks, or any combination of bone-in chicken pieces. Put in a big pot and cover with plenty of water. Add some things like: an onion, sliced in half, a carrot, maybe some celery tops, herbs from the garden, peppercorns, bay leaves, that sort of thing. Bring to the boil, skim off the scum that rises, cover and let simmer on a low heat until the chicken’s cooked and comes off the bone easily – about an hour.

Take the chicken out of the pot, pull the meat from the bones, return the bones to the pot and let simmer as long as you can manage – an hour more, perhaps, or longer if you’ve got time to kill, like if you’ve taken the day off work.

Meanwhile, chop up the chicken (or pull apart with your fingers, depending on how you like it) and set aside. Roughly chop a carrot or two, an onion, celery if you’ve got it, plenty of garlic. 

In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat up some butter or olive oil (or both) over a medium heat and saute the carrot, onion and celery until they start to soften a bit. Add the garlic and some sprigs of thyme* and let cook a little bit more until fragrant, then add some pearl barley (I used about 3/4 cup, but you could use less or more depending on how thick you want it – just adjust the liquid if need be). Season with a bit of salt and pepper.

Using a sieve, strain the chicken stock from the other pot into the pot with the vegetables and barley. If it needs more liquid, add a bit of water and adjust the seasoning. Bring to the boil and then let simmer for 30 minutes or until the barley’s nice and tender. Add the chopped chicken, heat through, taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

Serve on its own or with hot buttered toast.

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*or whatever herbs you’ve got on hand that you think might go nicely: oregano, chopped up rosemary, tarragon, etc.

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mandarin custard tarts with poached rhubarb

In baking, desserts, early spring, winter on 21 September, 2011 at 11:10 pm

There’s no doubt that spring is here, with asparagus and strawberries having made their (pricey but triumphant) debut, sudden downpours and that crazy spring wind kicking up again and sprouting rocket and lettuces taking over the pots on my balcony. And I can’t quite get my head around the fact that daylight savings time is starting again this weekend.

But strawberries are still madly expensive and it’s not quite time yet for other, more exciting fruits. Luckily there’s still plenty of citrus to fall back on, and I’ve been furiously eating all the oranges, grapefruits and mandarins I can get my hands on.

These are the fruits that see me through winter. When I lived in Japan, mandarins (known there as mikan) were my constant companion all winter long; I saw countless evenings turn into nights just sitting in the living room, legs tucked into kotatsu*, drinking hot green tea and peeling mikan after mikan, watching TV or writing letters to friends back home.**

On Sunday, at the market, after breakfasting on cheesecake and so many oysters, I ventured out looking for something fresh and exciting and ended up with the same things I’ve been eating for the last couple months: citrus and rhubarb. But what glorious Gisborne mandarins they were: bright and orange and bursting with cheer. And the rhubarb –  those stalks so robust and fresh-looking with their almost-fluorescent-pink ends – couldn’t pass it up either.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them for ages after I got home until I got to thinking about spring, and summer, and that got me thinking about the custard tarts my friend Rob used to make for summertime picnics and flat dinners and so on.***

His were filled with a thick, creamy vanilla-seed-studded custard, and topped with berries or cherries or whatever summer fruit was available. They were beautiful: cool, creamy, bursting with fruit juices, perfect for an evening dinner outdoors. But I wanted something a little bit more grounded, a little less fleeting than the bursting berries and cold-creamy custard of summer.

So in a tribute to winter fruits, and with a nod towards the chilled fruit-and-custard desserts of the warmer months, I settled on making these baked mandarin custard tarts, topped with poached rhubarb and bits of mandarin.

I couldn’t quite find the recipe I was imagining in my head, so the custard recipe is sort of cobbled together from a couple recipes in past issues of Cuisine (one of them, for scented custard tarts, is here, and the other, for a grapefruit tart, is here) and from tinkering around in the kitchen until I got the custard filling right.

The recipe might seem complicated, but it’s pretty straightforward. There are just several steps involved, and some assembly. The way I go about it is as follows:

1. Making the pastry.
2. Making the custard filling.
3. Putting (1) and (2) together and baking.
4. Poaching rhubarb with which to top the cooled, finished product of (3).
5. Eating.

See? So much simpler when you look at it that way. And it’s beautiful: sunny-yellow custard filling all mellow and sweet from the addition of mandarin juice, just a tad aromatic and grown-up from cardamom and orange blossom water. The rhubarb and mandarin on top, though not as intensely dramatic as bright-red, burstingly juicy cherries or berries, are sweet and demure and just juicy enough to provide a lovely contrast to the creamy custard.

*Kotatsu. So traditionally, in Japanese homes, you sit on the floor on a low table when you eat. And in the winter, people sandwich a futon (not the fold-out sofa known to English-speakers as a futon, but a proper Japanese one, basically a thick, heavy duvet) in between the table top and the frame. And underneath? A heater. Yes. So amazing. Kotatsu are, in my opinion, quite possibly one of the best inventions mankind has ever come up with, and I’m perplexed as to why this hasn’t caught on in Western countries, especially New Zealand, what with our general lack of central heating or insulation and all.

**Almost as hard to believe as the fact that daylight savings time is nearly here: the fact that in 2002 I was still writing letters. Yes, I was also using email at the time, but it was still a time when letter-writing was, I dunno, somewhat common?!  It was pre-Facebook, that’s for sure. Now? I write letters to my grandma…

***Apparently I think about those tarts a lot… this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned them in a blog post.

MANDARIN CUSTARD TARTS WITH POACHED RHUBARB

First, make the shortcrust pastry. You’ll need about 400 grams. You can use your own favourite sweet shortcrust pastry recipe, or the following, which I’ve slightly from A Cook’s Bible:

200g flour sifted with 1/4 tsp salt
125 g butter
50g icing sugar
1 egg
zest of 1 or 2 mandarins 

Sift the flour and salt into a medium-sized bowl. Cut the butter into little pieces and rub into the flour using your fingers. Beat the egg, sugar and zest together and add to the flour mixture: it should be nice and firm like cookie dough.* If it’s too wet or soft, add a bit more flour. If it’s too dry, add a little milk. Form into a ball, wrap with plastic wrap and stick in the fridge for 30 minutes or so.

*A nice, firm cookie dough, like for sugar cookies or other cookies you roll out, not the kind you glop onto baking sheets.

While the pastry is resting in the fridge, prepare the mandarin custard filling:

1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup cream*
a few (5 or so) cardamom pods
a decent-sized piece of mandarin peel
1 cup mandarin juice
(from about 5-6 mandarins)
zest of about 2-3 mandarins
2 eggs, plus an egg yolk
(white reserved for brushing the inside of the pastry)
100g sugar

orange blossom water 
(optional)

Heat the milk and cream along with the cardamom pods and mandarin peel just until boiling. Cover and let steep for at least 10 minutes, maybe more, while you get everything else ready.

Squeeze about a cupful of mandarin juice and pour into a little saucepan. Boil vigorously until it reduces to about 1/4 cup. Let cool.

In a smallish bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolk along with the sugar and mandarin zest until the sugar dissolves a bit and it’s well-combined. Add the reduced juice (ha! that’s fun to say) and whisk some more, then, using a sieve, strain out the cardamom pods and mandarin peel from the cream/milk mixture and pour that in. Give everything a good whisk to combine. If you have orange blossom water, add a couple drops of that – not to overpower it, but enough to give it that alluring hint of something seductively floral.

*I used a milk-cream mixture because I was almost out of cream. You could also just go ahead and use all cream.

Next, assembly! (The fun part, of course.)

Heat the oven to 170C. 

Roll out the pastry so it’s reasonably thin and use it to line a 12-cup muffin tin.* Line with baking paper, weigh the paper down with dry beans (or ceramic blind-baking beans or whatever you have), and blind bake at 170C for about 10-15 minutes until they’re just starting to get a golden hue and hold their shape.

Take them out of the oven, remove the baking paper liners and beans, and brush the inside with the reserved egg white. Pop back in the oven for another 5 minutes. Turn the oven down to 150C.

Let them cool down a bit before you put the custard filling in. You don’t have to go crazy and wait ages, I lasted about 5 minutes.

Using a small ladle, carefully pour the custard filling into each tart shell so that it comes almost all the way up to the top. Carefully (I tend to slosh these things around and make a huge mess, so be steady) place these in the oven.  Bake at 150C for about 20 minutes or until just set (no longer liquidy, though they may still have a teensy bit of wobble). Remove from the oven and cool completely.

* Or, 2 6-cup muffin tins, or individual tart tins, or whatever takes your fancy really – .

Next, poach the rhubarb for the topping:

2 stalks rhubarb, cut into little pieces that’ll fit in each tart
bits of mandarin peel
a couple tablespoons sugar

Heat the sugar and mandarin peel in about 1/2 cup water until the sugar is all dissolved and the mixture comes to a nice simmer. Add the rhubarb pieces and simmer gently for 2 or so minutes, so that they’re just cooked and tender but not totally falling apart. Remove from the liquid and let cool.

When everything is completely cool, top each tart with a bit of rhubarb and a mandarin segment (pith removed). Chill in the fridge until you’re ready to serve.

Wow! And congratulations and thank you for making it to the end of this extremely long post! Thank you also to all the people who have visited the Facebook page for this blog already, and hit ‘like’ – if you haven’t yet, it’s at www.facebook.com/milliemirepoix and I have unashamedly talked it up here. Feel free to check it out.

Coconut rice pudding with palm sugar & cinnamon-poached pear

In desserts, gluten free, puddings, winter on 31 August, 2011 at 7:59 am

Like I said before, winter’s fast drawing to a close whether we like it or not. I know this because I’m sitting in bed typing out a blog post and I’m not wearing multiple layers of wool tights, fluffy socks, pajama pants, merino thermals, thick wool jumpers (the answer to “but didn’t you get uncomfortably hot in the night?” is yes).

And like I said last time, I’m not so reluctant to let go of winter anymore. It’s the sunshine, the flowering trees heavy with anticipatory buds, that wonderful feeling we take for granted the rest of the year of leaving the house and coming home from work while it’s still light out. And I’m getting so excited for asparagus.

But the nights are still chilly (ish) and there are still plenty of pears on supermarket shelves and I’m sure we’ll be hit with one last polar blast before we can truly say spring is here. So, okay, we’re cautiously watching the ebb of the bleak, cold signs of winter. But we can still enjoy comforting puddings like this one.

Rice pudding is one of those polarising desserts that people seem to love or hate: maybe it’s the texture, or having had too many stodgy, mealy rice puddings as a child. I remember my parents eating it when I was growing up, though I was never interested: to me, rice was something you eat along with Asian food, a savoury thing, a staple food, not something that would be good in a dessert. But I came around eventually, which is good, because rice pudding can be So Good – creamy, silky, sweet and comforting – and can take on so many different flavour variations.

So I was excited to see a slew of different rice pudding recipes while browsing through the June/July issue of Donna Hay, enough that I was convinced to buy the magazine and try out some of the variations. This was probably my favourite: the rice is cooked in coconut milk rather than cow’s milk, and drizzled with a syrup made from poaching pears in palm sugar syrup. YES.

In the end I made some changes to the recipe, mostly based on what I had in my cupboards, but found it turned out beautifully: I used a combination of half-milk, half-coconut milk (because I only had about 2 cups of coconut milk) and 2 pears instead of 4 (I only had 2 pears in the fruit bowl). It was still nice and coconutty even with less coconut milk, and I found that half a pear for each serving was just fine. Feel free to use all coconut milk if you like (as the original recipe had it) – this would be especially good for people who are trying to avoid dairy. I imagine it would work well with half-coconut milk, half-almond milk as well.

I have a feeling the coconut rice pudding would work really well with fresh strawberries, mangoes, pineapple, peach – so there’s definitely potential to keep this recipe around beyond the end of winter (today!).

COCONUT RICE PUDDING WITH PALM SUGAR & CINNAMON-POACHED PEARS
(adapted from Donna Hay #57, Jun/Jul 2011)

Peel 2 rather firm pears, slice in half and remove the cores. In a saucepan big enough to fit 4 pear halves, place 2 cinnamon sticks1 cup (270g) grated palm sugar and 4 cups water. Heat, stirring, over high heat until all the sugar is dissolved, then bring the heat down to low. Place the pear halves into the simmering liquid, cover and poach until tender.  This should take about 10-15 minutes. Once the pears are done, remove from the liquid and bring the heat back up to high; reduce the liquid until it starts to get all syrupy and amazing-looking. Also, your kitchen should smell beautiful right about now.

Meanwhile, bring 1 cup arborio rice, 1 litre coconut milk (or 2 cups coconut milk + 2 cups milk) and 1/2 cup caster sugar to the boil in a saucepan placed over high heat. Give it a good stir and reduce the heat to low, cover and let simmer for about 25-30 minutes. Stir occasionally. Once it’s ready the rice will be tender and the liquid will have thickened somewhat so that it’s silky in texture.

Serve hot, topped with a poached pear half and plenty of syrup. Amazing.

Serves 4.

pear, feijoa & ginger crostata

In autumn, baking, desserts, winter on 18 August, 2011 at 8:10 am

Okay, so I know what you’re thinking. Feijoa? In August? You’re right, this post has been sitting here for a wee while. 

But I’ve been wanting to post it anyway. I’ve been in a little bit of a seasonal rebellion. Feels like it was only yesterday that I was lamenting the end of summer and relishing the settling-down feeling of autumn. Feels like it went by in too quick a flash and suddenly all at once winter had set in, the shortest day had come and gone, and we were hurtling recklessly down a fast track into spring. The days were (still are!) getting longer, there were snowdrops and daffodils and lambs on the side of the road coming back from the mountain, the birds seemed to be chirping a bit more, I  smelled something akin to that distinct smell of thaw* in the air in the still, clear mornings.

It came to a head last weekend when I was in Auckland visiting friends and it was warm (warm enough for bare legs and no woolly coat! for a little while at least), springlike, magnolias flowering everywhere. And it was nice. But I thought, hang on. It’s still August. I’m not ready for spring yet. Spring is  full of new beginnings and everything young and tender and bursting with potential. And yes, it’s exciting, with changes afoot and everything moving forward and so on. But not just yet. Not for me, anyway.

So when it snowed on Monday (I was still in Auckland during the first snow on Sunday) and I couldn’t contain my excitement, maybe there was a bit more to it than just the novelty of seeing snowflakes outside my window. In Wellington. On The Terrace. (!!!) Maybe there was a little bit of relief in there too, a little bit of: slow down now, relax, it’s not spring yet.

And as much as I’ve been scrunching up my face at the hail, at the sleet, at having to take taxis home when the buses have stopped, this ridiculously wintry weather has been kind of a reprieve from the dizzying trajectory into spring. Spring is full of opportunity: I’m not there yet. Almost, but not just yet. I’m still holding on to winter, to stews and roasts and snow, to weekends spent with friends and homemade steak pies and mulled wine and hot chocolates, woolly blankets and daydreams. I’m a huge fan of spring and summer but I’m still grasping backwards, to a simpler time, cosy and pleasant and quiet: early winter, maybe even late autumn, when the whole hunkering-down business was still ahead of us and things wouldn’t be picking up speed for a while.

So that’s why I’m sharing this late-autumn pie. The time will soon come when I have to let go and embrace the new, the young, the fresh, to fill my pies with the very first strawberries, to scan supermarket shelves wildly for asparagus. But not just yet.

Until that time comes I’ll be happily making soups and stews and eating the last of the pears, hanging onto the gritty-sweet memories of last season’s fruit. Like feijoas. (Though the other night I did make a pear and tamarillo crumble which is a far more appropriate fruit combination for right now: I reckon it would work beautifully in this pie.)

*If you’ve ever lived in a place where everything (the ground, rivers, lakes, etc) freezes over in the winter you’ll know what I mean… that sort of raw, earthy, fresh dirt smell after months of smelling practically nothing outside. It’s invigorating.

PEAR, FEIJOA & GINGER CROSTATA (makes 2 smallish or 1 large pie)

For the crust:
(recipe adapted from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book via this Serious Eats post)

140g flour*
1 Tbsp sugar
1/8 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
110g butter, very cold & cut into little pieces
3-4 Tbsp ice cold water, as needed

Sift together the dry ingredients. Add the butter pieces and toss so that they’re coated in the flour mixture. Rub the butter into the flour (or use a pastry cutter or food processor) until the mixture reaches a pebbly consistency.

Sprinkle 3 tbsp of the cold water over the mixture, and using your hands, work the mixture into a dough. If it’s not sticking together enough, add a little more water (only a bit at a time); if it’s too sticky, add a bit more flour. Form into a ball. If you’re making 2 smaller pies, as I did here, divide the dough into 2 and roll into balls. Flatten them a bit, wrap in plastic wrap, stick in the fridge to cool for at least half an hour.

For the filling:

Chop up roughly 350g pears (about 1-2 smallish pears) and scoop out the flesh of 1-2 feijoas (you could easily use tamarillo, or rhubarb, or any pie-appropriate fruit, really). Place in a bowl, grate some fresh ginger over the top, sprinkle over a handful of sugar (I used brown sugar), mix it up and let it sit for a bit.

Assembly:

Preheat the oven to 350C.

Take the chilled pie dough out of the fridge and roll out onto a floured surface until it’s about 1/8 inch thick** and of a more or less circular shape. Trim any weird scraggly edges, but you don’t have to be too meticulous – this is a free-form pie, so a  little inconsistency is okay. (It adds character!)

Pile the fruit in the middle and fold over the outside edge, pinching a bit as you go. Dot the fruit with little torn-off bits of butter, brush the pastry with an egg wash of a beaten egg & a splash of milk, sprinkle demerara sugar over everything and stick in the oven for 25-30 minutes (if you are making one larger pie, you may need to have it in the oven for longer) until the fruit is cooked and the pastry’s nice and golden.

Let cool a little bit and serve with whipped cream or creme fraiche or a bit of plain yoghurt. 

*I’ve made this with both wholemeal flour and various combinations of white and wholemeal. It works however you do it, though you may need to tweak the amount of butter and/or water a little bit.

**You don’t want it to be too thin – this pie doesn’t have the benefit of a pie dish to hold it all together, so you’ll want it to be sturdy enough to hold in the juices.

ps. this is my first contribution to the Sweet New Zealand monthly blogging event organised by Alessandra. Got it in just in the nick of time :)

beetroot, orange & fennel salad

In gluten free, salads, sides, winter on 30 July, 2011 at 7:55 pm

I don’t normally post things the day I make them. I usually like to sit on a blog post for a day or two (at least), think about it a bit, maybe make the recipe again. But not this: the dishes are still all over the kitchen, my now-empty plate is sitting next to my laptop as I type, my fingers are still stained a brilliant hue of magenta from peeling cooked beetroot. This is one of those things that’s too good not to share immediately.

A couple weeks ago, I finally got myself a copy of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Plenty. It was one of those purchases you plot out months in advance and think longingly of every time you hear it mentioned or see it on a bookshelf somewhere. Anyway, ever since I got it I’d been thinking about making Ottolenghi’s beetroot, orange & black olive salad, mostly because I had all the ingredients on hand and I’ve been trying to become the kind of person who doesn’t let food go to waste.

But it’s been too cold to think about salads, and I’ve been living off over-the-top hearty fare: braised short ribs, Ottolenghi’s winter couscous, creamy rice pudding. Yes, when it’s cold out I almost exclusively cook with a cast-iron pot. So the salad went unmade.

Until today: a burst of sunshine, a bit of cheer injected into the otherwise dull winter cynicism a lot of us have been experiencing lately. So with a bit of optimism I set about making the salad, only to quickly discover I was out of olives (had forgotten they’d gone into some olive & feta muffins I made for Week Two of the Wellington on a Plate Bake Club we’ve been doing at work). I also only had one orange instead of two, and in a fit of excitement hadn’t read the ingredients list carefully enough to remember to pick up an endive at Moore Wilson’s.

The sun was still streaming through the balcony onto my kitchen counter, though, and not to be deterred, I made a few adjustments to Yotam’s original recipe: I halved it, substituted capers for the olives, used fennel instead of red endive, threw in a handful of watercress for good measure.

The result was the most beautiful, fresh-looking thing I’ve eaten probably since I got back from holiday in the Northern Hemisphere summer. It’s exquisite: not just the jewel-toned beetroot juices staining everything in sight, but the flavours too – sweet, salty, earthy, fresh, soft, sharp. Everything’s exactly as it should be.

BEETROOT, ORANGE & FENNEL SALAD
(adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty)

Slice off the tops and bottoms of a couple beetroots (I used 1 regular-sized purple one and a handful of baby golden beetroot) and boil in salted water until you can stick a knife in them easily. Let cool.

Meanwhile, cut an orange into wedges. Ottolenghi suggests you do this by first removing all the orange rind and white pith, then using a small, sharp knife to cut the orange into segments by running a knife down the side of the membranes. It means you won’t have any tough membraney bits in your orange pieces, which is nice, but if you’re short on time and don’t mind too much you could just as easily cut the orange into wedges and slice the flesh away from the skin. Either way, do this over a bowl to catch any dripping juices.

Peel the now-cool beetroot and slice into wedges; place in a mixing bowl. Add the oranges and their juice, 1/2 a sliced fennel bulb, 1 tbsp or so of capers, 1 tsp orange blossom water, 1 tbsp each red wine vinegar & olive oil, a handful of watercress, sea salt & freshly ground black pepper. Toss very gently with tongs so that everything’s nicely coated but still keeps its colour more or less.

Serves 2 as a side dish.

(For a version of this salad that’s truer to the original: Mairi’s post on Toast)

PS. Part Four of my series of old airline cutlery is this old Ansett New Zealand fork. A relic! (For those of you reading this from outside NZ, Ansett hasn’t existed for a while now. I’ve flown with them once or twice, on my first visit to see my grandparents in New Zealand when I was six. Unfortunately I don’t remember too much about the airline itself, other than being in Auckland airport waiting to board the plane.)
Parts One, Two and Three are herehere & here.

hot milk, honey + nutmeg (the best hot drink, hands down)

In autumn, drinks, gluten free, winter on 24 July, 2011 at 10:09 am

If you’re reading this in Wellington (or, well, most of New Zealand) you’ll know why I’m posting this today. This weekend has been disgustingly miserable, cold and blustery and wet, and I made the big mistake yesterday of leaving the house. On foot. I had a raincoat on, not that it made much difference: I was completely soggy from mid-thigh down, and damp everywhere else. My usually waterproof handbag had a little puddle of water inside. By the time I got back home I was exhausted, shivering, chilled to the bone in a way I haven’t been in a long time. So: to the rescue, only the best hot drink there is.

This drink comes by way of a dear friend and former flatmate who worked at Deliaro what feels like an age ago. It was our first year flatting, in what might have possibly been The Coldest Flat in Wellington (tied, of course, with most other cheap student flats in Aro Valley and Kelburn, I’m sure) where wind blew through cracks in the floorboards in the lounge and bottles of olive oil would start to solidify in the cupboards. I’m not making this up, though admittedly the drafty lounge floor was partly our own doing: it took us a long time, maybe until the second winter, to finally decide it might be a good idea to move the rug the landlord gave us to put in the lounge into the lounge. (But I mean, it clashed with the grass-green lounge walls, the colour we’d picked out when we moved in and the landlord said he’d have the lounge repainted. Sheesh. Nineteen.)

When winter rolled around and we all went and bought heaters for our rooms and then got our first $1000 power bill and then quickly banished all the heaters to underneath the unused dining table that sat next to Fridge No. 2, which always leaked unpleasant odours, we mostly abandoned the cold, drafty lounge. Or at least the way I remember it. In any case, I never spent much time in there that winter.

What I remember more from that first cold winter was, if I wasn’t huddled under duvets in my room, hanging out in the kitchen: glaringly bright from the combination of stainless steel benchtops, ancient cupboards the colour of rancid cream and the harsh fluorescent light that took up most of the ceiling. It was probably the smallest room in the house: puzzling for a place that housed eight, more or less. We’d stand shoulder to shoulder chopping vegetables, jostle over stovetop elements, argue over who hadn’t cleaned up their mess (touchy subject when bench space was at a premium) or who’d been eating whose cheese or Nutella.

It was a volatile space, not the most pleasant. But for whatever reason, people would mill about there: standing around, waiting for the jug to boil, leaning against the awkwardly placed microwave, talking to whomever was cooking or doing the dishes. I doubt it was because the kitchen was any nicer than the rest of the house (it was pretty much on par), or because it was brighter (the colour and lighting scheme was austere, institutional more than anything). Probably because it was a little warmer than the rest of the house, and probably for the same reason people mill about in kitchens the world over.

Anyway it was late on one of those cold nights where we’d stand around the cramped yellow kitchen in our slippers and dressing gowns that I first watched my flatmate making this drink. It’s something they had (probably still do?) at Deliaro when she worked there, and she used to make it back at the flat. It was also the first time I’d seen someone grate fresh nutmeg into anything. Fascinating.

I didn’t really get into making this drink for myself then, but the thought stayed with me until maybe a couple years ago, when in a fit of nostalgia and also probably the throes of a winter storm I remembered the drink my friend used to make, and realised I now had my own little box of whole nutmeg for grating into things. Since then it’s been my go-to hot drink: forget hot chocolate or lemon, honey & ginger drinks. This stuff is The Best. (And the least fuss.)

I wasn’t ever one of those kids who got given hot milk before bed, mostly because I didn’t like drinking milk. But I imagine this would be perfect for that sort of thing: smooth, sweet, warming, laced with deeply fragrant nutmeg.

HOT MILK AND HONEY WITH NUTMEG

Heat up a mugful of milk per person (preferably full-fat/whole milk, the best you can find*) until just starting to froth. Put a spoonful of honey**, to taste, in a mug.*** Pour the hot milk over the honey; give it a stir. Grate some nutmeg over the top. Carry the mug over to the couch. Snuggle up under a blanket; enjoy.

*I don’t have any on hand to test my theory but I bet this would be beautiful with a creamy, full-bodied raw milk. If you have access to raw milk, let me know if you try it!

**I usually use a honey with a pretty strong flavour, like manuka – I like how the taste of the honey stands out as distinct against the milk and nutmeg. But feel free to use whatever honey you prefer.

***To help the honey dissolve effortlessly, before adding the milk I usually pop the mug (with a spoonful of honey in the bottom) in the microwave for about 10 seconds or so until it goes all liquidy.

brussels sprouts with toasted walnuts & pancetta

In autumn, gluten free, sides, travel, winter on 19 July, 2011 at 10:17 pm

The other night, I simultaneously burnt and overcooked-to-the-point-of-mushiness what should have been a delicious bowl of brussels sprouts (oh, internet with your myriad distractions).  Half out of sheer hunger/tiredness and half out of you-got-yourself-into-this-mess stubbornness, I smothered them in pecorino romano and butter and ate them. I’ll say this: the cheese was good. I’ll also say this: even without the acrid burnt taste they would’ve still conjured up childhood vegetable nightmares. Yep, they were that bad.

These are not those brussels sprouts. But I felt I had to do something to make up for the ones I did such a disservice to. Because brussels sprouts – poor things, they’re so maligned, and undeservedly so – need all the good press they can get. Cooked right, they’re a joy: nutty, almost sweet, tender-crisp. And cut in half they’re the perfect bite size, their little cabbage-leaves soaking up all the butter they can handle (which is a lot).

If you knew me at all as a child you’d know that I was ridiculously picky; the closest I’d get to voluntarily eating vegetables was poking at a few leaves of lettuce in a salad or dipping a carrot stick in miso (try it sometime!). And perhaps because no one in my family liked brussels sprouts except my dad, they appeared on the dinner table only once – maybe twice – a year, at Thanksgiving* and sometimes Christmas dinner, when we’d clear the dining room of all the boxes and junk that had accumulated from non-use (we were a family of kitchen-table eaters), set the table with a hardly-used tablecloth and the special plates we wouldn’t see for the rest of the year, and my dad would repeat his annual campaign to get us all to help him eat the brussels sprouts. We wouldn’t.

Until one year not so long ago, when I returned home for the holidays and my dad did something we brussels-sprouts haters had never heard of: he cooked the brussels sprouts with bacon and almost-caramelised onions. I secretly think he would’ve done this ages ago if he had actually wanted to share the brussels sprouts with the rest of us, because between my brothers and me, they flew off the table. (It might’ve had something to do with bacon’s magical ability to make everything taste Damn Good, but I like to think that’s where my brussels sprout appreciation started…)

Now I can’t wait for brussels sprouts to appear each year and I’ve been eating plenty while they’re in season and cheap. I love them braised or sauteed but I’m just as likely to make a simple snack of them by quickly boiling or steaming them just til fork-tender and eating them with butter, sea salt and cracked pepper.  This time I’ve sauteed them with pancetta and shallots, sort of a throwback to that first eye-opening brussels sprouts experience. Thanks Dad.

Funny how we turn into our parents, how we start doing the things we swore we’d never do.** But when I have kids, I won’t be relegating brussels sprouts to a once-yearly cameo.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH TOASTED WALNUTS & PANCETTA (serves 2-3 as a side dish, depending on how much everyone likes brussels sprouts)

Take 10-12 brussels sprouts, trim off the bases and the outer leaves, slice in half vertically. If you’re using particularly big brussels sprouts it may pay to parboil these for a couple of minutes, but I try to pick smaller ones

Dice 1 good-sized shallot (or 2 smallish ones) and saute in butter over medium-low heat until it starts to get soft. Cut up 1-2 slices of pancetta (or bacon) into little pieces and add those to the pan, saute until they start to firm up, then add the brussels sprouts. At this stage I like to add more butter, plenty of it, the more the better. Saute until they’re just starting to brown, but don’t overcook them: when you can just stick a fork through them with little to no resistance, they’re done.

Meanwhile, toast a handful of walnuts (you could just as easily use pine nuts): you can do this in a skillet, or chuck them in a tray under the grill in your oven. Just don’t burn them: keep your nose on alert for that awesome nutty smell. Toss with the brussels sprouts and season with sea salt and cracked black pepper. Grate some parmesan over the top to serve. Eat immediately.

*Yep, I grew up in North America.

**It’s not just my dad I’m turning into (food-wise, anyway). Last month I was in Tokyo searching for this steamed-bun cafe, had forgotten to make myself a little map in my notebook (Tokyo streets are notoriously difficult to navigate if you’re looking for something down a little alleyway – the address alone usually is of no help), and, half-determined to find it and half-enjoying wandering around, spent a couple of hours walking up and down the main street in Kagurazaka. I never found the cafe, though I did find an eerily cosy coffee bar straight out of 1980s Japan, serving drip coffee to rival the likes of Customs or Lamason, and I found a little shop selling the most delicious taiyaki (this one filled with sweet purple yam paste:

But it was my last day in Tokyo, I had only hours left to do all the things I had planned on doing, I hadn’t had breakfast (!! I know), it was raining, my feet were soaking wet, I was tired and hungry and still hadn’t found the cafe I came all the way to Kagurazaka for. And then I found something far better: an unassuming Japanese restaurant serving a few different kinds of teishoku - set meals with rice and miso soup – and something pulled me in, some weird instinct which told me to forget about the steamed-bun cafe. This was what I needed. Before I even sat down I ordered the yakizakana teishoku almost without thinking.

It’s not something I would’ve gotten excited about five or ten years ago when visiting Japan. In fact, I wasn’t even that excited about it this time, except for this gut feeling that I knew I was doing the right thing. And I couldn’t quite pinpoint why, until I thought about what I was eating. Grilled fish with grated daikon, rice and miso soup, some pickled vegetables – exactly the meal my mum would cook for herself when we’d eat Japanese at home (pretty frequently, since Mum grew up in Japan). As a kid I’d stick with the rice and miso soup, turning my nose up at everything else.

I’ve long since started eating fish and tsukemono but I never gave much thought to how much I was turning into my mother until the moment last month when I finished this meal and thought the thought I never thought I’d think: whether I’m hungry, tired or frustrated, there’s nothing that puts me more at ease than a simple meal of rice and miso soup, salted grilled fish, pickled daikon.

I’m sure I’ve heard that exact sentiment from my mum so many times while growing up, and always thought she was nuts: there’s so much food (Japanese or otherwise) that’s way more exciting and comforting (what about the mac and cheese, mum?!). But somehow, in some way, she was totally right all along, and that simple, humdrum meal was the most special of my trip. Thanks Mum.

spaghetti with leeks & cream

In pasta, travel, winter, year-round on 6 July, 2011 at 6:36 pm

I’ve been in a cooking rut recently. Call it post-holiday funk, or cooking-for-one blues or whatever, but I’ve been finding myself coming home and wanting to curl up with the cat or a hot water bottle (both would be too warm!) instead of hanging out in the kitchen all night.  So for the last couple weeks since I’ve been back from holiday I’ve been eating mostly the same thing over and over again.*

I don’t know if it’s just me, but when I get in a cooking rut I find I need to ease out of it. Gently, slowly, making things that are simple and delicious. Things you could cook in an unfamiliar kitchen, things you could cook when you’re in mourning, but things that taste good enough to get you excited about cooking again. This is one of those things.

 This is one of those alarmingly simple dishes you can make with your eyes closed.  All you need is butter, cream, a leek, some spaghetti and white wine. And some nice hard cheese like parmesan or pecorino, and a bit of black pepper. If you’re like me, you’ll have these things on hand even if you haven’t been organised enough to do proper grocery shopping on the weekend. And if you’re missing one or two things like cream or spaghetti they’re things that are easy enough to get at the dairy.

And because it’s so simple you really don’t need any particular skill to make this dish – though a bit of timing** will help it all come together snappily at the end.

And delicious: it needs to be. When I first came upon this recipe, from the fairly great Serious Eats column French in a Flash - I made it one night… and then for lunch the next day… and then at least two or three more times that week for dinner. Something about the melty onion-ness of the leeks, the familiar slippery texture of the pasta, the cream and white wine and cheese all coming together – it’s not out of the ordinary, but it feels a little bit more special than, say, two-minute noodles or macaroni and cheese (though I am in no way dissing mac and cheese!).

Over time I’ve made a few very minor changes to the recipe, like using spaghetti instead of angel hair (purely because it’s what I usually have lying around), and slicing the leeks crosswise instead of julienning them (because to be honest, when I’m cooking this I’m usually looking for the quickest option possible) but other than that this is pretty close to the original.

SPAGHETTI WITH LEEKS & CREAM: (serves 2-3)
adapted only very slightly from this recipe from French In a Flash/Serious Eats

- the white and light green part of 1 decent-sized leek 
- butter
- half a bottle of white wine, 1/4 – 1/3 cup reserved
- 1/4 – 1/3 cup cream
- roughly 150-200g spaghetti
- parmesan, pecorino, or a similar hard cheese

Thinly slice the leek and separate out the pieces. Melt a decent-sized chunk of butter in a wide saute pan (ideally one you can cover with a lid) along with 2 tbsp water, then add the leeks, turn the heat all the way down to low, cover, cook gently for around 20 minutes until they’re soft and melty. Add more butter/water if the pan gets too dry; take the lid off if it’s getting too watery.

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti, making sure the water’s really salty. Add the wine at the same time you add the spaghetti. Once it’s cooked, reserve a cupful of pasta water and drain.

In the last couple of minutes before the pasta’s done, add the reserved wine to the leeks, reduce a bit, then add the cream and cook just until the sauce is nice and hot. Add the drained spaghetti to the leeks, adding enough pasta water so the leeks, cream and wine create a nice silky sauce. Season with salt (if your pasta water was really salty you probably won’t need to add much, or any) and freshly ground black pepper. Top with plenty of grated parmesan and a touch of parsley.

Eat immediately. Make again for lunch the next day if you don’t have leftovers. And maybe make some for dinner later on in the week, but be careful. If you’re using this as a step up out of a cooking rut, you may find yourself stuck in a new one.

*Though it’s not all bad: when I get in a rut I revert to easy stuff and childhood comfort food (not too unusual, I guess). In my case that’s Japanese. So I’ve been eating a lot of rice and miso soup, and  ochazuke, and udon noodles with enoki mushrooms and spinach and shoyu tamago (though that’s more of a ramen thing.. I love them). Pretty good.  

**Nothing like the amazing coordination of the one-woman taco stand my mum and I visited on a side street in Puebla (couple hours outside of Mexico City).  It was late on a Monday night, we were in search of a feed, most of the restaurants we’d been recommended had closed, and we approached this lady cooking something over a big round flat metal plate, a few people milling about eating or waiting for their food. She was working fast, all abrupt movements, and it was hard to tell if she’d noticed us, or if we were simply gawking. She seemed angry almost, and then, finally, there was a brief, split second reprieve and she looked up and smiled, briefly but genuinely enough.

And from then on her movements seemed not brusque, but calculated and efficient: grabbing handfuls of masa and flattening it between two sheets of plastic in a wooden tortilla press, slapping thinly sliced meat on the hottest part of the grill, rapidly slicing with two knives as it cooked, while keeping an eye on the tortillas so that they didn’t burn. Turning the nopales (cactus!), slathering beans on tortillas, spooning out salsa with one hand while taking payment with the other (and I noticed in all the hustle she still wiped her hands on a wet rag each time she handled money, though admittedly who knows how clean that rag was. But hey. You don’t eat street food for the food hygiene). Every component of every person’s order all came together at the right time; nothing burned. This was a woman who knew what she was doing.


And it was damn good. Fresh corn tortilla, refried beans, bits of (I want to say) pork, cactus, salsa verde, avocado. Hot off the grill, and ready to eat, with a squeeze of lime. The cactus was tart and crisp yet slimy, but in a good, okra-y way. So good. I only wish I could recreate it at home (you see why I’m in such a cooking rut?).

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