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Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

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.
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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.

chocolate earl grey thumbprint cookies with honey ganache

In baking, cookies, sweets, year-round on 21 July, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Two nights ago found me at the kitchen sink, elbow-deep in post-midnight dishes. It’s not often these days I find myself doing a full-on batch of washing-up, since I haven’t lived in a flat without a dishwasher since 2008. But the other night the dishwasher was already going and the kitchen was still full of the detritus from dinner and some serious baking (including a trial run – but more on that later).

I wasn’t very happy about doing the dishes when I had plans to get up five hours later to go to the gym before work (needless to say I didn’t make it), but I figured it was better to do a bit then rather than leave it til morning. And ‘a bit’ turned into a full-on kitchen clean, despite my protesting eyelids, and I realised I somehow enjoyed that fog-like haze of scrubbing and bubbles.

And for the last couple nights since then, I’ve broken out of my usual dishes routine in that I’ve actually been doing the dishes. Properly, with a sink full of suds and scalding hot water. I’m not the first person to discover that doing dishes is strangely cathartic (and it’s not the first time I’ve discovered that), but there’s just something about the combination of that hot water, the scrubbing, the so-tired-you-could-collapse feeling you so often have when you’ve had a long day and a big meal. It’s good. And it keeps you warm when you live in a rather cold house in a Wellington winter.

But going back to what got me to that kitchen sink in the first place: the mess I made baking these cookies. Actually the recipe itself is pretty straightforward and doesn’t involve too many dishes, but I somehow managed to use every single measuring cup and spoon and different-sized bowls and whisks and spoons for tasting (and being careful not to double dip, as I had been home sick that day). And I made this twice, and made dinner in between batches. So: a big mess.


The cookies were for the Wellington on a Plate Bake Club challenge we’re doing at work (how could we not?), hence the test batch: I was up against some stiff competition. Somehow, though our work has nothing to do with food, it seems as though nearly everyone in the office was born with a whisk attachment instead of a hand (er, debating the usefulness of that as I type). So these had to be good.

They also had to contain some Wellington ingredients – to that end I used Whittaker’s chocolate and Tea Leaf T Earl Grey as well as my usual Wairarapa eggs – and, because I hadn’t left the house for two days due to a major cold, they had to consist only of ingredients found in my cupboard.


I used this recipe from the Martha Stewart website – not a site I normally visit but it’s full of enticing cookie recipes – and didn’t really change much except for the addition of Earl Grey tea leaves in the mix. I’d had this idea in my head of Earl Grey shortbread for ages and wasn’t too sure how well it’d pair with chocolate (another reason to do a test batch).

It worked: the cookie was chocolatey, with a hint of bergamot that would grow more pronounced as you chewed and swallowed. The first time around I used a couple of teabags of Twinings ripped open and added to the dry mix. The second time I used looseleaf tea, and blitzed it with the sugar to make it a little finer. I didn’t really notice a difference in terms of flavour when using the looseleaf as opposed to teabags, so use whatever you’ve got.

And I was intrigued by Martha’s addition of honey and butter to the ganache (original recipe here). I used manuka honey (again, what I had in the cupboard) and the flavour was just pronounced enough to make it a little out of the ordinary. The second time around I made it without the butter (post-midnight baking, totally forgot) and I didn’t really notice a difference.

Try these cookies. And then try doing the dishes afterwards. Even if it’s after midnight. It’s not all that bad, I promise (and you’ll have a clean kitchen too!).

CHOCOLATE-EARL GREY THUMBPRINT COOKIES WITH HONEY GANACHE
(based on these recipes from the Martha Stewart website)

For the cookies:

1 cup flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
a pinch of salt
Earl Grey tea (teabags or looseleaf)
2/3 cup sugar
110g butter
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp cream
1 tsp vanilla 

Preheat the oven to 175C. Sift together flour and cocoa powder and a pinch of salt. Rip open a couple of teabags of earl grey and mix that in.* Set aside.

In another bowl, cream together butter and sugar and then add the egg yolk, cream and vanilla. 

Mix in the dry ingredients. It will be pretty crumbly; don’t worry about this. It will come together when you form the dough into balls (roughly 1 tablespoon). Roll the balls in some sugar and place on a baking tray. Use your pinky to poke an indentation into each one and bake for 10-12 minutes, until just set (careful not to burn, or cook too long, they’ll get dry).

For the ganache:

1/6 cup cream
1/6 cup honey***
55 or so grams dark chocolate, chopped

Put the chopped chocolate into a heatproof bowl. Melt the honey into the cream over low heat. Once it’s simmering nicely, pour over And let cool a minute or so. Spoon a bit of ganache into the indentation in each cookie. Let cool until completely set.

Makes about 25.**

*If you’re using looseleaf tea, I recommend blitzing it in the food processor with the sugar beforehand, so it’s not as big and grainy. In that case, don’t add it here.

**I halved the original recipe, because it said it makes about 90, which I thought a little excessive. I made mine a little bigger, though, so only came out with about 25 per batch. I also used salted butter (it’s what I had) so left out the salt called for in the recipe. Here I’ve kept a pinch in, just in case.

***Awkward measurements, I know. I found the easiest way of doing this was half-filling a 1/3 cup measure with honey, topping that up with cream, and then dumping the whole thing into the saucepan.

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.

ginger-poached quince

In autumn, breakfast, sweets on 8 July, 2011 at 7:45 pm

I know, this post is woefully out of date, and quinces are woefully out of season. But I’m going to post this anyway, because the recipe is equally applicable to pears, and this is just as much about the porridge as it is about the quinces.

Every Sunday when I was growing up (and maybe he still does) my dad would make himself a big bowl of porridge and a big pot of coffee and spread the Sunday paper all across the dining table and go through it page by page.

He cooked the porridge with a special pot and a special wooden spoon (actually a wooden shamoji) that no-one was allowed to touch for anything else. And if I wasn’t too busy wolfing down cereal, or getting in the way of the paper, I’d get some too.

Dad’s weekend porridge was special, different to the sickly sweet instant sachets I loved at the time. For one, it took longer to cook than sixty seconds in a microwave. And unlike the flavours I loved (blueberries n’ cream! maple walnut spice!) his never changed: just brown sugar and milk, over perfectly cooked oats.

But I loved the way the brown sugar melted into caramel pools swirling in milk, the pure sugar hit I’d get for the first few spoonfuls while I resisted stirring it in, finally succumbing after a few bites and mixing it all together.

Porridge is such an intensely personal thing. Every person I’ve met (and talked porridge with) has their own favourite way of making it. Some people claim not to like porridge, but I like to think they just haven’t found the version that suits them yet. (If that’s you, don’t give up!) My favourite way of eating porridge isn’t the way my dad makes porridge, or how you’ll get it in a cafe (well, any cafe I’ve eaten porridge at, at least).

I like my oats hearty and whole, chewy almost, but still cooked through and soft enough to qualify as comfort food. I soak them overnight with a little bit of buttermilk or plain yoghurt – according to this book soaking the oats helps break down phytic acid and improve their nutritional benefits, but I mostly like the way it cooks up in the morning, quick and extra-tender. And instead of milk, I top my porridge with a bit of butter and a splash of cream – the butter sounds weird, but trust me, it’s good.

(In case you’re interested, I’ve posted my method below.)

But back to these ginger-poached quinces: save this thought for next quince season. They’re so very good, and simple too. You just need a bit of time and patience for them to cook ever-so-slowly until they get all rosy and soft and sweet and gingery. (So gorgeous and dainty, I could fawn over them all night but I won’t, because it’s Friday and a girl needs a night out every once in a while.)

They’re good on their own with a bit of cream or mascarpone, or on top of some puff pastry, popped in the oven, or anything you feel like really – but I couldn’t stop eating them on porridge, as you might have already guessed. They turn something everyday like oatmeal into something really special, especially if you drizzle a bit of the poaching liquid over the top instead of brown sugar or maple syrup. That stuff goes straight to the soul.


GINGER-POACHED QUINCE

Take roughly 250-300g quince (2-3 quinces, depending on size), peeled and sliced, and put into a saucepan with 1-2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, sliced up, about 3/4 cup sugar and plenty of water. Slowly bring to a gently boil and then turn the heat right down to low. Let simmer for ages until the quince turns a nice rosy hue and the liquid is all gingery and syrupy when you taste it (and taste away, but think of your teeth! This stuff is a cavity in the making).

Keeps forever in the fridge, and is great for countless applications like: for a porridge topping, served with yoghurt, cream or ice cream, to go on/in pastry, etc!

You can just as easily do this with pears. If you do, allow less time to cook. Also, it’ll be easier if you use slightly underripe pears so they don’t fall to bits.

MY FAVOURITE WAY OF COOKING PORRIDGE:

Soak oats* overnight, at room temperature, with 1 tbsp buttermilk or unsweetened yoghurt, and lukewarm water (in an equal proportion to the oats).

In the morning, dump the bowl of soaking oats in a saucepan with some more water (I use the same measurement as I use for the oats).** Put the heat on medium to medium-low, go do some other things for a few minutes (getting ready!) and when it’s cooked to a nice porridgey consistency, take it off the heat.

Put in a bowl. Put a splash of cream and a little pat of butter on top. Don’t feel guilty, they help you digest the oats better. (Unless you’re lactose intolerant maybe.) Top with whatever: maple syrup, brown sugar, lots of fruit, or in this case, the ginger-poached quince (or pear!).

*I usually use 1/3 cup for myself, but feel free to adjust depending on how hungry you are in the morning/how many people you’re cooking for.

**At this point I’ll often add a chopped up banana, or pear, or dates or raisins so they cook along with the oats and get all soft and delicious.

PS. This spoon is Part Three of the castaway airline cutlery my mum dumped on gifted me a while back. One of my favourites: I’m not too clear what the connection between United Airlines and fish scales is/was, but kind of amazing nonetheless. (Parts One and Two are here and here).

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?).