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Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

the greenest of salads

In salads, spring on 30 September, 2011 at 8:16 am

I was going to write a post about the marmalade I made a little while ago. I was hoping to get it up before citrus is totally irrelevant (it’s heading that way!) and all preserving eyes are on strawberry jams and the like.

But. I’ve been gripped by The Asparagus Bug that’s been going around. And a Wednesday spent in warm, sunny Auckland coupled with some glorious Wellington sun yesterday has catapulted me into the world of springtime and sunshine and bare legs* and picnics. And salads. So a rich, almost-bitter bourbon-citrus marmalade is about as far from my mind as snowflakes and hot chocolates.

Yesterday after work I rushed home via Moore Wilson’s, picking up a hefty bunch of asparagus and some spring onions and feta. I had in mind this salad I made once before, at New Year’s, with friends at Pakiri in this scungy bach (which, awkwardly, had no interior doors) we rented late in the New Year’s game.

I couldn’t remember too much about the salad other than the fact that it contained asparagus and edamame and it was Really Green: that glorious shade of grass-green you get in early spring, before everything dries out and gets all scorched and brown. The colour of my lounge walls the first two years of flatting. In-your-face, can’t-ignore-it green.

So, in an attempt at recreating one of the last glorious moments of  2010 I started at asparagus and edamame. It wasn’t too far a stretch to add some peppery rocket and spring onions, some sharp, creamy feta and smooth-sweet mint. I kept the dressing a simple vinaigrette, with parsley and lemon juice and red wine vinegar and some good, grassy olive oil. It all came together beautifully easily, in a matter of minutes, and tasted so fresh and springlike that I ate a second bowl after finishing the first.

In the recipe below I’ve kept quantities loose – the idea is really to make it how you like it, with the green things you have (though I do recommend the brilliant-green combination of asparagus and edamame to start with).

*The last two days have been my first two (and miraculously consecutive) days of not wearing tights this spring. And I’m sitting here now in a sleeveless top. Bring on summer!

THE GREENEST OF SALADS

Take about a cup of shelled edamame (about half a bag if you’re using frozen edamame pods), place in a bowl with some rocket, chopped spring onion and mint. Break off the woody ends of a handful of asparagus stalks and slice them on the diagonal. Blanch the asparagus in boiling water (I only cook them for a minute or so, so they’re still crisp and fresh-tasting), drain and plunge in a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking. Add to the salad with plenty of crumbled feta. 

Dress with a simple vinaigrette of lemon juice, red wine vinegar, olive oil and finely chopped parsley.

Enjoy: it’s a bowlful of health. If you’re not good at feeling virtuous, offset with whatever unhealthy thing you feel necessary (for me, it was a bottle of Townshend Sutton Hoo I sought out after reading this).

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.

peanut butter cheesecake (and a facebook page!)

In baking, year-round on 15 September, 2011 at 7:55 pm

So if you’re anything like me you’re probably all “oh my god cheesecake” right now, but before we get to the cheesecake I have a little announcement to make: after a heck of a lot of dithering on the subject (will anyone “like” it besides my mum? How many social media outlets do I really need to be on?) I’ve finally gone and created a Facebook page for this blog. You can find it, rather predictably, at www.facebook.com/milliemirepoix.

On the Facebook page there will not only be links to the latest blog posts, but also other little tidbits: recipes, interesting links, what I’m cooking that day. I’m also hoping it’ll be a place where other people share ideas and suggestions, comments and feedback – perfect if you’ve been shy to comment on the blog but have some thoughts to share. It would be really, really awesome if (after reading about cheesecake of course) you, person reading this right now, stop by and say hello. Who knows, I may even do a giveaway at some stage.

So! Now that that’s out of the way: cheesecake. It had been on my mind ever since that lunch with Chef Wan when the conversation somehow turned to the subject and all I could think of for the next week or so was cream cheese and biscuit-crumb bases and different flavour combinations.

That, combined with the birthday of a dear friend (who never requests I make anything except the occasional “Mika, can you make cheesecake? Please?” to which the answer is usually “but I have no cream cheese, how about pie/cookies/cake/etc”) led me to the shop, finally, armed with a shopping list including cream cheese and mascarpone and malt biscuits: all of the good things.

While I usually prefer a plain cheesecake topped with a bit of fruit, this cheesecake wasn’t for me, but for my peanut butter-loving friend. I found a recipe for peanut butter cheesecake on (who else?) Nigella Lawson’s website, and changed it a bit: I used a combination of mascarpone and cream cheese in the filling and left out the sour cream topping which is baked on at the end. Instead of the topping, I drizzled salted caramel sauce and chocolate ganache over the top. And it was over the top. But in the best possible way.

There’s no denying it: this cheesecake is rich. So rich, in fact, that it conquered my sweet tooth – I couldn’t eat more than a tiny sliver at a time, when usually I don’t (can’t?) show any restraint around desserts. But if you like peanut butter, it’s So Good – dense and creamy and almost stickily peanut-buttery, and with the chocolate and caramel topping it’s almost like eating a Snickers bar in cheesecake form.

It’s incredibly easy to make, too – especially if you have a food processor, but even if you don’t, I imagine it would be pretty straightforward. The fiddliest bit is getting the base (which includes ground up chocolate and peanuts as well as the usual malt biscuit) into the cake tin. Nigella says you don’t even need a water bath for this, because it’s meant to be dense, though I suppose you could use one if you felt like it. I didn’t, and the results were spectacular.

PEANUT BUTTER CHEESECAKE
(adapted from this Nigella Lawson recipe)

Preheat oven to 170C.

For the base, you will need:

200g digestive biscuits
50g salted peanuts
100g chocolate (I used part of a block of 72% dark chocolate, broken into bits, but you could use chocolate chips or buttons or anything you prefer)
50g softened butter

Blitz everything in a food processor* until it resembles fine crumbs and clumps together when you grab it. Press evenly into the bottom and sides of a springform tin and refrigerate to firm it up a bit while you clean out the food processor and make the filling.

For the filling, you will need:

250g cream cheese
250g mascarpone
3 eggs, plus 3 egg yolks
200g caster sugar
125ml sour cream
250g smooth peanut butter 

It helps if all of these ingredients are at room temperature before you start: this helps the cream cheese mix in better and avoids troublesome clumps in the end product. If you have enough foresight, take the cream cheese, mascarpone and sour cream out of the fridge a couple hours beforehand.

Again, put everything in a food processor** and blitz until smooth and creamy. Don’t avoid the temptation to eat this mixture with a spoon: it is heavenly; you will fail. Just don’t eat all the mixture before it goes into the tin.

Pour this into the chilled base in the springform tin and bake for about an hour and a bit or until just set (it’s okay if it’s still a tiny bit jiggly). Start checking around 45 minutes depending on your oven strength – mine took just over an hour.

Let cool until the cheesecake reaches room temperature and then chill in the fridge, preferably overnight.

Once it’s ready to serve, remove the cheesecake from the cake tin and make the chocolate ganache and salted caramel toppings.

Chocolate ganache:

Finely chop 50-60g good-quality dark chocolate. Put in a metal bowl. Bring 1/4 cup cream to the boil. Pour this into the bowl with the chocolate, whisking as you do, until the chocolate is all melted and it’s nice and smooth. Drizzle over the cheesecake using a spoon or fork.

Salted caramel sauce:*** 

Melt 1/3 cup brown sugar with 1/3 cup cream and 20g (about 1.5 tbsp) butter in a small saucepan over low-ish heat. Turn the heat up, bring to the boil and cook for a few minutes until it starts to get thick and saucy. Mix in a generous pinch of flaky sea salt until it tastes so incredibly sweet-salty-rich that you can hardly stand it. Transfer to a bowl and let it cool until it thickens a bit more (but not so much that you can’t drizzle it – if it gets too gooey as it cools, just pop it in the microwave or on the stove to soften it up). Drizzle over the cheesecake.

Let the toppings set a little before slicing into the cake and serving up to whoever’s lucky enough to be around. The smaller the slice, the better – it’s very rich, and you can always go back for more if your slice was too small.

*if you don’t have a food processor, I would suggest chopping up the peanuts and chocolate as finely as possible, putting the biscuits in a plastic bag and rolling with a rolling pin until they’re all broken up into crumbs, mixing everything together (maybe putting it all in the plastic bag and smashing it up some more), then rubbing the butter into everything so that it more or less sticks together when you smush it into the tin.

**again, if you don’t have a food processor, you’ll be okay – and this part will be easier than the base. All you need is some sort of mixing implement, be it stand mixer, electric hand mixer, a whisk sturdy enough to beat cream cheese, a fork, a wooden spoon, and so on. Beat everything together until it’s nice and smooth and creamy.

***okay, so it’s not a true caramel because you’re not really caramelising the sugar in the way you normally would: slowly, carefully. But it still tastes damn good. For a great post on proper caramel, see David Lebovitz’s one here.

chipotle penne all’arrabbiata

In pasta, year-round on 8 September, 2011 at 8:30 am

Here’s a quick post for a quick dinner: for when you’re too tired and hungry to do anything other than throw some pasta in some boiling salted water, open up a can or two, grate a bit of cheese and sink into the couch with a bowl full of noodles and a sigh.

It’s how I’ve been feeling lately, which I suppose is better than being bored, but it’s also not conducive to cooking elaborate meals or doing imaginative baking. Luckily I have some handy resources around like Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food, and while this recipe isn’t from that book, reading it has definitely reinforced the idea that whipping something up quickly from storecupboard ingredients doesn’t mean you have to have the same old boring thing or resort to prepackaged meals.

So, this pasta: it’s easy, you probably have most of the ingredients at hand (well, maybe not the chipotle peppers but they’re worth picking up), the sauce cooks in practically the time it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta. Normal arrabbiata sauce is good enough – simple but fiery from the addition of chillies – but one day I tried adding chipotle peppers instead of regular chilli, and I’ve been hooked on this Mexican-Italian (Mexi-talian?) twist ever since.

I’m sure someone else has invented this dish before, but for me it was born on the Fourth of July this year, which happened to fall on a Monday and a particularly busy work day at that. But I had promised an American friend I’d meet her for a beer after work, and by the time I got home it was 9 pm, I was exhausted and all I’d ingested since lunchtime was a couple of American craft beers and a handful of edamame (at the wonderful Hashigo Zake).

Now I’m definitely not advocating drinking and frying but some of my best kitchen breakthroughs (like mastering the art of the perfectly-poached egg) have come in that too-sober-for-takeaways, tipsy-enough-to-be-ravenous state we get into at one stage or other. This was no exception: I needed something substantial and satisfying – and fast. So I turned to pasta, looked in the cupboards with a stumped look on my face, spotted a can of tomatoes. My mind turned to arrabbiata.

I started chopping and frying the onions and garlic and then remembered the can of chipotle peppers I had emptied into a jar in the fridge. So instead of the traditional fiery hot arrabbiata sauce, I ended up making something smoky-spicy and utterly delicious.

Since then this has been my go-to recipe for a pasta dish that takes little to no effort but tastes like something special. It’s really not too far a stretch from the traditional arrabbiata sauce but the addition of chipotle adds an extra bit of dimension, a welcome surprise.

CHIPOTLE PENNE ALL’ARRABBIATA
(serves 2 or 3)

Heat a decent glug (a couple tablespoons at least) of olive oil in a skillet. Add 1/2 chopped onion and start to fry over medium heat. Mince 1 clove garlic and add to the onion along with 1-2 chopped canned chipotle peppers* and fry gently for a few minutes until the onion softens and starts to turn brown. Pour a bit of red wine into the pan and deglaze. Add a can of chopped tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer until it reduces – 15 or 20 minutes is ideal, but if you’re in a hurry, until the pasta’s ready is fine.

Bring a pot of well-salted water to the boil and add about 200-250g penne. Cook until al dente, reserve a bit of the pasta water, drain.

Add the pasta to the sauce and give it a good stir so that everything’s nicely coated. Add some of the pasta water to thin out the sauce if needed. Serve topped with a bit of chopped parsley** and grated parmesan or pecorino.

*In Wellington, I get chipotle peppers from Moore Wilson’s – they come in those La Morena cans with the sultry lady on the front. A well-stocked supermarket is also likely to have them, or you could order online.

**Now that I think of it, this could be good with chopped coriander substituted for the parsley… hmm!