Sunday, 15 November 2009

Comfort vegetables

Comfort vegetables.
Eh? let me try that again.
Comfort. Vegetables.

It doesn't sound much more likely the second time around,does it? Your comfort foods tend to be sweet and fatty, or warm, rich, and the sort of thing your mother would make you when you were sick or celebrating something. A bad day at work rarely prompts the phrase "I'm feeling a bit low. Can you peel a carrot for me, love?". At best you might be able to stretch to a plate of mashed potatoes as a platter of comfort, but it can be hard to seek solace in just a plate of greens.

I returned to work at the start of October (hence this poor blog suffering lowest task on the totem pole status). I like my job as much as you can - and same can be said for the people I work with - but it was always going to be a challenge to become a Working Mother. In my first 6 weeks back, us family three have already been struck by mild colds, severe colds, teething, chest infections, feverish nights (and days), gastroenteritis, and the general disturbed sleep that comes from suddenly being left to the care of strangers all day (Baby A&N, not the adults on this one). Sometimes all three of us have been struck at once, which has led to some fairly improvised parenting ("If we drop him at day care after his nap, he'll be well rested enough to last a few hours there and we can go back to bed and get some sleep ourselves").

Eating, when you have the appetite, becomes more functional than fun (which might technically mean meals become 'ctional', but that's a tough batch of letters to pronounce). Hence comfort vegetables - defined as an attempt to bring a touch of much needed coddling to a dish that would otherwise just perpetuate the blah. A recipe in Moro East (which, if you haven't heard of it, is a fantastic seasonal cookbook perfect for the allotment/home food grower) for a beetroot, broad bean, and tarragon salad seemed the perfect antidote to our vegetable lethargy. As the newly branded Mother Who Plans Ahead, I added tarragon to our weekly shopping delivery and sat back, waiting for the beetroot to come in with our weekly veg box.

Except Mother Didn't Know Best, and for the only instance in weeks there was no beetroot waiting for us in our veg box (the world of weekly vegetable deliveries is a very cruel world). Luckily Father Dearest stepped in to stop the situation falling apart ("I need exciting vegetables! I have tarragon! There is no beetroot! THIS WASN'T IN MY WEEKLY FOOD PLAN!") and suggested twists to the original recipe: the salad became a warm dish, carrot stepped in for the beetroot, and a bit of sherry vinegar and cream became the sauce to hold it all together.

Mr A&N was stunningly pleased with the result. I at first mostly tasted defeat and disappointment in myself, though friends assure me this is a common flavor of parenthood so I best get used to it. To be fair to these vegetables, they really were rather special, with the vinegar, tarragon and cream not just giving the right tart, deep flavored, and rich balance to one another, but it all giving a bit of comforting, vegetable love to a week night spent detoxing in front of the television.

Creamy Broad Beans, Carrots and Tarragon
serves 4 as a side dish

  • 2 shallots or 1 small onion, chopped very finely
  • 2-3 Tbs olive oil
  • 3 carrots, chopped into 1cm cubes
  • about 500g broad beans (use frozen - much easier than peeling! Do quickly boil and drain, though to take the edge off the freezing)
  • 1 bunch (about 15g) fresh tarragon, roughly chopped
  • 2-3 Tbs good quality sherry vinegar
  • about 125ml cream
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Over a medium heat, warm the olive oil and add the onion. Cook until beginning to soften.
  2. Add the carrots and cook for a few minutes until their hardness is taken away.
  3. Add the broad beans and tarragon, and cook a further few minutes until both vegetables are nicely softened.
  4. Add the vinegar (start with 2 Tbs since it can be strong tasting, and add more later if you think it needs it) and cook for a minute or so until it's mostly burnt off.
  5. Add in the cream and stir until everything is well coated.
  6. Salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Daring Bakers: Macarons

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.
Ah macarons. Like salted caramel, they seemed to take the food blog world by storm a short while ago. I resolutely/accidentally missed the boat on both, then felt behind the times enough to not want to make either since everyone else had been there, done that on my behalf. This month's Daring Bakers challenge gave me the chance to rectify this baking
oversight and dig into a plate of dainty sweet sandwiches.

My macarons were destined for imperfection. Not failure - what is failure when you still have a highly edible finished product? They were simply not going to be the macarons that any Frenchman would be seen eating. More for me, then!

Our oven has a slight flaw in that all the numbers on the temperature dial have fallen off. Silly oven. I know where to set the dial for most cakes, cookies, muffins, and roast dinners, but anything falling outside the 160 - 200C range is danger territory. In order to achieve the tell-tale crusty 'foot' on these macarons (see every other Daring Baker page for what this looks like), this recipe has the temperature starting very low and increasing after the macarons have had a chance to rest outside the oven. Low, in this case, is defined as 100C. Or, on my oven, the Vast Unknown.

And so though I journeyed to The Land I've Never Yet Been To, and the macarons returned from that journey with me, they were not as they should be. They were
soft, a bit moist, and with no feet (or limbs of any sort) on them. Oh well. They were also delicious, with the rose water buttercream and nutella buttercream I made for the standard macarons, and a mint buttercream to go with the chocolate version. They may have had trouble in baking, but not any trouble in eating.

Thanks goes to Ami from Baking Without Fear for setting the recipe and setting everyone's macarony imaginations going. Please have a look at her blog for the recipe we all used.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Vietnamese Lamb and Noodles

I cooked a soup this past weekend (soup season has begun, so I've declared). Butternut squash, corn, butter beans, cream. Something of a chowder, with gentle bay and thyme to give it more flavor. It was supposed to be my blog post, but it was brutally ugly. Fairly tasty, but in need of a good food plastic surgeon to bring some beauty to that bowl.

The innocuous "What's for dinner tonight?" question on Monday was a loaded one. The weekend is for food blog time, week nights for survival. But I declared to Mr A&N that Monday night's dinner (lamb chops in the fridge) would have to be blog-worthy as I had nothing to post about this week.

"Leave it to me" Mr. A&N declared. "I'll put something together."

The 5pm phone call to tell me he was leaving work early began not with a hello but with a declaration I wouldn't have guessed had I been given 100 chances. "Vietnamese", Mr A&N stated. "It's more traditional with pork chops but I think it will work. I'm picking up a lime and some noodles, but I'll be home to help with Baby A&N's feeding and bedtime and then cook dinner."

He was of course as good as his word. Got home, set the marinade for the lamb going, pulled funny faces during Baby A&N's dinner and then played with him in the bath. Gave him his milk, bundled this very sleepy baby into bed, came downstairs and cooked me a wonderful meal. The noodles were treated to the marinade the lamb had been sitting in, and I stole irresistable mouthfuls from the wok as I set the camera up. The marinade had created very succulent chops thanks to the lime, with the slight sweetness to it melding seemlessly, and beautifully, with the chilli and soy flavors bringing up the rear. The Vietnamese know what they're doing with flavors, and so did Mr A&N when he put this together.

Mr A&N and I had a discussion in the car this past weekend, after seeing some friends. "Why do you always tell stories when I'm the butt of the joke? Why do you tell people about when I mean to say or do something nice but it comes out wrong and seems like an insult instead? Why don't you ever tell the good stuff, like how I make you dinner and help around the house and get up in the middle of the night to deal with Baby A&N?"

"Because those stories are funny. You like being funny. If there's one thing I know about you it's that."

"I like being funny," he admitted "but when it's me being funny, rather than me being insensitive. I'd like to be seen as the good guy sometimes."

"You're right, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. You are the good guy. You're the great guy. I promise to do better. I'm sorry."

"Okay." he said. "Thanks."

"I promise." I said. "I promise to do better. And I promise I'll only tell those stories when I'm guaranteed a really big laugh."

He accepted his victory with customary grace.

Vietnamese Lamb and Noodles
Serves 3 eating averagely, 2 greedily, 4 modestly

  • 6-8 lamb good lamb chops
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 small chilli (more if you like it hot), chopped
  • thumb of ginger, well chopped
  • 1 stalk or 2tsp lemon grass paste
  • 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
  • 4 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • chinese egg noodles, enough for the number of people you're serving
  • 2 stir fry veg nicely chopped - like carrot and broccoli, eggplant and zucchini, etc
  • 1 Tbsp seasame oil
  • 1 Tbsp olive or vegetable oil
  • handful of chopped coriander

  1. Combine the marinade ingredients (the garlic, chilli, ginger, lemon grass, sugar, soy sauce, and lime), mixing until the sugar is dissolved.
  2. Pour the marinade in a flat casserole dish that's just big enough to hold the lamb. Layer the lamb on top and let marinate for at least a half an hour (or over night, if you're very prepared), then turn the chops over and give that side of the chops as much time to marinate.
  3. Turn the grill on to 180C / 375 F. When ready, lay the lamb out under the grill and cook for 4-8 minutes each side, depending on the thickness of the chops. (This will give you chops that stay nice and pink in the middle; if you don't like pink, add a couple of minutes more to the cook time). Make sure you keep the marinade left over.
  4. Meanwhile, boil water for the egg noodles. When boiled, add noodles and cook according to manufacturers instructions.
  5. Heat a wok on a high heat. Add the oil and give it a short while to heat up.
  6. When the oil is hot, add the vegetables and stir fry for a couple of minutes.
  7. When the vegetables are softening slightly (only slightly), pour in the remaining marinade.
  8. After the garlic in the marinade is a bit softened, add the cooked noodles and give a minute or two worth of stirring.
  9. Serve with the cooked lamb chops on top of the noodles, with a bit of chopped coriander for garnish.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Everything-But-the-Kitchen-Sink Spanish Tortilla

A few disclaimers:

  • This isn't a real Spanish tortilla. I repeat, this is NOT a REAL Spanish tortilla, normally an egg-potato-onion-salt concoction. I've gone off piste, but since it's my blog I'm stubbornly sticking to the name.
  • I made this a couple of weeks ago, before I went on holiday. I thought I set the blog post to release, but it didn't. So sorry for the lack of posting and lack of vacation announcement.
  • I ate this all, all by myself (though not in one sitting). Twas large, and I'm a pig, but the sign of a good dinner is that it didn't make me sick to eat all that.

Before going away for a couple of weeks, it seems a wise thing to clear out the kitchen of anything that won't last til you get back (or anything that will tempt creepy crawlies into your cupboards and make them flourish, as my family once did with an open box of Frosted Flakes and roughly 500 of the neighborhood's ants). Normally when I'm faced with a motley crew of vegetables, meats, and cheeses, I indulge myself in a guilty pleasure of a fried rice, using day-old take out rice and all of the above. With a bit of ketchup on the side, it's hangover food that you didn't have to be drunk the night before in order to enjoy.

An omlette, though, is an equally generous hold-all for food bits that need uniting. French omelettes, light and runny, and messily yet beautifully folded, don't seem to go well with chunky bits thrown into it too. An Italian fritata and a Spanish tortilla are similar in notion to each other, both being chunky wedges of egg wrapped around as many other things as you like. Both being thick, you have to find a way to cook both the bottom and top of the omlettes equally well, since if left to just simmer the will both burn on the bottom before cooking on the top. A fritata is finished off by being put under the grill, while a tortilla is flipped over so that the top becomes the bottom.

The trick of flipping a tortilla is one that seems to be passed down with the Spanish gene, and it's a very hard thing to pull off without the right combination of factors (including Spanish ancestry, it seems). I saw my first tortilla cooked by two Spanish friends working in tandem, and they both still had to hold their breaths when this 12 egg goliath was thrown onto a plate and then slid back into the pan. I worked on my own, with just hunger to carry me through the hair raising moment of El Flip. Working in my super-sticky frying pan, it was never going to turn out well. It fell to pieces like a house placed over the largest crack on the San Andreas fault, but I pushed it back together with the flat end of the spat
ula and continued cooking. There was no one to impress but me, and I already know most of my short comings.

I found the
advice from Fine Cooking was excellent (and it's the top Google hit for the 'spanish tortilla' search, so it must be good), but sadly I went and did my own thing despite the advice. Part of the joy of a tortilla (or fritata) comes the day after, when you can eat it cold or a bit warm, slapped into a generously buttered baguette. Another day-old comfort food that might not rank high for beauty but is in other ways a beautiful thing.
Everything-But-the-Kitchen-Sink Spanish Tortilla
serves 3-4 for dinner

4 small potatoes (about 200g)
1 medium onion
3 inches of dried chorizo, sliced thinly and cut into quarters

1 pepper (red or green), cut into small cubes

1/4 C frozen peas

6 large eggs
1/4 C milk
several Tbs olive oil and a knob of butter

Peel and slice the potatoes, first in half and then into thin, evenly thick half moon shapes, then peel and dice the onion into small, uniformly-sized pieces.

Heat the oil and butter over a medium heat in a large, high-sided frying pan. Add enough oil so that the whole bottom is covered, plus a bit more.

Put the potatoes in when the oil is hot enough for them to begin sizzling. Cook for a few minutes until they're nicely softened, then add the onion.

Cook until the onion is softened, then add the chorizo, pepper and peas.
Cook for another few minutes until the pepper is softened and the chorizo has given off some of its oils. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, roughly beat the eggs together with the milk in a large bowl.
When the goods in the frying pan are all softened (but not cooked), spoon out with a slotted spoon (so that the oil stays in the pan) and add all the softened items to the eggs in the large bowl. Stir it all together roughly.

Make sure the frying pan still has enough oil to coat the bottom (if you feel it has too much to make you comfortable, spoon out a bit). Then, add the egg mixture to the pan and cook over a medium heat.

Continue cooking until the tortilla is only slightly runny and wobbly on the top, visible layer and you're sure it's all coming away from the sides easily. You'll now need to flip the tortilla, so you want to be sure it's solid enough to do so yet will still come away from the pan. (If you are fairly deft with your hands, you can do this on your own - otherwise, rope in a spare set to help you along.)

Find a plate larger than the frying pan, and hold it firmly over the top. Then, using one motion, turn the frying pan over so that the omlette comes away and lays on the plate.
Return the pan to the flame, and slide the tortilla back into the pan to cook for a further few minutes.

Serve however you like, with a slice of triumph on the side if you managed to do this all on your own.