Preparing for winter

I can’t believe it’s almost the end of the first month of autumn. It’s cooler in the mornings and evenings, there’s a lot more rain about and it’s much harder forcing myself to rise out of bed for work. But summer is really hanging on – we still get a considerable number of hot, golden days throughout the week where cicadas sing and the kiss of the sun’s rays warms and illuminates everything upon the earth.

Winter here in New Zealand isn’t my favourite season. The awful combination of heavy rain and strong winds often leaves trails of umbrella skeletons and angry nose-to-tail car accidents in its wake. There are always dirty wet footprints in places where there shouldn’t be and forget about dry, sun kissed washing.

There are fantastic things about winter, though, and one of those is all the hearty meals that really fill your belly and warm your heart in ways that summery salads can’t.

I decided to kick off my cold weather cooking with something basic – soup. My mum’s noodle soup is one of my favourite meals – light, simple and quick. But I wanted to try something that had a few more elements to it. Recalling shreds of a conversation I had a few years ago when I was travelling in China about the pronunciation of a certain South East Asian dish, I settled for the national dish of Vietnam, pho (pronouced “fuh”, not “fo” nor “poo”).

Having never been to Vietnam nor eaten that much Vietnamese food, I’ve only had one instance of eating pho and this was at a little Vietnamese restaurant in the ooh la la Auckland suburb of Grey Lynn called Cafe Viet. I remember it being fragrant, salty and very filling.

One of the things I definitely wanted to do with this cooking experiment was making everything from scratch. Normally I would opt for the ready-made stock from the supermarket, which has always worked well for me, but I had time this weekend and felt like putting in the extra effort in creating my own beef stock. It took quite a long time but it tasted really good and it filled the house with beautiful aromas from all the different spices.

There are a heap of complementary spices that make up the flavour of the stock. Photo: Tao Lin

There are a heap of complementary spices that make up the flavour of the stock. Photo: Tao Lin

I found a good recipe that explains everything really well, especially the stock-making part. See it here: http://steamykitchen.com/271-vietnamese-beef-noodle-soup-pho.html

It all turned out pretty well. The only issue I had was the soup didn’t really cook the raw beef as well as I wanted it to but I probably didn’t slice it thin enough. It’s something to remember for next time – “pho” sure….:P

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

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Got too many carrots? Make a pie!

About a month ago, I moved out of home to live with my boyfriend of 5 years. Finally, most people said. Most people, except my mum.

I heard a radio DJ talk recently about the two types of mums: those who can’t wait for their children to leave the nest and those who are happy to keep looking after their kids and don’t ever want them to leave. My mum is irrefutably the latter and even though I have left, she still finds ways to make sure she’s still looking after me.

One of the ways she does this is by giving me groceries – bags of carrots, stalks of celery, onions, potatoes, bread, broccoli. The more I say “no”, the more forcefully I get these things shoved into my arms. There is no rejecting an Asian mum when she makes an offer like this (Good tip for if/when you ever have dinner at a Chinese friend’s house: when the mum offers food, just accept it graciously. You’ll be wasting your breath otherwise.)

Because of this, our pantry is full of onions, probably more than I would ever use in a year, and I’ve had to chop off parts of the celery because it’s withering away faster than we can eat it.

To help deplete these resources a bit before taking on more the following week, I decided to make my very first cottage pie, using chopped onion, carrots and celery. The following recipe is adapted from www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/775643/cottage-pie

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Serves 4. Or 2 really hungry adults.

For the pie:

  • 2 stalks of celery, chopped
  • 2 medium to large carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 brown onion, chopped
  • 500g beef mince
  • 2 medium cloves of garlic
  • 3 tbsp tomato puree
  • Large glass of red wine
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 300ml beef stock
  • 1 tsp sage
  • A couple sprigs of fresh thyme
  • Salt and pepper

For the topping:

  • About 1 kg of potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 75g butter, softened
  • 4 tbsp milk
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard (optional)

How to:

  1. Preheat oven to 190C (non-fan bake).
  2. Heat some olive oil in a saucepan or large frying pan over medium heat and add the garlic, onion, carrots and celery. Fry off gently until soft (doesn’t have to mushy but do give it some time in the pan). I prefer to do this over a medium-low heat to stop the garlic from burning.
  3. Push everything to the outside of the pan and brown the mince in the middle.
  4. Stir in puree and add the wine. Then add stock, herbs, sauce. Taste and then season accordingly with salt and pepper.
  5. Cover and simmer gently for about 30 minutes or until stock is reduced. If it’s a bit watery and you want it like a gravy, try adding plain flour, starting with about 1 tbsp.
  6. Boil potatoes until soft, then drain. Let cool for a bit before mashing it together with the butter, milk and mustard
  7. Once the mince is ready, transfer to an oven-proof dish and cover evenly with mashed potato. Bake until golden.

My potato didn’t colour as nicely as I wanted it to, with some parts of it starting to get a little burnt, so I may try lowering the oven temperature next time I make this.

While the pie was baking I made some crispy green beans as well – cook in boiling salted water for about 2 mins, drain and immerse immediately into a ice bath or if you’re like me and you don’t have ice cubes or even a freezer, do some forward-thinking and get a bowl of cold water into the fridge before you start the pie. Chucking them into the icy water will stop them from cooking and going soft.

Then I popped them onto the frying pan with some heated olive oil and tossed them around with a minced garlic clove and some salt. Delicious 🙂

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Very dry mini meat mince pie

As a regular school tuck shop and bakery staple, the meat mince pie has filled my belly countless times. Sometimes the pastry is too hard, sometimes there’s a lot of gravy and not very much else, sometimes I feel as if I’ve just eaten a giant ball of fat.

Crispy golden pastry that gives way to a flowing, molten gravy of well-seasoned mince – that’s what a mince pie should be like. Once eaten, it should sit comfortably in the stomach, leaving only crumbs of pastry and a warm, satisfied smile on your face.

That’s what I was aiming for when I made my mini mince pies but unfortunately I missed the mark slightly.

I found a recipe on Taste.com.au and made some adjustments to it:

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 brown onion, halved, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 500g lean beef mince
  • 1 carrot, peeled, coarsely grated
  • 25g (1/4 cup) powdered gravy (Gravox Traditional brand) – I used equal amounts of beef stock instead of powdered gravy and water
  • 250ml (1 cup) boiling water
  • 2 sheets (25 x 25cm) ready-rolled shortcrust pastry, just thawed
  • 2 sheets (25 x 25cm) ready-rolled puff pastry, just thawed
  • 1 egg, lightly whisked
  • Tomato ketchup, to serve

Method

  1. Heat oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes or until onion softens. Add the mince and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon to break up any lumps, for 5 minutes or until mince changes colour. Add the carrot and stir until well combined.
  2. Meanwhile, place gravy powder in a heatproof jug. Add boiling water and whisk with a fork until combined. Add to mince mixture and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes or until sauce thickens slightly. Remove from heat. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes to cool.
  3. Preheat oven to 180°C. Cut the shortcrust pastry sheets into 24 even squares. Line twenty-four 40ml (2-tablespoons) capacity mini muffin pans with the shortcrust pastry squares. Spoon mince mixture among pastry cases.
  4. Cut puff pastry sheets into 24 even squares. Top each pie with a pastry square. Use a small sharp knife to trim excess pastry. Brush tops with egg.
  5. Bake in oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside in the pans for 5 minutes to cool. Serve pies with tomato ketchup.

The filling of my little pies turned out a bit under-seasoned and very dry (no flowing molten gravy of mince here), which was probably caused by my adjustment of the recipe. It also lacked the wonderful depth of flavour I found when I made a Guinness and steak pie last Christmas.

I love pie so I’m going to keep working on this recipe, especially with winter settling in. Nothing better than a hearty meat pie to fill an empty belly on a cold day 😉

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And so the festive season of eating too much begins…

Roast turkey, meat pie, oven-baked salmon, bread rolls, salad, chocolate cake, tiramisu. That was my lunch this weekend gone by and the start of some serious (over)eating.

My friends and I decided to do a shared lunch and Secret Santa. I was tasked with a main and dessert, both of which turned out pretty well. For the main, I made Guinness steak and mushroom pie and for dessert, tiramisu.

I’ve come to realise that pie takes a heck of a long time to make – much longer than it would take you to drive down to the local pub and order one there, and it would taste about the same too. However, I’m glad I made the effort this time because it turned out delicious. It’s based on a Jamie Oliver recipe for a boozy Guinness steak and cheese pie but I did my own thing with it by adding shiitake mushrooms.

Guinness steak and mushroom pie
Serves 6

Ingredients
1 red onion, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
About 10 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in water overnight and cut into thin strips. Keep the water that the mushrooms have been in to top up the stew.
600g stewing beef
A couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary, leaves picked and chopped
A couple of sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked and chopped
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
300ml Guinness
200ml beef stock
2 heaped tablespoons of flour
Puff pastry (I used store bought because I am terrible at making pastry)
One egg, beaten

How to:

  1. Preheat oven to 190ºC. Heat olive oil over low heat in saucepan and gently fry the onions for about 10 minutes. Don’t let them color too much.
  2. Turn the heat up and add carrots and garlic. Mix it together before adding mushrooms. Stir together and add beef, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper.
  3. Fry for 3-4 minutes and then add Guinness and stock. Stir in the flour and then top with the water saved from soaking the mushrooms.
  4. Bring to a simmer and then pour into an ovenproof dish. Cover with tin foil and place in oven for about 90 minutes.
  5. After 90 mins or so, remove from oven and stir. At this point I added more salt and pepper to taste because it tasted quite bland – it may pay to do the same but always check first!
  6. Place back in the oven for another hour or so the beef is tender and stew is thick.

For the pastry lid I took out a sheet of pastry, laid it over the top of the stew, folded the sides down to make a bit of a crust, sliced the top with a sharp knife, brushed it with the egg and popped it back in the oven for about half an hour.

When I was looking for a tiramisu recipe, I quickly came to the realisation that most recipes for the fluffy Italian dessert use raw egg. Considering I didn’t want to unwittingly give my friends food poisoning, I looked semi-hard for a recipe that doesn’t use raw egg. I trawled through some Google results and found one using cooked egg yolks. You can find the recipe here: http://www.askchefdennis.com/2011/04/the-best-tiramisu-you-will-ever-make/ and trust me, you will love it. I had heaps leftover after lunch and I found the tiramisu actually tastes even better once it’s been in the fridge for a day. Not sure whether that’s because I wasn’t so stuffed when I ate it a day later or if it’s actually legitimately better.

I’ve been tasked with making Christmas lunch on the actual day again this year. So far, I have a crayfish. More ideas?

Christmas lunch feast with friends. Photo: Tao Lin

Christmas lunch feast with friends. Photo: Tao Lin

 

Lovin’ it: Homemade burgers

It wasn’t long ago that rainbow figurines of my childhood frolicked in their eternal happiness everywhere you looked in my house: on my tiny white book shelf, on the ledge from which my curtains hang and even hiding in the grass in my garden. I’m embarrassed to admit that those plastic dalmatians, mermaids and Looney Toons came with two chewy pieces of bread, a slice of pickle, sometimes processed cheese and something that was meant to be meat, all wrapped up in the most famous golden arches in the world. Yes, that’s right, many of the toys from my childhood came from McDonald’s Happy Meals.

For as long as I can remember, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC have always just been down the road from my house. There used to be a Pizza Hut restaurant as well but that closed down when I was in high school and a Carl’s Jr has recently risen – and flourished – in its place.

For a time when I was at primary school, it was a regular occurrence having reheated pizza and deep fried chicken for breakfast on Sunday mornings. And to respond to what you’re probably all thinking, no I wasn’t a particularly fat kid. I did athletics and gymnastics, and I was also blessed with a hyper-speed metabolism. But I know this doesn’t make eating all that fatty food any more acceptable.

I don’t blame my parents for letting me eat so much fast food. When we look back on those times now, my mum always says the same thing: “We didn’t know any better”. Neither of my parents eat much junk food now and they’re two of the fittest “older” people I know. They went swimming every single day for about two decades and have only recently started cutting that down (getting older, and stuff).

Despite the questionable quality of food I sometimes ate during my childhood, it still didn’t put me off burgers in the long run. But, I’ve moved on from tiny squashed McD’s cheeseburgers to burgers that tend to be more hearty, more fresh, made with more love.

My dad works for Tip Top Bread, which makes the burger buns for Carl’s Jr here. He’s allowed to take two bags of bread home from work each day and a couple of weeks ago on Friday night he brought home several Carl’s Jr burger buns. I knew immediately what I wanted for dinner. My parents don’t eat meat so I decided to make a fish burger for them and a beef burger for myself and Andrew.

I used tarakihi, which is a white fish, marinated for a couple of hours in lemon juice and garlic, then seasoned with salt and pepper. This was fried in the skillet. For the beef, I seasoned mince with salt, pepper, garlic, onions, dried oregano, paprika and dijon mustard. This was mixed with a lightly beaten egg, refrigerated for about an hour, and rolled into balls, which were flattened into patties when I cooked them on the skillet.

There were also salad greens, gherkins and melted cheese in the burgers but something I feel quite proud of is the sauce I made. I couldn’t decide what sauce to use for my burgers and consequently I spent a very long time looking around on the internet. Surprisingly, nothing really caught my attention until I chanced upon this link: http://americanfood.about.com/od/keytipstechniques/r/secsauce.htm

Big Mac sauce. I love Big Mac sauce! At least, I remember loving Big Mac sauce. Thinking more healthily though, I decided not to follow this recipe but instead adapted one of my own using greek yoghurt. I actually found another Big Mac sauce recipe here, if anyone is interested.

Here’s what I used for my sauce:

1/2 cup natural greek yoghurt (full fat)
1 tbsp dijon mustard
4 tsp diced gherkins
1 tsp vinegar from the gherkin jar
1 tbsp minced onion
1 tsp sugar
A pinch of salt

Mix it all up, dollop it on and top with a toasted bread bun.

Served with oven-baked fries, these burgers made for no left-overs and a meal that disappeared before anyone had the time to say, “I’m lovin’ it!”

Lemon garlic Tarakihi fish burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Lemon garlic Tarakihi fish burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Beef burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Beef burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

New goal: Conquer pizza dough

Dead.

That’s what the yeast was when I went to make my pizza dough. To be truthful, it was way past its best-by date by about a year. The last time I used it was the last time I made pizza, which was apparently so long ago that no one actually remembers it.

Boyfriend: “This is the first time you’ve made pizza eh?”

Me: “No, I’ve made it before and you liked it.”

Boyfriend: “Really??”

Mum: “This is the first time you’ve made pizza isn’t it?”

Me: “No, I’ve made it before and you liked it.”

Mum: “No, I don’t remember…”

Despite other people’s lack of memory, I do remember making pizza for the first time and one of the things I remember about it was making the pizza sauce, which I made out of tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, herbs, onions and seasoning, cooked for quite a long time (1-2 hours). It felt like it took forever but it tasted really good as a result.

I was running short of time this time around so I thought I’d cheat and just use ready-made pizza sauce. I got home, opened it up and tasted it – way too sour! So I scooped it out onto a frying pan, cooked it with some oregano, olive oil, salt, pepper, onion, garlic and celery for about an hour. Everyone commented on how delicious the kitchen smelt, reinforcing my stubborn insistence on cooking as many things from scratch as I possibly can.

What has completely evaded me though, both last time and this most recent time, is good pizza dough. I don’t have a pizza oven, or own a pizza stone, or have that special 00 flour that a lot of pizza dough recipes recommend. The first time I made pizza, the base was really crispy and hard, which I didn’t actually mind so much, but it made for some serious jaw work. I also have trouble stretching out the dough because it rips, which indicates to me that it’s perhaps not glutinous enough.

The type of base I’d really love to replicate is the chewy, Neopolitan style base. My expectations are zero though, considering my lack of tools in my pizza-making toolbox. That’s until I at least get a good quality pizza stone and some more pizza-making experience.

This time, I followed some suggestions here and set my oven grill on and placed the pizza right under that. I wasn’t initially going to use the frying pan after the pizza had gone into the oven but the dough was undercooked when the pizza came out so I ended up delicately shoving it onto the skillet anyway.

The result? The base wasn’t the consistency I wanted it to be (it came out more like crackers to me! And yes, I did buy new yeast, which worked fine) but everything else tasted really good according to the boyfriend and parents. Considering the base can make or break the pizza, I have a lot of work to do and mastering a decent Neopolitan-style pizza dough is now one of my definite cooking goals.

I have to say though, I’d still much rather make and eat my own homemade pizza with crappy base than go out and buy one from Pizza Hut, Domino’s or Hell Pizza.

Now, I have two things on my Christmas wish-list: new ballroom shoes and a pizza stone 😉

Photo: Tao Lin

Steak pizza with capsicum, mushrooms and onion. Photo: Tao Lin

Photos of food and such

I’m one of those weird and annoying people who loves to take several photos of their food from as many different angles as possible before finally eating it – I blog about food so what do you expect?? People like me get mocked and ridiculed everywhere in society for this behaviour and I’m sure someone, somewhere has written about how this is evidence of some sort of personality disorder/evidence of narcissism (aren’t we all a little bit narcissistic?). But, I don’t actually care because I love it: I love food, I love taking photos of food and I love showing it all off.

I call these photos: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. Because, well, they are 🙂

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Some sort of egg thing. Pretty much started with fried eggs but decided I didn’t want fried eggs anymore so scrambled them up instead.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

One of my absolute favourite things to eat: udon noodle soup. It’s incredibly easy to make as well. Water, stock, noodles, soy bean paste, spring onions, done. If you really wanted to make it fancy you could even cook up some tofu and chuck that in there too.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Teriyaki beef strips and capsicum. Yeah, I like Japanese food.