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

Daniel

He fixed me with a cool stare as the water streamed over and through his body, taking away the last vestiges of the things that made him whole. He continued to stare silently as I dried him, dressed him and placed him on his bed, his final resting place. After tucking him in, I bid Daniel a final farewell before shutting the door.

When I opened it again, he was cooked and ready to eat. Of course, “Daniel” was the star of my Christmas lunch – a tarakihi fish baked in salt.

Every year since I started taking an interest in cooking, I’ve used Christmas as a chance to try out recipes using ingredients or techniques I wouldn’t normally use. In 2012 it was honey mustard glazed ham. In 2013 it was “Pinchy” the crayfish. And in 2014, it was “Daniel” the salt-baked fish.

The first time I saw the technique of baking something in salt was on one of last year’s episodes of My Kitchen Rules, where a team cooked beef in a salt casing. It’s an old technique that, as far as my extremely limited research has shown, probably originated in Carthage (north Africa). More commonly, I’ve seen recipes state that it’s an old Spanish or Italian technique of cooking.

I debated whether salt-baking would be worth the effort and I’ve decided it really is. It produced some of the most tender, well-seasoned fish I’ve ever eaten and it really doesn’t require that much effort. Even the amount of salt wasn’t as ridiculous as I initially thought it would be. While recipes call for rock or sea salt (more expensive but preferred because the larger granules allow the salt mixture to form more easily), I found it worked perfectly well with a combination of table salt and sea salt.

Here is the recipe I followed. Just a little tip: apparently it’s best to leave the scales on the fish, which is what I did, but some recipes make no distinction. The scales prevent the fish from being over-salted but if you’ve found this otherwise then do let me know!

Have a go and take pleasure in cracking open that beautiful golden salt casing!

Salt-baked Tarakihi fish. Photo: Tao Lin

Salt-baked Tarakihi fish. Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Finally jumping on the kale bandwagon

The refurbished cargo shed was overflowing with people when we arrived for lunch. Massive lines snaked haphazardly, everywhere, invading any space they could. You couldn’t tell whether someone was in line or simply gawking at a menu, trying to decide if the food would be worth the wait in a line that never seemed to move, peering over the silhouette of the person in front, with thoughts that changed from, it’s all part of the experience, to, this better be worth the wait!

This, was Street Eats, a food festival featuring popular, more high-end (no Chinese takeaways, here) restaurants and eateries setting up stalls and selling a selection of their menus. I couldn’t decide what I wanted so I chose the shortest line, which still meant a 10 to 15 minute wait. It was to Mexico, a Mexican restaurant (who would have guessed?) that does dangerously easy-to-drink sangria and incredible fried chicken. On this day, I chose a beef taco with avocado and kale chips. I’m sure there were other things on it too but I was too busy munching on that green stuff with the slightly blackened ends to really notice. It wasn’t that the taco was bad – in fact it was great – it was just the kale chips were that good. Up until this point, I had been unimpressed by the supervege so far but as the first crispy mouthful melted away, I thought, I could eat a whole bag of this. So, I decided to make it myself.

There’s nothing new or creative or fancy about this and I could care less about how it’s a healthier alternative to potato chips (which I love, by the way) but hopefully someone who hasn’t yet tried kale chips, or has cynically labelled them a pretentious fad, will see this and just give it a go.

I simply washed and thoroughly dried a bag of kale (about $2 from the local Asian grocers), coated every nook and cranny in olive oil, seasoned it and baked it in the oven at a low temperature. Instructions and 6 really handy tips can be found here.

As for the rest of lunch that day, I ended up waiting an hour in line for tasty but not an-hour-long-wait-tasty Wagyu burgers and duck fat chips. The things I do for food.

Crispy kale chips. Photo: Tao Lin

Crispy kale chips. Photo: Tao Lin

A light and airy version of a classic

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It was 2009 and I was sitting in the lobby of my London hotel with a friend.

We were waiting for something – I no longer remember what – but while we waited, an array of premium Ben & Jerry’s ice creams stared at us, beckoning us from within phosphorescent glass.

Bored and tempted, we walked towards the humming vending machine. All the flavours were a blur to me – all except one: milk and cookies.

In went the coins and out shot a pot of one of the greatest, most classic flavour combinations around. I didn’t want that tub to end.

For years, my family kept cookies & cream ice cream in the freezer and it was always devoured quicker than any of the other flavours. We don’t buy ice cream much nowadays and I don’t often eat a lot of cookies & cream flavoured things now either – it just sort of disappeared after a while.

It may be this marked absence that explains why this particular flavour combination came to me so strongly when I decided to try out my very first mousse.

I couldn’t find a recipe that gave me what I wanted so I decided to marry two recipes together to create a silky, airy vanilla mousse speckled with chocolate cookies.

Use your favourite chocolate cookie recipe, or here’s how I made mine:

  • 3/4 cup plain flour
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 cup (113g) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • A pinch of salt

*Sourced from foodnetwork.com. I halved the original recipe and this was enough to make about 12 small to medium sized cookies.

How to:

  1. Preheat oven to 160C.
  2. Cream butter and sugar together until light in colour and fluffy. Beat in egg and incorporate fully, then mix in vanilla extract. *If you’re increasing this recipe to make more cookies, beat in each egg individually.
  3. Sift in the flour, cocoa and salt and mix until just incorporated.
  4. You can refrigerate the dough for about an hour or you can do what I did and just bake it straight away – separate the dough into small balls and squish them gently onto an oven tray lined with baking paper.
  5. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Take out of oven and let cool on a rack.

For the mousse, I found a wonderful recipe for vanilla bean mousse on sugarlaws.com and made my own additions and modifications:

I used:

  • The equivalent of 1 vanilla bean from my vanilla bean grinder
  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • 2 egg whites
  • 120g creme fraiche

How to:

  1. In a mixing bowl, beat together the creme, vanilla bean and 1/4 cup sugar with electric beaters until the creme forms soft peaks.
    *If this makes any sense, I usually whip cream until the ripples created from the beaters stay in place and look nice and thick, kind of like cake batter.
  2. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with electric beaters until soft peaks form. Gradually add 1/4 cup of sugar, tablespoon by tablespoon, while continuing to beat the eggs until thick and glossy.
  3. Crumble 2 or 3 cookies into the cream mixture and fold in. Then fold the egg whites into the cream until everything is just incorporated.
  4. Pour or spoon into serving dishes (I used drinking glasses) and top mousse with crumbled cookies. I used about 2 cookies for each mousse but this will depend on how big you make your cookies and how much you want on top 🙂
  5. Place in fridge for about 6 hours, or overnight.

This makes 3-4 servings. It’s quite a sweet dessert for my taste but it just melts in your mouth and the cookies I made had a bitterness to them, which cut through the sweetness of the mousse really nicely.

The real positive aspect of making this was how much easier it was than I thought it would be. I’ve always hated beating egg whites and my attempts at making things with egg whites – meringue, souffle – haven’t really turned out that amazingly. In comparison, this was pleasantly successful without being stressful, complicated or time-consuming.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Humble and homemade

There’s a video going around of professor of journalism at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Michael Pollan giving a talk about a number of things: the relationship between cooking and health, the changing cultural perceptions and role of cooking over time, the rise of processed foods, our heavy reliance upon food corporations, and McDonald’s french fries.

I don’t find what he argues particularly profound or groundbreaking but I do agree with some of what he says. He argues, among other things, that cooking is the simplest and easiest way to improve health. This is something I’ve come to realise very quickly upon starting on my own cooking adventure because I came to see how much butter actually goes into that chocolate cake and how much salt I end up using to season my food.

Sometimes it’s scary how much fat, salt or sugar I use – and if you’ve followed my blog for a while you’ll notice I’ll always try and lessen the amount of sugar or fat used, especially in desserts – but this makes not being able to see for myself what’s going into my food when I buy takeaways or fast food even scarier.

Pollan points out that corporations cook very differently to individuals. Of course they do. Mass produced food is laden with salt, fat, sugar, additives, preservatives – how else are they going to make it taste good, withstand a long shelf-life and most importantly, make money?

The increased reliance upon processed foods means people are eating stuff that’s not great for them more often. Pollan uses the example of fries. Instead of having to wash, peel, cut and bake/fry potatoes to make fries, you can just buy a frozen bag full of yummy potato and pop it straight into the oven or deep fryer. Less work, less mess to clean up.

I’m absolutely guilty of this, especially with regards to fries. I remember having frozen fries at home from when I was at primary school and only in recent years have I stopped turning to them regularly as a snack or make-do meal when there’s nothing else to eat.

As an aside, some of you may wonder why my parents let me eat those things in the first place and well, I guess they just didn’t think they were that bad. Potato doesn’t feature all that much in Chinese cuisine and I think they figured they didn’t look or taste all that harmful. They were easy to rustle up and I loved them.

Once I discovered how delicious hand-cut, oven-baked potato fries and wedges could be though, I found it harder and harder to pull out that greasy bag of McCain chunky cut chips from the freezer.

Admittedly, it does take more work and more cleaning up but it’s infinitely more satisfactory. Peel ’em or don’t, cut ’em anyway you want, fry ’em or bake ’em, season with your own herbs and spices, serve with a main meal or have ’em on their own.

They’re yours for the taking.

Photo: Tao Lin

Potato wedges and kumara (sweet potato) tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, baked at 200C non-fan bake for around 40 to 50 minutes, until soft. Photo: Tao Lin

 

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

A revelatory experiment

There was just one question on my mind as I wandered the supermarket aisles, clutching little jars of star anise and cinnamon in one hand and a pot of creme fraiche in the other: where the bloody hell do they keep the polenta?

I thought it would be in the same section as the flour – nope. What about the cereal section? Nope. Bread? No. Pasta? No. I even tried Google for help, except my phone’s 4G wasn’t working. Thank you, Vodafone.

It was only when I got home and hopped on the wonderful world of the Internet did I realise my mistake. I had been looking solely for ‘polenta’ when I could have also been searching for ‘cornmeal’.

Experienced foodies out there are most likely scoffing at my amateur discovery but you better believe it was a big revelation for me. That thing on TV that always looks like silky potato mash and has developed a bit of a ‘hipster’ status, that thing that always sounded so fancy and almost mysterious, is actually just humble ol’ cornmeal.

According to The New York Times, ‘polenta’ is the Italian term for cornmeal and comes from an ancient Roman dish of the poorer classes called pulmentum.

More precisely, polenta isn’t such until it’s cooked. Until then, it’s just cornmeal.

When I looked up the recipe of an orange syrup cake that I saw on the latest season of My Kitchen Rules, I was confused as to why it used polenta. That confusion has now dissipated after learning what polenta actually is and trying out the cake for myself.

The orange syrup cake was served with caramelised pineapples, toasted nuts and creme fraiche on the show and there was only one word the judges had for it: “Yum”. Naturally, I had to give it a go.

I halved the recipe used and didn’t bother with the caramelised pineapple and the nuts as my primary focus was trying out the cake.

For the syrup:

  • 247.5g caster sugar
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 cloves
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, seeded
  • 1/2 orange, thinly sliced
  • 1 lemon, juiced

How to:

  1. Heat all the ingredients up in a saucepan over low heat until all the sugar has dissolved.
  2. Simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes until reduced by half
  3. Let cool and pour through a fine sieve into a jug to discard the solids

For the cake:

  • 1 orange, zested and juiced
  • 92.5g unsalted butter, softened
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 75g plain flour
  • 27.5g fine polenta
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking powder

How to:

  1. Preheat the oven to 170C and grease cake/muffin tins (I used large ramekins)
  2. Using an electric beater, mix together the butter and sugar until light and creamy
  3. Beat in the egg and then the reduced orange juice
  4. Stir in the zest
  5. Sift in the flour, polenta, baking powder and cinnamon and stir to combine
  6. Divide mixture among prepared tins
  7. Bake for around 20-30 mins, or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
  8. While cakes are hot, prick holes all over it with a skewer and pour half the syrup onto the cakes. Repeat once all the syrup has been absorbed.

I served the cakes with some creme fraiche mixed with 1/2 tsp vanilla extract and 1/2 vanilla bean seeds.

It was moist, crumbly, so light it melted in the mouth and the sourness of the creme fraiche helped prevent the cake from being sickly sweet. It was just so delicious and it’s definitely something I would be excited, happy and proud to make for others.

To be honest, I don’t know what the cornmeal adds to the overall result but it can’t be bad with a result this good!

As you can see, my presentation skills are severely lacking and don’t, in any way, reflect how amazing this cake is – excuse the photo and try it out for yourself 🙂

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

The art of timing

Shows like Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules have taught me many, many things about cooking but perhaps one of the greatest lessons has been the importance of mastering timing.

Too much time in the oven and that beautiful (and expensive) beef tenderloin overcooks, becoming less tender and more dry and tough. Too little time and that pork belly that’s meant to melt in your mouth is a rubbery, chewy, downright nasty slab of greasy meat.

Desserts too rely immensely on correct timing, where one minute could mean the difference between serving your guests a molten chocolate cake that oozes when you dig in with a spoon or just another chocolate cake.

I was faced with this scenario when my friends and I gathered for a potluck dinner. Tasked with dessert, I chose to recreate my previously successful chocolate fondant with the addition of some almond biscuit crumble and vanilla mascarpone cream. I erred on the side of caution with my timing and failed to deliver exactly what I wanted.

The recipe I followed for the cake was one by Nigella Lawson. I used less chocolate – about 300g, whereas the recipe calls for 350g – and it was very rich but I think I would use the recipe again. It tasted really nice and it was really easy to put together, PLUS no left-over egg parts!

I also used a muffin tin because I didn’t have enough ramekins of the same size to serve everyone. I repeated what I did the first time I made these cakes, which was to brush melted butter in every dish and then sprinkle with some cocoa powder. This helps immensely when it comes to removing the baby cakes to serve.

The cakes only needed about 10 or 11 minutes but I cooked them for about 13 minutes. They had been sitting in the fridge for a few hours so I thought they would need those extra couple of minutes but it was too much and they ended up only being a little bit gooey in the middle with no molten flow of chocolate whatsoever – disappointing!

For the almond crumble:

  • 125g unsalted butter, chopped, warmed/slightly melted
  • 150g plain flour
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 150g almonds, chopped coarsely

Simply squish the butter with the flour and sugar until it resembles bread crumbs. Add the almonds and stir together

I got this from a recipe cooked on the latest season of My Kitchen Rules. In hindsight, this made way too much crumble and it was a bit tasteless so I would decrease the amount of butter, flour and almonds by maybe 50g and keep the same amount of sugar.

For the mascarpone cream, I just whisked together 200g of mascarpone with about tsp of vanilla extract, ground vanilla bean (I have pure vanilla beans in a grinder) and about a tbsp of icing sugar. This goes great with a rich dessert like chocolate fondant.

There was a lot of silence during dessert time and plenty of compliments about the taste, which makes me very happy but there’s no denying it: they were hardly chocolate fondants.

Chocolate fondant, lava cakes or molten cakes lose their identity without that melted centre and it can be a gamble to get them out of the oven at the right time in order to achieve the right consistency. That’s just how it is with cooking I suppose and it is a bit of a mix between a fine art and sheer luck to get the food just right. It’s all a matter of trial and error – I’m sure my friends won’t mind being taste testers!

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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