"A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift."

Laurie Colwin

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tarty Tuesdays: ugly but good pie

I hadn’t seen my fake mother, Lee, since my wedding last Valentine’s Day.  Lee is still grieving – as is right and good – for the daughter who left this world just a week after that.  But her new home, with a 180o view of the sea just a stone’s throw away, is teeming with life, and that is also as it should be, because Lee and her husband, much as this loss has razed them to the ground, are full of life themselves.

In her backyard, she showed me the contemplative garden where all the plants that they received after their daughter’s death went.  There’s a seat there, and many flowers, and also a beautiful plum tree so laden with fruit that its branches stoop under the weight.  Their son has helped them prune the other fruit trees and put in raised beds for their vegetables.  There is nothing that impresses me quite so much as a veggie patch, and this was a fragrant, colourful beauty:  forests of chard, a minefield of purple beetroot, and tomatoes worthy of that scene in The Godfather.

Lee and I talked, and talked, and talked, and cried some, and the next day, when I was ready to come home, she walked me out into the garden with a large, flat basket, and picked me tomatoes, chard, many plums, and apricots.  I had a three-hour drive back home and My Baby and I were going away for the weekend the next day to another place also three hours away, and I knew some of the things Lee gave me would not last that long.  When I got home, I turned the chard into an early (and ersatz) Torta Pasqualina to take with us for our hosts, and I gently stewed the sweet ripe apricots until tender and put them in the ‘fridge for… whatever, whenever.

When I came home, we ate the tomatoes the way my mother called “split tomatoes”:  cut in half, scored lightly, sprinkled with salt, oregano, and good olive oil.  So good.  Then I made much plum jam.

The plums were on the greenish side, so the jam has a fabulous set and a gorgeous tart twang.  Then, I remembered the apricots.

I have some miniature pavlova shells that were tempting, but no.  What I really felt like was an apricot pie, but I wanted something lighter than the usual pie.  Then I remembered the fresh strawberry pie from a beloved book I have called American Pie, by Teresa Kennedy, and hey!  Adaptation ahoy!  For my pastry I went to Nidia's, and this is where the ugliness comes in.

The recipe is for a beautiful, light, perfumed, cookie-like crust.  But mine turned out decidedly ugly.

Crust got da uggles!
Granted, I didn’t let the dough chill for the requisite hour (it’s a nightmare to roll while at anything other than ‘fridge temp), so it’s probably my fault, but I pressed on regardless.  I pressed on because the raw pastry tasted amazing, cooked it smelt divine, and I also remembered a little sweet that the Italians had before the French took over the world with their macarons (go on – put on a French accent and say it – macaron).  Brutti ma buoni are freeform Italian macaroons, and their name translates as “ugly but good”.

And this, I decided, was going to be my pie:  ugly but good.  And remembering Lee’s garden, and the dolphins playing in the water in view of their backyard while we thought of a loved one gone too soon, I thought it was apt.

When you first combine the ingredients, it'll look cloudy on account of the cornflour.  Don't worry, it'll come good as gelatinization takes place.

This is the filling after it comes to the boil.  See?  Super thick.   It should glop, not pour, from the spoon, and mound slightly when it falls.

Add butter, and stir.  This will make the filling...

... gorgeously glossy.

Pour filling into crust, and chill.  Have immoderate amounts of whipped cream on standby.

The perfume comes from the crust, which is spectacular.  Keep the technique for the filling in mind for adaptation, too.  It’s good for any soft summer fruit.


For the crust –
140g. sugar
100g. butter
3 egg yolks
3 tbsp. port
2 tbsp. milk
1 tsp. vanilla
425-450g. self-raising flour

For the filling –
1 cup apricot puree
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cornflour (corn starch)
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
Whipped cream, to serve

1.  First, make the crust.  Cream sugar and butter in food processor until creamy.  Add egg yolks, and whizz.  Add port, milk, and vanilla, and give it a very quick whizz (mixture will curdle if you overwhizz).  Finally, add flour and pulse until a soft dough is formed.  Scrape onto a sheet of cling film and refrigerate for one hour. 
2.  Brush tart or pie pan with baker's secret or grease and flour.  Roll out dough, line pan, prick several times with a fork, and bake in a moderate oven for about 15 min., until golden.
3.  Next, make the filling.  Combine all ingredients except butter in a medium saucepan, and stir constantly until mixture boils and thickens.  It will be very thick and should mound when you drop it from the spoon.  Add butter, and stir until melted.  Mixture will now be gorgeously glossy.  Pour filling out into crust, and chill until set.  Serve with whipped cream.

Yumbo McGillicutty!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Everything old is yum again: garlic prawns

My Baby and I were trying to decide where to go out for dinner.

“What do you feel like?” he asked.

“Garlic prawns!” I exclaimed, then, thinking about it, went off on a rant.  “But where can you get garlic prawns these days?  They used to be on every bloody menu in every bloody restaurant, but now they’re gone!  Why?  WHY?”

Well, we know why.  Food is subject to fashion as much as anything else, but it probably shouldn’t be; not when you remember how enjoyable some things – simple things - can be.  And what’s not to enjoy about the freshest, crunchiest prawns, with a puddle of the most deliciously garlicky, olive-oily juices to mop up with crusty bread?

Although garlic prawns were subject to much bastardisation (particularly featuring pre-cooked prawns – shudder), those of us Of A Certain Age remember, in far less sophisticated, multicultural times, asking for them at the local pub or “continental” restaurant, where they would come, still sizzling, in an individual cast-iron cocotte sitting on its own wooden plate so it wouldn’t burn the dinner table.  Indeed I have a recipe here, from my trusty Australian Women’s Weekly Cooking Class Cookbook (no publication date listed), that describes the dish as one of the “top-pop foods from abroad”, and that expression, right there, tells you all you need to know about Australian cuisine in the mid-to-late 70s.

But coincidentally, while reminiscing, as well as ranting, I stumbled upon a recipe for Dee Dee's Sizzling Spanish Garlic Prawns, and therefore decided to stop reminiscing and ranting and just make them already.  With my ready-made provenzal, I literally had them in the pan in two minutes, and we were seated at table with garlicky, prawny goodness in front of us, 15 minutes after that (which includes plating-up time).

So here’s my take on Dee Dee’s already fine recipe.  I made these in one large pan, but if you want to dig out Mum’s cast-iron cocottes for individual servings, please do so, with my blessing.  Send pictures so that I can shed a sentimental tear.


1 kg. green prawn meat (deveined)
1/4 – 1/3 cup provenzal
1/3 cup dry sherry
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. dried chili

1.  Preheat oven to 220oC.
2.  In a large cast-iron frying pan combine all ingredients except salt (salting prawns before cooking makes them tough – go figure since they’ve been living in salt water), making sure that prawns are well coated.
3.  Bake for 12 minutes, stirring once.  Salt lightly, and serve immediately with something starchy to mop up the juices.  (Rice is good – particularly if tossed in butter and Parmesan - but crusty bread is indispensable.)

Yumbo McGillicutty!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Tarty Tuesdays: Classic Tuna Pie

It’s summer in the southern hemisphere, and while that means a barbeque to many, if not most people, to me that’s just too restrictive.  Breakfast?  Outside!  Lunch?  Outside!  Dinner outside?  Heck yes!  And morning and afternoon tea too, with a paperback novel and my feet up on a neighbouring seat.

I don’t need “outdoor food” to eat out on my lovely and shady deck – I have table and chairs, after all, which surely allows for a degree of civilization even if aforementioned table and chairs were bought on sale from Bunnings – but it helps if the food is relaxed and uncomplicated.  I don’t want to worry about its presentation, or it going cold if there’s a beautiful breeze flowing.

A savoury pie or tart, served cold, is perfect.  My beautiful, salsa-dancing cousin Silvia, who is an instinctual goddess in the kitchen, has a hand that turns everything delicious.  Last time I was at hers and my aunt’s house in Buenos Aires and stayed unexpectedly to dinner, she went into the kitchen, and refusing my offers of help, turned out dish after delicious dish in record time.  Everything was worth going on bended knee for, but surprisingly, what I wanted seconds of was this tuna pie, which she informed me was “simple but so classic”.  So classic, in fact, that I was embarrassed to admit I’d never tasted it, much less made it.  But I’ve been daydreaming about it ever since, and turned one out a few days ago for our New Year’s Day picnic.  It was almost as good as hers.

Part of the reason why Silvia was able to make the pie so quickly was the fact that she had store-bought discos de tarta on hand, but even without it, it’s still super-quick to make.  Nidia’s Tart Crust, below, is made in about two minutes with a minimum of fuss and mess (funnily enough, it is also the closest recipe to store-bought disco de tarta pastry that I have yet made) and makes for a pie that’s delicious hot or cold and will cut beautifully.

As an aside, I’m a huge fan of cut-and-come-again things during the summer.  Because of the heat-induced sluggishness, you want to take advantage of the times when you actually feel like cooking to cook something you can keep for when you won’t.  A whole ham – ubiquitous at this time of year – kept ready to go wrapped in damp muslin in the fridge, a boned, stuffed and roasted cold chicken, a hunk of muffuletta or pan bagna, a tart… these are things that can be waiting for you to approach knife in hand.  And go on – take that slice outside.  The cicadas are singing, the dog-eared paperback novel is waiting, and the world can just wait for a while. 


1 x recipe Nidia’s Tart Crust (see below)
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 red pepper (capsicum), cut into fine dice
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 x 425g. tin tuna chunks in brine, drained
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
1/2 tsp. oregano
Salt, pepper, and chili to taste
3 eggs
150ml. light cream, or half-and-half (milk and cream)

1.  Preheat oven to 180oC.  Brush inside of tart/flan pan with Baker's Secret or line with baking paper.  Make up Nidia’s Tart Crust.  Roll out 2/3 of it and use it to line pan.  Prick several times with a fork, brush with some of the eggwash, and place in ‘fridge while you make the filling.
2.  Sauté onion and red pepper in olive oil until soft.  Transfer to a bowl and add tuna and peas, and season with salt, pepper, and chili to taste.  Spoon filling into tart crust.  Lightly whisk together eggs and light cream or half-and-half, and pour over filling.  Roll out remaining pastry and use it to top pie, crimping the edges together.  Cut out a vent with a sharp knife or kitchen scissors to allow steam to escape, and brush with egg wash.
3.  Bake in lower shelf of oven for ten minutes (this is for the base to firm up nicely), then transfer to highest shelf and bake until golden – 25-30 minutes approx.  Cool at least to warm before serving.  


Oh, we do get in a rut with our pastry, don’t we?  It’s puff and shortcrust, shortcrust and puff.  Yes, they are versatile, but they’re not always what you want.  First and foremost, both pastries are very, very rich, which might make a pie or tart out of the question for you, but also might not suit a more rustic filling, or suit an occasion, such as a picnic, when you want something a little sturdier.

Nidia, from Recetas Simples y Deliciosas, has a wonderful recipe that not only fits the bill, but is also done in two shakes.  There’s no cutting in butter, no working with ice-cold ingredients, no worrying about working the dough too much, and no banging around.  You can make it ahead of time if you like, but it’s so quickly and easily made that you’ll probably find it’s not necessary.  And because it’s a cross between pastry and dough, it is also – joy of joys – fairly low in fat.  All up, this recipe is reason enough to make pies and tarts on a regular basis, I reckon.

Thank you Nidia for letting me repost the recipe, this time in English.

250g. plain flour
1 tsp. salt
1 egg
1/4 cup (60ml) milk
3 tbsp. (45ml) vegetable oil

1.  Combine flour and salt in a bowl.  Make a well in the middle and add remaining ingredients.  Gradually mix flour into the well to obtain a soft dough that does not stick to your hands.  Wrap in plastic and allow to rest for 30 minutes if you have time, but if not, proceed with the recipe.

The Essential Ingredient: Baker's Secret

Every cook has his or her peeves.  Mine are peeling potatoes (but I justify not doing it by telling everyone we all need the extra fibre in the mash) and greasing-and-flouring (which I don’t justify at all but accompany with much swearing).

Oh, man.  I LOATHE greasing-and-flouring.  And it’s not like I’m using complicated pans most of the time, either, just your standard square, round, and rectangular.  But greasing-and-flouring is enough to make me think twice about baking something, and it is also the reason why I buy silicon baking paper in commercial kitchen sized rolls.

But sometimes baking paper won’t do, and you need to grease and flour.  Nonstick spray is tempting for the greasing part, but it actually wrecks your pans.  No matter how good it is, it leaves behind a residue that turns gummy on baking, and is then almost impossible to clean off without damaging the coating on your pans.  Whatever you don’t clean off is there forever.

The solution is Baker’s Secret, which is no secret, and has been around for many a year.  We’re not talking a commercial product here, no fancy non-stick compounds in an aerosol pack, but something you put together with three common ingredients in about 30 seconds.  Simply brush it inside your pans instead of greasing-and-flouring and your baked goods will slip out (and off) like magic, with a gorgeous golden crust to boot.  No gungy residue, no mess, no Vibey swearing like a trooper over SPENDING FIVE MINUTES GREASING AND FLOURING THE BLOODY THING AND STILL MISSING A BIT THERE WHERE THE FINGERTIP OF MY PINKIE WAS RESTING.


Plain flour
Butter or shortening, softened

Simply combine equal quantities of all ingredients until smooth.  Store in a covered jar or plastic container in the ‘fridge.  Baker’s Secret will keep for about two months.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Essential Ingredient: Provenzal

So I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing for the past six or eight weeks.  My beloved niece said that she was, in a combination of thrift and common sense, going to live off her pantry, fridge, and freezer, for a month, and extended the challenge to us.  I accepted, because the sitch in this house was dire.  I cannot begin to describe the state of the pantry.  Nay, pantries.  Because as if one crumbling, leaning tower of Pisa of foodstuffs wasn’t enough, we had two.

Although I’m not the world’s most organised stores keeper, this was the worst my pantry had ever been and it was easily traceable back to when My Baby and his babies moved in last February, bringing with them their own pantry contents.  How it became one insurmountable problem was a mixture of things:  mismanagement, busy-ness, plus the fact that My Baby brought with him stuff I just don’t use... but at the same time couldn’t bear to throw away.  So I waited for him to use it.  And he didn’t.  And we kept buying weekly groceries.  And you know the rest.

So when I took up the challenge, I set out the rules:  we would only buy fresh fruit and veg, and bread and milk, for a minimum of a month.  That month came and went, and we hadn’t made a dent in the pantry.  Yep, that’s how full it was.  Another few weeks and OK, it was much better, with the added bonus of finding stuff in there I had forgotten about (“I knew I had salted capers in here!”  “Two-year-old Jamaican raisins!  AWESOME!”), but still too full.  A quick glance at the use-by dates revealed what I was dreading:  I’d have to do a mass cull.  But as guilty as I felt about this, given my support of Love Food Hate Waste, the discovery of the scary, scary stats that Aussies are wasting $7.8 billion of food every year, and the fact that I haven’t thrown much fridge food away thanks to Recycling Fridays and better management, I kinda knew I had to cull in order to start afresh and stay on track.  A good start to the new year, I said to myself as I sent out bag after bag to the bin.  Sigh.

So.  On to today’s topic: parsley, the herb that – in its fresh form – no good kitchen should ever be without, and also, because of its fresh form, the one that we most tend to throw away.  Now – I know how to store parsley (stick stalks in a jar of water, put freezer bag on top, secure with a rubber band, keep in ‘fridge), but it’s still not one of those things that is a good keeper.  If your week gets suddenly busy, you might find that the bunch of parsley you were using so enthusiastically at the beginning will just go off, without warning, in the day or two you didn’t go into the kitchen.

There are other ways of storing parsley, such as the French way of washing out the chlorophyll from finely-chopped parsley by wrapping it in a tea-towel and running it under cold water, or freezing cubes of chopped parsley, but this defeats the purpose of parsley for me, which is its freshness.  “Parsley is ghastly” the very witty Ogden Nash may have said, but I don’t use parsley as a garnish, I actually use it as a flavouring.  The refreshing mineral flavour that so lifts and highlights a dish is lost when it is washed or submitted to the harsh cold of the freezer.  Better for me to have it in a form that I will use:  provenzal.

Provenzal is the name Argentines give to a classic mixture of chopped parsley and garlic, although it cannot have been invented there.  First and foremost there is the – d’uh! – no small matter of the name, and also the fact that it is the classic Italian treatment for truffles.  Indeed, any Italian dish that features parsley and garlic as the main flavouring is called “trifolati”, ie. “truffled”, so a dish of mushrooms sautéed in parsley and garlic, for example, will be known as funghi trifolati, or truffled mushrooms.  Provenzal begins and ends countless dishes, and if you have it on hand, you’ll find yourself adding it to anything.  So although I’m putting it down here as a good way to store parsley, it is far more than that:  it is an essential ingredient all its own.  The aroma released when you chop the parsley and garlic (which you should do at the same time) gets my mouth watering before I do anything else, and out of all the kitchen perfumes that remind me of my mother, this is probably the most evocative.

Storing provenzal involves a simple, tried-and-true method:  pot it up, cover it with vegetable oil, and stick it in the fridge.  If you’re not certain that you’ll use a big jar of provenzal, but aren’t sure that you can use a whole bunch of parsley in a few days either, why not store half your bunch of parsley in the usual way, and use the other half to make a jar of provenzal?  It’s the best of both worlds.


1 bunch parsley, stalks removed, washed and dried
1 bulb garlic
Vegetable oil, as needed, if storing

Simply separate garlic cloves and peel, and chop very finely along with parsley.  This can be done with your mezzaluna, a sharp knife, or your trusty food processor (this is what I use when I make large quantities).  This is provenzal, and can be used straight away.  If you want to store it, transfer to a sterilized, completely dry jar, and cover with vegetable oil.  (Much as I love extra virgin olive oil, I don’t use it on account of it congealing in the ‘fridge, and also because it will add its own flavour – not something you necessarily want all the time.)  Store in the refrigerator, making sure that provenzal is always covered with oil.

Now that you have your jar of provenzal, what to put it in?  Like I said:  I’ll add it to anything, but here are a few ideas to get you started.

-  Stir into hot, cooked rice along with butter and Parmesan
-  Provenzal pizza is delicious: spread provenzal over par-cooked pizza base, top with mozzarella and a sprinkling of Parmesan, and flash in a hot oven until cheese is melted
-  Add at the end of any simple chicken sauté
-  Sauté mushrooms in provenzal and extra virgin olive oil or butter for funghi trifolati
-  Combine with butter to make garlic butter, which you can then use for garlic bread, to melt on top of steak or vegies, or if you’re a particularly hard case, for spreading on crusty bread
-  Add to any salad dressing, particularly if the salad will feature cooked greens (eg. green beans, broccoli) or legumes (eg. black-eyed beans, lentils)
-  Mix into minced meat before forming into meatballs
-  Toss with extra-virgin olive oil and Parmesan into hot spaghetti
-  Brush over any meat before roasting
-  Use it to spike beef or lamb before roasting or braising
-  Whisk into the egg part of the crumbing set when crumbing and frying
-  Marinade thick slices of provolone in provenzal, then cook on a hot cast-iron grill briefly on each side, until beginning to melt.  Sprinkle with oregano and chilli flakes, and drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil before serving immediately with crusty French bread
-  Combine provenzal with olive oil, lemon juice and a touch of vinegar, and use it to marinade poached lamb’s brains or chicken breast for an hour or so before serving
-  For a delicious antipasto that will keep a few months in the refrigerator for impromptu snacking and sandwiches as well as the slavish adoration of any dinner guest, cook any combination of eggplant, zucchini, red peppers, onions, and mushrooms in equal quantities of vinegar and water until tender but firm.  Drain several hours, then layer vegetables in sterilized jars with provenzal, salt, pepper, and a little oregano between layers.  Tuck a few bay leaves down the sides, then cover with olive oil.  Allow to mature for a few days before tucking in (it gets better with age).
-  For awesome moules, sauté provenzal for just a few seconds in olive oil, then add a glass of white wine or water.  Bring to the boil over high heat, and dump in mussels.  Jam lid on, and cook fast until mussels are open.  Serve in deep bowls with plenty of the garlicky cooking liquor and crusty bread.  (If you like, you can set mussels aside in a warm place while you quickly reduce liquor, then add a little cream to make a sauce you pour over the mussels.)