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

Laurie Colwin

Friday, November 25, 2011

Recycling Fridays: what to do about that leftover tomato paste

We all do things in the kitchen as a matter of course that we never think to share with anyone because they’re so simple, until, of course, someone asks you a simple question.  Like, “What do I do with leftover tomato paste?”

Ah.  Good question.  Tomato paste is one of those things that, unless you’re like that hard-case friend of mine who used to go at it with a teaspoon, you only use a bit at a time of.  In between those times, if the time between the times is too long, it goes mouldy.

 The classic way to store a jar of leftover tomato paste is to cover the surface with oil, but this method isn’t foolproof, because every speck and skerrick must be covered with oil.  Any exposed paste goes mouldy, which means you have to scrape all the paste off the sides of the jar with a spatula and push it down before you add the oil.  And when you spoon out tomato paste, you have to do it all over again.  And what if you don’t want oil with your tomato paste?

Tomato paste in a tube is absolutely brilliant, and possibly the best thing to happen to tomato paste, but again, this massive 500g. jar cost me the same as three of those tubes. 

What to do?

Enter the freezer, which is the friend of every cook running through the kitchen shouting, “Can’t cook now!  Cook later!” on their way somewhere else.  Times like these, with goopy, liquidy leftovers like these that you use in small amounts, people will usually tell you to press your ice cube trays into service.  If you’ve got enough of them.  And aren’t using them for ice cubes.  And can actually be bothered unmoulding the tomatoey cubes afterwards.

I don’t, and I can’t, so I use baking trays and my trusty silicon baking paper (which I buy in industrial quantities).  Dollop tablespoonfuls onto the trays, freeze…

and when frozen…

transfer them to baggies.

They are dropped, still frozen, into simmering sauces, soups and stews, and if there’s nothing simmering, they will thaw out on their own in a few minutes, or 15 seconds in the mikey.

If you’re feeling fanceh, you can press a fresh basil or oregano leaf into each dollop before freezing.  Cool.  And simple.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

These are a few of her favourite things

I have many nieces whom I love and adore, but my third niece was my first pretend child:  she was serious and a little intense and didn’t give herself easily, but she was always up for it with me, whatever it might be.  I took her everywhere – sometimes with her brother, sometimes not - and I cooked for her and with her.  We made real jelly out of orange juice and agar-agar and set it in orange cups.  She helped me make apricot jam from her grandparents’ tree.  We had barbeques where she instructed me that her sausages should not only burst, but the exposed meat where it had burst should be scorched almost to black.

She turned 30 yesterday, and I asked her what she wanted me to cook for her celebratory barbeque (at which point it should be noted that she has outgrown her penchant for burst-and-burnt snags).  Her request was something potatoey – potato salad would be good – and something custardy.  Well, d’uh.  Potatoes and custard are two out of her very favourite foods in the whole wide world right there, along with jelly (which my daughter took care of, admirably), bok choy, and Chinese dumplings. 

My daughter's Broken Glass Jelly
 For the potatoes, I decided against the potato salad and made instead a “potato feast” comprising of many steamed pink-eye baby spuds and four types of creamy sauce for spooning over the top:  bacon, tomato and chive, avocado mayonnaise, minted yoghurt, and toum (Lebanese garlic sauce).

And for the custard, I made her the precise same dessert I made her when she turned 21:  coconut flan (flan as in the original Spanish caramel custard, before the French stole it and called it crème caramel) and many, many mangoes (since they are another one of her favourite things).

An addiction to custard – and in particular flan, of any persuasion – is a peculiarity of all the women in my family, and it’s easy to see why:  soothing but classy, rich but light, sweet but never cloying, it is the perfect dessert.  (Yes, I said the perfect dessert:  chocolate is not dessert, it is a meal.)  And I am very, very fussy about my flan and crème caramel.

See – flan and crème caramel aren’t just about the flavour, they are about the texture.

What is wrong with this picture?  Well, there’s nothing wrong with the picture per se, it is very nicely shot, but the dessert itself?  Check out the dots all over the sides:  they are air bubbles, and have no place in either flan or crème caramel.  So while I’m sure it tasted very nice (I didn’t make this one, just found the picture on the Internet), the texture, the mouthfeel – which are every bit a part of the experience as flavour – would be all wrong.  What a shame.

And so easy to avoid.  You avoid air bubbles by simply not incorporating air into the mixture:  you lightly break up eggs, and you mix in, not beat, the remaining ingredients.  And you stay the hell away from recipes telling you to use electric beaters, blender, or food processor.

Here are the ingredients (plus a little vanilla, if you like).  It’s a little unbelievable that so few ingredients will make a dessert worthy of going on bended knee for, but oh, they will.  They so will.

First, you make a caramel and line a pan with it.  How do you do that?  Glad you asked!

Next, you lightly beat the eggs.  Now I am being very serious here:  you just want to barely combine yolk and whites, and this amount of bubbles, just on the surface, is about the maximum you want.

Add remaining ingredients, combine, and again:  see?  Very few bubbles.

Pour into your caramel-lined mould or pan.

Your dessert needs to be cooked au bain Marie, or in a water bath.  Ignore any recipe that tells you to put in hot or boiling water:  water MUST be cold or you will run the risk of cooking it too fast and again, wrecking the texture.

Remove from water bath as soon as it’s done, cool, then chill, preferably overnight, before unmoulding.   

This makes a firm flan – firm enough to cut and handle with ease.  If you would like a wobblier flan, you can use 1 1/2 tins of coconut cream.  Although we had our mangoes plain as a foil to the richness of the custard, they are also lovely drizzled with a lime and ginger syrup just before serving.
(8 servings)

3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
6 eggs
1 tin (395g.) condensed milk
1 tin (400ml) coconut cream
 1tsp. vanilla (opt.)
4 perfect mangoes, to serve

What you do:
1.  Make up caramel with sugar and water and use it to line a mould or pan, or 8 ramekins or crème caramel moulds.  Set aside while you proceed with recipe.
2.  Preheat oven to 160oC.  In a medium bowl, lightly beat eggs, just until whites and yolks are amalgamated.  Add remaining ingredients, and stir (not beat) with a whisk, just until combined.  (The condensed milk tends to settle to the bottom of the bowl, so make sure that even though you’re using a light hand, you’re being thorough.)
3.  Pour mixture into caramel-lined mould/s.  Set in a roasting pan, and pour enough cold water into the roasting pan to come about 3cm up the sides.  Bake 50-60 min. for one mould, or 30-35 min. for individual servings, until custard is set and only just wobbles in the very centre. 
4.  Remove custard from roasting pan, and allow to cool at room temperature, then transfer to ‘fridge and allow to chill several hours, preferably overnight.  To unmould, there’s no need to loosen the sides.  Place serving plate over the top of the custard, then flip upside down.  It will fall out without problem, and caramel will flood the top and pool around the sides effortlessly, and look like a picture.  Halve mangoes and serve with flan.  

Yumbo McGillicutty!

Golden brown: how to make caramel and line moulds with it

When I studied food science, it quickly became clear to me that no aspect of it was as exact and complicated as sugar cookery.  It’s a branch all on its own, and if you became a food scientist specialising in sugar, you could pretty much be guaranteed a highly paid job just about anywhere.  If you were a straight man, it would also just about guarantee that despite the inherent geekiness, you would get lucky with any straight woman on the planet.  But I digress.

That said, instructions for making caramel (ie. caramelised sugar, not caramel sauce, not candy-type caramel) at home are complicated by SO MUCH BANGING AROUND that I want to address this dreadful misrepresentation.

Yeah, I said it:  banging around.  Like what?  Brushing sugar crystals down the side of the pan (YAWN), adding glucose syrup or indeed any ingredient to the sugar and water (YAWN x 2), arresting cooking with water (YAWN x 3), using a thermometer (YAWN x 4) and repeated cautions about how “tricky” it is to cook caramel without crystallising the sugar (YAWN x 5) and how you must wash the pan straight away or it will be impossible to clean (YAWN x 6).

Bullpats, all of it.  You don’t need to brush the sugar crystals down, you don’t need anything other than sugar and water, you don’t need to arrest cooking in any way other than moving the darned pan off the heat, you don’t need a thermometer (matter of fact the high temperatures reached by caramelised sugar may make even a sugar thermometer shatter), and it isn’t tricky at all – it’s easy, easy, easy.

The beauty of making caramel is that you have your eyes (and to a lesser extent, your nose) to guide you to make sure you succeed.  The dramatic shifts that take place in the subtle changes in temperature during the stages of sugar cookery don’t apply when you’re caramelising sugar.  If it looks done, it’s done.  End of.

The only two rules – and they are easy ones – to remember when making caramel are:

1.  Dissolve every single sugar crystal before mixture comes to the boil, and
2.  Do not stir mixture again once it’s come to the boil.  Not at all.

Failing to obey either of those rules will leave you with a crystallised mixture that nothing can salvage.

Ready to get your caramel on?  Let’s go!


2 parts sugar (see notes below)
1 part water

What you do:
1.  Place sugar and water in a saucepan and place over medium-low heat.  Stir occasionally until every single sugar crystal is dissolved.  (In stirring, by the way, don’t go mad: just run a spoon across the bottom of the pan as many times as it takes.)  There is no need to brush down the sugar crystals on the side of the pan, just make sure the sugar suspended in the water is dissolved.  Do not allow to come to the boil.
2.  When sugar is completely dissolved, increase heat to high and boil steadily until sugar begins to change colour.  At this point, you may want to swirl the pan to encourage even cooking.  Caramel will be ready when it’s coloured amber to golden brown, according to preference.  It will also smell caramelly (trust me on this).  From golden brown it’s only a few seconds to burnt, however, so get the pan off the heat immediately and work quickly to use the caramel.  Forget about cleaning the saucepan for now!
3.  To line a pan or moulds with caramel, quickly pour caramel into pan or individual moulds (eg. ramekins or crème caramel moulds).  With protected hands, swirl caramel around the base and sides of the mould.  Allow to set for a few minutes before proceeding with recipe.

Assorted notes:

*  A 3/4 cup sugar quantity of caramel generously lines one cake or flan pan, or 6 ramekins/crème caramel moulds.

*  My one caution during this whole affair is to PLEASE protect your hands when lining the moulds.  It’s not necessary when cooking the sugar, but definitely necessary when lining, for two reasons.  The first reason is that the moulds get BLOODY HOT.  The second is the tyranny of burning yourself with caramel:  not only is caramel much, much hotter than boiling water, but burns need cold water, and if you put cold water on caramel on your skin, the caramel will solidify.  Try to pull it off, and it will take skin off with it.  So be careful, but don’t panic:  in making caramel at least once a month all my adult life, I have never once suffered a caramel burn.

*  What do you do with that pan?  Fill it up with water (it will spit if it’s still hot, so stand back just a tad), and set it on the stove.    Bring it to the boil, and the caramel will dissolve away.  Any stubborn burnt bits will just scrub off with a wire scrubby thing.

*  Caramel isn't just for lining moulds.  Its uses are myriad:  arrest cooking with cream or fresh juice (blood orange is awesome) to make a divine sauce, add to stews and braises for richness and je ne sais quoi like the Vietnamese do, add butter and vanilla to make gorgeous chewy caramels, or mix in roasted nuts to make croccante or no-fuss praline.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hotspots and hotpots

A few years ago, I left the town I’d lived in for over 20 years because there wasn’t any reason left to stay any more.  And because the time was right, the leaving was easy.  But of course there’s stuff you miss:  friends, walks along the river, friendly faces down the street, and my wholefoods shop.

Yes, my wholefoods shop.  There was a time when it was my shopping hotspot: 3/4 of my household food budget was spent on fruit, veg, and stuff bought at the wholefoods’, and 1/4 at the supermarket.  It wasn’t just that what I bought there was wholesome and cheap, but I loved the experience of shopping there.  I’m sure that there must have been times when I was rushed and cranky and would have wished for the convenience of rushing in and picking up a pre-packaged kilo of whatever wholegrain goodie I needed, but I can’t remember any.  I just remember shopping there as an unrushed, almost meditative activity, like grocery shopping seldom is any more.  Go in, grab a baggie, open up a bin full of wheat, soybeans, or oats, scoop some out with the metal cup and fill the baggie up.  Weigh out a jar you’ve brought and fill it up with honey or tahini.  Help yourself to the precise amount of herb or spice you need from the dozens of jars on the counter.  Grind your own peanut butter.  Order a soft-serve banana “ice cream”, made by running whole frozen bananas through the Champion juicer.

I don’t have a wholefoods place nearby any more.  I’m sure my diet suffers because of it (where do I buy large quantities - but not bulk - of non-GM soybeans for my unused soymilk maker?), but even if I did have one, I wonder whether I’d get the same pleasure.  After all, I was a stay-at-home mum in that small town, and although time was still at a premium, I was able to set some aside for shopping there.  These days I hold down jobs, plural, and what would I do?  I don’t know.

But a couple of days ago I found myself in my old town.  It is still so familiar, but I feel so foreign in it now, except in once place.  For the first time in 3 1/2 years, and urged by my younger son who has been craving that peanut butter all this time, I went to my wholefoods shop.

I scooped up burghul, quinoa, chia seed, and three-grain porridge into baggies, let my son grind up not one, but two containers of peanut butter and pour out some gorgeous red stringybark honey, and bought a massive container of the best fruit mince in the world – citrusy and rich, but without the customary suet.  And we had an awesome time.  Heaps fun.  Sure:  I didn’t buy anything so exotic that couldn’t have been picked up (albeit in smaller quantities) at the supermarket, but would the experience have been as good?  My grin as I walked out of the wholefoods shop munching on an almond-coated fresh date treat could have told you all you need to know.

A two-and-a-half-hour drive home later, I put the barley and chickpeas I bought to good use and kept the good vibes going as the temperature dropped outside and I cozied up in the warmth of the place – and person – I am not foreign to these days.   

OK, yes:  this does contain rather a lot of oil.  But it makes for such a luscious dish and delicious juices that you’ll be begging to mop up with good bread.  Go on – thanks to all those good ingredients, it won’t hurt you.
(6 servings)

1/2 cup olive oil, or EVOO and vegetable oil, half and half
1 red onion, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
4 chorizos, sliced
1 cup barley, washed
2 cups cooked chickpeas
1 bunch Swiss chard (silverbeet), stalks and leaves separated
4 cups water
2 tbsp. tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

What you do:
1.  Heat olive oil in flameproof casserole over medium heat.  Add onion and garlic, and sauté, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent.
2.  Add chorizos, barley, chickpeas, sliced chard stalks, water, and tomato paste.  Bring to the boil, then cook at a high simmer for 30 min.
3.  Add chopped chard leaves, and salt and pepper to taste.  This isn’t a soup, but there should be just enough liquid left over in the bottom of the pot to steam the chard; if there isn’t, add a little water.  (Not much - 2 tbsp. maximum.)  Increase heat to high, jam lid on, and cook for 10-15 min, stirring once or twice, until chard is cooked through.  Serve hot. 

Yumbo McGillicutty!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tarted-up treats

And so the day came when I wanted a no-brainer to take with me to a Melbourne Cup barbeque.  It was my day off and I was too far away in the land of the Letharges to make anything, but I didn’t want to buy anything, either.   That’s how it goes when you have too much pride in your cooking and you’re a bit of a cheapskate.

Enter what Wikipedia calls "Chocolate-coated marshmallow treats", but which go by many names around the world:  Chocolate Royals here in Oz, Tunnock’s Tea Cakes in the UK, Mallomars and Marshmallow Supremes in the US, and Chocolate Whippets in Canada among them.  I was going to tart two dozen of these “little nippley things” (as someone at the barbeque called them) up.

Now.  In aforementioned tarting-up, I have to mention that – to the dismay of my professional cookery teacher decades ago – I don’t do garnishes.  Or rather, I only do garnishes that contribute to the dish and/or unify the components in some way, and nothing else.  That’s why I chose the two things in my pantry that I felt would contribute in flavour, contrast and texture:  sea salt, and toasted coconut flakes.  

Things I could have used but didn’t because I deemed them silly and irrelevant:

* Coloured sprinkles
* Flowers from my garden
* Cupcake decorations
* Dust from my vacuum cleaner.

So tart up these treats whichever way you want, but remember that just because the melting surface can adhere just about any non-goopy topping, that doesn’t mean it should.  What I’d keep in mind is that these treats are intensely sweet to begin with, so not-so-sweet toppings are best.  The sea salt flakes and toasty coconut made these very delicious, and they were just inhaled in record time.  Although children loved them, everyone agreed that the toppings made these bikkies a very adult treat indeed.

This is as melty as the treats should get.  A few seconds under the grill, and no more, or you will have deconstructed chocolate-and-marshmallow puddles on your hands.

This isn’t a recipe, just a technique, so just FYI, you can blast these with your trusty blowtorch in you like, you crazy pyromaniac, you.

Dark (not milk) chocolate-coated marshmallow treats (see above for various names around the world)
Sea salt flakes
Coconut flakes, toasted

What you do:
1.  Preheat the grill or salamander (broiler) to high.  Line a baking pan with parchment paper, and place your treats on it, bottom side down.  Place under grill or salamander (broiler) for just a few seconds, until chocolate begins to melt.  Now – when I say “a few”, I mean, like, three seconds.  Watch them like a hawk!
2.  Remove pan from grill and immediately sprinkle treats with sea salt flakes or coconut flakes to taste.  Place in ‘fridge to set before serving.

Yumbo McGillicutty!