Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Things I've learned

Recently I was looking at cracked.com, that scary site of internet crack; it's second only to tvtropes.org in addictiveness. Just ONE more funny list. I'll just follow that ONE more link. No, OK just ONE more. Oh, I wonder what that next one is like. Hang on, how did it get to be 3am? So with due warning given, look at just this ONE list of the 10 most important things they didn't teach you in school. It's hilariously and totally true, all of it.

In the spirit of that, but on a very much lesser scale, here are some things I've learned recently.

1) You know when you cut yourself while chopping up food, and put on a bandaid really tightly, because you remember from first aid that compression stops bleeding? Always remember to loosen it within the hour. Ow.

2) You really shouldn't pot roast one of those heart-tick extra lean cuts of meat. It will come out much too dry.

3) An overly dry piece of meat can be turned into a rather good cottage pie, by chopping it very finely and adding tomato paste, herbs, stock, wine, carrots, onions, peas etc, then simmering together for an hour or so to meld. Then add a good topping of mash and bake until hot.

4) You don't have to peel your spuds under cold running water. Dunking them in a bowl of warmish water will do nicely, once to peel, once to rinse clean. It feels much better in midwinter, and it saves water.

5) Don't use a serrated knife to chop up cold (dry) meat. Use a chef's knife or carving knife. (See point one.)

Friday, 11 June 2010

On the importance of shopping

It's almost a cliche now that the best chefs do their marketing in person. You have to get in on the ground to find the best and freshest, to get a nose for what's in season. You see this on TV shows from Iron Chef via Jamie Oliver to Rick Stein - and our own local Jan Gundlach actually has his premises right there at the Fyshwick market. Of course in reality, a lot of top chefs will outsource this task to trusted providores, but it's nevertheless true that to get a great meal, somebody has to have done a great job of the shopping.

It's even more true when you're not making stuff from scratch. I've made this same pasta dish twice now. And while it was from the identical recipe, the results were spectacularly different. One was sublime, the other just rated "meh, not too bad, it will do for a week night".

The recipe is from a little cookbook produced as a work social club fundraiser. I bought it on the day I started the new job. We have several keen cooks where I work, though why they insist on doing their Red Cross fundraiser bake sales on a Friday I don't know. I can easily bake stuff on a Sunday arvo, but Thursday night is beyond me. Just this Sunday past I made roast chicken in the Stephanie Alexander style (lemon and rosemary and olive oil) with accompanying baked veg; a beef potroast braised in Guinness with parsnips and prunes; a leek and potato soup; I got some tandoori chicken wings on to marinade; and I roasted tomatoes for a dhal. But Thursday? On Thursday, it's eat leftovers or eat out. Or I could make this pasta.

Here is the fantastic/meh pasta recipe.

Recipe: Tortellini with bacon and pesto cream sauce
1 packet bought tortellini (or ravioli)
1/2 cup pesto
3/4 cup cream
4 short cut bacon rashers
150g baby spinach leaves
A handful of pine nuts

* Cook pasta according to packet directions, in lots of boiling water.
* Meanwhile, lightly toast the pine nuts and chop the bacon.
* Drain the pasta and set aside.
* Spray pan with a little olive oil and fry the bacon for a couple of minutes.
* Add pinenuts, pesto, and cream, and mix well.
* Stir in the baby spinach and let just barely wilt.
* Stir through the pasta.

Serve with a sprinkle of good parmesan and a salad or steamed broccoli. It's quite rich from the cream.

The "Fantastic" options:

I used Wee Jasper Pasta spinach, ricotta and pinenut ravioli. These people sell their handmade pasta at the EPIC markets on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month. And the pesto was made by chef Tom Moore of Gundaroo Grazing restaurant, with basil from their garden. I doubt he'll be making more until next summer.

The "Meh" options:
I used Latina fresh spinach & ricotta ravioli, and a pesto that I found in the supermarket. It's called "inspire", and it's really rather good for its genre. It does at least contain some pine nuts, which most supermarket brands don't.

to toast pine nuts, toss them in a dry frying pan on the rangetop, or a pie plate in the oven which you shake regularly. Watch closely, they will burn very quickly once they start to change colour. You want golden, not dark brown!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Handmade Food

The handmade market was on yesterday. If you haven't discovered these already, you should check them out! I'm a huge fan. The market seems to have found a stable venue at the Kamberra Wine Centre, after outgrowing the Albert Hall and trying out the Yarralumla Woolshed. The next one will be 11th September - a great chance to start your Xmas shopping. But if you want to get in earlier, there's now also a shop in Civic which has a good selection of the various designers' wares.

The philosophy of Handmade is that the stuff it sells is, well, handmade. It is to local arts and crafts people what the Growers' market is to to local farmers and small food producers. You'll find cards, books, quilts and quilt supplies, felted gear, handmade clothes, bags, teapots, jewelry, slippers and much more. This is the first time that I did not come home with a piece of jewelry by cardog. But I did get a new top by Wendy Leigh - it's made of stretch dark green rayon ribbed velvet, with a black knit cowl neck and a small black lacy sequinned feature.

And then there's the food! Well, here's the full list. Most of them will be familiar if you go to the EPIC and Kingston markets. There's a mix of people selling things to take home and things to eat there. The large area out the back had plenty of seating, an entertainer making balloon animals for the kids, and lots of yummy food for sale. Gourmet pizza and sausages and muffins and more. Also, for the grown-ups, there's Zierholz beer, and local wines and spirits. I wasn't entirely persuaded by the Grog Shed, run by Wombat Heights Liqueurs. I'm not a fan of fruit wines, but if you are, why not give it the walnut rum and cherry port a try.

And scattered through the front open air markets and the indoor stalls were many other food producers. The Curious Chocolatier was there, and I bought a bar of dark choc with walnuts and honey. She makes mostly bars rather than individual pieces, in some very unusual flavours. Coffee and fennel, anyone? Strawberry and Szechuan pepper? There was Lindsey and Edmunds, too, and the Lime Grove and Homeleigh Grove people, and some people making popcorn and caramelised nuts (not together, though I must ask why not?)

And cupcakes - there was not one but two cupcake makers. The ones illustrated are amazing pieces of fondant and buttercream art, from Liz Wright at pARTycakes. I had to buy some for arvo tea - a friend was making a flying visit to Canberra for lawyer and accountant reasons, and a good cup of tea and a cupcake was clearly needed. (And a martini, but that's The Bloke's specialty.) The cakes are not just decorative, but also good to eat. Thankfully, Wright's fondant isn't so sweet as to make you gag, as some are. The cakes themselves are on the solid mudcake side rather than fluffy sponge, good moist rich chocolate and caramel flavours. At $25 for six, these are special occasion cakes.

The other cupcake seller's wares were a little cheaper at $4 per cake, and less dramatically artistic in presentation. They were topped with simple buttercream swirls. But they are good cake - I had a passionfruit one, also quite dense and moist. These are made by A Moment on The Lips, who will deliver you a dozen cupcakes, as well as do more arty things. Check out the gorgeous cupcake bouquets on their website! And they had a very cute fondant sculpted baby dragon and egg cake on display.

The other stuff that I bought was from Crankypants - I know they're regulars at Kingston, but for some reason I don't make it there often enough. I got some proper piccalilli, lemon curd, and smoky caramelised onions. The onions were great topping homemade steak sangers last night. Lemon curd on crumpets for breakfast, and a cheese, tomato and piccalilli sandwich for lunch. Yum.