Saturday, 27 December 2008

Christmas roundup 4: On pancetta, chestnuts and brussels sprouts

Can Brussels sprouts ever be sexy? It's probably not something you'll have spent much time pondering, but you might be surprised to know that the answer is Yes!

Last Christmas, despite the absence of Brussels sprouts on any Christmas table in living memory, I made this Nigella recipe for "Perfect Sprouts" so that my dear Iranian friend G got the right idea about what's involved with Christmas dinner. I was mightily impressed, I have to say. Even with the teeny tiny brassicas available in Japanese supermarkets.

I thought I'd recreate the dish again this year in Australia, where there was a super-abundance of jumbo Brussels that could be had for a song.

It was a good plan, but I ran into a snag in that there was not a chestnut to be had in the whole of Melbourne! I tried the food court at David Jones (which seems more like a waste of space than an international food emporium. Japan does it better with its eyes closed.) I tried every supermarket in town, but nope, nai, nada, nyet. No chestnuts.

Then there was the pancetta. From my experience last year, pancetta seemed to be kind of upmarket bacon in a block. It was definitely not the chilli-hot rolled cured meat that Saffron Papa brought back from the local Bacchus Marsh supermarket. It was the same in all the shops. In Melbourne, it seems, pancetta is spicy! Subsequent research tells me that spicing is quite common, and the meat prepared in many variations from region to region. Still, it did make it harder to please Saffron Mama, who has a physical reaction to the mere mention of a black pepper never mind actual chilli in her mouth!

Undaunted, I substituted macadamias and pecans for the chestnuts, and kept the pancetta cubes nice and big for easy removal by those with more delicate palates. While the macadamias and pecans did not have the same meatiness as chestnuts, they did add a nice little crunch and an Australian touch to this Christmas treat. Reading over the recipe now, I see that I forgot to add the parsley this time. Not to worry. However, it ends up, I think that this recipe, from Nigella's Feast (which I don't own, but devoured cover to cover at Saffron Papa and Mama's), will be a Yuletide staple at the Saffron household from now on.

Nigella's perfect Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, pancetta and parsley

1kg Brussels sprouts
250g pancetta, rind removed, cut into 1cm cubes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
30g butter
250g vacuum-packed chestnuts
60ml marsala [Saffron: or sherry or Chinese cooking wine (Xiaoxing-jiu)]
large bunch parsley, chopped

1 Trim the bottoms off each of the sprouts, cutting a cross into each as you go, or at least a slash. This may not be necessary, but I can't not do it. Then tip them into a large pan of salted boiling water and cook until tender but still retaining a bit of bite, about five minutes or so depending on size. Just spoon one out of the water and test (without burning your tongue and thus ruining the whole lunch for yourself) to be sure.

2 Meanwhile, in a pan large enough to take everything later (or just drain the sprouts and use their pan, once you've drained them), cook the pancetta cubes in the oil, with the rind for more salty fat rendering, until they're bronzed and crisp, but not cooked to the point of having dried out.

3 Add the butter and chestnuts and, with a wooden spoon or spatula, press on the chestnuts to break them up a little. When they're warmed through, turn the heat up and throw in the marsala, letting it bubble away, fusing with the pancetta fat and chestnutty butter to form a glorious savoury syrup.

4 Add the drained sprouts and turn well, sprinkling in half the parsley as you do so. Give a good grinding of pepper; you shouldn't need salt, given the pancetta, but obviously taste to see. Decant to a warmed serving plate and sprinkle over the remaining chopped parsley.


Christmas roundup 3: The "big chicken" is stuffed

As I mentioned at the start of this roundup, Saffron-Papa had already chosen a "big chicken" (in his parlance, of course) for our Christmas turkey feast prior to the Young Man and I arriving in Australia. Given that there were to be 12 around our table this Christmas, it was somewhat of a bigger bird than the ones I usually get in Japan! And as we all know, turkey has a bit of a bad rep for cooking up dry. However, using the advice of our good friend Nigella Lawson, as usual, our bird came out juicily tender, the meat falling off the bone.

A bit of a stuffing junkie, I like to stuff both the neck and body cavities with, usually, a cranberry and orange bread stuffing and a herb and nut one. I am rather attached to the cranberry and orange stuffing, which is my approximation of a recipe cited by Nigella in How to Eat, but plumping up dried cranberries with fresh orange juice rather than using fresh ones. I certainly wanted it this year, but I was willing to compromise (g) on the other one. Saffron-Papa, the co-chef of the day, chose a lemon and herb number, for which he chopped up a mountain of fresh herbs from the garden. I mention the herb garden again only because of complete jealousy at the parents' ability to use fresh herbs with wanton abandon. They have more than they can use, in fact, lucky devils!

Cranberry and orange stuffing

Serves 8-10

Zest of one orange and juice of 1-2 more
350 g dried cranberries
125 g butter
500 g fresh breadcrumbs
2 eggs
fresh nutmeg

1 Zest one of the oranges and juice it and one more. Put the cranberries in a small, heavy based saucepan with the orange juice and zest. Bring to the simmering point on a moderate to high flame, then cover and simmer for 5 minutes. The cranberries should have plumped up, but if they are still not their full size, repeat with the juice of the remaining orange. Add the butter in slices and stir, off the heat, until it melts. I usually do this a day early, to make things easier of Christmas Day.

2 Add the breadcrumbs, or, if you made up the cranberry mixture earlier, reheat on a low flame until slightly runny, then add the breadcrumbs and the eggs, beaten. Season with salt and pepper and plenty of fresh grated nutmeg.

3 Either stuff into the turkey before cooking or make into individual portions in a muffin tin and bake for around 10 min, or until lightly golden, at 180 C. This should be done while the turkey is resting and the oven is free.

I can report that Saffron-Papa's stuffing selection was a resounding success. It was based loosely on another recipe in The Ultimate Christmas Cookbook. I include the original recipe here in case I change my mind about the herb and nut stuffing next year. Use your own judgement about the herbs you use and how much. Saffron-Papa used thyme, rosemary and marjoram, I believe.

Parsley, lemon and herb stuffing

Makes around 400g, enough to stuff the neck cavity of a 4 kg bird

115 g fresh breadcrumbs
25 g butter
25 g chopped fresh parsley
grated rind of 1 lemon
1 small egg, beaten
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl and stir to combine them thoroughly.


Christmas roundup 2: Deluxe Christmas pies

I love Christmastime and one of the very best aspects of the season is the heady scents that emanate from the kitchen. And one of the very best aromas, for me, is that of Christmas pies. All that cinnamon and fruity goodness... While you can get inferior pies at any supermarket (at least in Australia), I really like making my own.

For many years, I've been making a version of the Christmas pies in Nigella Lawson's How to Eat; basically augmenting a jar of Robertson's mincemeat with grated apple, citrus juice and booze, but this year, at the urging of Saffron-Papa, we made these super luxury pies based on a tart recipe in The Ultimate Christmas Cookbook, a book we come back to year after year. The number and amount of dried fruits in these pies make the recipe prohibitively expensive to make in Japan, but very doable here in Australia.

And the results were really far superior than anything you could buy ready-made. Unusually, the pastry contains ground walnuts and is scented with cinnamon, vanilla and a touch of sugar. It is very rich and moreish. It is very buttery, making it admittedly somewhat difficult to work with. However, I think a little extra flour would help with this. The mincemeat itself is far superior to a bought mixture. It has a nice blend of tart and sweet fruits, balanced with some lemon and green grapes. We loved them!

The recipe gives the instructions for pastry first, but it is best to make the mincemeat in advance and leave it to mature for up to 4 weeks. Though, making it that far in advance might result in reduced supplies as you will "have to" taste at regular intervals to see how it is coming along (g). If you are in a warm climate, it will be best to store the mincemeat in a container in the fridge.

Deluxe mincemeat pies

For the pastry
225 g plain flour
10 ml ground cinnamon
50 g finely ground walnuts
115 g butter, cold from the fridge and cubed
50 g caster sugar
1 egg
2 drops vanilla essence
15 ml cold water

For the mincemeat
2 dessert apples, peeled, cored and coarsely grated
225 g raisins
115 g dried apricots, chopped
115 g dried figs or prunes
225 g green grapes, quartered and seeded [Saffron: I only used half this amount]
50 g chopped almonds
finely grated rind of 1 lemon
30 ml lemon juice
30 ml port or brandy
1/4 tsp mixed spice
115 g soft light brown sugar
25 g butter, melted

1 To make pastry, put the four, cinnamon and walnuts in a food processor. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Beat the egg, vanilla essence and water with a fork, and add, together with the sugar, to the food processor mixture. Process until a dough forms. Turn out and kneed briefly on a lightly floured surface until smooth. Form into a flat disc, wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 min.

2 Mix all of the mincemeat ingredients together in a large bowl.

3 Roll out pastry to a thickness of 5 mm and cut out circles for bases and stars for lids. Place the pastry circles in the lightly oiled holes of a muffin tin and fill with mincemeat. Top with pastry stars and chill for 30 min.

4 Preheat oven to 180 C. Place baking sheet in the oven to preheat. Place the muffin tin on top of the preheated baking sheet and bake the pies for 15 min, or until golden brown. Cool slightly before removing from the muffin tin. Serve warm or cold.


Christmas roundup 1: Roasted root vegetables with honey, tamarind and lemon

Christmas has come and gone, and like most of us, you're probably very happy not to have to think about it for another twelve months. We're still eating leftovers here, but I did want to record my experience with this brilliant recipe from a column in The Guardian by veggie virtuosos Yotam Ottolenghi and Sam Tamimi. If you are into Middle Eastern food, or any food with big, bold flavours, then these guys should be on your radar (I'm so impressed, I've started a new label for recipes of theirs). I suggest you go directly to the link above and click on all sections of this article (links are on the right side of the photo) and get all the recipes for next Chrissie (I know I did!). You might be surprised by what two non-Christian, non-Brits came up with for our big annual feast.

Of course going totally vegetarian is not in the cards for us. I love my turkey, and go to some lengths to ensure a turkey dinner for us at least once a year, even at home in Japan. Visiting my family here in Australia this year made that as easy as pie. In fact Saffron-Papa had already sussed out a good bird before we even arrived!

But I was open to new ideas (please!) for the vegetable portion of the Great Feast, and this is it! While you still have the same old roast root veggies, here they come with a big twist: the sweetness of honey (suggested as a substitute for the original recipe's date syrup: sorry, not in this small town) and tart tamarind. And that is just the cooking juice! After the veggies are roasted up nicely but still a little crisp, they are anointed with lemon juice and zest, finely chopped raw garlic and basil! Mwow! There is enough going on here to keep even the most jaded palate (that would be mine) interested!

I was lucky enough to have lots of fresh thyme and basil straight from Saffron-Mama's well-tended herb garden. It is amazing how much more flavour herbs have when they're plucked right before the using. If I had more sunshine in my (postage stamp-sized) back garden in Japan, I would love to grow my own too, but alas...

So without further ado, here is the recipe, almost as it was found. My one addition was the butternut pumpkin. It's an Australian thing, I know, but a good addition, I feel, especially as we were not having a separate pumpkin dish. I also wouldn't bother about lining your oven tray with cooking paper: the juice soaked right through in my case, and I had to fish it out, in rags, with tongs. That's just one step too much at Christmas for me! Other than that, this is sublime and much too good to keep only for Christmas!

Roasted root vegetables with honey, tamarind & lemon

Serves six.

1 tbsp seedless tamarind paste
70ml warm water
1.5kg (net weight) mixed root vegetables (any combination of carrot, parsnip, celeriac, swede, parsnip, unpeeled sweet potato, peeled butternut pumpkin)
3 large red onions, peeled and cut into wedges
90ml date syrup
75ml olive oil
12 sprigs fresh thyme
1½ tsp salt
Black pepper
3 garlic cloves, crushed
Grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
50g fresh basil leaves

1 Preheat the oven to 210C/425F/ gas mark 7. Whisk together the tamarind paste and warm water, set aside for 20 minutes, then pass through a fine sieve [Saffron: this won't be necessary in the case of tamarind paste].

2 To prepare the vegetables, cut them into chunky wedges (1cm at the thick end), or halve the long roots widthways and then cut each half again lengthways, the fat part into four and the thin into two.

3 In a large bowl, stir together the root vegetables, onions, honey, tamarind mixture, 60ml olive oil, thyme, salt and some pepper. Use a roasting tray large enough to take everything in one layer. Spread the vegetables inside and roast for 40-50 minutes, until they are crunchy yet tender. Taste them - they may well take a little longer.

4 Remove from the oven, stir in the garlic, lemon zest and juice, the remaining oil and most of the basil (save a few leaves to garnish), then taste. Add salt and pepper if needed, transfer to a serving bowl and dot with the reserved basil leaves. Serve warm.


Friday, 26 December 2008

Fruit and nut couscous with chicken

Moroccan inspired, rather than derived, this delightful recipe comes from an unexpected source. I bought Barbecue Bible for Saffron-Papa's birthday some years back after lusting over it for many months myself. I still find its mouth-watering photography and yummy-sounding recipes very enticing, but due to space restrictions at the Saffron household, am content to refer to Saffron-Papa's copy whenever in Australia.

Jam-packed with fruit and aromatic spices and bursting with the zing of lemons, this recipe makes a lovely dinner, whether cooked outdoors or in. The chicken is skewered in the original recipe, but you could just as easily grill or pan-fry it, as the mood takes you.

Fruit and nut couscous with chicken

Serves 8

1 kg skinless chicken breast fillets or leg
4 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground paprika
4 tsp lemon juice

8 tbsp olive oil
2 small onions, finely chopped
2 tsp each ground cumin, cinnamon, pepper and ginger
125 g dried dates, chopped
125 g dried apricots, finely chopped
125 blanched almonds, toasted and chopped
1.2 l vegetable stock
375 g couscous
2 tbsp lemon juice
4 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
salt & pepper

To garnish
seeds from half a pomegranate or a handful of dried cranberries
lemon wedges
fresh coriander sprigs

1 Cut the chicken into long thin strips, place them in a shallow dish and add the olive oil, garlic, spices and lemon juice. Stir well, then cover and leave to marinate for 2 hours.

2 To prepare the couscous, heat half of the oil in a saucepan and fry the onion, garlic ans spices for 5 minutes. Stir in the dried fruits and almonds and remove from the heat.
3 Meanwhile, pour the stock over the couscous, cover with a tea towel and leave for 8-10 min, until the grains are fluffed up and the liquid absorbed. Stir in the remaining oil and the fruit and nut mixture, add the lemon juice and coriander and season with salt and pepper to taste.

4 While the couscous is standing, cook the chicken for 4-5 minutes on each side over medium coals, until charred and cooked through. Serve with the couscous, garnished with pomegranate seeds or dried cranberries, lemon wedges and coriander sprigs.


Monday, 15 December 2008

Cooking class 7: Osechi traditional Japanese New Year's treats

In Just Over 24 Hours, I'll be jetting my way back to Australia for the first time in 2 years. Ostensibly it's to spend time with the parents and do the Christmas thing like a good daughter, but it will be so much more than that this time, what with graduations and ruby wedding anniversaries and who knows all what!

But Christmas, as always, is going to be the big one. With all the preparations in the mad trip lead up, you'd probably think I was mad trying to squeeze in one more cooking class at ABC before we leave. I mean I've not even done half the Christmas shopping yet!

Fortunately or unfortunately, the stomach just about always rules the mind in my case, so it was off to learn some more morsels of Osechi ryori, the traditional foods eaten for luck and wealth in Japan at the New Year.

Last year (technically the beginning of this year (g)), I had my first go at Osechi, choosing bites that most appealed to me. It turns out that I chose mainly from the 1st layer of the 2-tier festive box. As luck would have it, ABC was offering selections from the 2nd layer! (They've cleverly set it up so that you need to go two years in order to get the full compliment of recipes (g).)

From bottom left we have tori no matsukaze-yaki, baked seasoned chicken mince cut in the shape of a hagoita, the wooden paddle used to play the Japanese New Year's game of hanetsuki. We topped ours with white poppy seeds and aonori or green laver.

Next is datemaki, a fish-enriched egg pancake that is rolled on a special mat to give it a distinctive zig-zag pattern.

The white and pink ovals are kamaboko, a kind of steamed fish paste. This is eaten year round, but it's red and white colouring makes it an auspicious addition to the New Year's spread.

Crustaceans of all kinds are used in Osechi and the particular one chosen often depends on what the budget is. At ABC, we opened the bellies of some large prawns, sprinkled them with salt and sake, topped them with white and black sesame seeds and cooked them in the frying pan. Ebi no onisudare-yaki, easy and delicious.

The white "blob" in the front right of the top photo is not a bun but a small Japanese turnip called kabu. We cut into the flesh to make the petals of a chrysanthemum, then marinated the whole lot in citron juice and vinegar. I thought the flavour could have been stronger, but it turns out that these are usually left to marinate for a day or two, rather than the 20 or so minutes our lesson permitted. I also thought it would be nice to have yellow chrysanthemums, maybe painted with some gardenia (kuchinashi) dye, perhaps.

Accompanying all this was a different version of Ozoni to the one I made last year. In Eastern Japan, this soup is made with a clear soy-based broth and grilled square-shaped pounded rice cakes (mochi). The filling recipe offered by ABC was in the Western Japan style, which is miso-based, and contains round mochi that is heated in hot water.

Traditionally, Osechi is made over the last few days of the year (in the midst of a top-to-bottom "spring" clean of the house, no less), and eaten cold over the first few days of the year. Having a hot soup would be essential to stave off the cold in the old days.

As it was we, too, did not finally sit down to eat until after 9:40 pm, so we were all starving. Surprisingly, despite the late hour, each one of us was well contented after finishing what we'd made.


Claudia's Tunisian meatballs in tomato sauce

It's 6:30 pm on Sunday night and no plan for dinner! What to do? Something easy and tasty, sure, but nothing that's going to take too long and that will require a trip to the supermarket. Thinking quick, I came up with meatballs, something we haven't had for a while, and a dish for which the Middle East has infinite variations.

In the end I went with this one from Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food, my all-time favourite cookbook. With a simple tomato sauce, the real flavour in these show-stopping meatballs is in the meatballs themselves. With aromatics like the fiery chilli and garlic paste harissa, garlic, mint, cinnamon and rose, you know you're in for a treat! Made per the recipe, the chilli paste is more warm glow than burn, but feel free to up the harissa if you like.

One interesting technique I learned from this recipe was to blast the meatballs in the oven for a short time before putting them in the sauce. This serves two purposes: (1) the meatballs get browned without the need for turning and inevitably misshaping them, and (2) the excess fat runs into the oven tray rather than your sauce.
If you don't have powdered rosebuds, don't despair. The meatballs will still be fabulous. If you don't have enough tomatoes, either, then use what you have. In my case 1 small tin of tomatoes, some fresh ones, including cherry toms, and a good slug of leftover passata.

The Young Man adored these and asked why we don't have meatballs more often. Well no need to ask twice; there are several dozen meatball recipes in Book alone, and more than enough time to try each one!

Claudia's Tunisian meatballs in tomato sauce

For the meatballs
600 g mince lamb, beef veal (or pork if it is not an issue with you) or a mixture
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2-3/4 tsp salt
3 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley or coriander (cilantro)
1 tbsp chopped mint
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp rosebud powder
1/2 tsp harissa, optional

For the tomato sauce
4 cloves garlic, crushed
oil to fry
1 kg tomatoes, peeled and chopped or 1 800 g can of tomatoes, or a mixture of the two
salt and pepper
2 tbsp tomato puree
1-2 tbsp sugar

1 Mix the ingredients for the meatballs and kneed to a soft paste. Make little balls or ovals the size of a small walnut. Place the balls on a baking sheet and roast them for 7 minutes in the oven at 230 C, until slightly coloured.

2 To make the tomato sauce, fry the garlic in a little oil until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, tomato puree and sugar and simmer for 15 min. The put in the meatballs and simmer another 20 min. Serve with rice.


Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Classic chocolate cake

If you've visited here before, you won't need me to tell you that dessert recipes are not front and center (g). The truth is, I'm a savoury person at heart. I have basically been making he same two cakes (banana bread and pavlova) for as long as I can remember. Why change a good thing, right?

But we made some really yummy chocolate cupcakes at my cooking class this month, so the Young Man's 14th birthday seemed like the perfect opportunity to give the recipe some legs as a full-blown birthday cake.

It was rather experimental, given that I'm no baker and that the recipe I had was for four! But some Net research gave me the confidence to give it a go, even without a backup in case of disaster. Don't you love the adrenalin of the kitchen??!

Well, it turned out to be a bit of a comedy of errors. Everything was going well, but a conversation going on with the YM at the side distracted me enough to forget to add the cream to the chocolate before folding that mixture into the meringue. Actually, the cake was in the oven (!) before I saw the full container of cream still on the counter. Then instead of quadrupling the cream in the original recipe, I multiplied it by 6. And had the oven set too high! But the kitchen gods must have been smiling on me, as the cake turned out beautifully for all that, and we all agreed that the extra cream, which gave it a luscious smoothness, was a good innovation.

Whew. With my confidence back, I reckon I'm going to give this a go with some walnuts in it next time. Or would that be trying my luck??

Classic chocolate cake

120 g milk chocolate
120 ml whipping cream
80 g butter or margarine (unsalted)
4 eggs, separated
120 g sugar
4 tsp plain flour
80 g cocoa powder

To garnish
Fruit (berries would be my choice)
Icing (confectioner's) sugar to dust

1 Sift flour and cocoa powder into a small bowl and set aside. Lightly oil a 20 cm springform cake tin. Preheat oven to 170 C.

2 Break up chocolate and place with the butter or margarine into a medium bowl. Melt slowly by placing in a larger bowl of hot (50-60 C) water. When melted, add cream and egg yolks and stir until smooth.

3 Beat egg whites with an electric mixer on high until soft peaks form. Add the sugar half at a time, and beat on high until stiff peaks form.

4 Add 1/3 of the meringue mixture to the chocolate mixture and blend well. Add the remaining meringue and fold in only until the mixture becomes marbled. Sift the flour and cocoa mixture again into the cake mixture and fold in until just mixed.

5 Pour carefully into prepared cake tin and bake for 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes with crumbs on it. Cool for 5 minutes in the tin before removing.

6 Just before serving, decorate with fruit and dust with icing sugar .


Autumn harvest salad with persimmons

I had already pretty much decided on the menu for the Young Man's 14th (!) birthday party when I discovered the recipe on which I based this pretty salad at the NPR Food site just 2 days before the big event. I saw it and I had to have it, menu be damned!

Marrying pears (Japanese nashi in my case) with persimmons and pomegranates (two of my very favourite fruits) as it does, I was always going to fall for this crisp seasonal delight, but to then smother it all with with a citrus dressing?! It was all over.

I wouldn't say that this was a huge hit with the Young People at the party, who were too involved in playing to be much bothered with the food, but we mums more than made up for it. I made various substitutions from the original recipe. The only thing that I left out altogether was the pecans. I ran out of those a while back, but they are on the shopping list for our Christmas visit to Australia, so assuming we still have persimmons and nashi in January when we get back, I might give this another go then. Maybe with Nigel's 3 citrus dressing.
Fingers crossed, as I also have my eye on the persimmon and apple salsa featured in the same article (which you should read to get the full low-down on sweet vs astringent persimmons. There is a difference, and it is the sweet kind (usually squat and squarish here in Japan) that you want for this recipe.

Autumn harvest salad with persimmons

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar (apple vinegar in Japan)
1 teaspoon grainy Dijon mustard (or regular Dijon plus 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds)
1 teaspoon honey
2 tablespoons orange juice
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint
Salt and pepper, to taste

1 head of interesting lettuce (a bitter kind, for preference)
1 small bag of baby leaf salad
1 sweet persimmon, peeled and cut into 8 wedges
1 nashi, peeled and cut into thin wedges
1 handful sultanas or raisins (soaked in any remaining orange juice)
1/4 cup pomegranate arils (the edible red pieces of the fruit)

1 For the vinaigrette, shake all ingredients in a small jar and set aside.

2 In a large bowl, toss the lettuce, baby leaf, persimmons and pears. Pour half of the vinaigrette over salad and toss until coated. Add sultanas and pomegranate arils. Drizzle with the remaining vinaigrette.

Claudia's Hummus

I've gathered quite a few recipes for Middle Eastern dips on Saffron and Lemons in the last year, but it dawned on me that hummus, the mother of all meze dips is not here! How fortunate, then, that I had an opportunity to whip up some for the Mediterranean burgers I was making for the Young Man's birthday party.

This version is from Claudia Roden's New Book of Middle Eastern Food, where we learn that hummus does not have to contain tahini, as most of the tubs you'll find in Australian and other supermarkets tend to. The word hummus itself means chickpeas, but since this is a near ubiquitous use for the little beans around the Arab-speaking world, it also refers to this sharp, smooth dip. If you make a version with sesame paste in it, it is known as hummus bi tahina (humus with sesame paste). So there you go!

This makes enough for a big party. You could halve the recipe for a smaller gathering, but it keeps for around a week in the fridge (and probably in the freezer, though I haven't tried it). We had this with some of Auntie H's world-famous light-as-air bread, and with macadamia, basil and sun-dried tomato pesto on chicken burgers. Yum! Oh, and mixed with some strained yogurt, this made a lovely dressing for slowly pan-fried carrot medallions, and probably steamed broccoli, too.

Claudia Roden's Hummus

250 g chickpeas
salt and pepper
2 tsp cumin
2 large cloves garlic (crushed), or to taste
50-90 ml fresh lemon juice
50 ml olive oil
good pinch of cayenne (optional)
parsley, olive oil and paprika to garnish

1 Soak the chickpeas for a few hours or overnight in cold water. Drain and simmer in fresh cold water until really soft, which usually takes more than an hour, adding salt towards the end of the cooking time. Alternatively, pressure cook for around 6 min under low pressure. Save the cooking water.

Cool a little and put in a food processor with enough of the cooking water to achieve a soft cream. You must add the flavourings gradually and taste often, it should be distinctly sharp. You can leave a few chick peas whole to use as garnish

Serve with sprigs of parsley, a sprinkling of paprika and a dribble of olive oil.


Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Japanese spinach with sesame dressing

As my adventures at Japanese cooking school continue, it is becoming apparent that I am not coming through on the second half of the bargain: actually making what I learn for the Young Man.

However, short of ideas for a veggie accompaniment to a non-Japanese meal, I remembered the recipe for veggies with 2 sesame dressings from a couple of months back. Horenso no goma-ae (spinach in sesame dressing) is an old favourite, and very easy to make. It is meant to be eaten cold or at room temperature and keeps well in the fridge, so feel free to make it in advance.

This is a "white" version is made with sesame paste, which visitors to this site with a Middle Eastern bent will likely have in the form of tahini, tahina or tahin, amongst its many regional names. It is slightly different in taste from Japanese sesame paste, but will do very well just the same. I use it myself.

The recipe also calls for lightly ground sesame seeds, which in Japan you can buy in packets ready-ground or in a special grinder. If you don have access to these, a quick blitz in a mini food processor will do it or, if you want a more "authentic" feel, grind them yourself in a suribachi (which looks like a ceramic bowl with a washboard inside). You don't want to grind them too fine, though. It won't matter if some seeds stay whole.

The spinach is blanched quickly in boiling water and then gently squeezed as dry as possible before cutting into lengths. Do yourself a favour and don't cut the roots off the spinach bunches until after you blanch them, as this will make it easier to keep the bunches together for wringing (you'll probably be surprised at the amount of liquid that comes out, but do squeeze it all out or you'll end up with a watery mess). Of course, if spinach is only available as loose leaves where you live, you'll just have to make do, I'm afraid. I think you'll find this earthy but fresh side is worth the trouble anyway.

Oh, and you can use the dressing on the half the weight of Japanese mushrooms (maitake or shiitake would be good) or boiled green beans cut on the diagonal.

Japanese spinach with sesame dressing

400 g spinach, roots attached
2 tbsp white sesame seeds, toasted and lightly ground
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp sesame paste or tahini
2 tsp Japanese soy sauce

1 Wash spinach very well and drain. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and blanch spinach until it wilts. Remove and drain until cool.

2 To make the dressing, mix together the remaining ingredients.

3 Gather up bunches of spinach and squeeze as much water out as possible. Think squeezing out long hair after washing. Remove the roots and cut into 4 cm lengths.

4 Add the spinach to the dressing and mix gently but thoroughly.


Thursday, 6 November 2008

Foodie weekend: Pumpkin pie

For too many years now, I've been promising to make my "traditional" Halloween pumpkin pie but not quite getting round to it.

I say traditional because although pumpkins, let alone pumpkin pie, were not part of my childhood Halloween in Scotland (or Australia, come to think of it), I did make this pie faithfully for many years when the Young Man was, well, younger (g).

This year, I thought I'd try it with the fragrant sweet spice blend instead of cinnamon. Especially since we were making the pie for a Halloween party hosted by a dear friend whose hubby is not partial to that spice. If you want to go this route, you'll probably want to double (or more) the "cinnamon" in the recipe. Just to be sure, taste it before filling your pie crust. Taste it twice or even three times if need be (g).

Given the price of butter in Japan these days, I followed my dear friend H's lead and made the pastry with half lard/half butter, with an extra pinch or two of salt to make up for the salt missing from the butter. Lard, sold in squeezable bottles here in Japan, is much easier to handle than butter, and gives a nice light crust.

I usually roll my pastry between two sheets of food wrap, which prevents it from sticking to the counter top and minimises cleanup afterwards. Double bonus!

The recipe is from a food column that Tamako Sakamoto had in the Japan Times many years ago (its seems to have ended in 1999!) . Even my photocopy is tatty round the edges and covered in stains. Evidence of many happy Halloweens past, and hopefully more to come in future.

I might not have grown up with pumpkin pie at Halloween, but fellow party-goer C, who hails from the US, pronounced the pie a success, even if it was a little light on the cinnamon (g).

Pumpkin pie

200 g plain flour
100 g butter (or 50 g butter + 50 lard + 2 extra pinches of salt)
Pinch of salt
5 tbsp cold water

300 g pumpkin, peeled weight
50 g butter
100 g sugar
2 egg yolks
150 ml heavy cream (also works with what is called "whip" in Japan)
1/2 tsp cinnamon (or 1 1/2 tsp fragrant sweet spices)
1/4 tsp allspice
Dash of vanilla extract

1 Sift flour and salt in large mixing bowl. Rub in the butter (& lard, if using). Alternatively, blitz flour, salt and fat in the food processor. Stir in water and blend until dough holds together. Wrap and chill until ready to use.

2 On a lightly floured board, roll out the pastry to a 5 mm thickness. Place the pastry in a lightly buttered 21-cm round pie dish. Prick the bottom of the shell with a fork and chill 30 minutes longer.

3 Now prepare the filling. Remove seeds from the pumpkin, wash and cover with food wrap. Microwave on high until very tender. Peel with a knife while warm. Push through a sieve or smooth in a food processor (you may need to add some of the cream to keep the blades whirring).

4 Cream butter in a mixing bowl and add pumpkin, sugar, egg yolks, remaining cream, cinnamon (or sweet fragrant spices), allspice and vanilla extract. Mix well..

5 Preheat the oven to 200 C. Line the shell with two layers of aluminium foil, weighted down with beans or aluminium pie weights. Bake in the oven for 10 min. Remove the foil and beans or weights Reduce heat to 180 C and continue baking for 15-20 min until the pastry turns lightly coloured.

6 Fill the shell with pumpkin mixture. Bake for 30 min or until set.


PS I wonder if the Scottish Halloween is still homemade, with tangerines, nuts and apples the "treats" of the day like it was in my day (god that makes me feel old), or if Halloween is the same commercial "event" that is has become here in Japan?...

PPS The bottle of South African wine in the photo was a terrific foil for the pie. Especially as it provided a ready excuse for our dear hostess to regale us with tales of when she visited said winery.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Foodie weekend: Cooking class 6: Borscht, priozhki and classic chocola

For my cooking class this month I didn't take the Japanese class, but the Russian one. Russian food has been on my radar for over a year, since finding out about Diana Henry's Roast Figs, Sugar Snow, the cold-weather partner to her book on Mediterranean, North African and Middle Eastern food, Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons. I count the latter as a treasure, and waited until October this year to receive what would have been a Christmas present last year!

Not content to leave it there (am I ever?), I ordered another book Russian cookbook (more on which later, as it is my cookbook of the year!) which I was in the midst of reading when ABC Cooking Studio offered a taste of Russia at school.

On the menu: borscht, which is more correctly Ukrainian cooking, gorgeous meat and egg-filled pirozhki and classic chocolat for dessert (not sure about any Russki origins there, but very tasty just the same).

The borscht was okaaay. The meat needed more cooking, but in the limited time available, you'd need a pressure cooker to do more. Once again it used the granulated "consomme" that I dislike so much. I reckon I'll be able to do much better. It was good to know that you can buy beetroot in Japan, even if only cooked in water in the can.

The pirozhki were terrific. The dough was really easy to make and fun to play with. You can make these in the oven, apparently, and I'll be investigating this option as a healthier and less smelly alternative to deep frying.

The classic chocolat was a revelation. I would never have thought you could make cake in such a short time (well, cupcakes anyway). This is a real keeper, and I think I'll look into making it a full-sized cake the next time.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Cooking class 5: Tempura with bean & chestnut rice and tart octopus salad with Japanese egg "mayonnaise"

Tempura, deep-fried seafood and vegetable morsels served with a soy-based dipping sauce, is such a quintessentially Japanese dish it is easy to forget that it is actually a foreign import, brought by the Dutch.

Not one for the oily smell left after deep-frying at home, I was happy to do it in class at ABC, where it was teamed up with bean and chestnut rice and a show-stopping vinegared side dish.

The rice, which had a little "sticky" rice thrown in to give a little more texture, was flavourful and, with it's reddish hue, very autumnal. I wasn't able to pin down why the beans did not need pre-cooking and were merely cooked with the rice, but I suspect they were of a cooked and dried variety. Beans like that are eaten as a snack here in Japan, and are the beans of choice for throwing on Bean Throwing Day in February, when everyone expels "ogres" and welcomes good luck into their homes at the end of winter.

The octopus, cucumber and wakame side dish was superb. Particularly the kimizu (literally egg yolk-vinegar), essentially an oil-free mayonnaise. I learned a new cutting technique called snake's belly, where you make millimetre deep cuts on a slant on two sides along the length of a thin Japanese cucumber. This allows the cucumber to bend like a snake. It's not just for decoration, though: this helps the kimizu to penetrate into the cucumber. Ingenious! I am dying to make this again, but no one around me is game to try the octopus. Perhaps a little steamed chicken might substitute, but it definitely wants to be something slippery.


Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Slatit batata helwa: Claudia's Moroccan sweet potato salad

Sweet potatoes are a funny vegetable. They pop up in many countries, and each has its own way with them.

In Australia, sweet potatoes often get flung in the oven in a medley with other root veggies with the Sunday roast. If a spice is used at all, it's likely to be cumin, otherwise it's topped with lashings of butter.

One freezing winter when I was studying in China, old guys used to hang around the university gates selling for pennies piping hot roast sweet potatoes, which they weighed on old-time pan and rod scales . With dormitory heating on only at set times of the day, we unacclimatized Aussie students were as likely to use those hot pods as handwarmers as we were to tuck into their belly-filling flaky sweetness.

Around Yokohama and Tokyo, the sound of the yaki-imo or stone-roasted sweet potato guy calling out, "Ishi yaki-imo, yaki-imo," from his wood-fired stove-bedecked truck is the first sign of autumn. But buy one from this old guy, and you're likely to pay a small fortune!

Here we have a Moroccan treatment, with spices, lemon, honey and other goodies. This one is boiled, and with its unctuous spicy sweet and sour coating, looks and tastes quite impressive. I'm afraid that I disappointed my dear friend Hw when he asked how long this took to make; is twenty minutes really all it takes to get something this criminally good!

In all the years I've cooked this, I've not once not had to boil down the cooking liquid until it was syrupy. But that could just be the type of sweet potatoes I use. Anyway, this is more than made up for by spicy aroma that wafts through the house whenever I make this. You might want to wait to skim the scum off the surface before you add those spices, though.

This is also from the same article of Claudia's in the Guardian here. And yes, this and the tagine in the previous post are perfect partners.

Slatit batata helwa (Claudia's Moroccan sweet potato salad)

In this Moroccan salad, the mix of sweet and spicy is quite delicious. It is nice as it is but you may add, if you like, a handful of black olives, the chopped peel of a preserved lemon and a tablespoon of capers. Serve it as an appetiser.

Serves 6

700 g sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 4 cm cubes
½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp harissa or a good pinch chilli pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tsps honey
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley or coriander

1 Boil the sweet potatoes in just enough water to cover. Stir in the ginger, cinnamon, harissa or ground chilli pepper, lemon juice, honey and salt, and cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender, turning them over once and being careful not to let them overcook and fall apart. The sauce should be reduced to a thick syrupy consistency. If it is not, lift out the potatoes with a slotted spoon into a serving dish and reduce the sauce further by boiling.

2 Just before the end of cooking stir in the oil and the parsley or coriander. Serve cold.


Claudia's Moroccan lamb tagine with peas and preserved lemons

Autumn is here and we've not had a lemon recipe for a while! Funny how one's thoughts turn to lemons as soon as the skies get moody...

This is one of the very first Middle Eastern dishes I ever cooked (as a way of using those magic preserved lemons), and it is pretty much a classic in my food repertoire now. It's clean, sunny taste is perfect whatever the season, but I reckon its at its best when the weather is less than stellar. It is also as great an introduction to the seductive taste of preserved lemons as you are likely to find.

I made it for an unseasonably cool January birthday party in Australia one year. There was a big spread, and when I first checked, it looked like my "exotic" contribution might have been a bit too exotic. But just a few minutes later, you'd've been hard pressed to get enough to coat a bit of bread. You can't get much more of a vote of confidence than that.

I've adjusted the recipe for metric and the pressure cooker, but the credit for it rightly belongs with my very, very favourite food writer, Claudia Roden, who wrote the wonderful article in the Guardian that it appeared in a few years back. A culinary tour Morocco is one of my dreams, and Claudia's writing is one of the main reasons. Rereading the article now, I wouldn't be surprised if I'm not the only one.

Now there is nothing exotic at all about the recipe, the preserved lemons notwithstanding (and they are only salt and lemons after all). If you don't have any, go and make yourself some now. They're a total doddle. Really. We'll still be here when you've got them ready.

I made the tagine with beef this time, and I can tell you that it is not a patch on the lamb version. Leg being my preference. Perhaps its as well, then, that we were not able to take it to its intended recipients due to the Young Man being sick with the cold. Sorry Sa, I'll make it again next time!

Lamb tagine with peas, preserved lemon and olives (if you can find them (g))

Serves 6-8

1 kg leg or shoulder of lamb, trimmed of excess fat and cut into cubes
2 tbsp vegetable oil [S: optional, I've never put it in, and never needed it]
1 onion, chopped
salt and pepper [S: go light with the salt as the lemons are salty]
1 tsp ground ginger
A good pinch of chilli powder or chilli flakes (optional)
½ tsp saffron powder [S: optional; it is a minor attraction on this dish]
500g shelled peas
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
Peel of 1 preserved lemon or more, cut into pieces
A dozen green olives

1 Put the meat in a large pressure cooker with the oil (if using), onion, salt and pepper, ginger and saffron. Almost cover with water and cook under low pressure for 45-55 minutes or until the meat is very tender.

2 Add the peas, tomatoes, preserved lemon peel and olives and cook uncovered a few minutes longer, until the peas are tender and the sauce reduced.


Monday, 29 September 2008

Harira: An Algerian take on the Ramadan-fast-breaking soup

I find foods with cultural significance irresistible. And feast time foods especially so. In the 10 months I've had this blog I've waxed lyrical about the foods of Christmas, the Japanese New Year (Oshogatsu) and Persian New Year (No Ruz). What special foods mean to people is endlessly fascinating.

Although I've made a Moroccan version of the Ramadan fast-breaking soup harira before, the cultural element was missing. I was overjoyed, then, to find 64 sq ft kitchen, a gorgeous Algerian food blog by Warda, who writes deliciously and evocatively about what it is like to grow up in a household where lively ritual after-dark feasting occurs for a whole month of the year! (Many first-hand accounts suggest to me anyway that Ramadan should more rightly be called the Islamic feasting rather than fasting month!)

Warda even has a version of harira on her blog, and it is perfect. The soup is rich, despite the tiny amount of meat it contains, the spicing heady, but not overpowering, and the dersa fresh herb and spice topping invigorating. The sum of this soup is so much more than its parts. A blend of fresh coriander leaves, garlic, paprika and caraway (or, in my case mistakenly dill seed), the dersa was particularly intriguing. Googling hasn't provided much insight, but I'll keep you posted if I find out more about this mouth-popping Algerian "salsa".

The use of caraway in Warda's harira intrigued me. In all my years of cooking Middle Eastern food, this was the first time I had call to use this particular spice. But using it this once seems to have opened the floodgates, as just about every recipe I've looked at since has contained the seed! It was in my little list of spice names in Persian (so it's obviously used in Iran), and in several Iraqi recipes in Delights from the Garden of Eden, which I picked up again for a good read.

But back to the harira. I made it with less water than Warda called for, thinking it looked about right for the goodies in the pot, but pureeing the veggies and the addition of bulghur later really thickened the soup up, so my meddling really wasn't required (g). Unusually for me, I even made my beans from scratch, rather than flinging ones I'd cooked and frozen earlier in at the end (I really hate canned legumes, whatever family and friends might tell me). My contribution is to change the measures to metric and adjust the recipe for the pressure cooker.

We had this with bread and just one appetizer and empty bowls and suddenly-too-tight jeans were evidence enough that this recipe is a winner. Definitely try it!

Harira: Fragrant Chickpea and Lamb soup with Bulgur

Serves 6 to 8

1 1/2 cups chickpeas, soaked overnight
300 g stewing lamb, cut into 1 cm chunks
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, peeled and roughly diced
1 potato, peeled and roughly diced
1 tomato, roughly diced
3 carrots, peeled and roughly diced
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 small bunch of fresh cilantro [S: coriander], tied with a string
1 generous tsp of allspice
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground
2,000 ml water
1 sprig of mint (5 big leaves)
¾ cup wheat bulgur
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper

For the dersa: (fresh herb and spice topping)
3 tbsp cilantro [coriander] leaves
½ tsp ground paprika
2 fat clove garlic, chopped very finely
1 tsp ground caraway

1 In a large pressure cooker, heat the oil on medium heat. Season the lamb chunks and sauté them on each sides until browned. Add the onions, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and chickpeas. Sauté until lightly colored, about 5 minutes. Add the spices, the bunch of cilantro and the tomato paste, and stir to combine. Cover with the water. Season the soup with a generous amount of salt and pepper, cover and bring to pressure. Once the soup comes to pressure, lower the heat and cook for 6 minutes, or until the chickpeas are cooked and the meat fork tender.

2 Discard the cilantro bunch and the stick of cinnamon. Place the meat and chickpeas on a plate, and, using a vegetable mill or stick blender, puree all the rest of the vegetables. You can also use a regular blender, but you will have to do it in batches, as the liquid is very hot.

3 Put the soup back in the pressure cooker. Add the chickpeas and the scattered meat. Bring to the boil and add the mint sprig and the bulgur. Stir to distribute the bulgur. Cover and bring to pressure again. Cook under low pressure for 5 minutes, or until the bulgur is cooked. Season with salt and pepper if needed.

4 Before serving the soup, make the dersa: Using a sharp knife, or even a mortar would be great, finely chop the cilantro [coriander] leaves and mix with the garlic, paprika and ground caraway.

4 Serve the harira in individual bowls, topped with a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of dersa.


Teriyaki beef with wakame salad

Authenticity vs innovation. Fusion vs faithfulness to origins. Is one more genuine and valuable than the other? Or is there room for both?--so long as the result is tasty, of course (g). It's a tricky business, this world of food.

I suppose I'm at the stick-with-tradition end of the spectrum. I get a kick out of sourcing odd ingredients for special recipes because I want to taste what the food would taste like in situ. I am not all that fond of cookbooks full of suggested substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients; much less those that don't even bother to give the originals, instead "helpfully" adapting traditional recipes for the "Western kitchen," or whatever. Don't even get me started on recipes that take a perfectly good tradition, then cavalierly change a few principal ingredients but fail to change the name of the dish! Perhaps it doesn't matter, so long as it's someone else's beloved Anzac biscuit or carbonara.

These days I see lots of "exotic" ingredients showing up in places that would make their traditional "owners'" toes curl. Living here in Japan, Western inventions like "salads" made with soba, Japan's buckwheat noodles, just seem so wrong. Call me a pedant, but here is a particular way to eat soba, and tossed with chopped herbs and veggies just isn't it.

Occasionally, though, you come across one of those rare sublime fusions that are so right and so in tune with the original cuisine that you wonder why they hadn't been thought of before! Take this roast beef and wakame salad, which is from Kitchen, a Marie Claire title written by Aussie food writer Michele Cranston.

Wakame, a much-loved, a-hem, sea vegetable is often to be found in salads here in Japan. You can even buy instant seaweed salad here: just add water! Teriyaki , a thick marinade cum sauce that is at once deeply savoury and sweet, is another Japanese staple, most usually slathered on fish and chicken, but superb here on beef. And ginger, a traditional garnish for teriyaki fish, really brings the flavours together in the dressing in this recipe. Truly, it's almost as if a Japanese person came up with the combination (especially if you use mizuna as I did rather than the more Western watercress)!

Oh, and the dressing contains no oil! Any way you slice it, this is a real winner in my book. Any Japanese friends out there, definitely give this one a go!

I usually make my own teriyaki no tare (teriyaki sauce) , so I'm including the instructions below. If you're making a batch for this recipe, be sure to start it first.

Oh, and though Michele has treated this as a starter, it is fairly substantial so some crusty bread or rice might be enough of a meal for lighter eaters.

Teriyaki no tare

100 ml mirin
100 ml Japanese soy sauce
100 ml sake
2 tbsp sugar

Reduce in a pan until the consistency of honey.

Teriyaki beef with wakame salad

Serves 4 as a starter

450 g lean beef fillet
3 tbsp teriyaki sauce
25 g dried wakame seaweed
3 Japanese or Lebanese (short) cucumbers
4 tbsp rice vinegar
1/2 tsp Japanese soy sauce
2 tbsp caster sugar
3 cm piece of fresh ginger, julienned
2 red radishes, sliced
1 large handful mizuna or watercress sprigs
1 tbsp black sesame seeds

1 Marinate the beef in the teriyaki sauce for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C (400 degrees F). Heat a heavy-based oven-proof pan over high heat and sear the fillet on all sides. Put onto a baking tray and bake for 10 minutes. Remove and set aside.

2 Soak the wakame in cold water for 10 min, or until soft. Drain, put in a bowl and cover with 1 tbsp vinegar. Thinly slice the cucumbers diagonally and put into a separate bowl. Sprinkle with 1/2 tsp salt and set aside to drain some of the juices for several minutes. [Saffron: Alternatively, just squeeze the juice out by hand.] Dissolve the sugar in the soy sauce and remaining vinegar and add the ginger. Rinse the salt off the cucumber [if you used the salting method] and gently squeeze dry. Combine the wakame, cucumber, radish and dressing in a bowl and toss to combine.

3 Thinly slice the beef and divide among four small plates. Top with the salad and garnish with mizuna or watercress and black sesame seeds.


Monday, 15 September 2008

Tunisian parsley and egg tagine

Many visitors to [Paula Wolfert's] site are familiar with Moroccan tagines---stews of meat, poultry, or fish smothered with one or two vegetables or fruits, cooked in an earthenware dish with a conical cover.

Tunisian tagines are different.

So begins leading Mediterranean food writer Paula Wolfert's introduction to this exotic meal-in-one dish that shares virtually nothing in common with its namesake stews from neighbouring Morocco. While both may start with a rich stew, the Tunisian version takes it to a whole different place with a topping of parsley (in this case), egg and cheese that's baked into a frittata-like crust. So that's meat, beans, veggies and dairy--and a breadcrumb topping for good measure--all rolled into one. Different, indeed!

You could say I made this dish as an excuse for trying out the cinnamon and rose mix that is Tunisian baharat. I had some dried rosebuds (purchased from Ohtsuya in Ueno, Tokyo) that wanted using, so I whipped up a batch of 2 parts cinnamon, 2 parts rosebuds and 1 part black pepper. The original recipe calls for one part of each, but Paula's doesn't include pepper, so I cut back a little (g). Although Paula mentions rubbing the rosebuds through a sieve, I found this, and going at them with a mortar and pestle, virtually useless. My handy dandy new spice grinder made short work of it, though. The resulting blend was quite sweet smelling, so I was interested in how this would taste.

In the original recipe, Paula has us mixing the stew with the egg, parsley and cheese mixture and baking the whole thing as one, but I thought it would be nicer to have it in two layers. If you go that way, make sure to salt the stew, as all the seasoning is in the cheesy half otherwise.

And how did it taste? Well, I quite liked the egg and parsley topping, which fairly oozed cheese (in the best way, of course (g)), but would definitely recommend you use flat-leaf parsley rather than curly (which was all I could get on the day). I wasn't so fond of the baharat in this particular dish, or maybe it was just the cinnamon. (The mix is brilliant on stewed apples, though, pepper and all.) My dear Iranian friend Hw gave this the thumbs up, but the Young Man reckoned it tasted better cold for lunch the next day. So the results were mixed at this end.

I don't think I will do this particular version again, but I am intrigued enough to find out what else Tunisian cuisine has to offer, so I might get Paula's Mediterranean Cooking at some point, even if it means mucking about with pounds and ounces and other such things we metric people are illiterate about. That's basically the only reason I haven't bought her Couscous & Other Good Food From Morocco yet, though I suspect it is the seminal work on one of my favourite cuisines.

I've altered the recipe for metric and the pressure cooker and for layers. I also used beans I had cooked and frozen myself. You can refer back to the original recipe from the link above.

Tunisian baharat

2 tsp ground dried rosebuds
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper

Tunisian parsley and egg tagine

1 cup cooked white beans
400 g lean boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1.5 cm cubes
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup minced onion
2 tsp tomato paste
1/4 tsp cayenne
3 packed cups chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup soft bread crumbs
30 g Parmesan cheese, grated (about 1/3 cup)
100 g Gruyere cheese, cubed (about 1 cup)
1/2 tsp Tunisian baharat (1 part ground dried rosebuds mixed with 1 part ground cinnamon)
6 large eggs
6 lemon wedges

1. Toss lamb with salt and pepper.

2. Heat 1 1/4 tbsp oil in a small pressure cooker. Cook the onion until translucent, add the meat, and saute for 5 minutes. Cover and cook over low heat until the meat gives off its moisture and reabsorbs it. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until lamb cubes are well coated. Add cayenne and about 1 cup of water. Cover, bring to pressure and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes longer, or until the meat is fully cooked and the juices are thick. Stir in beans, check seasoning and remove from the heat and allow to cool. (Up to this point the dish can be made 1 day in advance. Return to room temperature before proceeding.)

3. Place the oven rack in the second highest position and preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.

4. In a mixing bowl, combine 1/3 cup of the bread crumbs, grated Parmesan, and cubed Gruyere, mixing well. Season highly with salt, pepper, and sieved baharat. Beat the eggs to a froth and add to the mixture.

5. Use the remaining oil to coat the bottom and sides of a 5- or 6-cup (1-1.2 l) baking dish, or an attractive23 cm well-seasoned oven proof skillet. Layer the lamb on the bottom of the dish and cover with the prepared mixture, sprinkle with reserved bread crumbs and set in the oven to bake for 12 minutes. Raise the oven heat to the highest setting, remove the tagine from the oven, tilt the dish so that the oil collects in one place, then brush this oil over the surface of the tagine. Return the dish to the oven and bake for 8 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature from the dish. [S: Don't forget the lemons (g).]


Two Turkish appetizers: Acili ezme and yogurtlu havuc salatasi

There was a cute little Turkish eatery literally 3 doors down the road from us a couple of years ago. Since my part of Yokohama is a decidedly non-"ethnic"-food locale, the restaurant did not last long, but ooooh the spicy tomato meze! I would have done the dishes to get a hold of that recipe. In fact, I failed even to find out what it was called. Not even a trip to Turkey (and many a meze plate) solved this little problem. This summer, I finally got a tip-off from the waitress at a Turkish restaurant in Tokyo. Perhaps it was acil domates (spicy tomatoes)? Close, but no cookie.

Turns out that this spicy salad cum dip is called acili ezme, and I found a recipe at the brilliant Turkish food blog Binnur's Turkish Cookbook. Only problem was that with the end of the tomato season nigh, I had to make this like now!

But one appetizer does not a meze make. So from my Must Try pile, I chose a carrot salad with yogurt or yogurtlu havuc salatasi from another favourite Turkish food blog Almost Turkish.

I thought these would make a nice contrast: one fresh and spicy, the other creamy and herby.

When I made the acili ezme, the was rather wet (even having seeded the tomatoes), but that could be because my toms were smaller, or because I reduced the amount of parsley in order to tempt the Young Man into trying it (g). Next time I might reduce the amount of lemon juice to compensate. You might have to scout out the sumac and pomegranate paste/molasses for this one. Both are souring agents that can't really be substituted; better to just leave them out if you can't find them.

The carrot salad was a real treat; the YM scoffed down his share despite the "offensive" presence of dill (admittedly reduced for his benefit). I drained the yogurt (in a lined sieve for about 30 min) for mine, mitigating any need for mayonnaise to thicken it. We had the salad without the raki recommended by Burcu at Almost Turkish, but it was mighty fine just the same (g).

Together or apart, these two meze will definitely be appearing on our table again. Now I just need to get some more Middle Eastern bread for next time!

Acili Ezme: Turkish Style Tomato Dip

3 tomatoes, seeded and chopped very finely
1/2 red or white onion, chopped very finely
1 cup parsley, chopped very finely
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp pomegranate paste/molasses
2-3 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp cayenne pepper, crushed, or to taste
1 tsp sumac

Crush the onion with sumac and salt with your hands. Mix all the ingredients in a service bowl. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

Yogurtlu Havuc Salatasi: Turkish Carrot Salad with Yogurt

4 cups of grated carrot
1 cup plain yogurt, preferably whole milk [S: drained for half an hour if you have time]
1-2 cloves of garlic, chopped very finely
2 tbsp olive oil
3-4 tbsp finely chopped fresh dill
1 tbsp mayonnaise (optional)

Heat oil in a skillet and add grated carrots. Stir until carrots are wilted. Put carrots in a bowl with yogurt, garlic, dill, and salt. Mix well. Serve with crusty bread and any kind of meat.


Cooking class 4: Fish simmered in miso, chawan-mushi and vegetables in 2 sesame dressings

If you've been following this blog, you'll know I've been going to Japanese cooking classes at ABC, and might be wondering where the photos are.

I wasn't going to put them up, since they are taken on the hoof under less than optimal lighting, but in the spirit of sharing, I've decided to post them anyway.

For this autumnal class, we learned how to make buri (yellowtail) simmered in in miso, chawan-mushi (steamed savory custard), and vegetables in 2 kinds of sesame dressing (goma-ae).

The buri was a little bit of work, so I had great expectations. It certainly tasted great, but not that much better than tinned fish in miso sauce (which can be had very cheaply in Japan). Not sure that I'll be making that one again...

Chawan-mushi has a reputation for being difficult and not setting properly, it's one of those things people can easily get into a tizz-wazz about--a bit like risotto making. But this version was no bother and looked very impressive on the plate. I'll be making this again, but would dearly love to know what they do with the chawan-mushi at my favourite watering hole. It's really the best!

The goma-ae was a bit of a revelation for me in that I've never had it with anything other than spinach! ABC presented 2 versions, one with white sesame seeds, sesame paste, soy and sugar, the other with black sesame seeds, dashi broth, soy and sugar (sugar is a constant in Japanese cuisine, even in savoury dishes). These dressings adorned maitake mushrooms and still-crisp boiled green beans, respectively. Both were yum and both keepers in my book!

Monday, 8 September 2008

Tofu & chicken hamburg steak with Japanese mushroom sauce

The weather is a little more autumnal now, so the timing is perfect for this scrummy and healthy tofu burger and fungi combination that I made earlier this month as part of a week of Japanese food to celebrate the Young Man's return from travels in Oz.

I don't tend to be overly adventurous with Japanese cooking on weeknights because it can be quite involved and not likely to result in dinner on the table in less than an hour. These "hamburgs," with their subtle ginger back-note and moreish mushroom topping, are both very tasty and perfectly doable in much less time than that. We had them with a decidedly summery salad; a jolly way to get two seasons in the same meal.

If Japanese mushrooms are not to be found in your neck of the woods, substitute at will. Around 250 g of 2-3 varieties will do . I also don't suppose it will matter if you substitute chicken stock for the dashi. You can adjust the amount of soy sauce in the mushroom sauce depending on whether you use a powdered dashi, which contains salt, or dashi from a teabag-like dashi pack, which does not. Mirin is a sweet sake used extensively in Japanese cooking. If you can't get it, you could try this substitute, just a plain sugar syrup or a dash of sugar at a pinch.

Tofu & chicken hamburg steak with Japanese mushroom sauce

1 x 350 g block regular (non-silken) tofu
200 g chicken mince
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 Japanese leek ( or 1/4 Western leek), chopped very finely
1/2-3/4 tsp juice from grated fresh ginger
1 x 100 g pack shimeji
1/2 x 250 g pack enoki
4 shiitake, sliced
1 cup dashi stock
1 tbsp mirin
1 tsp Japanese soy sauce
3 tsp potato starch or cornstarch, dissolved in 3 tsp water
4 spring onions, sliced in 2 cm lengths
1 tbsp oil
steamed snow peas, to garnish

1 Squeeze some of the moisture from the tofu by placing between 2 plates, with a weight on the top plate (a couple of small cans work).

2 Cut of ends of shimeji and enoki and break into individual stalks. Bring dashi stock to the boil and add shimeji, enoki and shiitake. Add mirin, soy sauce and a pinch of salt. Thicken with potato starch (you may not need it all), and scatter spring onions over the top.

3 In a large bowl, work mince, egg, ginger juice, 2 pinches of salt (or to taste) and pepper together until smooth. Crumble drained tofu into the bowl, add the Japanese leek and mix thoroughly with your hands.

4 Divide tofu and meat mixture in 4 and form into oval patties, making a slight indentation in the middle of each to help cook evenly. Heat oil in a large frying pan and fry patties on both sides until cooked. Serve topped with mushroom sauce and steamed snow peas.


Monday, 1 September 2008

Ban ban ji: A Japanese take on a classic Chinese chicken dish

Forever summer: it might be a good name for a Nigella cookbook, but when its the actual sticky tropical Japanese summer you're talking about, it's not quite so warm and fuzzy. And with the early start to summer this year, forever summer feels more like a prison sentence.

Cooking is always a bit of a bane when, with no air conditioning, the kitchen is over 30 degrees C before you even begin.

Imagine my joy, then, at finding this recipe that involves no actual stove time!! Yup, a few short minutes in the microwave will get you this fabulous Japanese take on the classic Chinese dish of chilled poached chicken with sesame dressing.

If the thought of chilled. poached. chicken. leaves you, well, cold, then hold that mouse! It is actually very tasty, and, the jelly that forms as it cools makes the chicken a treat on the tongue as well. It's perfect summer fare.

But wait: there's more! An earthy yet piquant, spicy yet comforting sesame dressing and fridge cold cucumbers and tomatoes round this off perfectly. All we needed was some cold silken tofu topped with katsuobushi (shaved dried bonito flakes) and soy sauce (my favourite lazy summer accompaniment) for a very satisfying meal.

This recipe comes from my fail-safe Japanese omnibus cookbook, 365-nichi no okazu on chie (100 yen side dishes: Know-how for 365 days), which now sadly seems to be out of print.

Ban-Ban Ji: Chilled poached chicken with sesame dressing

2 boneless chicken thighs, skins on
2 thinnish slices of fresh ginger
1 thin Japanese leek, separated into white and green
2 tbsp sake or dry white wine
2 Japanese cucumbers, sliced into matchsticks
cherry tomatoes

For the sesame dressing
2 tbsp Japanese sesame paste or tahini
1-2 tbsp sesame oil
3 tbsp Japanese soy sauce
3 tbsp Japanese leek, chopped very finely
1 tsp sake, or dry white wine
1 tsp ginger, very finely chopped
1 tbsp castor sugar
1.5 tbsp rice vinegar
1/2-1 tsp tobanjan (Chinese: doubanjiang) or other chilli bean paste

1 Pierce the skin of the chicken thighs all over with a fork and rub with green parts of the Japanese leek, ginger, sake and a little salt. Place in a microwave-safe dish, cover with cling film and microwave on high for 8-10 minutes, or until done. Remove from microwave and leave, covered, until cool. Refrigerate if time permits

2 Make sesame dressing by mixing the sesame paste or tahini, soy sauce, Japanese leek, sake or wine, ginger, castor sugar, rice vinegar and tobanjan or chilli bean paste in a jar. Slice remaining Japanese leek white into very fine strips. Refrigerate both until needed.

3 Slice chicken into strips. Arrange cucumber matches on a serving plate, top with sliced chilled chicken and top with sesame dressing and leek. Scatter cherry tomatoes alongside.


PS Other takes on this are found here (disregard the 10 oz (284 g) of chicken called for; you'd want about that much for 2) and in message MSG ID: 033732 here.

Mualle: Turkish eggplant, tomato and lentil stew with pomegranate

I was searching for the source of a spicy Turkish tomato dip recipe I'd printed out but not got round to making (soon, though, as the tomatoes are already past their summer's best!), when I came across this lovely looking Turkish stew on the delish-looking Turkish food blog Almost Turkish.

With lots of lovely summer veggies AND pomegranate molasses, I put the tomato dip idea aside and jumped on this instead. And it really is glorious. I cooked mine under low pressure in the pressure cooker for 30 min, but it could easily have been less (I'll be trying 20 min next time). Even at 30 min, the lentils and the eggplant didn't turn to mush, and the latter was that a silky-smooth, unctuous texture you usually only get from frying them in copious amounts of olive oil. Score one for Burcu at Almost Turkish for this healthier alternative! Since there is no water in this recipe, I gave the pressure cooker a good shake from time to time at the beginning of cooking. Nothing stuck to the bottom of the pot, and a lovely thick sauce had formed when I opened it up.

Since the Young Man is back (wahoo!), I didn't add the full quota of chillies in the recipe, so my version has just a warm back note. Also, my pom molasses is a sweetish variety, so next time I'll probably add some lemon juice as well to tarten things up a bit. I also upped the fresh mint in this. I used fresh peppermint, but perhaps the dried would have been better afterall.

Either way, this truly delicious and totally virtuous dish is definitely a keeper.

Mualle: Turkish eggplant, tomato and lentil stew with pomegranate

3-4 long narrow eggplants, peeled in lengthwise stripes
1/2 cup brown lentils
1 medium onion, chopped
4-5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 long thin green chilli (or to taste), seeded and chopped
2 tomatoes, diced
4 tbsp fresh mint, chopped or 2 tbsp dried mint
1 tsp crushed red pepper
1 tbsp tomato paste
2/3 cup olive oil
3 tbsp pomegranate molasses
salt [S: I used maybe 2 tsp]

1 Peel the eggplant partially, leaving lengthwise strips of skin. Cut eggplants in 4 lengthwise. Chop every piece crosswise into 3. Place them in layers in a sieve, sprinkling salt between the layers as you go. Let them stand for an hour to remove the bitter juices [S: I did it only as long as it took to get the rest of the ingredients pot-ready]. Squeeze out any excess juices by hand.

2 Bring green lentils to a boil with 2 cups of water. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until lentils are soft. Drain and set aside.

3 In a bowl, mix tomatoes, green chillies, onion, garlic, mint, salt, crushed peppers, and tomato paste.

4 Coat the bottom of the pressure cooker with 1-2 tbsp of olive oil. Put 1/2 cup of the veggie mix on the bottom. Cover with half the eggplant, then half the lentils, and half the remaining veggie mix. Top first with remaining eggplant, then with lentils, and then with veggie mix.

5 Pour the remaining olive oil down the side of the pressure cooker. Sprinkle the pomegranate molasses over the top.

6 Bring the stew to a boil. Put on the lid and bring to pressure, then reduce the heat to low and pressure cook for 20-30 minutes, shaking the pot from time to time to prevent the stew sticking to the bottom.

Mualle is good with rice and yogurt.


PS The spicy tomato dip recipe is here.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Cooking class 3: Karaage, cold miso and 2 vegetable side dishes

Photo courtesy of Malaka at Aloha Mahalo

As you know, I often moan about the length of time it takes to cook Japanese food (hence its general absence from our weekday menu). However, in my very first official cooking class with ABC, we made, ate and cleared up an entire Japanese meal in 2 hours!! 'Course, there was 4 of us, so it doesn't really compare to making things at home alone, but still, I thought it was a pretty good effort.

Traditionally, a Japanese meal is not complete without, at minimum, one soup, three side dishes and rice. And many times more than three dishes will be prepared. It's enough to have even card-carrying foodies ripping their hair out of an evening.

Our meal comprised hiyashi-jiru, a cold miso soup topped with cucumber and tomato from Miyazaki Prefecture; karaage, deep-fried morsels of chicken marinated in soy, sake and fresh ginger; potato chunks and edamame (fresh soy beans) smothered in wasabi-mayonnaise; and a simmered "salad" of carrot, aburage (a thin deep-fried tofu) and kiriboshi daikon (shredded dried daikon).

From this lesson I learned that when inserted into hot oil, a bamboo cooking chopstick (much longer than regular chopsticks and able to be put safely into boiling fat) will have small bubbles form around it in 3 seconds at 160 degrees C, the same small bubbles will form almost straight away at 170 degrees, and a great many bubbles will form vigourously immediately you put the chopstick in at 180 degrees.

You can also tell when your deep-fried goodies are ready with the tried and true Japanese method of holding the near-ready food in your cooking chopsticks and if you can feel a small vibration in your chopsticks, it's done. The teacher was keen to know how we Western cooks know when something is ready, but as I hardly ever deep-fry anything, she was asking the wrong person (g) . I reckon it's colour we usually look for, though.

Anyway, the day's menu was all very tasty. Karaage is an izakaya (Japanese tavern) staple, and we regularly order it. Now I can make it myself and have as much ginger in it as I like! The potato and edamame might make a good addition to a meze spread. The cold miso was a revelation to me, and the Young Man is quite intrigued by it, too. I'll be making it for him shortly, while we still need relief from the awful, muggy heat. Watch out for my take on the recipe then.