Monday, 25 May 2009

Cooking class 10: Drinking party snack plate

I took two ABC cooking classes in May, as there wasn't really anything I wanted to do among the June offerings. Actually, I wasn't planning on taking this class, either, but seeing the scrummy-looking plates that another class was tucking into quickly changed my mind.

What we had was basically a degustation menu for a drinking party! Seven more or less healthy snacks, a domburi of sliced bonito topped with Japanese aromatics, and a drink. Nine items altogether. Not bad for a 1-hour lesson. (One hour, by the way, because the teacher cleaned did the cleaning up while we ate and we only had to wash our dishes!)

So, what all did we get? From left to right in the top photo: (back row) deep-fried ginger pork; broccoli dressed in cod-egg mayonnaise; crunchy cherry tomato and rakkyo (Japanese pickled shallot) salad; (front row) octopus with kim chi; deep-fried bonito and cheese parcels; sardine, ume (Japanese pickled plum) and lemon pinchos; and Japanese-style summer rolls.

The cherry tom/pickled shallot combi really hit the spot with me. Tart and crunchy, but still healthy (unlike salt and vinegar chips, say (g).)

The pork was also a bit of a revelation, with the strips of pork basically flung into hot oil still in their marinade. This is the same technique used for frying chunks of chicken, but I'd never come across it for thin strips of meat. The katakuriko (dogtooth violet starch) magically forms a coating when it hits the oil. It's ingenious, really.

I was particularly super impressed with the rice bowl, which was topped not only with my favourite seared bonito, but ginger, myoga (Japanese ginger) and ao-jiso (perilla) and garlic chips as well! A very moorish mouthful. I will definitely be making this again, so stay tuned for a translation of the recipe.

Bonito also showed up arm in arm with cheese in little deep-fried "purses". These fun little bites would probably be perfect for anyone who needs their munchies to be fried.

In case you are wondering, it was not beer, cheap sake or shochu we had to wash this down, but cider vinegar soda. The girls found this a little tart, but it was still a bit on the mild side for me, even with the lemon garnish squeezed in (g). I reckon it also wanted some ginger juice to add a bit of zip.


Monday, 18 May 2009

Cooking class 9: A Chinese party banquet

Another cooking class at ABC Cooking Studio. The Japanese pickings have been a little slim since ABC changed their set-up in April, so it was Chinese food this time.

In the old days, the Saffron household had a "live-in" Chinese chef, so there was never really any reason to have a go at it myself. More recently, the mouth-watering film Eat Drink Man Woman has been about the size of it when it comes to Chinese food (or Taiwanese, as the case may be). Being that it has been a long time between Chinese mouthfuls, I was happy to give this Japanese version of Chinese food a go. It certainly looked yummy on ABC's website.

The main dish was youlinji, or deep-fried chicken with a katakuriko ("dogtooth violet starch" if you will; a common Japanese ingredient) coating the same as Japanese karaage. This was served served with match-sticked veggies, wrapped in uncooked spring roll wrappers, with a garlic-ginger dipping sauce. The chicken was really gorgeous and crisp, the result of two fryings: first at 160 C to cook the meat, then at 180 C until the desired rich golden colour was reached.

There were 2 side dishes. The cucumber and zhacai (Chinese pickled vegetable) salad featured lots of different textures: slippery cloud ears (a Chinese fungus also known as tree ears), crunchy strips of reconstituted kanten, and bumpy bashed cucumbers (a common Japanese presentation), alongside the pickle. It was lightly dressed with sesame paste and sesame oil. I thought the salad had potential, maybe with a little more seasoning.

The "mixed" rice, was very tasty and took all of two seconds to make. A little gently fried pork cut into strips, a little salt and soy sauce, and a little sliced spring onion were simply folded into cooked rice and served up. The girls in the class were quite excited by this one.
We also made a sweetcorn soup, but I felt the egg white was a little rubbery and I'm not so fond of the chicken stock granules used at ABC, so enough said about that one, methinks.

For dessert we took an inordinate amount of time to make sweet bean paste-filled sesame-coated rice flour dumplings (zhima qiu in Chinese, goma dango in Japanese). These were lovely to look at and tasted fine, but if I wanted to eat them, I'd probably just nip down to Yokohama China Town and forgo the palaver of making them (then again, I'm not really a sweet person, so it might just be me...).

I did learn about shiratamako and ukiko (aka jin-ko), which Googling reveal to be "non-glutinous white rice flour" and "wheat starch". As a total novice when it comes to rice dumpling-making, I don't know a thing about either of these, but it seems that ukiko is also used in the translucent wrappers for har gao, the steamed prawn dumplings of yum cha fame. Another interesting nugget is that these fried sweets contain lard. For pliability, apparently. There you go, we both learned something today!


Monday, 11 May 2009

A picnic triad 3: Mashed zucchini with onions, garlic and mint

While googling around for picnic recipes, I remembered that I had not yet bought Claudia Roden's paean to picnics, Picnics: And Other Outdoor Feasts, which I'd spied a couple of years back, what else, getting ready for dear H & Hi's annual picnic! (I've ordered the book (since I know I will use it year after year (g)) and will let you know what I think later.)

I came across this picnic recipe of Claudia's on the American Express site Food & Wine. It's a super easy to make appetizer that is exactly what it says it is on the tin. I used less mint than called for below as I prefer peppermint, and added the juice of the lemon (I couldn't resist) rather than presenting it with lemon wedges. You can do both, if it takes your fancy.

Perfect for picnics with veggie eaters, you can whip this up in no time. Which was just as well in my case!

Claudia's picnic mashed zucchini with onions, garlic and mint

Serves 4-6, with other picnic food

450 g zucchini, cut into 3 cm lengths
1.5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tbsp coarsely chopped mint, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
1 lemon, cut into wedges (optional)

1 Place the cut zucchini into a microwave-safe container in one layer and microwave until soft, around 10 min. Drain and, using a fork, mash the zucchini in a colander to squeeze out as much liquid as possible.

2 Heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil. Add the onions and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly browned, about 8 min. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until it just begins to color, about 30 seconds. Add the zucchini, mint and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until well mixed and heated through, about 5 min.

3 Stir in the remaining half tbsp of olive oil and serve warm or at room temperature with the lemon wedges.


A picnic triad 1: Ottolenghi's kisir: a Turkish tomato & bulghur salad

It was time, once again, for the annual picnic in commemoration of dear friends H and Hi's meeting some 15 years ago--on a picnic. Coming around 10 days later than usual, the weather for this year's picnic was nothing short of spectacular.

I was still humming and hawing about what to make 2 days out, but remembered seeing the recipe for this this Ottolenghi take on the classic Turkish bulghur and tomato salad kisir (pronounced "kuh-suhr") on the Guardian website and thought it might go down alright.

I had made kisir before using Claudia Roden's recipe in Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey & Lebanon. Delicious though it was, it didn't really do it for my Turkish guests at the time. Then I had it in Konya, Turkey and all became clear. Claudia's version was a true salad (no cooking!) where the Konya version I had involved stove time and was no side dish.

Looking at my notes from Turkey, I see that the onions were fried in a copious amount of oil, the tomatoes (and red pepper) in the dish were in paste form, and peeled and diced cucumbers joined in the fun. In Konya, at least, kisir is a meal of itself. A great mound is placed on a communal platter and everyone takes his share, parceling it up in lettuce and other leaves, with maybe an extra chilli and a dollop of pomegranate molasses or squeeze of lemon for good measure. Heaven!

Ottolenghi's version more closely resembles that tart, tomato-stained grain dish (though minus the cucumber). I like this fairly sharp, so I've upped the lemon and pomegranate molasses. I also left out the chilli on the day as there were to be a lot of Young People at the picnic.

The Ottolenghi kisir has a pretty pomegrate seed and mint topping that adds a nice festive touch, but which I doubt is authentically Turkish. I packed the topping ingredients separately for the picnic and added them when we were ready to eat. Short of time, I didn't take washed lettuce leaves with me, but it might be fun to do that next time.

Here's a picture of the three dishes I ended up taking to the picnic. Recipes for the other two to follow shortly.

Ottolenghi's kisir

Serves 6-8 as a main dish or a great crowd as an appetiser

2 large onions, peeled and finely chopped
60 ml olive oil, plus more to finish
2 tbsp tomato paste
4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
90 ml water
400 g coarse bulghur wheat
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 lemon, juiced
6 tbsp chopped parsley (flat-leaf, for preference)
3 spring onions, finely shredded, plus an extra one to garnish
2 green chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
Salt and black pepper
Seeds from 1 pomegranate (optional, to garnish)
1 handful mint leaves, some whole, some roughly shredded

Cos lettuce, cabbage and other green leaves, to serve (optional)

1 In a large saucepan, sauté the onions in the oil until they turn translucent - about 5 min. Add the tomato paste and cook over medium heat for 2 min, stirring all the while with a wooden spoon. Add the chopped fresh tomatoes, leave them to simmer on a low heat for 4 min, then add the water. Bring to a boil, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the bulghur.

2 Add the molasses, lemon juice, parsley, chopped spring onion, chilli, garlic and cumin. Season, stir, then set aside until the salad has cooled to room temperature or is just lukewarm.

3 Taste, adjust the seasoning as necessary--it will probably need plenty of salt--and spoon on to a serving dish. Roughly flatten out the salad with a palette knife, creating a wave-like pattern on the surface, then scatter pomegranate seeds over and about. Drizzle olive oil over the top and finish with the mint and the extra spring onion. Serve with cos, cabbage and other green leaves for wrapping.


A picnic triad 2: Fagiolli e tonno: Tuscan beans with tuna

The inspiration for making this simple but delicious bean, tomato and tuna melange was a scrummy antipasto I had a lovely seaside restaurant in Shonan a few weeks back. The weather was rather chilly that day, especially seated out on the restaurant's waterfront deck, but the food was great so who could complain?

This recipe is the first I've tried from the door-stopping Little Foods of the Mediterranean: 500 Fabulous Recipes for Antipasti, Tapas, Hors d'Oeuvres, Meze, and More, and I'll definitely be back for more!

Little Foods was one of the two cookbooks I allowed myself to purchase when back in Oz and finally able to visit the Melbourne cookbook lover's mecca Books for Cooks. If you have been reading for any length of time, you will know I have had to seriously reign in my cookbook purchasing and was on the strictest of self-imposed orders to only buy two from a list of 20 or so titles that I had. Little Foods was not on my list, but edged out 19 other books that I'd been wanting for forever!

Author Clifford Wright had somehow managed to slip under my radar, but turns out to be one of those rare and fabulous writers whose outsider status translates into authority on his subject--which is all things Mediterranean. Little Foods may be the closest we will ever get to the definitive work on "little dishes" (not all of which, Wright rightfully points out, are appetizers). Covering Italy, Spain, France, the Mediterranean Middle East & North Africa, it brings the similarities and differences of this food meant for grazing in convivial company into sharp relief.

The book gives lots of food for thought, and is a fabulous read in its own right. The sheer number of recipes must have made categorization a monumental task! While my vote would have been on a country-by-country format, Wright goes with chapterizing by type of dish, which would cut down on sub-heading repetition, I suppose. All recipes are indexed by country of origin, though, and there is also a great selection of suggested menus for various occasions that is also arranged by country/region.

I am less fond of the flimsy low-quality paper this book is printed on, however. In my shoe-box sized kitchen, the only place for a large-format cookbook is balanced precariously on the edge of the sink. This makes splashes from the washing of hands inevitable and the odd accidental falling into the sink a very real possibility. Mediocre paperback paper really doesn't cut it in my kitchen, I'm afraid. I'm really not sure why cookbook publishers don't think of these things.

But back to the recipe. In its original form, it could take anything up to 1.5 hours to make. You can cut this back to virtually no time at all by soaking the beans overnight and cooking them in a pressure cooker. In fact, I only cooked mine for one (1) minute under pressure, lest they fell apart. It is much safer to finish off the cooking with the lid off the pressure cooker for a few minutes than risk ending up with a mushy pulp.

I also reduced the amount of olive oil in the recipe, because that's what I do.

Although I made the original portion, it was way too much. Halving it (which I've done below) should give you plenty to serve to a crowd with other antipasti and small foods.

Tuscan beans and tuna

Serves 8 when served with other antipasti

3/4 cup dried cannellini or other white beans, picked over, rinsed and soaked overnight
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh sage leaves
3 1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, flattened
500 g ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 tbsp loosely packed sliced fresh basil leaves
freshly ground black pepper
200 g tinned tuna in oil

1 Drain beans and place in a small pressure cooker. Cover generously with water, add the sage, and either use the pressure cooker's slotted drop-in lid or add 1/2 tbsp oil to prevent the beans from frothing up. Cover and bring to pressure, then cook under low pressure for 1 minute. Remove lid quickly to prevent overcooking. Test and, if necessary, cook uncovered until tender.

Alternatively, if cooking the traditional way, bring beans and sage to a gentle boil, then cook over medium-low heat, uncovered, until tender. Drain.

2 In a large nonreactive frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat and cook the garlic cloves , stirring , until they begin to turn light brown, about 1 minute. Remove the garlic from the pan and discard. Add the tomatoes and lightly season with salt. Raise the heat to high and cook until slightly thicker, about 8 min, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, and lowering the heat if it splatters too much. Reduce the heat to low, add the drained beans and the basil, season with pepper, and simmer, covered, until the beans are hot, about 10 min, stirring occasionally.

3 Turn the heat off, add the tuna and its oil, and stir. Adjust the seasoning. Let the mixture rest for 15 min. Serve hot or at room temperature.


Mughal mushroom curry

I've been feeling the need for more meatless food these days for some virtuous reasons and one not so virtuous one: my freezer's already full of yummy stuff being saved for a rainy day (or at least a lazy evening).

There is another practical reason for going veggie at least part of the week and that is that it usually cuts down your cooking time. You can't beat that!

From Najmieh Batmanglij's Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey, this recipe is a relatively quick weeknight fix. It features an unusual apple, sultana and nut topping. I've read that the use of fruit and nuts in savory dishes is characteristic of Mughal cuisine. It also chimes in nicely with a similar theme in Persian cuisine, which might explain why this recipe caught the eye of Najmieh khanom.

To cook with yogurt, you often need to stabilize it first to avoid splitting. Mixing in cornflour, as in this recipe, is just one method. I had no trouble with splitting, even when reheating the dish in the microwave the next day.

I left out the garam masala and chillies out of respect for the Young Man's delicate palate. Next time, I think I might add a little turmeric, say 1/4-1/2 tsp, to give it a nice golden colour.

Mughal mushroom curry

4 tbsp vegetable oil, butter or ghee
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1 green apple, peeled and sliced
2 small onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 tsp coriander seeds
2.5 cm fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 bay leaf
2 red chillies, seeded and sliced, or to taste
450 g assorted mushrooms, sliced
1 cup chopped celery
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp hot curry powder
2 tsp garam masala
1 large tomato, peeled and sliced
1 1/2 cups plain yogurt
2 tsp cornflour [cornstarch]

1/4 cup chopped fresh coriander [cilantro] to garnish (optional)

1 In a wok or deep-sided frying pan, heat 2 tbsp oil over medium heat, until very hot. Add the almonds, raisins and apples, and stir-fry for 20 sec. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2 Heat the remaining oil in the same wok, until very hot. Add the garlic, coriander seeds, ginger, bay leaf and chillies and stir-fry for 1 min. Add the mushrooms and celery, and cook for 5 min. Add the salt, pepper, curry powder, garam masala and tomato. Cover and cook over very low heat for 10 min.

3 Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine yogurt and cornflour. Beat, in one direction, for 5 min.

4 Just before serving, discard the bay leaf and gradually add the yogurt mixture to the wok over very low heat, stirring constantly to prevent curdling.

5 Adjust seasoning to taste. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the almond mixture from step 1, and coriander, and serve hot with rice, pasta or couscous


Cooking class 8: "Home party" menu

ABC Cooking Studio has changed its setup and none of last month's offerings took my fancy, so it's been a while between lessons. Previously I have been taking the Japanese food class, but that option has now changed to a class in basics, and some of it is a little, well, basic. I decided to go for the entertaining class this time. Let's have a "home party" (so called because urban Japanese rarely entertain at home due to space constraints. For the record, I've never let that stop me).

The menu was two kinds of oven-baked rice croquettes, one flavoured with tomato and Camembert, the other with curry and Camembert; taramasalata with pan-fried veggies; a tomato-based seafood soup; and crepes Suzette for dessert.

I liked the idea of the croquettes more than the final result. Baking rather than frying them increased the likelihood of their falling apart, and more than a few of the ones we made did just that.

The taramasalata (hiding under the veggies) was a bit bland to my taste buds, but my Japanese classmates liked it well enough.

But oh the seafood and tomato soup! I'll definitely be making that again. While it only contained 3 kinds of seafood (prawns, white fish and octopus), the taste was rich and unctuous. The secret, apparently, is to blast it in the oven for a bit after it is finished cooking on the stove.

I will also make the crepes again. Big taste with little fuss: my kind of cooking. And the block of butter and slosh of Cointreau in the sauce have absolutely nothing to do with it (g).

My orange zesting skills from Persian cooking came in handy here. I used the veggie peeler rather than fuss about with the chef's knife as the instructor suggested. Life's too short.

Being Japan, this was my opportunity to learn the fine art of flipping crepes with cooking chopsticks. It can be done*, but I'm not sure why you would bother.

* Lay one chopstick across the frying pan and lift the edge of the crepe onto it with the other. Lift the chopstick with the crepe draped over it and with a rolling motion, gently turn the crepe over.