On Shaky Ground

It’s been nearly a fortnight since my last post.  

For the most part, the silence has been for good reasons. But the days of shake, rattle and roll leading up to and following Sunday’s M 6.5 quake, have left even this earthquake hardened Wellingtonian shaken and wondering if 80 litres of stored water will see us through if it gets really serious.

The last post marked the beginning of the school holidays. Since then:-

I’ve been asked to leave another restaurant, this time because of a fire alarm. I’m developing a complex.  One might have thought that the sight of all those firemen would have provided some compensation for the inconvenience, but sadly no.

We’ve had friends around for that civil German institution, Kaffee und Kuchen.

Encouraged by the success of the honey and goats cheese profiteroles we made at Food Night the other week, I’d decided to confront my nemesis, choux pastry, once again in the hope of producing a tray of light, crisp-cased, cream filled, Belgian chocolate-smothered eclairs.  Who doesn’t want to wolf one of those with a cup of coffee of a cold, bleak Sunday afternoon?

Until now, pate a choux and I have rubbed along OK, but the results were never quite right. Instead of persevering with tweaks to the recipe that has always got me 95% of the way, I made a last minute and deeply regrettable decision to try a different one, the recipe Francesca brought home from her afternoon at Le Cordon Bleu, no less.  

They rose promisingly at first.  Then half way through, they just stopped.  I was left with hard, thumb shaped stubbs of dough. Simply put, there was no Wind in my Windbeutel.

Thankfully, long time friends Kristina and Jeremy are understanding folk.  My mother, whose mantra is “always make ahead” knew better than to say anything as we watched the scene unfold (or not) with horror.  My father gave me a hard time as always, but, just as predictably, seemed happy to do his share of damage to my newly re-fashioned cream and chocolate topped pastry fingers.  They still tasted OK, but you all know how little comfort that can be.

In the circumstances, I hope you will forgive the absence of photographic record. Admitting to one’s mistakes is one thing, being confronted by pictorial evidence quite another.

More on Kaffee und Kuchen another time, perhaps even with Kristina’s delicious Black Forest Cherry cake recipe.

I owe thanks to Vladimir Petkov for introducing me to Finnish band Apocalytpica. As a woman whose musical tastes often lean towards the young-angry-male end of the spectrum, I often hear a riff on the car radio and wonder how it would sound on my cello. Now I know.

Apocalyptica1

Unlike Perttu Kivilaakso, I have no immediate plans to perform clad only in leather trousers, my hair thrashing wildly. Leather trou don’t come in my size, and if I play with my hair out, some almost always gets caught between fingers and fingerboard, making for very painful position shifts and unwanted distraction from the purity of artistic expression.

Frankly I don’t know how Pertuu and his mates do it, but I bet they wear pony tails when nobody’s looking.

Here is a link to some of their early material, a cover of Metallica’s, Nothing Else Matters. Avoid it if you take either your metal or your strings too seriously, but it put a smile on my face.  String players my also be amused by their master class satire Cello Lesson # 1.

Continuing on a Nordic theme, Small Acts’ Jennifer Duval-Smith, also shared this very enjoyable clip. Three Swedish fishermen sing Seal’s, Kiss from a Rose.  Perhaps not my favourite Seal number, this one still goes a long way to prove my theory that good things happening around kitchen tables.  If I’d had these boys when I was running the local Russian Orthodox choir, things would have been very, very different.

We had a couple of nights of sleepovers, then took off for a few days holiday with my parents.

We stayed here:

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The Mountain House, Stratford, with the Summit of Mt Taranaki 

Visited places like this:

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Lighthouse, Cape Egmount

Did stuff like this:

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And of course, this:

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Last Saturday we got home relieved to find that nothing had moved in Friday’s earthquake. Since Sunday it’s been a different story.

We were on the road when the M6.5 hit and didn’t feel a thing, which was a mercy because our elder two girls, especially Francesca who was just old enough to understand what happened in Christchurch and Japan, were already anxious enough.

The trip home involved chucking together a shopping list for the emergency supplies we should have got around to laying in but never quite had, finding an open supermarket, avoiding both motorway and tunnels, checking in on my sister (there were power cuts in her neighbourhood), calming the children and preparing ourselves in case the glass in our conservatory kitchen had met the same fate as many windows downtown.

Well, we were pretty damn lucky.  Not much damage at all. But doesn’t perspective change quickly.

Getting rid of our old rusty barbecue in the Residents’ Association annual large rubbish collection (an excellent service for which our ever-loving City Council has naturally withdrawn support) had seemed like good housekeeping.  We were de-cluttering, I thought smugly.

Now I just think that if we lose the mains gas and electricity, we’ll have no alternative means of heating food or water.

There is an old plug in phone.  In the attic. Somewhere.  We think.  Along with a pile of old quilts and blankets.

I bought a torch-radio that runs on a dynamo after the second and calamitous Christchurch quake.  That was thought to be in the garden shed, along with spare loo paper, tarpaulins, spades and the firewood.  Said torch is now resident on the hall table. We are are possessed of multiple tins and packets, all of which I hope we will never need.

The choice of cinema for the obligatory school holiday movie trip became a matter of which building was most recently constructed and closer to home in an emergency.  In the end Tuesday’s three family outing was postponed to a time when I can go into a public building without wondering how close the nearest exit is and what is likely to fall on my children and my car on the way out.

There was, however, no reason for the children to miss their cookie baking and sausage making classes at Moore Wilson on Wednesday.  The diminishing severity of aftershocks boosted our confidence, besides it is unthinkable to me that anything really bad could happen to you at Moore Wilson.

For years there’s been talk about Wellington, nestled as it is where the great Australian and Pacific plates meet, being overdue for The Big One.  Here, I thought, perhaps a silver lining?  Had we got it out of the way? A relatively big quake, with relatively little damage. Perhaps in the same way one might have hoped that the massively traumatic Christchurch earthquake would have been enough ruin for one generation to behold.

No, says the New Zealand Herald, because the quake wasn’t triggered by the Wellington fault line and when that one goes, we can expect an M8.5. Not much point keeping the china and lamps on the floor, because when that one comes there are going to be bigger things to worry about.

Well I’m not moving any time soon. Apparently the Wellington Fault last did it’s thing between 200 and 450 years ago.  It’s a 500 to 1000 year event. I’m 44 and I’ll take my chances.

And besides, the Herald is an Auckland paper.

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Food Night: Because One Thing Always, Always Leads to Another

Natasha and Victoria

Let’s blame it on good friend and partner in crime Natasha.  She put me up to it.

I was organising our monthly craft night, when Natasha dropped one of her typical, quiet, by-the-by bombshells. “If you want to do something similar with food,” she said, “I would be keen”.

There are plenty who know of my fondness for food and cooking.  A quick look at my figure and a guinea pig could work it out. But fewer know about my mania for organisation. Natasha is one of them. So, if you think about it, it was downright irresponsible. Roughly the equivalent of telling a convicted arsonist that someone should build some bonfires for Guy Fawkes Night or taking a kleptomaniac shopping in a coat with deep pockets.  You didn’t make them do it, but you knew darn well what would happen.

Over the years, I’ve met others who share my obsessions.  Take my former lecturer and friend Margaret. (The black and white images and salsa picture are hers).  Margaret and I shared some adventures years ago when she was researching and I studying at the same German university.  I already had a cookbook problem, but Margaret made me feel it was OK.  She suggested new titles, pointed out the possibilities for posting books home cheaply via the Bundespostsack.  We cooked together.  We ate out.  She facilitated.  Or perhaps we were simply co-dependent.

I met Stacey when she started seeing an old university friend about 15 years ago. We hit it off immediately. Something about the way she followed me out to the kitchen where we talked about this and that and family.  I knew she was one of us when she showed up at the annual New Year’s Eve party with a great slab of Kikorangi blue and Falswater crackers.  Over the years there have been countless dinners, birthdays and  holiday celebrations, one helping the other with the cooking. Often my favourite part of the evening is in the kitchen with Stacey, working amiably side by side on the menu of the day.

My sister Victoria is 12 years my junior.  We’re very different people, but at the end of the day, fruit of the same tree.  She may not take it to the same lengths (yet), but she’s been bitten by the same bug.  How many people do you know who will walk from one end of the CBD to the other just to find the better sushi place for lunch?

As for Natasha, she and I bonded over countless lunches, morning teas, piroshki making sessions and other fundraisers for the local Russian Orthodox parish.  If you’re going to put on a ball with a 5 course supper for 110 in a hall with one domestic stove and an indifferent water heater, you want Natasha with you from the planning through to the bitter end. She is a voice of reason, yet where others will reach straight for the too hard basket, Natasha never discounts a concept until we’ve worked through the possibilities.  In a world full of naysayers, this is a rare quality in a friend, and a brilliant one in a fellow foodie.

These women form the hard core of Food Night.

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Top: Natasha and Victoria with the Paella,  Above: Later at the table Stacey and Victoria

It was not as easy to arrive at a formula for Food Night as it was for Craft Night. Craft Night cohesion comes simply from togetherness.  If you don’t feel like making anything you can just hang out for the conversation.  It really doesn’t matter.

Run your foodie group without more planning and you run the risk of it turning into one of those pot luck dinners where there are 7 pasta salads, 2 rice salads and a garlic bread. You might not starve, but without some co-ordination, you’re unlikely to come away with a transcendent experience.

For now we’re doing it this way:

  • We meet once a month at one of our houses to cook and eat a meal together.
  • We have a theme for each month.  This can be a particular cuisine, ingredient, course, festival – whatever you are all interested in.  This month our theme was tapas.  The last time it was Vietnamese food.
  • You agree a menu for the night –  say everyone picks a dish. The host buys the ingredients for the meal and we split the bill.  Then only one person needs to go shopping and you avoid ending up with 4 bunches of coriander and 3 bottles of fish sauce.
  • As an optional activity to provide some inspiration (OK, so it’s an excuse), we meet for a meal earlier in the month, sharing all the dishes and thus tasting as much as we can. Dinner didn’t work for us, but we have adapted remarkably well to being ladies who lunch.

It’s a real treat to have friends from different compartments of your life together at once. Being with people who share your interest is plain liberating, then there’s another kind of familiarity that comes with doing, rather than just talking together.

We’ve started to talk about other things we might do under the Food Night umbrella as time goes on, for example a weekend away or a dinner for our closest family and friends. Who knows where this adventure will take us.

Our last tapas inspired food night menu: above left, seafood paella – not a tapas dish, but we wanted to give it another go anyway; above centre, potato and baby spinach tortilla; above right, the salsa to go with our cerviche (not pictured); below left, choux puffs with a goats cheese filling and drizzled with honey; below right, garbanzo beans (chic peas) with choritzo.

Move Over Julia

Julia Child at Le Cordon Bleu

Above: Julia Child at Le Cordon Bleu in 1950.  As a child I watched her on Saturday afternoons with my grandmother.

You always want your children to have it better than you did.

By and large life has been pretty good to me, but like everyone else, I entertain the odd fantasy about what I would do if I won the lottery and found myself free to hop off the path that got me here, free to do something quite different.

In my mid teens, there was the odd, fleeting fantasy of becoming a concert cellist.  I prepared myself for this by not practising. This is like training for a marathon without so much as the odd long walk. Some might manage it. I, patently, was not among them.

I traveled in my gap year, sometimes picturing my future as a lone wolf journalist, always moving from trouble spot to trouble spot, dodging bullets to get my story, my luggage battered and my trusty camera my only constant companion. Apart from the fact that I never so much as kept a diary and took very few photographs, it was a thoroughly sound career plan.

Later, under pressure at university, I would dream of fleeing to Berlin and some tree-hugging commune in a run down Kreuzberg tenement.  Making a living didn’t come into it.  The moral high-ground would keep us warm.

Like many others, I worked my way through university in the hospitality industry and enjoyed it very much.  If I didn’t make it through Law, I would throw myself on the mercy of the executive chef of the hotel I worked at and beg for an apprenticeship in his kitchen. But I kept passing those exams.

When a stock market crash meant jobs were scarce, I mentioned my culinary plan B to my mother, who pulled a positively astounding 180 degree move and went from “Be a florist if you want to, but get your degree first.” to “We didn’t put you through university so you could work over a hot stove.” in under 60 seconds.

I have long since reconciled myself to being an amateur, very amateur, cellist, dodging bullets has lost it’s appeal, and frankly, Berlin hasn’t had quite the same cachet since the Wall came down. But the cooking thing has never left me.

Le Cordon Bleu, alma mater of the inimitable Julia Child, beckoned more than once, but Paris and London were far away from home and everything that held me here.  Then last year, they went and opened one right here in Wellington.  For all that it is right under my nose, to a mother of three with a mortgage, it might as well be on the moon.

I never thought one of mine would make it to Le Cordon Bleu before I did.  Certainly not before the age of nine, and especially not Francesca, as a toddler, possibly the most food resistant child in recent times.

Setting aside the intervening increase in appetite, it appears that disinterest in eating is not the same thing as disinterest in cooking.  Ever since Francesca could stand on a chair to see the bench, she has been a keen observer of culinary processes.

Cooking shows have also played their part.  Imagine my delight as my two eldest score every meal out of ten, with constructive criticism on presentation. Apparently I am not alone.  Good friend and partner in crime Natasha’s girls do the same thing.

In case you are thinking that I have spawned some kind of anorexic culinary savant, I should explain.

Natasha’s eldest and mine are of an age and have played together since they were very little.  Francesca was very fortunate in that when her friend got to go to a Petit Cordon Bleu class for her birthday, Francesca was invited to go too.

Classes are held in Le Cordon Bleu’s splendidly equipped kitchens.  A class of eight was taught by chef de cuisine Paul Dicken, aided by assistants who took care of the dangerous tasks: sharp knife work (splitting vanilla pods), deep frying and the like.

The three hour course was packed with content.  The children made hokey pokey  ice cream from start to finish including preparation of the custard base.  They cut pasta, crumbed fish, made pommes William and tuiles.

Back at home, I was struggling with some pasta of my own.  Francesca bobbed into the kitchen proudly bearing the fruits of her labours. “I’ve been using one of those this afternoon too, Mama” she said, eyeing up my very underutilised Imperia.  I was using mine to roll my dough, before slicing my tagliatelle by hand.  “Chef says you need to let the sheets dry a little before you cut them” my earnest little friend told me, helpfully.

imperia-pasta

We had guests coming around for dinner and I was out of time to chat, but the next day she spent the better part of an hour giving dear old Mama a blow by blow account of what they had done, how, why and using what equipment.  She had clearly engaged with the class content.  She was interested and spoke about her experience with quiet confidence.

Would I send her again?  Yes.  It’s costly, so not too often. But in terms of what she’s likely to get out of it, worth it.

The winter holidays are coming up in a couple of weeks, so to keep the momentum going, I’ve signed Francesca and Lydia up for an on-line holiday programme on kids cooking website It’s My Turn to Cook Tonight. We have a couple of house guests and maybe another one or two besides, so I’m preparing to give my kitchen over to the ten and unders for a couple of days.  No idea what the programme will be like, but if nothing else, it should be a good lesson in the use of information technology. There’s nothing to lose. The course is free and if we don’t like it, we can just switch the laptop off and find something else to do.

Sunday Suppers: Feta and Vegetable Fritters: What’s in a Name?

Feta & Vegetable Fritters served with Plain Yoghurt

Prior to the addition of feta cheese, these fritters were pink fairy confetti pancakes. But let us be clear.  No number of girlie names will get my kids to eat anything they don’t want to.  I should know.

There was a time when Francesca would happily devour baby cabbages and fairy trees (Brussels sprouts and broccoli florets to you).  It didn’t last.   

Parents who consider tales of Santa and the Tooth Fairy to be gross fabrications destined to destroy the mutual trust underpinning the fundamentals of the parent-child relationship (and I know you’re there) can relax. 

It wasn’t a matter of misleading my first born.  At no point did I tell her that she would be able to see fairies, grow wings, learn to fly, look thinner, reverse hair loss, double her income or get more dates, although for all I know my mother might have. It was a simple effort to connect with a more interesting world to get those first bites in before she had a chance to think, “I’m not eating that, it’s green.”.  We enjoyed a period of some months before greenism really set in (I know not from whence).

I tried again with Lydia, but parenting can be tough without isolation chambers.  Child 2 quickly learns to read the attitude of child 1. You’ve lost before you started.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may recall my reckless undertaking to involve my children in hands on cooking once a week.  My kids and husband don’t actually know about this, but I have you, Gentle Reader, to keep me honest. So when it came time to prepare this Sunday’s supper, I rounded up the girls, closed my eyes (figuratively anyway) and let them at it.

I diced the onions, grated the tricky bits and did the frying, but they managed the rest themselves.  Yes, Francesca grated a knuckle, but, as she herself pointed out, it wasn’t going to hurt any more now than in a couple of years time.  She had a point.  And up-to-date tetanus shots.

Girls with Sharp Objects

This simple recipe made for an excellent cooking class.  We covered measuring out ingredients (yes, Virginia, there is a correct way to scoop flour), blending wet ingredients into dry (without getting lumps), separating eggs, beating whites by hand and folding them through a heavier mixture.  If they remember any of that, they’ll be ahead of many home cooks.

Learning to beat egg whites.

The best bit?  Despite the vegetable content and complete transparency, each sat down and cleaned off a fritter per year of life without any begging, pleading or cajoling.  I hardly knew what to do with myself.  Even baby Ursula, who had observed the whole procedure with keen interest, put away nearly two and the leftovers were in demand for afternoon tea the next day.  Total success?

OK, so they didn’t want the feta.  Occasionally I know when to cut my losses.  Time for that later.  It was easy enough to cook some fritters without feta first and then to add feta to the remaining batter for the adults.

I made way too much, so I’ve halved my ingredients to give you generous serving for four.

This is a versatile fritter batter that will see you through pancakes sweet and savoury, crisp or soft, freshly cooked or made ahead and frozen.

Feta and Vegetable Fritters

Ingredients:

3 1/2c grated vegetables.

We used 1 medium carrot, 11/2 large zucchini (courgettes) and 1/2 a medium beetroot (red beet).  Keep adding until you’ve made up the volume.  Try other vegetables like sweet corn, capsicums (bell peppers), spinach, grated celery (go easy and remove the strings first), pumpkin or squash.  Finely chopped cooked vegetables can also be used, handy if you have some leftover from the night before.

1 large onion, finely diced

1 1/2 c plain (all purpose flour)

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

a generous grinding of black pepper

3/4 to 1 cup of milk, water or soda water

2 eggs, separated

200g crumbled feta (optional)

finely chopped herbs (optional): fresh coriander (cilantro) and mint work well with zucchini or beets

vegetable oil for frying

sea salt for sprinkling

herbs and unsweetened yoghurt or sour cream to serve

Method:

1. Grate and measure the vegetables, dice the onion and set aside. If the vegetables are particularly watery, you may want to salt them lightly and drain in a sieve or colander whilse preparing the batter.

2. In a large, c. 2 litre (quart) bowl, add flour, mix in the baking powder, salt and pepper and make a well.

3. Separate the eggs. This stage is not essential, but makes for a much lighter fritter without adding more baking powder, which has an unpleasant taste.  Add the yolks to the well and put the whites in a large clean bowl.

4. Measure out the first 3/4c of liquid. I used milk to maximise the nutritional value of the dish, but water works fine, and soda, if you have it, is best of all for a light, crisp result. If you’ve used tinned whole kernel corn, you can also reserve and use the liquid drained from the corn.

5. Add the liquid to the eggs in the well, beat together lightly and then, using a wooden spoon, keep stirring, gradually working more and more of the flour mixture into the egg mixture.  Add the vegetables and any herbs.  This mixture should not be too stiff. You want it to drop easily from the spoon without being runny.  Keep in mind that the egg whites will loosen the batter a little more.  If it seems too dry, stir in a little more liquid.

6. Whisk the whites until they hold peaks.  It really doesn’t take long by hand, if you don’t have a mixer or, like me, can’t be bothered getting it out. Fold in the whites: add 1/3 of the whites to begin with, work them in gently using a spoon, a cutting rather than stirring motion and rotating the bowl as you go.  Once incorporated, repeat with the balance of the whites.  If you have left the eggs whole, omit this step.

Folding whites into the batter.

The batter with the balance of the whites added but not yet folded through.  If you’ve used some beets, don’t panic, the pink cooks out, though it may colour the feta slightly if you use it.

7. Add the feta (if using), fold through until the mixture is just uniform.

8. Heat vegetable oil in a heavy skillet.  Add heaped tablespoons of the mix to the pan to form  8cm (3″) fritters or your preferred size.  If you have a good non-stick pan, you can get away without any oil at all.  In that case your fritters will not brown so much and will remain soft, more like breakfast pancakes.  If you use oil, you will get a crunchy fritter, but be sure to keep the pan hot enough so that the fritters seal before they absorb a lot of oil.

9.  Cook until the fritters are golden brown on the underside, bubbles appear on the top and the pancakes begin to set around the edges.  Turn over and cook until the second side is also golden brown.

Nearly ready to turn.

Nearly ready to turn: some of the back ones are just starting to set at the edges.

Ready

Ready to serve when they look like this on both sides.

10.  Serve immediately, or transfer to a roasting pan or tray with a rack over it, or lined with scrunched up kitchen paper.  If using paper, try to lean cooked fritters on their sides and avoid stacking.  This allows the steam to escape from both sides of the fritter and stops the fritters from going soggy and limp.  Sprinkle with sea salt before they cool completely.

Tips for Making Ahead:

11. You can make these ahead of time. Cool completely, then refrigerate or freeze in an airtight container, separated by layers of cling film. To reheat, arrange in a single layer on a baking tray (cookie sheet) and heat in a 220 C (430 F) oven until they are heated through and bubbling at the edges.  You can do this from frozen.  If you know you will be reheating, under-cook slightly the first time so they don’t burn while reheating.

Fritters as Finger Food or Appetisers:

12. For a tasty appetiser, make fritters with one vegetable (say corn) and serve topped with crisp bacon, avocado and sour cream.  Especially good with a touch of red capsicum jam or sweet chilli sauce. For finger food keep the fritters bite sized.

For a Sweet Version:

13.  For a sweet version, replace the teaspoon of salt with castor sugar, omit onions, make up the liquid with water or milk (soda water is salty) and a touch of vanilla, and fold 1 1/2 to 2 cups of berries, bananas or cooked, very well drained apples into the batter (in place of vegetables, onions and herbs).  If berries are frozen, be mindful that the fritters will be much colder and will take longer to cook. For improved flavour you can also add some butter to the cooking oil. To serve, dust with icing sugar (and cinnamon if you like it) and serve with whipped cream, yoghurt or sour cream.  Yum.

Keeping the Workers Happy

Food Revolution Day: In Praise of the Kitchen Table

Kitchen

Today has been designated Food Revolution Day.  It’s all about getting in touch with your food.

Can’t say I’ve ever had too much trouble in that department, but I grew up in an environment of constant cooking.  Whether it was my grandmother baking bread, my aunty separating eggs,  my great grandmother pulling fresh sorrel from the garden for her soup,  helping my mum out in the kitchen – something I always counted as a treat, helping my other granny to collect fresh eggs or seeing her toast bread in the old kitchen range on the end of a wire fork that her father made for the purpose, life was a continuum of food memories.

And let’s face it, the best conversation is always found in the kitchen.

I have a theory on the loss of cooking skills and changes in kitchen layout.  My generation started to haemorrage cooking skills well before our mothers went to work, but about the same time as the modern kitchen emerged.  (I stand to be corrected here.)

Preparation done at a kitchen table is highly visible.  The shift to the kitchen bench, most often in a galley or U shaped kitchen layout, has meant that the primary view for the small is the back of the cook.  What is done transform meat and potato into dinner might as well be alchemy.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a tall gal and food prep at a kitchen table is murder.  I like my benches and I like ’em high.  So what I also like is my island counter with the stools on the far side so that, like me, my girls can sit and draw, do their homework or just hang out watching dinner being prepared.  My cook top is also set into the island, so they have an easy and safe view of every part of the process.  My four year old has even been known to turn off the TV to come and watch.

What I’m not good at is the hands on side.  I have a low threshold for kitchen mess, I’m usually cooking in a hurry and I cringe every time I see those little kids on Master Chef Junior wielding sharp knives.

Tonight I’m going to cut loose.  We’ve got one little friend on a sleep over, and another two coming with their Mum (whose idea it was).  We were thinking of making pelmeni, but circumstances call for something simpler, so it’s pizza all around.  The kids will love making the dough and rolling out their own crust and adding toppings.  Keep an eye out for the photos.

I also reaffirm my pledge that no child of mine will be allowed to leave home without first acquiring basic cooking skills.

In the meantime, viva la revolution!

Find more on Food Revolution Day here.

Back to School: Paella at Social Cooking

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Paella is a dish that taunted me quietly for years.

People raved.  There were cute pans with brightly coloured handles that would look fantastic resting casually on my stove top and a reason to keep saffron in my pantry.  Paella promised warm hues and tantalising aromas from the home of Sarasate, Casals, flamenco, passion and romance, amontillado and choritzo.

But as a fish-wuss who cooks for even bigger fish-wusses, the thought of cooking anything where you picked food out from around the shells was distasteful.  Perhaps nearly as distressing as the composition of black pudding or watching someone dig around inside a marrow bone.

Why not just leave the ruddy shellfish out?  What if that meant my paella was not all it could be?  No, ladies and gentlemen, it was time to man up, as it were, and take the fish by the shell.

At the same time good friend and fellow foodie Natasha and I were thinking of trying out some cooking classes.    Natasha, always a few steps ahead of me when it comes to knowing what’s going on, had heard of a new cooking school down by Wellington’s waterfront called Social Cooking.  The classes were $99 for one person, so we thought they must be pretty sharp.   Times are hard, but the curiosity was killing us, so we promised ourselves a treat … one day.

Fate intervened in the form of one of those email voucher offers.   A class with wine and dessert, it told us, would normally cost us $234, but we were special and could go to the ball for a significantly more palatable $92.  We pounced on the voucher and waited patiently to sign ourselves up for a paella class.

The first troubling sign came with the reminder (kind thought) sent to get my “taste buds rocking”.  It was my “night to cook – baby”.  I was thanked for “getting social” with them.  A reminder to us all never to draft anything after watching Austin Powers movies.

The Big Night

I was running about 25 minutes late, but apparently so was the class.  I arrived just as the demonstrator’s paprika-dusted prawns hit the pan, or so I gathered.  Despite my 6 feet (height not appendages), I couldn’t see into the pan and the overhead mirror added nothing.  Prawns par-fried, we went on to explore the mysteries of the sofrito: onions, tomatoes and garlic, three beings in one.

Grated Tomatoes

The grating of the tomatoes was about the highlight of the evening.  You want finely chopped tomatoes in this dish, but not their skins.

Blanching the tomato, we were told, would take too much equipment .  If you halve a tomato cross ways and rub cut side down against the grater until you’ve worn through to the tomato skin, you can save the blanching, if not your knuckles.

My Polish aunties blanched tomatoes by dropping one into a good sized mug and covering it with boiling water straight from the kettle.   Give it three minutes, refresh under cold tap water and slip off the skin. Probably not how they do it at the Cordon Bleu, but it works.

I can report that the grating method is also effective, and trust that you will feel empowered by the choices now at your disposal.

Tinned vs Fresh

In response to a question, the demonstrator asserted that use of tinned tomatoes would not be right.  They should be fresh, regardless how expensive, and, in all likelihood, how out of season.  I wonder.

Whilst tinned tomatoes were not acceptable, bottled garlic (sponsor’s product) was.  Likewise the not very Spanish or smoked looking paprika.

The rest of the demonstration barreled along amiably, albeit with the assistant constantly hopping out the back for plates and bits that had been forgotten.  We learned to spread the rice out into a thin (c. 1cm or 1/2″) layer (hence the big flat pans),  to let it cook without stirring until you can see the rice through the cooking liquid, then how to cover it with paper until the cooking is complete.

The demonstrator explained how to cook paella without the specialist pans (damn and blast), how to check up on progress without creating a starchy mess, and what to do if the rice wasn’t cooked through. We went through how to score the squid and how to check the mussels were still alive, but not how to clean them.  There was no discussion about the types of rice suitable for paella.

Unusually, we were not able to taste the demonstrator’s paella before we went on to cook our own.   This was apparently reserved as dinner for the demonstrator and her assistant.

Hands On

Natasha and I agreed that cooking the squid for 10 or more minutes seemed like a bad idea.  The demonstrator suggested a slow simmer in stock while the rest of the paella was cooking.  We settled  for pre-cooking the squid on a hot pan along with the prawns and were rewarded with great flavour.    The squid and prawns were added back for the last five minutes of cooking, but could have gone in a bit later.

Did I mention our glass of wine?  No?  That’s because so far we were still waiting for it.  When it did arrive, it had all the bouquet of a bottle you find hiding in the back of the fridge about two weeks after a dinner party.  We drank it anyway.  There were only two bottles of water set out for 20 people in a small shop front and 10 lots of paella cooking away furiously.  We had to drink something.

On the hygiene side, the hand washing facilities were inadequate and we came across dirty glasses, plates and cutlery over the course of the evening.  At the other extreme, thank goodness for the paper protecting our rice as one of the presenters merrily sprayed the bench cleaner around right next to where our pan was cooking.

It all went along much as promised and produced, I must admit, a very tasty dinner.  The crust on the bottom of rice was just delicious.  As for the mussels, they were tender and sweet and lent a delicacy to the dish not remotely reminiscent of low tide.  Definitely something I will try again at home.   I can only think how much better it will be with homemade chicken stock. What we had tasted distinctly as though it came from a cube.

Dessert consisted of a small scoop of partially melted ice cream with a previously hot chocolate sauce congealed around the edges of the mismatched bowls.  And there was coffee, if not quite enough coffee cups.

The social aspect of the evening would have been greatly enhanced if only we had all been able to sit down for dinner, but as there was only table space for 8, the rest of us ate by our benches, once again contributing to the sense of cooking in a student flat. Pretty much everyone was there with someone else.  I imagine it would feel quite awkward if you went on your own.

We had pretty much been, gone and eaten by 8:15pm.  As we waited for the nice AA man to come and revive my car battery, we watched the remaining attendees trickle out.  That they had done by about 8:30pm, well before the advertised 9:15pm finish.  Makes you wonder why they didn’t pack in more time on the fundamental techniques and ingredients.  

All said and done, I really did enjoy the evening.   Always good to spend time with Natasha, I tried some new ingredients and learned to cook a tasty new dish that I would not have tried at home by myself.

Will I cook this dish again?  Yes.  Would I go to another class? They won’t have me back now anyway.  Would I be happy to pay $117 for the pleasure?  You must be joking.  Did the class represent value at $46 per person? Just barely.

Click here for the recipe.

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Natasha and I beaming over our diced onions.     

Seafood Paella:  Finishing Touch of Parsley

A finishing touch of parsley.

Paella on a Plate

Time to eat.  Two servings took quite a large pan.  Pan size has to increase with the number of servings or you miss the all-delicious crust.