Wellington Safe Once More

Chow, Restaurant 88, Tequila Joe’s, Duke Carvell’s Emporium

Just got home from a night out with the girls, or suppose I should say women: my sister-in-law Kathryn, mutual friend and fellow Food Night devotee Stacey, and the baby of the group, my 32 year old sister Victoria.

The hex seems to have passed. No earthquakes, no fire alarms and no storms.  Roofs, roads and infrastructure unharmed.  We weren’t asked to leave anywhere, though not everyone was letting us in, claiming, as they did, to be closing or out of tables.

Stacey had suggested we start with cocktails and so, like the innocent little fluffy white lambs we are, our tails waggling behind us, we arranged to meet her at Chow for two for one cocktails.

To those many who are enamoured with Chow’s famous Rosebuds, I have but two words: Hazelnut Sours. And another two: Seriously good.

For those who don’t do nuts, my sympathies and the last two words: Pomegranate Cosmopolitans.  

I wish I had taken pictures for you, but sorry, too busy drinking.

Next stop was popular Vietnamese Restaurant 88.  The surroundings were stylish, the service was polite and friendly, if lacking somewhat in confidence.

We started with a range of appetisers: sugar cane prawns, beautifully light pork & prawn dumplings, the ubiquitous fresh spring rolls, coconut battered calamari and, finally, sticky rice fritters with “Saucy Lemongrass Chicken”.  I found the texture of the rice fritters appealing, but the chicken neither particularly lemongrassy nor particularly saucy, in all a bit of a disappointment.

There was an odd confusion surrounding our intention to share, the fact that we had five starters for four of us, and, finally, a question as to whether the five plates would fit on the table (which they did without difficulty, and would have done even if two of our dishes had not been served on the same platter).

When the starters eventually arrived, they were tasty enough, but my overall impression was that the food was perhaps dulled down for western tastes.

Of the two main course dishes that appealed to us, the pithily named “Saigon Banana Leaf Wrapped Grilled Chilli Spiced Fish” was out for the night, so we made for Havana Bar and the promise of tapas. 

On the way, we happened in on relative newcomer Tequila Joe’s.

Tequila Joe’s strength may turn out to be it’s size. It’s small. The kind of small that makes it easier to create atmosphere without losing authenticity.

If the bar is small, the kitchen spaces are tiny.  Think food-truck tiny.  But if our chips and dips where anything to go by, size is not getting in anyone’s way.

The chili con queso held its own. The chips were warm, fresh, crisp and delicious. The guacamole possibly the best I’ve ever had, though it pains me to say it, including my own.  Can’t wait to try the fish tacos.

There was more fun on the drinks front.  These may come to you in a jam jar, which I’m guessing is next best to a real mason jar, those being comparatively costly in these parts. It’s a cute little nod to Americana, although my I suspect our Pennsylvania-born Kate may have been wondering just a little where the rest of the trailer park fixings had gone.  What went into the jars and glasses was good too.  I would have had another Caipirinha had it not been for the earlier drinks of the evening and an abiding desire to get home on my own feet.

The music was well suited to our generation with Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, not all American, but contributing 70s grunt to the American atmosphere nevertheless.

It’s been a long time, I could have been in a little bar state-side, I’m just not sure which one. With it’s clean lines, part of the bar speaks of fresh American sophistication, the paintings hint at a more stylised Mexican influence, and the rest makes me want to park my hog (OK, I had a red tricycle once) out the front.

I’m not sure these three elements are quite speaking to each other yet.  Perhaps in time. Perhaps they don’t need to.  Perhaps this is the feel of the modern Californian bar. In any case, even with the a couple of licence plates on the wall, this is not another one of those Happy-Days-wanna-be, nostalgia-flogging American/Texan/Country themed bars.  And amen to that.

After the Tequila Joe’s experience, we wandered along to Havana, but the restaurant was closed and the bar was packed, Olive and El Matador were also shut and Ombra didn’t have table space for four.  This was our good luck as we eventually wound up with a cosy spot at Duke Carvell’s Emporium on Swan Lane.

P1030322 (2)

Cleverly decorated to give the impression of having been there forever, Duke Carvell’s is one of those places you can go and sit, talk, eat, drink, people watch, listen to music and even play a game of scrabble (not that you would necessarily want to, but the set is there if you do).

Warm focaccia filled any remaining gaps.  I’m glad I didn’t ask for my usual trim hot chocolate, because the creamy, chocolatey, but not too sweet chocolate they served me made for a perfect dessert with a neat frangelico on the side.

And so, gentle reader, off to bed.  Tomorrow is the last day of the school holidays, and I know two little girls who will want to make the most of it.

Not by Bread Alone: Schubert and Cheese Scones

Shirley Verrett

A quick review of my posts and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is another food blog.  And I suppose it is.

A Life Lived Lavishly is about leading a full life, but this is not the same as a life of being full or being chained to a stove. So why so much food talk?

Is it that between cooking and blogging, I don’t get time for much else?  It’s more than that.

Is it that all this blogging coincides with the beginning of the family birthday cycle, Matariki and the Winter Solstice?  That’s part of it.

To me, time with family and good friends is the foundation of a truly lavish life. Show me the time or culture where sharing food has not been a fundamental of social interaction, and I’ll show you a sad and messed up people.

Preparing food involves working with colour and texture, it gives us permission to play like so many preschoolers enjoying finger-painting. Cooking can satisfy our creative side. But so can many other things.  Check out my friend Jennifer’s blog and her 100 day painting project on Small Acts.

And then it’s winter, time to turn inside.  The warmth of hearth and stove draw us close. The nurturers among us like to dispense comfort in the form of warm food and drink.

Take Friday afternoon.  It was really cold and wet when the kids were coming home from school, so as soon as the baby was finished nursing, I got a batch of cheese scones into the oven and the hot chocolate underway. I’m no domestic goddess.  I don’t often bake, but soon my parental leave will be over and I won’t be home waiting for them any more.  I wanted to be able to make my children a simple after school treat while I still could, to play at being the mother I wish I could be all the time

But food is not the answer to everything. That Friday also brought some bad news.  Nothing I won’t get over, but a disappointment nevertheless. You can’t cure everything with a cheese scone, not even a really good one.

Which brings me around to another of the great pleasures and comforts in life.  Music.

Don’t ask me what kind I like. It’s not about genre. It’s something I can’t define.  Some music connects with you in ways nothing else does.  It’s the reason for sacred music, the reason that boys make girls compilations, the reason that some music makes you laugh, some makes you cry, and some just makes you want to dance.  And it’s very, very subjective.

I thought that now and then I might share a link to music that speaks to me.  See if it speaks to you too.  If you don’t like this one, don’t give up on me.  The next one might be quite different.

Friday I caught the tail end of 1998 movie The Governess. Whether or not the film is your cup of tea, I was reminded that the soundtrack included a particularly poignant Schubert Lied, the kind of music that sometimes makes me feel that was born out of my own time.  I can’t find the Ofra Haza recording of Ständchen from the movie, but this Shirley Verrett recording from 1965 should see you right.

In case Schubert is not your thing, here’s the recipe for the cheese scones:

Proper Cheese Scones

Not all cheese scones are created equal.

You may have come across one of those tragic specimens so often touted in supermarkets. You will know it when you meet it.  It is made on the same bulk dough as the rest of the scones and is therefore oddly sweet tasting, it contains very little butter, too much raising agent (giving it a nasty aftertaste and unpleasant mouth feel), it is dry and the only cheese involved will be on top of the wannabe scone.

That we allow this to go on, that we allow our culinary traditions to be so flagrantly dishonoured, verges on a national scandal.  The boys and girls at the EU have the right idea with the TSG scheme.

TSG-Logo

The Traditional Speciality Guaranteed Logo

This recipe is for a real cheese scone, the kind you can serve your mother-in-law in confidence.

The key to a good cheese scone is generosity.  Cheese scones are not meant to be a health food.   If you want to strip out the hard cheese and the butter, I strongly suggest, no, I beg you, find something else to bake instead.

  • 4c plain (all purpose) flour
  • 4 level tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • a generous grinding of black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper or hot chili powder, optional
  • 1/4 tsp dry mustard powder, optional
  • 100g (3 1/2oz) of butter, softened but not melted
  • sharp cheddar (or a combination of edam, tasty cheddar and parmesan) about 150 to 200g (5 1/2  to 7 oz) or 3 to 4 cups grated
  • enough milk to bring together a soft very moist dough, about 1 1/2 cups

1. Preheat your oven to 220 C or 430 F. Line a baking sheet (cookie tray) with non-stick baking paper.

2. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, cayenne and mustard powder into a large mixing bowl.  This step is important as it helps to incorporate air into the dough.  The higher you hold your sieve the better.

3. Using only your finger tips (you don’t want to overwork the flour), rub the butter into the flour mixture.  Keep your hands high and let the mixture fall back into the bowl (more of the air thing).

4. Stir in the cheese(s).  Now add enough milk to give you a very soft dough. Bring the dough together using a wooden spoon then working briskly with your hands (again, not overworking the dough).  Aim for a dough that is wet as possible, whilst still allowing you to handle it with well floured hands. If your dough is too dry, your scones will be dry too.

5. Tip the dough out onto a well floured bench or board.  Pat it into a rectangle about 5cm or 2″ deep.  A rolling pin is unnecessary.  If you push out the dough too thin, you’re scones won’t rise well. Think a couple of grades better than cheese flavoured hardtack.

6. Cut the dough into square or rectangular scones.  They can pretty much be as big or small as you like them. Arrange on the baking tray with a good inch between them.  Brush them with milk if you care for a more glazed look, but consider first whether they will last long enough to warrant the additional labour.  You can also sprinkle a little more cheese on the tops, but if you’ve put enough cheese into the dough this step is pretty much redundant.

7. Bake near the top of your oven until golden brown on top (about 12 to 20 minutes). They should be slightly crusty with a steaming centre.  For maximum enjoyment eat while still hot, split and with butter melting into each half.

Now that’s a cheese scone.

Steaking my Claim

Steak

I have a weakness. Well OK, several, but this particular weakness relates to steak. If steak Béarnaise is on the menu, I will seldom go past it.

This probably makes me boring and unadventurous.  I can feel the kitchen crew yawn as my order is called away.  But I know what I like.  I like a good steak and, verily, I adore Béarnaise sauce. Tarragon, surely, is something the Almighty created to compensate mankind for other things, like long winters, and bubonic plague.

That so many menus feature some variant on the steak and Béarnaise theme, and have done for so many years, tells me I am not alone.

Boulcott Street Bistro      Steak at the Boulcott Street Bistro

Above: Venerable Wellington institution, the Boulcott Street Bistro, has featured Fillet Béarnaise on its menu for at least 20 years (left plate right above).

I like my steak rare. It’s an individual thing, a matter of taste.  My mother blanches at the sight of pink juices.  I, on the other hand, didn’t bother to order a steak for the close to 3 years of my life spent pregnant: if I was going to have to ruin a steak by having it well done, I could ruin it at home at far smaller cost.  And if there wasn’t something on the menu that would eat better (to my tastes) than a well done steak, there was really no point dining out.

Well Done

Nearly well done: but my mum would think twice about the slight blush and the pink juices.

I’m not a fanatic.  I will tolerate anything from a very rare steak to one which is bordering on the medium rare.  And that’s just as well, because for all their training and putative professionalism, despite the fact that this is what they cook service, after service, after service, many chefs in this country still struggle to get it right.

I realise that I split the town’s eateries into three camps. 

There are the reliable – those places where the food is consistently good, you know your steak will arrive just the way you asked for it, and where, if you want to risk something new and don’t like it, you can be confident it’s because you just don’t like the new ingredient, not because it was poorly prepared.  The service will be good, sometimes even excellent.

At Jacob Brown’s The Larder in Miramar (just around the corner from Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop) your steak will come just as you like it.  The same is true of the Boulcott Street Bistro, where Jacob Brown used to cook and which, in my opinion, had it’s heyday in the hands of chef and former Wairoa boy, Chris Green, now at Abitrageur, and maitre d’ Stephen Morris, former owner of Copita and now of Avida.  Likewise, Lyall Bay treasure Elements Cafe does an excellent scotch fillet with duck fat roasted potatoes, broccolini, almonds & bearnaise.

Arbitrageur              Chef Chris Green

Above: at Arbitrageur; Chef Chris Green in Action.  Below: The Browns outside Miramar’s Larder and Lyall Bay’s Elements:  Go the Eastern Suburbs

larder (2)         Elements

Then there are the  less-than-reliable, the places where you order your steak, giving very specific instructions and then hope for the best.  Not the best places to try tripe for the first time, no matter how much you support the concept of nose to tail eating.

These are not your first choice for prime nosh, but you are still willing to go, because the service is good (or at least friendly), because overall the food is pleasing, the location is great, the kids like it, you need to meet friends there, or you and your friends are on a budget and the pricing means you are willing to overlook a bit.

A good example is SOI at Greta Point.  Last time I went there my steak was over-cooked.  They very willingly cooked me another, which, sadly, was just as over-cooked as the first.  It was time to give up.  I was with a big group, it was just before Christmas. the place was packed, I didn’t want a scene, and it was a “two for” night. The steak was a good size, and still tasty and juicy.  I could still enjoy my meal.  I smiled, paid up and would still go again. I will still suggest it as a place to meet with friends, because on balance  it offers value to the diner, not least of all because of the location. You sit out over the water. I will never forget the evening we were there for a family birthday during an electrical storm with a pod of dolphins swimming past.  Magic.

SOI

With views like this, you can forgive the odd overdone steak.

Then there are the establishments I will not visit again.  On reflection, the fastest way to join this club is through bad service.

My third and final visit to Logan Brown was on a wedding anniversary.  The food, as before, was wonderful, but the waiter serving it seemed to take the view that we should be grateful to be able to eat there.

On the previous two occasions (business lunches both) service was remarkably slow.  On one of these we had been offered the option of a private space, but nobody mentioned the rather significant room fee until we were at the counter and paying the bill, our guests at our elbows.

It was all years ago and very likely just bad luck, but when it’s a special occasion, I’ve sorted a sitter, spent the afternoon working out what to wear, painted the face, done the hair, changed the outfit, done the hair again, put on shoes designed in defiance of basic engineering principles and am going to be laying out good money, do I want to take a punt on finishing the evening wishing we’d gone for a curry down the street instead?

You don’t need me to answer that one.

This group is not large. On the one hand, there aren’t that many places that have really ticked me off, and on the other, the hospitality industry being nothing if not ruthlessly Darwinian, the ones that do have a habit of going out of business.  Sooner rather than later.

Last week the Tinakori Bistro provided an unfortunate exception.  This restaurant has been around since Escoffier was learning to dice onions.  I’d been there with large work groups, and whilst the service was a little patchy, they coped well enough and the food was enjoyable.  On top of that, this is one of the few restaurants of its type where you can order two courses for $30 if your table orders from a smaller “set” menu.

Last Wednesday I met three friends there for dinner.  We all have mortgages, it was a casual weeknight meal and the $30 special seemed ideal.

The first problem arose when my companions all wanted main and dessert, while I wanted  first course starter. Because there’s nothing worse than everyone having to wait while one or two eat their starter, I figured I could have my main with my friends and would have the squid for dessert, as it were.  Not ideal, but it seemed like a reasonable solution.

It troubled our waiter.  I explained the timing issue. Would I not rather eat the other way around?  Yes I said, on reflection, I would indeed rather have my squid with their main, and my main with the others’ desserts. I hadn’t eaten all day, but reckoned the calamari would carry me through until the others were ready for their cheesecake.  It was very early in the evening so it’s not as though they were going to have to keep the chargrill going just for my bit of beef.

Our waiter looked uncomfortable.  That might be difficult for the kitchen, he said.  Well why ask?  As we all know, going out for a meal is all about making dinner easy for the kitchen and waiting staff.  Nevermind, the company was sparkling, and a rare steak Béarnaise would soon be sitting right in front of me.

It was, kind of, not very soon, but the wait was reasonable.  There was Béarnaise, though not a lot. There was also a steak, rather small.  The first cut brought disappointment and a fairly flavourless mouthful.  Grey fibers with touches of pink to the centre.  Perhaps I had someone else’s medium well steak.  Three steaks up on the pass – it’s easy enough to mix up the plates.  But no, theirs looked just like mine.

Medium Well

Not the actual steak, but about the same shade towards the right.

I cut another piece to make sure (left on the plate – you don’t send it back after you’ve eaten half, and as noted, it was not a large steak), but no appreciable difference in colour scheme.  The waiter brought the last of the vegetables.  I was afraid the steak had been overdone, I said, as I handed the plate back to him.  I relaxed back into the conversation, taking advantage of the chips whilst I waited patiently for my new, rare steak to come back.  By the way, it was either 6 months or they were coming up on 10,000km mark, because the chip fat needed a change.)

Then it happened.  The steak came back.  The same one.  Cut ruthlessly through the absolute middle and unceremoniously turned cut side uppermost, my second piece oddly now missing.  Chef, I was told, said it was rare.

In fairness, the very centre was pinker, but still with the fibers fully opaque and cooked through. And, really, you don’t want to have to work your way through a third of the steak to get to the bits that are medium, or, at a push, possibly medium rare?

I should have taken a picture, but who can think rationally at a time like this?  Chef, I said, needed to return to Chef school.  Did I want the steak or not?, the waiter asked.  Nothing like an ultimatum to make the guest feel better.  If Chef thought that was rare, I was not going to persuade him otherwise.  I told the waiter it wasn’t worth the fuss, set about my now rather cold meal, and vowed never to return again.

Not with the family, and certainly not with my 20 workmates.  No, we’ll be eating somewhere else, if I have to cook myself.

And the irony?  If I do cook myself, the meat will be very well done.  Just the way my team like it.

Rare  Very Rare or Bleu

Left: Steak, rare, the way I like it.  Red, but fibers developing opacity.  Right: Very rare or bleu (blue), what I often ask for to make sure I actually get it rare.  If the waiter looks unsure, I describe it as seared and just heated through, it is distinctly raw in the middle.  I only ask for it this way if I know the cut of beef will be beyond reproach.

My Grandmother and I

Nalesniki z Serem with a Gooseberry Compote

This post was going to be about my family’s birthday bottlenecks.

Lydia turned 5 on Saturday.  By Sunday afternoon I was back in the kitchen cooking away for my Dad’s birthday lunch on Monday.  It’s a public holiday in these parts, in honour of the birth of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II rather than my old man, but convenient for that purpose nevertheless.

I had plenty of time, and, in stark contrast to the stress-fueled frenzy of the preceding two days, was unwinding, taking quiet satisfaction in preparing a meal for kith and kin with the quiet company of my own thoughts.

The menu perforce, my thoughts turned to my Polish maternal grandmother, Babi, so called because it was as close as I could get to saying Babcia (Polish for grandmother) when I was small.

Our lunch would start with a pea and ham soup (grochowa zupa) and move on to marinated fish a la grecque (ryba po grecku) served with a good, hefty, dark rye bread.

For the main course we would have a garlic spiked pork shoulder, roasted slowly with onions carmelising in its own juices. Those juices would be reduced, finished with a little dry sherry and served along side the roast together with crackling, roasted potatoes, kumara (New Zealand sweet potatoes) and pumpkin, the über-Polish cabbage bigos, mushrooms in a cream sauce (grzby w śmietanie), beans (fasolka po bretońsku) and, in a small deviation from Babi’s repertoire because I had a couple in the fridge and because my mother loves them, pureed swedes (rutabaga) finished with caramelised onions.

For dessert, crepes filled with cream cheese (naleśniki z serem) and served with gooseberry compote.  The crepes with cheese were a favourite dish of hers, the choice of tart fruit to offset the richness of the crepes mine. Babi had a very sweet tooth and would have found the fruit unpleasantly sour.

It was a respectable amount of cooking to get through. Throughout my childhood, Babi used to pull off lunches like these on a regular basis.  In honour of birthdays, names days and other holidays there might also be one or more tortes to go with coffee.  Sometimes there would be two soups, meat dishes or desserts to choose from.  At others, the menu would be elevated by the addition of such treats as the boiled and fried potato dumplings Babi called palushki (little fingers), pierogi, the hand-formed, stuffed pasta that are the bright stars of the Polish culinary firmament (in my humble opinion), gołąbki – literally little pigeons, but actually stuffed cabbage rolls –  and so the list goes on – all delicious, all labour intensive.  Half the bread on the table was her own work too.

If I stop and consider that she would often have had me to stay for the weekend, piano lessons to teach on Friday night and Saturday morning, would have done all the shopping on foot or with her bicycle, that she had limited refrigeration and no freezer to speak of, that there was no hot running water in the kitchen and so she had to carry basins of hot water from the bathroom to wash the dishes, and that all along and without fail, she produced up to three hot meals a day, at least one including a soup course, (no take away the night before the big event) I wonder how she did it. And yet, on return from Mass on Sunday, the whole lunch would be ready to go as if the kitchen staff had been quietly at work since Thursday.

It’s one thing to recognise effort intellectually and another to engage with the reality of that effort yourself.  To take on the same labour, feel the heat of the kitchen, the sore feet and the back pain.  This is by no means the first time I’d prepared my grandmother’s dishes for the family, but until now, I hadn’t ever really put myself in her shoes and thought, this is what she did time and again to contribute to our family life, this is how much that life together meant to her.

My grandmother was raised in the bosom of a large extended family clustered around Kraków, Lwów (as it was then), Warszawa and Wadowice.  For her that life came to an abrupt end when Silesia was annexed to Germany at the beginning of World War II.  The separation was made permanent in ’44 when she fled an advancing Red Army and her Polish homeland with my white Russian grandfather.  In her yearning for those she left behind, she held us all tighter. But I don’t believe she ever really left Poland, so much as took it with her, and nowhere was that more apparent than in her cooking.

I loved my grandmother, but, being in some ways much alike, we often got on about as well as two old feuding strays locked in the same shed. Heckles would rise: Babi could get under my skin in two minutes or less.  A look could be enough to push all my buttons. Simultaneously, or so it felt.  That was on a bad day.

There were very many good days.  My grandmother was young and vivacious. She had a keen sense of humour and strongly irreverent streak. On a Friday night after dinner had been put away, she would sit down to her piano and practice, often Chopin, often from memory.  The hands that held and cared for me, that had spent the early afternoon peeling potatoes and frying onions, flew over the keys, her whole being focused on the music, concentrated completely, from body and shoulders through arms to the meeting of fingers and ivory to tell stories of loss and regret beyond words.

Other Fridays were for late night shopping excursions, perhaps with a shared package of hot chips to warm us on a walk home through a cold southerly blowing uninterupted from the Antarctic’s ice. We two would sit down to a game of cards and a cup of tea at her green formica kitchen table.  Tea, that is, with a good two fingers of brandy in the bottom of it.  We would talk and exchange jokes. Beds were warmed, blankets added.  I would be put to bed in a veritable cocoon of flannelette, with stories, prayers and fervent blessings.  During the night she would check in on us, my little aunty and me, and we would wake up with more blankets, or if it were a really cold night, then also warm coats heaped upon us until we could barely move beneath.

With age my grandmother got more difficult, she would seek reassurance by prompting disagreements, and she was pretty good at finding them. Increasingly our long conversations were centered on two tacitly agreed safe zones, cooking and memories of Poland. 

I never gave her credit while she was alive, but it is true that much of what I know about food came from what I learned at her table.  It involved all the senses. The silken, springy softness of a yeast dough that is smooth and elastic and ready to rise, the sound of a piece of meat sealing in searing hot oil before being braised, the smell of onions barely turning golden, the gloss of egg whites beaten just stiffly enough to fold through a pate to lighten it.  All the hundreds of minute observations that inform the cook, telling what is just enough and not too much.

These I learned largely from my grandmother. And, as I learned in Poland, her cooking had a provenance that reached back generations.  My grandmother learned from her mother who learned from her mother-in-law and so on.  My great-aunt Hania, the sister-in-law my grandmother never met, learned from the same sources and her cooking, though separated by decades and the better part of 18,000 km, was eerily similar to Babis. 

To my grandmother I might have been the most difficult child, but eventually I was the one who went back to her home and family, and the one she gave the family cookbooks to:  the books that her own mother sent on to an exiled daughter half a globe away.  Ultimately, they were my grandmother’s only inheritance.

Advancing dementia eventually robbed us of our middle ground.  Had I grasped the true meaning of what she had done for us over the years, I might have shown more patience and respect.  Instead I was cowardly.  I withdrew, met her on neutral territory, left contact to the days when I felt strong enough.

If there was one thing Babi had in abundance, it was faith.  So I hope that somewhere she sees her children still gathering, still enjoying her food.  I hope she knows when I cook her food, that it is my homage to her and my way of passing her love to the next generation.  If I failed to pay her her due when she lived, perhaps I’ll manage it yet.

Naleśniki z Serem

I’ll leave you with my recipe for these cheese stuffed pancakes. Like Babi, I make my own twarog or biały ser, a fresh white cheese like quark or quarg, but typically drier. However on the last occasion I managed to ruin it completely, so used marscapone instead.  It is by no means an exact substitute, but pleasant enough all the same. Otherwise you might try quark – if it is very wet then drain it in a clean napkin set over a sieve until the surplus whey has stopped dripping.  I understand that Americans can use Farmer’s Cheese, but have no direct experience of this.  At a push you could soften a block of Philly and blend in a little cream until you have a smooth, readily spreadable mix.

Naleśniki:

My grandmother used to make batters like these by eye.  It worked for her, but is difficult to pass along. This recipe taken from the Polish Heritage Cookbook by Robert and Maria Strybel produces an identical result.  Proportions here are given for a double batch.  About enough for 7 adults and three small children, two of whom can easily lay waste to about 6 small and unfilled pancakes each.

2c milk

4 eggs

1/2 tsp salt

2c flour

2 tbsp oil

1 1/2 to 2c water

about 100g/ 1 stick butter for frying.

1. Beat the eggs, milk and salt together, dump in the flour and beat until bubbles appear in the mixture.  Beat in the oil, then so much of the water as you need to make the pancakes spread readily.  The thinner the more refined the result.

2. I use a set of 6 inch (15cm) skillets for daintier dessert pancakes, 9 inches (23cm) for breakfast crepes or for stuffed rolled crepes where I am going to want all the edges folded in.  The size is totally up to you. Melt the butter in one of your pans and pour all the excess off into a mug or heat resistant glass.  Every time you go to pour a fresh pancake, brush as light a coating of the butter as you can onto the surface of the pan. 

3. Make sure the pans are good and hot.  Pour each pancake. Swirl enough batter around the pan so that it is just coated. (If you have excess pour it out of the pan back in with the rest of the batter. If it is too thick, beat in a little more water until the next pancake has right consistency.  It’s trial and error and comes with practice.

4. If your pans are well seasoned, you will know the crepe is ready to turn when it is set and can be shaken gently loose from the pan surface.  If your pans are not in great shape, you might need the help of a spatula.  Aim for a nice golden colour.   The side on the pan now will be the good side of the pancake.

5. Flip the pancake and cook the other side. You will notice that the underside browns in spots where there have been bubbles in the batter. You will not achieve the same uniform colour that you can with the first side to cook.  Just wait until the bubbles are a deep gold to light brown. This second side is the side you want to keep to the inside of the pancake when filling – it is not your presentation side.

6. Tip the finished pancake straight out onto an inverted plate, so that the first side is plate down and the spotty side faces upwards.  If you stack them like this, they are all ready to fill.  Unlike other fried foods where stacking is to be avoided, here stacking the pancakes keeps them soft and pliable, making them easier to fold.

7. Continue in this fashion until all the pancakes are cooked. How many you get depends on your pan size. Fill immediately or allow to cool, cover the stack and put it in the fridge until you are ready to use.   They will keep covered in the fridge for two or three days, but I think that making them earlier on the day they are to be eaten or the afternoon before is better.  Like most food, fresher tastes better.

Filling:

1kg twarog, quark or marscapone

icing sugar to taste

vanilla to taste (I used approximately 2 tsp of vanilla paste)

2 egg yolks

2 to 4 tbps cream (really only necessary if your fresh cheese is a bit dry)

8. Beat the ingredients together.  If the cheese you are using is crumbly, rub it through a fine sieve first – this will help to make the mixture smooth and unctious.

Compote:

9. Prepare a simple syrup:  cook 1 cup of sugar together with 1 cup of water until the sugar is disolved.  Add 1kg (2 1/4 lb) prepared fruit, in this case gooseberries to the syrup and simmer gently until the fruit is just soft. Cool, transfer to a serving bowl and chill until ready to serve.

This method works well with frozen berries.  Add to the syrup while still frozen.

Bringing it together:

Frying nalesniki up close

10. Heat a large skillet. Add a knob of butter.  While it is melting, fill as many crepe as you can fit comfortably into the pan (there should be at least a slight gap between each one).

11. My preferred fold for this kind of crepe is the so called handkerchief: put a couple of spoons of filling on one half of the pancake – spread around the half slightly, but leaving a good margin from the round edges.  Fold the unspread side over the spread side, then fold  in half again.  You will be looking at a 1/4 circle wedge.  Arrange in the skillet, cook on each side until golden on both sides.

12.  If you find the filling tends to run, then you might prefer a different fold.  Spread the filling in the middle of the pancake. leaving a margin of about 1/5th of the total diameter free around the whole edge.  Fold in the sides by that 5th on each side (across the middle you will see even amounts of folded in edge, uncovered filling and then the other folded in edge).  Fold up the bottom quarter of the pancake. Now roll over again.  One final roll should tuck in the rest of the pancake under.  When you go to fry the filled pancake, fry it seam down side first so as to seal it.  You should end up with a neat and sealed little oblong package.

13. Transfer to individual plates or a serving platter.  Dust with icing sugar. Repeat with remaining crepe or until you have the required number of servings.

14. Serve as is with the compote alongside.

Lamb Shanks: Bonegilla to Marrakech in One Easy Generation

Morocco

I am that contradiction, a New Zealander and sheep farmer’s granddaughter that seldom eats lamb.  For this I am waiting to be deported.

My maternal grandmother seldom prepared lamb or mutton.  Poles, generally, are not keen on sheep meat, but after many, many years in these green isles, she took to roasting the leg of lamb for the family.  In some small way, my very Polish grandmother “went native”.

Mum, on the other hand, could never take the cooking smell.  It reminded her of childhood years in an Australian displaced persons camp just after the war.  The mutton for the evening meal was boiled in the extreme heat of the afternoon, the stench of old sheep settling in a fug over the Bonegilla barracks.  She was revolted. Others quite literally so: the state of the food at Bonegilla was so bad that it eventually inspired a riot.

Lamb cooked in the homes of my father’s New Zealand farming family was an entirely different proposition.  Home killed lamb is sweet tasting and lacks the strong smell that store bought lamb can have.  It is testimony to the fact that if livestock are stressed by transport and handling at the works, it affects the meat.  Gentle handling makes for superior produce:  happy hogget is tasty hogget.

My American husband knows a good thing and loves New Zealand lamb, so I try to make sure we have it more often.

As the winter comes on, braised shanks are an ideal meal solution, filling the house with savoury aromas. I cook mine in the oven, but a slow cooker would also work.  The sauce will tend to be much runnier,  so add less liquid (you could reduce the stock that goes into the sauce) or add some lentils to absorb the surplus juices.

This is the kind of dish that benefits from cooking in advance, so make it on Sunday afternoon and come home to a quick and hearty meal on Monday night.

This makes a substantial meal for 4. Australians please note: my tablespoons are 15ml.

Moroccan Style Lamb Shanks

2 tbsp olive oil

4 lamb shanks

salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 onions, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 knob ginger, c. 1.5cm or 1/2 and inch, minced

2 chilies finely chopped

2 star anise

1  2 inch or 5cm piece of cinnamon quill

2 tbsp coriander seeds, lightly crushed

1 tbsp cumin seeds, lightly crushed

2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed

2 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp sweet paprika

2 chilies finely chopped

1 can crushed tomatoes (400g or 14oz)

3c beef stock

6 to 8 dried figs

1 small handful golden sultanas

1 handful fresh coriander (cilantro) finely sliced

Couscous to serve (c.400g or 14oz for four adults)

knob of butter (optional)

1. Set your oven to 180 Celcius or 350 Fahrenheit. Rinse the shanks, pat dry with paper. If you want the shanks to present nicely, french the bone: use a sharp, sturdy knife to trim away the sinew at the narrow end of the shank and scrape the exposed bone clean. Season the shanks, heat the oil in a large heavy casserole and add the shanks to the pan, in batches if necessary – if you crowd the pan, the shanks will not brown.  Brown on all sides at high temperature and set aside on a plate.

2. Drop the temperature, add onions, sweat over moderate heat until wilted and just starting to turn golden.  Add the garlic, ginger and chilies and cook a two or three minutes longer.  My girls aren’t good with hot spices, so I just leave the chilies out.

3. Add the star anise, the cinnamon and the crushed spices and cook a little longer – you should be able to smell the spices. You can crush the spices by pressing them under the blade of a broad knife or bruising them with the underside of a heavy saucepan.  Add the ground spices, stir into the mixture, cook for another minute or two.

4. Add the tomatoes, stock and dried fruit. Check sauce seasonings. Add the shanks, arranging them so that the meat on the shanks is covered as well as possible by the cooking liquid.  Cover the pan tightly and cook in the oven for about 2 hours.

5. If you are using a slow cooker, arrange the shanks in the crock and cover with the onion/tomato mixture.  Cook on low for at least 4 hours or until the meat comes off the bone, adding the fresh coriander near the end of the cooking time.  Serve.

6.  Drop the oven to 150 Celcius or 300 Fahrenheit, add the fresh coriander and cook for about another 1/2 hour uncovered.  Rotate in the sauce about half way through to prevent the meat from drying.  This step is primarily to let the sauce to thicken a little.

7.  Check seasonings.  Prepare couscous according to instructions and serve.

Sunday Suppers: Smoked Sausage and Melted Onion Sauce

Smoked Sausage and Onion Sauce on Mash

Growing up, Sunday night meals were always different from the rest.

If the extended family hadn’t gathered for a big lunch, we would, almost without exception, have spent the afternoon together for coffee. In our family, no gathering is really conceivable without prodigious quantities of food, so when I say coffee, think more of a light luncheon served a bit later in the day.

Come Sunday evening, nobody, least of all my Mum who had done most of the cooking, felt like a large meal of the meat and three veg variety. The guests had left. In their wake the house felt empty. The dying strains of The Wonderful World of Disney could be heard from some remote corner of the house as if quietly jeering, “That’s it, your weekend is over, the cold world awaits you on the morrow.  And by the way you’re late with your English homework.”

Sunday nights were made for comfort food, those in between dishes that frowning matrons would not consider a proper meal, carbohydrates and peasant cooking.

Times have changed.  Family dinners tend to be on Saturday nights and the weekly Sunday coffee gathering are long gone.  Sunday night syndrome is not, thankfully, what it used to be.  But damned if I’m going to let those supper dishes go.

This Sunday’s was one my mother and grandmother used to make, sometimes as part of a larger meal.  It used to be a staple of mine too, then somehow over the years I’d forgotten it until the other day I found a loop of Krakowska sausage in the freezer.  The shape reminded me of the thicker type of rookworst sausage my mother used to use for this dish.  Pretty much any smoked pork sausage would do, at a real push maybe even kransky, but I’d avoid sausages that are highly seasoned, dry or fatty – leave the salami end of the spectrum and go for something with more moisture.

I’ve served it with mash, but it’s also good alongside noodles, buckwheat kasha or just a good piece of rye bread.  You could also stop before the thickening stage and use the sausage and onions with a little goats cheese and caraway on a pizza base.

Smoked Sausage and Melted Onion Sauce

2tbsp vegetable oil

500g or 1lb moist smoked pork sausage, in 1/2cm or 1/4″ slices

8 to 10 medium onions, halved and cut into 1/2cm or 1/4″ slices

salt

freshly ground black pepper

1 large or two small bay leaves

2 to 3 tbsp cider or other mild white vinegar

11/2 to 2 tbsp flour

1 1/2c good beef or chicken stock

sugar to taste (if needed)

1. Heat vegetable oil in a broad, heat proof casserole or similar.  Add sausage and cook over a moderate heat until the sausage is deep golden brown.  If the sausage is fatty, reduce the amount of oil you start with.

Fry the sausage gently to a deep golden brown.

2. Add the onions, bay leaf and seasonings.  It will look like a lot, but the onions really cook down.

Add onions.

3. Cook over low to moderate heat stirring frequently until the onions are starting to melt and turn a light golden brown.  You will need to stir more often and perhaps reduce heat as the onions get closer to being ready. If you burn the onions it’s pretty much all over.  If you’re having problems, add some of the stock or some water little by little so as to let the onions cook some more without sticking.

Onions melting and light golden.

3. Add the vinegar to taste and let it cook out. Remove the bay leaf.   If you want to put this on bread of some kind check the seasonings. Depending on the onions and vinegar, you may need to add a touch of sugar.  If so, sprinkle it in and let it cook through.  Taste again in case you need more.  If it’s too sweet, you can try to balance with a little more vinegar.

4. Sprinkle the flour over the onion mixture, stir in through, let the mixture cook a little – you want the flour to cook through some.  Stir in the stock.  It will tend to go more easily if the stock is already hot.  If the sauce is to thick add more stock or water.  Check for seasonings, sugar or more vinegar as at step 3 above.

5. You’re ready to serve.

Smoked Sausage, Onions and Mash

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.