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.

Survivor: The Little Kids’ Party

P1030066 (2)

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  They say a lot of things.

We made it, but it was tight, very tight, early 80’s jeans tight.  The kind of tight where eating is ill-advised and sitting down entirely out of the question.

Now anyone who’s had a baby knows that sleep is actually optional and that 5 hours is a veritable sleep in.  Unfortunately nobody told my cough that, so I’m back to hacking like a one woman TB clinic.

Plus I might have been a bit not very nice to my sainted husband sometime (continuously) between about 11pm  Friday and 2:30pm Saturday.  That would be about the same time that I swore never even to think about entering Masterchef, My Kitchen Rules, or any other cooking competition involving time challenges, ever.  (This in case I ever suffer a moment of sufficiently complete self-delusion to think I might be a contender.)

But it’s OK because the birthday girl loved her party and my husband, may he have many good wives, has forgiven me … again.

Was it all as planned?  Not entirely, but perhaps actually better.

P1030066 (3)

The Strawberry & Sprinkles Toadstool cake turned out fine, but a word to the wise:  if you’re going to bake a pink tinted cake, forget the sprinkles.  Only the blue and green ones show up and then you get these little white dots in the crust, all contributing to the overall impression of rampant bread mould.  The cake fairy ornaments went into hiding, but Lydia was too excited to notice.  I figure no harm, no foul.

We did the chocolate cupcakes with marshmallow flowers, even if the sparkly glitter didn’t quite show up quite as much as I would’ve liked.  I was short on time to make separate chocolate buttercream, so you’ll see I used the leftover from the toadstool instead.

P1030067.

The cheese and tomato baby toadstool canape worked-ish.  They were a challenge to keep upright.  I should have piped the mayo spots on with a little zip-lock bag rather than dabbing manically with a pointy teaspoon handle, but overall they were still effective. Given free will, do small children eat tomatoes and cheese sticks? Not at all. So it’s probably just as well I canned the little crackers with lady birds made from tomatoes and olives.  The dog did quite well enough as it was.

Tomato and Cheese Toadstools

I also ran out of time to do the cheesey snail pastries and the sausage rolls.  By this I mean I could have done both if I’d used the emergency back up bought frozen sausage rolls and tried making the snails using pre-rolled puff pastry and grated parmesan.  Worse things have happened.  But the yeasty sausage rolls are a bit of a favourite.

They also say that necessity is the mother of invention.  Mostly I find myself thinking that necessity is just a real mother, but sometimes they get it right.  So we had yeasty snail-shaped sausage rolls.

The dough is quick to make and very, very forgiving.  You don’t need to let it rise.  Time having been exceeding short, the snails you see below represent a very rushed first attempt.  I have no doubt that, given an extra 15 minutes they could have been much prettier.  As it was, the results were not too shabby.

Snails before

Snails after uncropped

Now what do you do when you’ve managed to bake the cookies, but run out of time to do the fancy icing?  No worries. You now have a new party activity.  The children (and some of the adults) just loved this.

Make up two or three bowls of runny icing – icing sugar with a little boiling water from the kettle will do just fine.  Put out any leftover cake icing, rifle your pantry for sprinkles, cachous, jelly (jello) crystals and tubes of writing icing, stray candies and put it all out on the bench. Use plates or cold baking trays (cookie sheets) to accommodate the new creations, but remember that a high proportion of cookies will never make it that far.  Once the kids got bored, some of the parents had a go too.  Happy guests, happy Mummy and bonus: I’ve got this week’s tick for my commitment to weekly hands on cooking for the girls.

Little hands at work

Decorated Sugar Cookies

A couple of games of musical statues, afternoon tea and present opening, and it was pretty much over.  Family and very good friends stayed on.  We got take aways, kicked back and caught up.  Once we got all the little ones to bed, I curled up on the sofa in front of TV with the sainted husband, very tired, but good tired, and drifted off to sleep.

Did the kids like it? I’d say so.  Francesca has requested an identical party when she turns nine, so that’s one fan at least.

Lydia turns 5

In case you feel like trying the sausage roll snails, or anything else where you think yeast pastry would do nicely, here’s the recipe.  It has its genesis in a recipe from one of my favourite Russian/former Soviet cookbooks, Please to the Table by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman.

This batch yielded enough dough for about 2 dozen snails and 40 odd more conventional rolls made by taking half a cheese kransky sausgage (c. 5cm or 2″ long and about 1.25cm or 1/2″ thick) and rolling it diagonally across a square of pastry about 5cm/2″ square.

Easy Yeast Dough

Ingredients:

2 1/3c milk

4 tsp sugar

2 tbsp dried yeast

1c (225g or 2 sticks) butter (you can substitute vegetable oil in this dough, but for this I’d stick with the butter)

2 eggs

1 tsp salt

flour, preferably high grade/strong/bread flour between 6 and 8 cups (c. 750g to 1kg or 1 3/4 to 21/4 lb)

1kg or 2lb kransky, choritzo or similar thin smoked sausage

Note: If you prefer a shorter (less bready, richer) pastry, reduce the milk to 1 1/3c and increase the butter/oil to 2c (450g or 2 sticks).

Method:

1. Warm the milk until it is just blood temperature.  If you use the microwave be sure to stir  through before you check the temperature – sometimes you can miss a hot pocket and unwittingly end up milk which is too hot (kills your yeast), or which is hot at the surface, but really not very warm otherwise (yeast might not work very quickly).

2. In a large bowl, whisk the sugar into the milk until dissolved.  Add the yeast.  Just sprinkle over the surface and let it re-hydrate, or, if like me you lack the patience and want to be sure to avoid dry yeasty lumps, whisk it in.  Let it stand until it fluffs up: now you know you are working with live yeast.

3. While the yeast is doing the fluffy thing, warm the butter until it is just melted (or be prepared to wait while it cools).  Beast into the fluffy yeast mix together with the eggs and salt.

4. Once blended, add the flour, starting in 2 cup lots, then after 6 cups have been added, in smaller quantities until you have a soft dough that comes away from the sides.  Start with a wooden spoon.  Once the mixture is getting close to forming a dough, knead by hand.

5. Turn it onto a lightly floured bench and knead briefly.  Use immediately or cover and let it rise for a little. Cut into three or four sections (depending on what you find manageable) and roll out into sheets somewhere between 3 and 5mm (1/8 and 2/8″) thick.

For snails:

6. Trim the bottom edge of the pastry sheet.  Line up kransky sausages about 2cm or 1″ in from the edge, keeping them close so that there is no gap between saugages.  Trim the sides of the pastry sheet in line with each end of the sausage line up. Roll the bottom edge of the dough up over the sausage and then keep rolling the lot until the dough has wrapped around the sausages twice.

7. Trim the top edge of the pastry so that you are left with about 4 to 5cm (1 1/2 to 2″) of unrolled pastry. This will form the body and head of each snail.  Slice the dough cross wise into 2cm or 3/4″ slices.  Fold some of the unrolled pastry back towards the rolled section and pinch on each side to make feelers.  Glaze with an egg yolk beaten with a little water if you like.  Bake at about 195 C or  385 F until golden brown.

For plain sausage rolls (pigs in blankets):

8. Take half a sausage (c. 5cm or 2″ long and about 1.25cm or 1/2″ thick) and roll it diagonally across a square of pastry about the same size as the length (so in this case about 5cm or 2″ square), wrapping the dough around the sausage piece as you go. Glaze and bake as above.

9. This dough can also be used to make pizza pinwheels for school lunches (roll out dough into a rectangle, spread with a layer of tomato paste, sprinkle with cheese and sliced ham or salami, roll up tightly swiss (jelly) roll style and cut into 1.25cm 1/2″ slices.  Arrange on a tray and backe as per 7. above), or to make piroshki – but for that we need a separate post.

24: Guilt, Toadstools and Abject Panic

24

Call Kiefer.  I’ve got a new story line for 24.  This one will promise pace, action, and all the stress you could possibly want.  Did I mention danger?  Just try stepping into my kitchen over the next day or two …   Forget kevlar: Jack Bauer had best wear his favourite pinny.

See, I’ve got the flu.  Well not really.  I had influenza a couple of years back and this is not it. This is, however, quite bad enough thanks. Life has been less than lavish. Bits of my face are there that ought not to be and I’ve been coughing so hard it makes me giddy.  Not in a girlish, happy kind of way.  Everything aches.  The room is too hot, no, too cold, no, too hot…  

Anyway, I’m grumpy.  The timing could hardly be worse.  Lydia turns 5 this weekend. I have already ruined her last week at kindergarten by being unable to show to do Tuesday’s star cookie baking session (to tie in with the children’s Matariki celebrations).

I spent most of the preceding Monday night worrying that I wouldn’t be well enough to perform. And guess what?   I would be, beyond any possible redemption, a really, really bad mother.  I was letting down my Lydia.  Between school and kindy, I’d done four cooking sessions with her big sister.  Lydia would think I didn’t love her as much, she would suffer middle child angst in life-changing proportions.  Yes, one batch of cookies can have that much power.

Well, in the end we figured it wouldn’t hurt for Lydia to delay her school start for one day to allow one last cookie inclusive kindy Tuesday.  Crisis averted.  Temporarily.

But it took until Thursday to be well enough to contemplate a trip out for essential supplies.  Today is Friday and I have exactly 24 hours and 36 minutes to pull a Garden Fairy Princess birthday party from nowhere.  And believe me, these babies do not make themselves.

Let’s bypass the self-recriminations about the stuff I could have made and frozen weeks ago but didn’t because I thought there was plenty of time.  (Grrrrrrrrrrr)  Let’s not even talk about the parents that have not  R.s.v.p.ed to my admittedly late invitations, leaving me with no idea how many dinky little cupcakes and treat bags I need.  (Grrrrrrrrrrissimo)

There is the special request toadstool birthday cake.  I’m cool with that, but apparently this one needs to be rainbow coloured within.  Not in layers you understand.  Just within the one cake. (No, I stand corrected.  That was last week.  Now it is to be pink and strawberry flavoured with multi-coloured sprinkles throughout, and thank goodness for small mercies,  except that now I can’t bake the blasted thing without another shopping trip.)

HL0148COVER_FLAPS2011.pdf

There are to be ladybird crackers, little canape that look like baby toadstools, snail-shaped cheese pastries and butterfly cookies.  Sausage rolls and flower cupcakes, glittery ones.  Then, as the birthday girl is a garden fairy princess, there are the costumes, table decorations, lanterns, streamers, treat bags, all that kind of thing.

And why?

Has Lydia demanded it?  No.  She would like the cake and the butterfly cookies, but like most persons her age, as long as there is a potato chip and some sticky icing in the offing, her needs are met.

There are the pictures she has seen on my Pinterest board.  But who put them there?  I did.

Did Lydia buy and devour the Donna Hay kids edition each year for the last 6 or 7 years?  No, though the girls do like looking at the pictures after Mummy is done.  Does she troll through Martha Stewart on-line looking for cute touches?  No. That would be me.

And would I think less of any parent who ordered in pizza and chips?  No.  Do I look down on parties had at bowling allies and skating rinks?  Certainly not.

So why?  Because in a life where I constantly wish I could do more and better for my children, there is that one special day that is all theirs.  Because cooking is one particular medium through which generations of women have expressed love for their families. And because, as my mate Maryanne Cathro says, one of the best things you can hope to leave your children is a stash of good memories to see them through the sometimes dark days of adulthood.

So, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

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

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

Food Revolution Day: The Pizza Date

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well gentle reader, we did it. Kind of.  Well, we tried anyway.

My friend Natasha’s idea was to support Food Revolution Day by gathering our kids and letting them make pizza.  Good hands on stuff.  Food from scratch.  Reconnecting with nature’s bounty and all that. 

If, through these posts, you are getting the idea that my friend is the more grounded of the two of us, you would be right.  It had been a very long day, Natasha suggested that she bring along some good quality ready made pizza bases. We would provide simple toppings. It made good sense.  Very good sense even.

But I had finally got my head around the idea of the kids making pizza dough and a nice mess in the kitchen. It was new for me. If I could do it tonight with the calming influence of guests, then perhaps I, too, could become one of those mothers who look serene as their kids cook the kitchen into a new and unintended decor.  For once, there was real hope for me.   It had to be done for the sake of my children.  And besides, why do something the easy way if you can find a way of making it more difficult?

Now, I have more cookbooks than I care to admit, and many pizza dough recipes among them, but for now, almost all are inaccessible (more on the new bookshelves another time).  Besides, Food Revolution Day is Jamie Oliver’s thing, so it seemed reasonable to give one of his recipes a go.

I’d tell you what it was like, but it seems I can no longer read a recipe accurately.  My proportions were different and I also decided to add fine cornmeal polenta in place of fine ground semolina flour (which I do not keep on hand).

Result?  Absolutely. We may never get around to trying the original.

Use this recipe when you are in the mood for a crisp thin crust with a pleasant cornmeal crunch. It made four fairly large (c. 45 x 30cm  or 18 x 12 inch ovals) and four smaller plumper ones slightly under half the size.  It’s not a dough that is going to take well to too much topping, so go easy with cheese and wet toppings or you’ll be dishing up a soggy grease slick.

We made some with a “white” base: a little olive oil, minced garlic and sea salt.  Very good with some sliced mushrooms, pitted calamata olives and finely sliced onion rings and an ideal choice for anyone who struggles with dairy or saturated fats. Predictably, the kids all opted for the more traditional “red” base, which, according to their preferences, ranged from tomato sauce (of the ketchup variety) to tomato paste.  

rocket fuel

My own preference in this department was to use a little tomato paste and lift it with a dash of Rocket Fuel sauce for sweetness and spice. Not traditional and too spicy for the kids, but it goes nicely with a topping of zucchini, mushrooms or in season, eggplant and a light sprinkling of cheese.  Besides Rocket Fuel is made locally in Petone.  There’s something satisfying about using local products.

What about the children?  Well, the overnight guest lives in a TV free home and was more interested in the Disney Channel.  The rest tended to follow.  Child involvement was not exactly what it could have been. My older two, being perhaps more deprived of hands on experience, still had a pretty good go at kneading and rolling out.  Turns out that little Lydia is a dab hand with a rolling pin. Who knew?

P1030016

The kids had no great interest in the toppings and happily left the mums to arrange them.  Well, horse, water, drink. You can only make the opportunities available.  

This lot have all been involved in growing fruit and vegetables, and one was all but born at Moore Wilson. They know what fresh real food looks like.  As for the skills to put it all together? One night does not a revolution make.  So I’m challenging myself to make sure that every week we make at least one meal or dish that the children can get involved in.   

Here’s my version of the pizza dough recipe:

Apologies to American readers.  Next time I make it I’ll try to record the flour measurements by volume also.  In the meantime, here’s a link to a conversion tool that will provide you with approximate equivalents by volume.  I make no representation as to it’s accuracy.

Pizza Dough

1kg or 2 lb 3oz bread flour (a.k.a. strong or high grade flour)*

200g or 7oz fine polenta

1tsp salt

700 to 750ml  or 2 3/4 to 3 cups of lukewarm water

1 tbsp** sugar

4tbsp olive oil

1level tbsp dried yeast

1. Put the flour into a large bowl or heap on a clean working surface.  Jamie Oliver’s recipe said to sift it which would be ideal, but I was in a hurry and didn’t bother.  Stir in the salt and polenta.

2. Measure out the smaller quantity of water.  Be careful it’s not too hot or you’ll kill the yeast.  When the sugar is dissolved, sprinkle on the yeast.  I usually whisk it in to avoid lumps.

3. Set the yeast mixture aside until is starts to fluff up: you’ll know you’re working with live yeast.  Make a well in the flour, pour in the yeast mixture and gradually stir in the surrounding flour. If it looks like it’s going to be dry, add a bit more water.  Mix until it forms a rough dough, then knead on the work surface until smooth and soft. You might notice blisters forming in the surface of the dough.

4. Pop the dough into a lightly oiled bowl about twice the size of your dough.  Cover  with plastic wrap and leave to rise for about an hour or until doubled in size. It could take longer if your kitchen is particularly cold.

5. Set your oven to heat to 220 deg Celsius or 425 Fahrenheit.

6. Knock the dough back, knead briefly then divide into 6 or 12 even pieces depending on what you want to back.  See above for sizes.

7. Roll the dough out to size.  Dough can be about 1/2cm or 2/8″ thick,  I like it a smidge thinner, but take into account what you are going to put on top – more topping needs more crust. You can push it out with your hands or use a rolling pin or clean bottle. Transfer the dough to baking trays lined with non-stick baking paper.  Let them rise for 20 to 30 minutes.

8. Top as desired and bake in batches in a hot oven until your topping is done and the crust is cooked through and golden. Timing will vary depending on topping.

*You can make it with regular all purpose flour.  The result might be slightly different and you might find that it affects the amount of water you need to form the dough.

**Australian readers note that tablespoons are only 15 and not 20ml.

Food Revolution Day: Petone Shopping

Lydia and Cafe Figg

It was another full day.

I started it sensibly by not sleeping much the night before because I was too busy blogging. When I did get to bed, the baby needed a feed.  Then not long after it seemed to be time to get up again.

The sainted husband would no doubt have taken the kids to school and let me sleep longer, but it was Lydia’s first school visit and I wasn’t going to miss that.  Plus walking to school is an important part of my latest regime.  Anyway, it had to be done.

No sooner home, showered, dressed, baby fed again etc,etc, but Lydia was back from school wishing she could stay the night there (so she likes it, thank goodness), my good friend and partner in crime Natasha had arrived (refer our recent Paella adventures) and we set off to Petone on serious business.

Naturally it was only once we’d gone too far to turn back that I realised I had left behind my shopping list for next Tuesday’s Vietnamese cooking night.

House of Knives

Still, we each had friends to collect from knife hospital, House of Knives and other places to go.

Natasha is diligent and well organised, so I think hers were probably just in for a bit of a rest and a spot of botox.  My much loved but somewhat neglected chef’s knife was there for more serious work.

We’ve been together for nearly 25 years and in that time there have been plenty of adventures.  Heck, we even go on holiday together. (Have you ever tried to chop anything with what they give you in a motel unit?)  But this is only our third professional sharpening.

We’d been going through a bit of a rough patch.  The steel wasn’t doing it for us any more, probably exacerbated by the recent guest who used the knife to open a beer. Guess how close he came to finding out just what a good knife can do.  The tip was bent. (My family deny all knowledge.) And the heel needed another regrind.  Not even the sharpest blade can cut well if it doesn’t touch the board all the way through.

Natasha’s knives were ready.  Mine had missed the regrind, so had to stay in overnight again.  A bit of a pain, but now I’ve got a good excuse for another trip.

We had a good look around the store.  Much as I would have liked the crowd sized paella pan, 2 new pairing knives and a black steel frying pan, all I came out with was a bird’s nest icing tip which I hope to deploy in making grass for Lydia’s forthcoming toadstool birthday cake.  (I loathe working with icing, so whatever you’re thinking, please lower your expectations.)

Bookfeast

Having come so far, it would have been rude not to visit Bookfeast, the specialist book store conveniently located in the neighbouring shop.

bookfeastfront

For those who like to read about food and wine, particularly those quaint individuals who still like to flick through a cookbook before they buy, Bookfeast is a veritable oasis.  It’s less of an oasis with a four year old in tow, even they are really very,very good, but I still managed to come out with a book on Vietnamese street food and a list of titles that should solve my husband’s birthday and Christmas shopping problems unto the ages.

Shop owner Sandra Young is always good for a chat and listens very patiently to my standard rant about the lack of good Russian and Polish cookbooks. She tells me she’s reducing her stock of the kind of popular books carried by the chains in favour of the more obscure and specialised books that her customers crave.

If you get a chance, check out her sale shelves.  You might reasonablly expect to see a selection of less loved volumes that have outstayed their welcome, but that’s not the way Sandra does it.  She says if a shelf it getting to full, she just picks out a volume at random to make space for the new one.  Probably not what her accountant wants to hear, but when I go back to collect that knife next week, I’ll be making a bee-line for that shelf.

By now, Natasha and I are feeling weakened, probably more from what we didn’t buy than what we did, and make our way across the road (kind of) to a place Natasha spotted when admitting her knives the day before.

I lived in this town as a child back when still was it’s own town, the meatworks were a big employer, children came to school with no shoes and nobody had heard of gentrification.  These days it’s part of another city council, the meatworks are long gone and while I’m sure the poverty is still there, house prices are up and Jackson St offers you everything from a chocolatier through crepes to curry and back again.

Cafe Figg

Amoungst this panoply, it would be easy enough to go past Cafe Figg.  As we go in, the traffic is noisy and it’s starting to rain.  Inside it’s cosy without being claustophobic.  The food in the cabinet is appetisingly presented, the staff are very friendly and a charming mural ties the autumn colours of the grape leaves overhanging the rear courtyard area to the trees framing the shop on the other side of the road.

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Lydia, who has been behaving well for some time on the promise of a hot chocolate, homes in on strawberry muffin. The range in the cabinet is more than supplemented by a menu, although in terms of presentation, that particular document might look more a home in a greasy spoon.  The new regime dictates abstinence and Lydia declined “help” with her muffin, so there’s not much I can tell you about the food.  I can tell you that they got my hot chocolate just right and that the bathroom facilities were very clean. I think I’ll take Mum there next time we’re on the loose.

By then it was time to head back to Wellington to rescue children from institutions of learning and prepare ourselves for the pizza session to come.  More on that in my next blog.  Plenty more on Petone food shops to come.

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.