April 27, 2013

Midweek madness: Soup weather

It's about this time each year I'm reminded that having a low-fuss, mid-week meal isn't just about finding quick and simple recipes. It's also about being organised, and knowing that if you plan your day right, a few hours pottering about on a lazy Sunday afternoon will not only get books read and the housework done, but produce something as wonderful and delicious as this immensely comforting lamb shank broth.

Sustaining and ever so simple, it means lots of meals with minimum effort, all frozen away and ready to be pulled out when you get home late on that cold weekday evening.

A little bit of warmth for the soul.

April 21, 2013

Traditions: Pasties

When I was growing up most of my weekends were spent out at dad's where we'd often be found in the kitchen, cooking this or baking that. Summer was always more fun outdoors, but as the cooler months set in there was no better room for retreat. With the slow-combustion stove crackling away in the corner and some inappropriate opera, or maybe Van Morrison, crooning over the stereo it was cosy and comforting, our favourite place to be. This wasn't so much a tradition, just something that we both enjoyed doing. Our way in which two quiet people communicated without words.

There were of course some regular favourites, and come winter pasties were always on high rotation with their piping hot filling and golden crust covered in sauce. They were the perfect accompaniment to a dreary afternoon, and with the rain battering down against the lounge room window we'd settle onto the couch with our plates, the open fire roaring, and football on the radio or t.v.

I don't know where the recipe came from, but from memory it involved slabs of store-bought puff pastry rolled out and filled with a mixture of fried onions and beef mince, boiled carrots and potatoes, perhaps a little Worcestershire sauce, and of course a handful of frozen peas.

Having to take charge of my own kitchen now I've come to realise that these were nothing like a true Cornish, and since we're coming back into the perfect weather for it, I finally decided to give the traditional version a go.

The pastry, which uses a mixture of fats, holds well and has the most wonderful flavour thanks to the predominance of lard, while a little bit of butter helps to keep it flaky and light. Unlike my childhood version it is filled raw - a simple combination of beef skirt (or in my case, bavette), onion, potato and swede - baked hot to first make them golden, and then slow to ensure that everything is cooked through.

The vegetables despite being beautifully fluffy still hold their shape, and since there is little else to distract the tastebuds, the flavour of the beef really shines through. Add a side of homemade tomato ketchup and these pasties are indeed lovely, but I found that they were even better without, and were a far cry from those that we whipped up when I was a kid. And so, as far as family traditions go, I suspect it may be time we freshened things up.

As luck would have it, rather than rain we ended up having a delightfully sunny afternoon. But the footy was still on and the couch was still free, and if dad were here to sit down and share one, I'm certain he would have approved.

April 13, 2013

Sweet indulgence: rum baba

At this year's Melbourne Food and Wine Festival I had the pleasure of listening to one of my favourite bakers, Dan Lepard, talk about his life in the kitchen. As he shared his stories and baking tips we were treated to a few scrumptious snacks, including his take on the French classic, rum baba. This was something I'd never eaten before as, on top of it being a rare dessert option, in my mind these were just some kind of soggy cake, and as such never quite appealed. But as I took my first bite all trepidation dissipated and the presumption of trifle without the trimmings went unfounded. By the last, I was left wondering where this delectable sweet had been all my life.

The rum baba was first introduced into France in the 18th century by Stanislas Leszczynski, an exiled Polish King who took up the post of Duchy of Lorraine after losing his throne for a second time (not an entirely popular chap, it would seem). Depending on who you read, the original version of this dessert was first made either by an elderly cook's assistant who had to substitute French rum in making a traditional Polish sponge cake for her liege's evening banquet (hence baba, being Slavic for 'old woman'), or by the apprentice pastry cook, Nicolas Stohrer, who thought to enhance a dry Polish brioche by basting it with Malaga wine (the King subsequently naming this new dessert after the main character in his favourite novel).

However it came about, this small yeasted cake quickly evolved from frugality into sheer indulgence. A rich brioche dough became studded with sultanas and currants, and later went on to be doused with aromatised sugar syrup and lashings of hard liquor.

The dough used today is high in yeast content, which helps create a dry, spongey crumb that not only soaks up plenty of syrup, but lends the baba a nice, springy chew. Requiring little more than the most basic of ingredients baba are easy to make, wickedly handsome and, once liberally soaked, so hefty in weight that it's quite tempting to lob them from a great height just to hear the kersplat. Simple and yet so delicious, the citrus notes help balance the sweetness of the syrup, and with a dollop of vanilla-flecked crème fraîche when it comes to the perfect dessert, you could ask for little more.

An old classic and a new favourite, all rolled into one...

April 7, 2013

Seasonal regional: Tomatoes

Over the Easter long weekend I took a drive up through western Victoria to spend time visiting family and take in some of that restorative country air. As an added bonus, my wonderful hosts had enjoyed a bumper tomato crop this season, and having already cooked and preserved their fill I was given free reign to make the most of whatever I could pick. With a beautiful array of heirloom varieties at my disposal buckets soon became heavily laden, an in under an hour the car boot was full.

In retrospect I perhaps should have planned ahead, as 20 kg turns out to be a whole lotta tomato, but with a little time on my side I soldiered on, producing a range of tomato-based goodies that will hopefully last me well into the winter months.

First up was a nice and simple roast tomato sauce, which also laid base for a classic ketchup.

Then a fresh tomato stew, frozen down to later call upon for all manner of soups, sauces and stews.

This cracking kasundi.

And some roast pepper and tomato soup to help enjoy the last of the summer basil.

The little ones were oven-dried.

The big ones stuffed.

And last but not least, a sweet and spicy tomato chutney, which I suspect is going to be marvellous.

I can certainly see why the refer to it as nature's bounty...