Friday, 27 July 2007

Do I really want to cook a Cassoulet?

A hearty stew is as essential to winter as a warm blanky, Ugh Boots and a hot water bottle. I am always on the lookout for a nice, interesting variation, but this year, I've been somewhat preoccupied with the idea of preparing an authentic Cassoulet. For those unfamiliar with the delights of French cookery, a Cassoulet is a traditional stew of pork, sausages, duck (or goose) and haricot beans originating from the Languedoc region of central France. It is creamy, and yes, it is as fatty as it sounds, but oh my, is it exquisite. I've found no shortage of recipes, however one which balances authenticity with time constraints is proving rather elusive (perhaps I am being a little naive in thinking that I can find a recipe that is simple, yet still authentic).

My first stop was the bible - Larousse Gastronomique (because I don't own a copy of Elisabeth David). According to Larousse, there are a number of different variations on the dish, and what meats you include depends upon the specific region the recipe comes from. For example, the inclusion of mutton is 'sacrilegious' according to the proponents of the Toulouse version, whereas it is considered 'essential' in Carcassonne. I myself, am leaning towards the no-mutton variety (she says tentatively, as members of the Carcassonne Cassoulet Preservation Society throw they hands in the air and cry, 'merd!') Anyway, if I want to give one of the Larousse options a crack, I am going to need vast quantities of goose or pork fat, a baker's oven, and a glazed earthenware pot, called a toupin (not to mention about 27 hours to cook the thing).

Valiantly, I continued my search. Next I turned to Stephanie Alexander's Cooking & Travelling in South-West France. According to her PR, this book won best French Cuisine cookery book in the WORLD a few years ago (not sure what happened to the French cookery books that were actually French, but anyway) so should provide some useful suggestions. Unfortunately, Stephanie's Cassoulet (as it is entitled - a little narcissistic, if you ask me) requires minced pork fat, rind from a loin of pork, rendered duck fat... the fatty list goes on.

So at this point, I was thinking, maybe I like the idea of making a Cassoulet more than I like the Cassoulet itself (forgive me for the existentialism). After all, I've only really eaten it a couple of times (whilst on a brief foodie-jaunt in the Lot region of France). Perhaps the challenge is what's keeping me so focussed on this (thus far) fruitless search? I'm not sure, but I do remember that Cassoulet tasting pretty freakin' good. I remember the confit duck falling from the bone, I remember the sweet and juicy sausage bursting in my mouth and I remember the creamy beans and crusty bread that soaked up all the delicious juices. Mmm.

Onwards and upwards. Given that this whole episode was inspired by John Burton Race (that's him... the picture comes from the Channel 4 promo page for the program) frolicking around the stunning countryside in French Leave (if you haven't see it, you should; it's yummy and hilarious), I thought I'd check his recipe out. John spent weeks visiting copious little old ladies demonstrate their own version of the classic before embarking on a marathon session of his own. It began at 5am and didn't finish until the dish was presented at 8 that night to the 'Order of the Cassoulet' (not a Harry Potter parody). Members of the Order, who were actually wearing hats shaped like a toupin, gave it the thumbs up (stressing that it was excellent for 'an Englishman'), however they all suggested that it should have been cooked a little longer. Longer?!?

JBR's recipe is about 150 lines long (and that's just the list of ingredients), and he wants me to find juniper berries to crush, and veal shin for the stock and now it's all seeming a bit too hard. I may just have to concede defeat and find one of those celebrity chef, quick-fix bastardisations of a classic recipe. You know the ones; the title is usually preceded by the word 'lightning'. I bet there's a Jamie Oliver or Ainsley version out there somewhere. I'll keep you informed.

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Sunday, 22 July 2007

Mini Chef

You're never too young to learn how to cook (or to wear a chef's hat).

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Syrian Chicken

Karen Martini is a legend. Apart from the fact that she named her baby Stella (an excellent choice, I feel) she manages to devise recipes that are absolutely packed with flavour, but still maintain a rustic, bistro vibe (it's Mabo) to them that just makes you want to rush out and buy all of the ingredients immediately (it also makes you want to give her a big cuddle and mumble, "thank you," into her ample bosom. Or perhaps that's just me). Her cookbook, appropriately titled, Where the Heart is has been in my possession for around six months now, and I have already cooked at least twenty recipes from it. Considering the number of cookbooks (not to mention food mags) I own, this is high praise indeed. Karen Martini is personally responsible for every purchase of Better Homes and Gardens Magazine I buy. Since receiving the precious cookbook as a Christmas gift, I've noticed that a number of the recipes have already been published in a glossy Fairfax mag, or dumbed down for Broken Homes and Gardens. Sometimes though, Karen pulls a swifty, and stuns us all with a weekend recipe that we won't be able to find elsewhere. Take this Syrian Chicken recipe, for example. It's been published twice (on request) in the Sun Herald and Sunday Life in the past twelve months. I, for one, cannot get enough of it. Eat - then let me know if you agree.

Syrian Chicken

2 tspn salt
2 tspn ground cumin
2 tspn ground cinnamon
1 tspn ground turmeric
1 tspn freshly ground black pepper
1.4 - 1.6 kg chicken, cut into 8 pieces
100ml olive oil
5 cloves garlic, bruised
2 brown onions, thickly sliced
100g fresh ginger, peeled and cut into matchsticks
2 red chillies, split
2 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 pinches saffron threads
1/2 tspn cumin seeds
5 sprigs thyme
1 lemon, zested and juiced
2 tbspn honey
100g currants
2 tbspn vegetable stock powder
1/2 bunch of coriander

Combine salt, cumin, cinnamon, pepper and turmeric in a large bag, add chicken and shake to coat. Heat olive oil in a large heavy-based pan over a high heat. Add chicken and brown on all sides. Remove and set aside. Add onions, ginger, garlic and chillies to pan and cook for around 3 minutes, adding a little more oil if necessary. Add tomatoes, saffron, cumin seeds and thyme and cook for 2 minutes.

Return chicken to pan and add lemon zest, juice, honey, currants, stock powder and enough water to cover. Cook, covered for 10 - 15 minutes. Uncover and simmer for a further 10 - 15 minutes or until chicken is cooked through and sauce is slightly reduced. Stir in coriander and serve with couscous and roasted vegetables.

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Thursday, 5 July 2007

Wedding (it's not) Fare: Postscript

I have just eaten three of the most delicious chocolates (actually, it was six. I ate my husband's as well. I managed to casually ask him if I could have them before telling him how good they were. I gave him a bite of the last one out of guilt). These scrummy morsels were provided as gifts to the guests of the wedding mentioned below. Unfortunately I can't include a picture, because they are, of course, already gone. My favourite was the passionfruit ganache with a white chocolate casing. A wonderfully tangy, creamy ganache filling that left me with a overwhelming sensation of requiring more (hence the hostile acquisition of the remaining three). Chiara's House of Chocolates can send samples my way any time.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

All dishes should be this easy

Given that my 'quick and easy' recipes are in such high demand (okay, about four people have asked for more, so now I think I'm turning into Donna Hay without the wanky photos), I thought I'd throw this delicious little number into the mix. It requires you to purchase some (probably expensive) fresh, filled pasta, but other than that is the epitome of lemon squeezy (literally). If you don't live near a good Italian deli or market (as is my unfortunate position) I can highly recommend Mimas fresh pasta. I personally favour the Roasted Capsicum Mezzaluna, but the choices are many. It's available at independent supermarkets, and, according to their web site, at Coles. Just stay away from that evil Latina stuff. Anyway, this dish is a revelation of buttery, lemony yumminess... one of those, "Oh my God! I can't believe how good this actually tastes for something with no meat," kind of experiences.

Give it a red hot proverbial.

Filled Pasta with delicious Lemon & Butter dressing

1 packet of filled pasta of your fancy (500 - 700g)
1/2 bunch of basil leaves
Good wodge of butter (about 100g??)
1 lemon - zested then juiced
100g marinated fetta (preferably Persian)
2 - 3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
2 good handfuls (about 100g) baby spinach leaves (or rocket)
1 good handful of excellent quality Parmesan (Reggiano, etc)
Some pepper and salt to season, if you wish (but it probably doesn't need it)

Cook pasta until al dente.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a small sauce pan until frothy, then allow it to turn a nice brown, nutty colour, being super careful that it doesn't burn. Once browned, throw in the lemon zest and juice and stir. Add in the basil leaves now, then pour the mixture over the cooked pasta. Carefully (hands are best) stir through the spinach leaves, half the parmesan, some of the pine nuts and fetta, then pour the lot out onto an impressive platter. Scatter said platter (Haha, that rhymes) with remaining fetta, pine nuts and finally the parmesan. Mmmmm. Don't forget the crusty white bread for all those juices.

Should serve about 4. Maybe.

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