Sunday, April 25, 2010

Grilled Chicken & Asparagus with roasted Kumara & Creme Fraiche

So here it is: another really delicious, easy midweek meal, this one is also pretty healthy and this is definitely my favourite way of cooking asparagus, it brings out the sweetness of the asparagus but brings a level of smokiness and interest to it. I have discovered Kumara (orange sweet potato) and just love the gorgeous colour. I used Thyme to season the kumara while roasting it and decided to flavour the crème fraiche with it too. You can get this all done within 40 minutes - the longest cooking time is the kumara so get that going first and while it is roasting you can get the rest of the dish done. I have been reading some of my cook books lately and it occurred to me that none of the recipes really explain how to get a whole meal ready at the same time - this comes with experience so if you are a novice cook, this can be the most daunting part of cooking, so throughout my menus and recipes I tend to try and explain how to get the timing thing going!!

For this meal if you get your oven pre-heated and a pot of water boiling before you do anything else you will be halfway to finishing within 40 minutes

To prepare the Kumara:
Preheat your oven to 220C.
I use 1 large Kumara per person
Peel the kumara or sweet potato - you may notice the sweet potato /kumara tends to turn black quite quickly so place the peeled kumara in some water with a little lemon juice to prevent this discolouration - slice the kumara/sweet potato in half lengthways and then into wedges, toss them in the lemon water and then pat dry on kitchen towel. My newest favourite thing is to cook on some baking parchment so I don't have to wash the roasting tray.
Toss them in a splash of extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with fresh thyme and Maldon salt and then pop them into the hot oven and roast 30 - 40 minutes or until soft and golden. I usually turn the kumara only once during roasting about 30 minutes into the cooking time.

Use about 5 - 7 spears of asparagus per person
Once the kumara is safely in the oven and your water is boiling slice about 1cm off the ends of the asparagus and then place them in the boiling water (you are blanching them) and cook for 3 minutes, take them out the water and drain under cold running water
and set them aside - we will grill them just before serving.

Get a griddle pan onto the stove to begin heating up - it needs to be smoking hot. This should take around 5 - 7 minutes. If you don't have a griddle - a pan will do

I usually work on 1 breast per lady and 2 per man, rub them with a little olive oil and season lightly with salt and black pepper - About 20 minutes before the kumara is ready place the chicken breast onto the griddle pan and DO NOT turn them or even try and move them until they are well browned - a good 4 minutes. Turn them over and grill another 4 minutes. They will probably still be a bit pink in the middle so at this point the kumara should have about 10 minutes to go - I then put the breasts into the same tray as the kumara to finish them off and turn the kumara. Now place the asparagus onto the griddle pan and allow to brown all over. Chop a little fresh thyme and add to a tub of crème fraiche - a little squeeze of fresh lemon or lime adds a nice twang.

At this point everything should be ready - You can either plate up individually or place everything in the roasting tray and place it in the centre of the table for everyone to dish up for themselves. The creme fraiche is great for dipping the kumara in!!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Easy Peasy Midweek Meals

I know I said we would explore the East for a while and we will go back there, but with school holidays and the constant need for interesting and exciting meals I have been going back to some of the basics, just changing them up a bit. But, as every mom knows thinking of easy delicious meals all the time - even for a chef - is exhausting so on Friday night the kids had chicken nuggets and chips - I did add vegetables to the mix so as not to feel too guilty - and then I found myself having a bag of crisps and a bowl of sour cream for dinner because I wasn't bothered to cook for myself. And then how bad did I feel? So I have a simple meatball and tomato sauce recipe (I used the leftover tomato sauce for pizzas), fresh fish with a lemon, caper and cream sauce, chicken schnitzels - home made of course, grilled chicken with grilled asparagus and finally home made pizza for Sunday night dinner! Lets start with the meatballs - always a firm favourite and a good way to hide some veggies in the meatballs and particularly in the sauce. It's also a great way to get little hands involved in the process of meal making and I am pretty sure they become a bit more adventurous with trying things if they help to make them, so get a stool ready, take deep breaths because you do need patience and start with the meatballs:

Basil & Spring Onion Meatballs with Home Made Tomato Sauce

Start with a pack of good quality lean beef mince (preferably never frozen but if it has been frozen, defrost thoroughly),
I use old bread to make the breadcrumbs and used about half a cupful. Just whiz up the bread with one of those hand held blenders
1 Egg
2 Spring onions finely chopped
3 - 4 Fresh Basil leaves - finely chopped
White pepper

Mix everything together in a bowl and season with a little salt and pepper- little hands enjoy this job!
Have a bowl of flour nearby and then take spoonfuls of the meat mixture and drop them in the flour just to coat and make rolling the balls easier - again a good job for little hands.
Roll the meatballs until all the mixture is used up - you should end up with about 15 - 20 medium meatballs.
Place these in the fridge to rest while you make the sauce.

Home Made Tomato Sauce

2 Celery sticks
2 Medium carrots
1/2 a small onion
30ml Extra Virgin Olive oil
10ml Tomato paste
100ml White Wine (Don't worry the alcohol cooks away so it is not bad for the kids or just leave it out if you prefer)
1 Tin Chopped Italian Tomatoes

Dice the vegetables as finely as possibly - this is a good way to practice those knife skills
Heat the olive oil in a heavy based pan and add the vegetables and allow them to sweat on a low heat with the lid on - this means they must go soft and translucent without browning, stir every now and then. This process cannot go quickly and requires at least 10 minutes
Remove the lid and turn up the heat and add the tomato paste and stir vigorously for about 30 seconds and then add 100ml white wine and allow it to reduce almost completely - you will have a very thick dark red colour in the pot.
Add the tomatoes and then simmer gently 10 - 15 minutes.
Season with a good pinch of salt ( I don't use black pepper as the kids find it burny but add a dash if you like after blending - blending intensifies pepper so always add pepper after blending)
Then the magic, whiz it well with a stick blender - Veggies hidden!!

Once the sauce starts simmering, bring a large pot of water to the boil to cook your pasta and heat a large pan for frying the meatballs

Fry the meatballs in a little olive oil until well browned all over - I like to finish them in the oven for 5 minutes so they don't burn but cook all the way through.

Serve with Spaghetti..... Everyone will come back for seconds!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

SOY SAUCE - Seasoning of the Orient

I’ve never given much thought to how soy sauce is made, in fact I’ve only ever dipped my sushi in it, stir fried with it, made Thai dips with it or mashed it into my avo which, by the way, is delicious on crispy toast for breakfast. But here I am, standing in the actual room where Kikkoman soy sauce is matured for six months before being bottled. “It’s very similar to making wine,” explains Mr. Yoshiyuki, our host at Kikkoman. He goes on to say that, “there are over 300 pleasantly flavoured compounds that make soy sauce so tasty.” He is clearly passionate about soy sauce, as he describes the unique characteristics that make up the balanced flavour of saltiness, sweetness and “Umami”. “What exactly is Umami?” I ask Mr. Yoshiyuki. “Umami is Japanese word meaning ‘delicious flavour’,” he enthuses. I later find out that it is one of the five tastes we are able to detect on our tongues, and what could best be described as ‘savoury’, ‘meaty’ or ‘brothy’. Mr. Yoshiyuki is in raptures about the versatility of soy sauce as one of the world’s oldest-known seasoning's and I couldn't agree more.

Crispy Duck, Pork Belly and Asian Greens with Soy Sauce

The origin of soy sauce is hotly debated and many say its origin lies in China, where it was first used some 2500 years ago and came into being almost by culinary accident. Food needed preserving, so people often salted their foods and the resulting liquid (gross as that sounds) was kept and used as a seasoning for other bland dishes such as rice and noodles. It was only when a Zen priest from Japan was studying in China and “borrowed” the idea – basing it on a more vegetarian diet – that the recipe changed to include soybeans. The recipe gradually evolved until the 17th century when the golden liquid that we know today as soy sauce emerged. This evolution is thanks to the efforts of Maki Shige, the wife of a warrior of one of Japan's premier warlords, Toyotomi Hideyori. The first commercial soy sauce brewery was opened in the village of Noda in 1916 by Maki Shige, after she survived the siege of Hideyori’s castle and ran away with the “secret”. Mr. Yoshiyuki goes on to explain, in excellent but slightly broken English, that there are two methods for making soy sauce: “There is natural brewing method and there is cheats method,” he says. “We at Kikkoman use only natural process.” It turns out that there are many chemically hydrolyzed soy sauces on the market which can be made in two days yet contain harsh flavours. Mr. Yoshiyuki is quick to point out that Kikkoman soy sauce is the finest money can buy.

Kikkoman soy sauce is naturally brewed, using an age-old technique with five simple ingredients: Water, Crushed Wheat, Soybeans, Salt and a secret enzyme. These five ingredients are mixed together in state-of-the-art mixing tanks and allowed to “ferment” for around three days. The first part of the process, where the soybeans and wheat are treated under strictly controlled conditions, is called Koji production. The Koji is then mixed with water, salt and “secret enzyme” and the resulting solid mash called Moromi. - All a little technical but fascinating. The sauce is moved into enormous tanks to “ferment” or “brew” – a little like wine making. By now, the yeasty aroma wafting from the tanks is making my tummy rumble. It is this aging period that is crucial in determining the quality of Kikkoman soy sauce.

Fried Chicken with Soy Dip

The sauce is now ready for pressing. We all follow Mr. Yoshiyuki into the pressing room where the golden liquid is pressed through a huge “linen press” which resembles a giant pasta machine. I ask Mr. Yoshiyuki what type of fabric this is, but again it is a trade secret. Suffice it to say, the liquid soy sauce is now extracted from the Moromi cake by being squeezed through the cloth – a process that cannot be rushed as it is the natural weight of the mash which causes the liquid to be strained through the cloth. Now it all gets a little technical again as the liquid is filtered and then painstakingly analysed for quality before being bottled.

I am in awe; this has been a fascinating tour. We thank Mr. Yoshiyuki for his graciousness, passion and knowledge that he has been so willing to share with us. Our host, Linda, points out that we should feel especially honoured that Mr. Yoshiyuki has hosted our tour, as he is the CEO!

Fresh Salmon Sashimi - absolutely glorious with a little wasabi mixed into soy sauce for dipping, this was my second favourite dish - after Tom Kha

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Journey of Tom Kha Gai

I think I am going to spend a while exploring the east or more specifically South East Asia for a while and then perhaps move onto India. I was really fortunate to travel to Singapore and Thailand recently and thought I would share some of my pictures and favourite foodie moments and recipes. I adored the vibrancy on the streets of Bangkok, the colourful food markets were a visual treat, and the fresh zingy tastes a true delight, and have really made me love Asian food. So here is the journey of Tom Kha Gai

Do you have a favourite dish that you try at every restaurant? I do: it’s called Tom Kha Gai. It’s not as well known as its cousin Tom Yum – the famous hot & sour Thai soup. In contrast to Tom Yum, it is milder, creamier, and richer. In Tom Yum, the citrus flavours of lemon-grass and lime leaves take the lead, but Tom Kha's earthy flavour comes from Kha or galangal. It is quite simply, dreamy; an exotic ambrosia of coconut milk, lemon-grass, galangal, Thai lime leaves and silky chicken. I am determined to try the dish at each place we visit, starting right here on the banks of the Chao Phrya River in Surat Thani – a tiny fishing village on the west coast of Thailand. To set the scene… We are seated at a very rustic wooden decking affair bordering a wide, muddy, fast-flowing river… Grubby plastic garden furniture, melamine dishes, mucky forks and spoons (they don’t use knives), and a rather grubby looking kitchen in plain view, and fresh fish plopping out of bamboo baskets in anticipation of ending up as our lunch. We’re at one of the best local restaurants and Linda, my experienced travelling companion, tries her best to pick dishes from a menu written in Thai – it might as well be from outer space it’s so alien – with a few very blurry pictures to help. Clearly not many tourists visit here.

Dishes start arriving in a flurry; the kitchen and restaurant staff hovers around our table to see these obviously strange “farang” (the Thai word for foreigner). As soon as the food lands on the table the flies begin their assault. I try my best to remain calm, as it would be rude to offend our hosts. I drink some deliciously refreshing coconut juice straight from the coconut which also helps relieve the burn from spicy dishes. I try some fried chicken with cashew nuts – it is delicious, the fresh lobster dipped in spicy chilli is mouthwatering… only the flies now have us under full siege. I begin waving my spare arm frantically. There is no order here, it is all quite random: soup arrives halfway through the meal, and it is my favourite - Tom Kha Gai! I slurp it down, the unique, earthy flavour of galangal is pungent but balanced by the heady scent and flavour of lemon-grass and the chilli level is just perfect. Next, some raw vegetables are deposited on the table – things I am unfamiliar with like morning glory and Thai celery, but which are refreshing dipped in chilli and vinegar. Marinated chilli fish – baked whole, quite a weird curry paste cake, which is fiery hot, and the quite delicious spicy green papaya salad. If you’ve never experienced this dish, it is a revelation in flavour and texture. Thin crispy strips of green papaya tossed with spicy chilli, hints of peanut, and the famous pungent fish sauce (though too much can ruin the dish) and chopped fresh coriander. – Think I will post a recipe for this soon.

But, I digress, as my mission is to compare notes on Tom Kha Gai. Tom Kha literally means, “Boiled galangal” and Gai, translates as “chicken”. You can also make Tom Kha Goong (prawns) or a vegetarian option, Tom Kha Hed with mushrooms. I soon discovered that even though the ingredients are pretty much the same wherever you go, there is always a subtle or even a distinct difference, yet the essence remains the same.

Tonight we are at a far more westernized restaurant, this time in the pulsating city of Bangkok, but, oddly enough, still on the banks of the same river. In the central region of Thailand, the Chao Phraya River is regarded as the bloodline of the Thai people and even today, the river remains the most important waterway in central Thailand. This is evident from the steady flow of little tugboats hauling huge loads of sand, cement and other building supplies up and down the river. Chao Phraya never sleeps as it carries with it the culture and history of Thailand. The hygiene standards tonight are a definite improvement, but there is a very bad karaoke rendition blaring in the background. The fare is similar, and many different dishes are brought to the table, but this time the Tom Kha Gai is brought in a brazier and kept warm by a small candle burning underneath and we are free to dish our own. This one has a little chilli oil floating on top and is more fiery than our first one, but we all dig in for seconds and we especially enjoy the addition of shitake mushrooms. The lemon-grass and lime leaf in this version is strong and aromatic and it seems to be a little creamier than the first. We also have crispy prawn spring rolls with a sweet chilli dipping sauce… Yum!

Today we are being hosted by one of our suppliers and are taken to one of his favourite restaurants. We start the meal with the customary coconut juice. He takes the liberty of ordering for us so we are not sure what to expect. The décor is not glam – plastic pink tablecloths, the ambience of a large food hall, and the standard plastic plate with spoon and fork – but we do have our own waiter. We all smile politely as an array of colourful dishes starts to arrive. We are told it would be considered very impolite not to taste everything. So here goes: A delicious omelette with fresh greens, a plate of Asian greens which is crunchy and perfectly seasoned with oyster sauce, a plate of fish cakes (a little spongy for my liking but nicely seasoned with fresh coriander) and then, horror of horrors, a fresh oyster omelette. The oysters look like beady little eyes, slimy and piled onto a bed of egg and bean sprouts. Linda takes spoonfuls, I take a polite spoonful, push the oyster around my plate tentatively – can you tell I don’t like them? – and then pile on a few things I am loving. While Steven’s eyes pop out from a mouthful of chilli, I surreptitiously slip the oyster into a serviette. And then right on time the soup arrives. Creamy with large slices of galangal and the cutest little mushrooms you ever saw. There are whole dried red chillies floating in this one and generous slices of lemon-grass, a lime leaf or two, and a refreshing fresh tang of lime juice. Perfection. This is the one I am going to try and replicate when I get back home. We finish off with juicy pomelo – similar to a giant grapefruit but sweeter and dipped in chilli sugar.

How to make your own –

As I learnt from my travels, there is no one correct way to make this dish. Play with the ingredients each time to develop your own unique and personalized recipe that you can show off to guests with. It’s dead easy – I promise.

You will need:
• 250ml Chicken stock
• 250ml Coconut milk
• ½ stalk Fresh lemon-grass sliced into 3cm lengths. Only use the bottom part, not the green leafy bits, and then use the back of a knife to bruise the lemon-grass – you might need to bash quite hard so watch your fingers!
• Fresh Galangal 6 slices (ginger is not an ideal substitute but is the only one I would recommend)
• 2 Thai lime leaves left whole
• Dried red chillies left whole (depending how brave you are use between one and four. Maybe make your first batch with one so you can get a feel for the heat level)
• 15ml Fish sauce
• 30ml Fresh lime juice
• 5ml Palm sugar
• A handful fresh coriander
• 4 Chicken breasts sliced thinly across the breast
• A handful of straw mushrooms (or regular button mushrooms) sliced

Place the stock into a medium sized pot and bring to the boil. Toss in the bruised lemon-grass, galangal, palm sugar and lime leaves and then allow to simmer for 5 minutes.
Now add the coconut milk, whole dried chillies and fish sauce (too much fish sauce can ruin any dish so if you are nervous, start with half the amount – you can adjust the seasoning at the end) and then bring back to a simmer.
Lastly, slide the chicken into the hot liquid taking care not to plop the chicken in or you will scald yourself. Add the mushrooms now too. As soon as the chicken turns white it is 90% done, simmer 3 minutes and then take out a slice to check. You don’t want the chicken to boil; it must be silky and just cooked through.
Turn off the heat and add a squeeze of fresh lime juice. The reason for adding this at the end is to get a fresh tangy bursting-on-the-tongue effect. If you cook lime juice it becomes too mellow.
Now you can test for seasoning.
There should be a noticeable saltiness from the fish sauce (not fishiness), sweetness from the coconut milk and palm sugar, and nice bit of sourness from the lime with a hint of chilli. You should definitely notice the citrus notes from the lemon-grass and lime leaves and lastly the earthy galangal.
Serve to your guests garnished with a little fresh coriander in each bowl. Ensure you dish up all the lemon-grass and galangal as well. It is acceptable to slurp but you are not expected to chew on the slices of galangal and lemon-grass.

This soup is very decadent when served with prawns rather than chicken, just remember prawns will only take a minute to cook so add them right at the end and simmer for only a minute. They will become tough and leathery if you overcook them.
If the budget is tight, make a combination of chicken, firm white fish and just a few prawns.
For vegetarians use a combination of mushrooms and a few baby tomatoes (don’t forget to substitute vegetable stock for chicken stock).
If you prefer a richer soup, substitute the coconut milk with coconut cream – this makes such a heart-warming winter lunch.
The strength of lemon-grass and lime juice varies, so use your nose and your tongue to judge. When in doubt, use more lemon-grass but less lime juice. Then adjust gradually.
If you cannot get fresh limes, substitute with lime juice (check the usage instructions as sometimes they are quite concentrated). Or use lemon juice instead, and use more of it than prescribed here.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to experiment. Enjoy!