Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Bye now.

See you back in October. Unless I get some surprise good internet connections.

On following a recipe

Since my last post I've made a pork roast, and some stuffed capsicums. We bought Dickson TurkOz pide on Sunday night - I was a bit tired after the concert, and besides, I love that pastirmali salt beef.

For the stuffed capsicum, I had no recipe. I just cooked some rice and mixed it in with bits and pieces from the fridge. That included some leftover onions from the pork roast, half of another red capsicum, some fetta, and smoked tomatoes and pine nuts. Shove into the capsicums, and bake until capsicums are done. In this case, I put them at a very slow 130 degrees for 2 hours, because I was going off to yoga class while they cooked. We also had some black kale for a side dish, which I sauted with olive oil and garlic and a touch of orange juice.

For the pork roast, I actually used a recipe. I followed directions from Stephanie Alexander's big book for ""traditional roast leg of pork". It's page 562 in the big old orange book. I can't quite come at paying $100 to update to the rainbow coloured edition.

Anyway, in this recipe, the pork sits on a bed of onions and potatoes, and you pour stock into the dish to keep a level of about a centimetre of liquid in the dish. I thought that the potatoes might turn to mush in this treatment, but it actually worked quite well. But that was partly due to my amendments.

I very rarely follow a recipe, so I suppose it might seem a bit odd that I post them. What I normally do is riff off the recipe, using both my experience and the recipe as a guide. When I was learning to cook, I started by following recipes more exactly. But after a while, you discard the precision in favour of intuition and habit. Unless it's a special case, where you want a specific outcome rather than just dinner. As a rough generalisation, cakes are the most tricky to change, stews are dead easy, and a roast is in between.

It's like music: classicists follow the recipe, with only slight changes. Jazz improvisation has its own rules, and you need to know the genre well before you can do it successfully. But when you do, you can ring considerable changes and get a good and individual result.

The amendments that I made to the recipe, and their rationale, follows.

* I used sage instead of the thyme in the recipe. This was for two reasons. I like the tradition of sage with pork; and I have fresh sage in the garden but no fresh thyme any more. This is a very obvious swap; you could use pretty much any herb you fancied and not go wrong. (Eau de cologne mint would be a bad choice, I guess, but if you like it, then you like it, and why not?)

* I used halved white onions instead of pickling onions. I didn't have any pickling onions on hand. And while I usually keep brown onions, the white ones were better at the shop on Friday. A simple adaptation - I thought at first that only minimal knowledge is required here. But it does help to know that it's good to leave most of the skin on the onion, as outer layers will be inedible. And it's best not to cut off the root end of the onion, except the actual external roots. That way the onion pieces will stay together better.

* I put the potatoes back in the oven and turned it up hotter while the pork was resting. This is from experience. I thought that they were too soft, and I know that roast potatoes will crisp up nicely given ten minutes in a hot oven, especially if sprayed with a little oil. Or pork fat.

* I added some pumpkin. This took more knowledge, because pumpkin takes less time to cook than potato. So at one of the basting times, about 45 mins before the meat was due to be done, I added that in to the tray.

* I cheated with the crackling. I'm never very successful with the "rub oil & salt in" method; perhaps I use too little? Anyway, if you peel off the half-crackled skin from the finished roast, you can pop it under a grill or into a very hot oven for ten minutes to crisp. That's what I did - on a tray next to the potatoes. That one takes knowledge and experience. If you do try this under a grill, keep a close eye on it: it can catch fire very easily.

* I didn't make the gravy and stewed apple as describe in the recipe. I just saved the defatted stock & meat juices, and used some apple I'd made before. This is a dead simple component substitution. Many recipes include modular components, that you can easily swap in and out.

* I reduced the oven temperature by 15 degrees. This is because I have a fast convection oven - not only experience and knowledge needed here, but also awareness of local conditions. Most dishes tend to be quite sensitive to oven temperatures. It's not something to change willy-nilly. I was a little too timid, actually, I should have gone for 20 degrees. The pork came out just a tad on the dry side, a bit too well-done. So now I have learned something I can apply next time.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Commence Count Down: wu, si, san, er, yi, ling!!!

I don't know if I'll have time for more blogging before I go. Lots of errands to run, and of course the bloody washing machine has to break down now, so I'm off to the laundromat in a minute. I've got a few days before I leave for China & Tibet - departure from Canberra is Tuesday arvo - so maybe I'll squeeze in another post or two if things run smoothly. The bloke is staying here, which helps. No need to organise cat-sitting or fridge emptying.

So far on the food front, I have heard that the Tibetan yak cheese momos are disgusting (ORLY?), that the Szechuanese do not understand the concept of mild food (yay!), that western breakfasts may be hard to obtain (eek!), and that we will be eating Peking duck in Beijing. Or is that Beijing duck in Peking. Whatever. Yay for duck!

Meanwhile, out on teh intertubes: be afraid, be very afraid:

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Lamb Saag

So after that little ramble last night, what are we eating? Well, the spinach was cheap and good, and also red capsicums, broccoli and cauliflower. Strawberries were cheap, too. The bloke requested a lamb curry, and by coincidence Woolworths had a special on lamb rump steaks - a mere $15 per kilo. I bought a 900g tray and by the time I stripped off all the fat and set aside the gristle and tendon for the cats, I ended up with 600g of lean meat.

I used a Madhur Jaffrey recipe for a classic lamb saag, and whipped up my ye olde three tins dahl, to which I added a goodly amount of cauliflower in small florets. That sorts out two dinners. I used a lot of the capsicum to make a simple pasta sauce - bacon, onion, garlic, tomato, herbs. That does another two meals, with some broccoli or salad on side. And there will be leftovers for lunches.

Lamb recipe follows: Recipe: Moghlai Lamb with Spinach
600g boneless lamb cubes
7 cloves of garlic, crushed
5 tsp grated ginger
2 tblsp ground coriander
3 tblsp light oil
1 large onion, cut in fine half rings (about 160g)
1 tsp cayenne
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
4 tblsp natural yoghurt
500g fresh spinach, cut into fine ribbons.

Mix garlic, ginger and coriander into meat, set aside for 30 minutes.

Heat oil in a large saucepan, and fry onions in the oil until golden brown and crisp. Remove onions and drain on kitchen paper.

Reduce heat, and stir in lamb, all of its marinade, and the cayenne, salt and turmeric. Stir for a minute or two to partially brown, then cover and leave for about ten minutes on a low heat. This will sweat a lot of the juices out of the lamb. Remove lid, add 1 tablespoon of yoghurt. Stir in well, to amalgamate, and repeat process - a tablespoon at a time - with the remaining yoghurt. Chop and stir in the crisped onions.

If the meat is tough, simmer for half an hour. If it's a tender cut, stir in the spinach immediately and stir until it is wilted down. Cover and simmer for another 50 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Source: Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible. Mildly varied.
Notes: This is pretty mild, you might like some more cayenne. Jaffrey notes that this is a classic Moghul recipe, and probably has been the same for centuries, except for the cayenne.

You might be more familiar with the title I chose - "Lamb Saag". Apparently paalag or palak is proper spinach, while saag is a more general term for greens.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Spring is sprung

Spring is sprung,
De grass is riz,
I wonder where de flowers is?
De boid is on de wing,
-- absoid!
De wing is on de boid!

Don't tell me my version is wrong, there are so many variants out there I don't think any one can be definitive.

Anyway, Spring is indeed sprung, and I've been noticing it springing up for several week. Wattles are always first, but now the daffodils are up, and the violets and the plum blossoms. Where's the catch? It's not just the amount of fur that the cats are shedding.

Spring is traditionally such a happy time, it's odd to consider that agriculturally it's also quite a lean time.

"I have no penny," quoth Piers, "Pullets for to buy
No neither geese nor piglets, but two green cheeses,
A few curds and cream and an oaten cake
And two loaves of beans and bran to bake for my little ones.
And besides I say by my soul I have no salt bacon,
Nor no little eggs, by Christ, collops for to make.
But I have parsley and leeks and many cabbages,
And besides a cow and a calf and a cart mare
To draw afield my dung the while the drought lasteth.
And by this livelihood we must live till lammas time.
And by that I hope to have harvest in my croft.

Lammas was late summer. Green cheeses are "green" in the sense of fresh and new, not because they're blue.

Everything is springing up, which is heartening. But there won't be food until that growth has actually happened. March was a time for restraint and fasting in Europe, where Lent, Easter and Christmas reflect the state of the seasons.

If you are a peasant farmer in the middle ages or earlier, it's the time for hard work. The plowing must be done. You might get to eat some quick growing leafy vegetables like lettuces and spinach, perhaps some carrots and radishes, maybe some leftover cabbages from winter, and asparagus shoots. The fruit trees are in blossom, which means no fruit. A few early strawberries might be just on the way. You should have some grain and dried beans left over from last growing season - legume crops were used to enrich the soil after the grain harvest. Well, you should, assuming the nobles hadn't taxed the hell out of you. I'm talking food, not political history.

It's too early to kill the calf or the lambs, if they've even been born yet. And if so, they are consuming most of the scanty milk supply. Since the grazing pastures are yet to spring up, the cows are still eating their rations of stored hay. Eggs would be good if you had chooks - poor old Piers was too broke for that. Anyway, they would only just be starting to lay, after the cold winter season where they were all cost and no profit. You might prefer to let them hatch a brood, and sell the young chickens, rather than just eat the eggs. Piers was also too poor to have kept enough of the salted meats preserved from the pig killing in late autumn and winter. No more bacon until next autumn. Fresh meat would be a great luxury. That Easter feast of roast lamb was really something to look forward to!

Barbara Kingsolver, in her wonderful chronicle of seasonal eating from a small farm, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, calls this time the Hungry Month. Not that the Kingsolver family actually went hungry, since they had started off after harvest with a very well-stocked freezer and a pantry of preserves. And they always had the option of giving up the experiment and buying non-local from the shops. But their supplies were visibly low, and nothing new was coming in.

We are so lucky in 21st century Australia. Being a big country, we have climates from tropical to cold temperate - which vastly increases our range. Bananas are never out of season, and the leafy spring greens can be grown much earlier up north. And in modern days, we can get all sorts of food all year round, whether from the freezer or shipped in from overseas. But even so, it's nearly always better and cheaper to eat what's in season. I enjoyed my first asparagus last week - yes, it's been in the shops all winter, but I'm not paying $6 a bunch thank you! I also bought a rockmelon, which turned out to be the mistake that I should have known it would be. Melons are summer fruit. This precocious specimen, grown under glass no doubt, lacked sweetness and flavour.