Getting Over Christmas

 

 

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas, I really do – but in terms of writing with any sort of originality it’s somewhat…limiting.

The widely accepted rule about Christmas cooking – and writing it would seem – is ‘don’t mess with the classics’. Sure you might offer up an exciting new glaze for the ham or a daring new nut in the turkey stuffing, but beyond that actual innovation and experimentation just aren’t too welcome with the Christmas crowd. While it’s forgivable to muck up the odd favour-reciprocating dinner party through an overestimation of one’s culinary prowess, doing so with Christmas dinner will be talked about behind your back until you die – no matter how polite the family might be at the time.

So most festive food writing and recipes tend towards the usual suspects chosen by annual lottery methinks, with a few (yawn) ‘new twists’. In terms of the furtherment of the gastronomic arts, it’s perhaps a bit depressing, but I suppose traditions only work if you do them pretty much the same way every time. Anyway, without tradition, why bother with Christmas at all? God knows what else it’s about if not predictable food and disappointing presents (ok that last one isn’t true in my case – I was and always am spoiled like a piglet. Did I ever mention my best beloved proofs all my work?)

But what is weird is how quickly the food media banish Christmas as if it never happened at all. You’re bombarded with weeks of ‘ways with ham and turkey’ with wall-to-wall holly leaf garnishes, but as soon as Boxing Day rolls by its ‘Christmas? What Christmas?’.

So just before I drive Christmas out into the woods and make it dig its own grave at gun point (figuratively, more or less), I thought I’d offer up a brief eulogy, if you will, to the highlights of my Christmas 2009. When I’m done it’ll be you turn to share, so be prepared.

Every year I spend the festive season munching my way through a lovingly and extravagantly homemade stollen or panetonne. This year it was the former – stuffed with fudgy and fragrant German marzipan and studded with glace peel, cherries, brandy-soaked raisins and toasted almonds. It was all the better too for being made with a sour-dough starter which I bred from the yeast bloom on my plums (try as I might I just can’t find a way to say that which doesn’t sound revolting and wrong). Not only did the volatile, almost vinegary yeast gloop bring a new complexity to the flavour and texture of the bread, it also appeared to at least contribute to a considerably extended shelf life. I’m mad on my sourdough right now – look out for a dedicated article in the near future…

Normally I leave the mince pies duties to my mother, as she is the master craftswoman in that regard (excluding the time she gave an unsuspecting marine biologist third degree burns to his tongue – long story). But this year, as she was tied up making great slabs of ginger bread and short bread for various aged, infirmed, needy types, I volunteered to do the deed. Now this will no doubt annoy a few of you, but I’m of the opinion that for any reason other than economy, making pastry from scratch is for suckers. Yes it’s an art and a skill. Whatever. Why bother with all that temperamental toil when you can find excellent ready-made stuff in the supermarket freezer? That’s what I used for my mince pies, it worked beautifully and that’s that. I would have preferred however, to make my own fruit mince (and will next year), but just didn’t get to it in time. So I turned again to that cardinal evil of the modern kitchen – readymade. Actually it’s perfectly passable stuff, after a fashion, and certainly a good base for your embellishments. I added a hefty glug of brandy, a couple of grated apples, plenty of ground nutmeg and clove, the juice of a lemon and a very generous cup of suet. As always, it was the suet that saved the day. It’s the king of fats and I’m its most loyal subject. Sneaky stuff though suet, having no taste or texture of its own, yet able to fuse otherwise disparate flavours and impart the most silken, rounded texture. Anyway, my rather lazy mince pies were so very good – especially when thickly smeared with dangerously volatile brandy butter – that I just couldn’t bring myself to share them very far at all. I begrudgingly sent a few off with the neighbours, a few to the parents, but the rest remained a very private pleasure.

 

We have established something of a Christmas Eve tradition in our house of dining on the quick-and-easy, not to mention very fine, Roast Seville Orange-glazed Duck with Port Wine Sauce, featured on Delia Online the official web presence of the usually rather sensibly shod Delia Smith. (Poor Delia, she was recently described by Antonio Carluccio as “the most boring person in the world”.) The sticky rich bird (the duck that is) almost cooks itself, and goes down a treat with a pile of carrots cooked slowly in the fatty pan, and a drift of watercress on the side.

My main contribution to the family Christmas lunch (picnic on the beach – very nice, very hot) was a colossal free-range ham from Freedom Farms. Dense, flavoursome meat and luscious thick fat slathered in a russet glaze of apricot jam, mustard and 5 spices. Few pleasures in life compare to those sticky chefs perk-morsels of glazed ham fat, torn hot from the oven.

I received a small but perfectly formed selection of food-centric gifts from my nearest and dearest this year. The most conspicuously hefty parcel under my tree concealed Thai Street Food – David Thompson’s glorious new book. This is an exceptionally beautiful publication, loaded with recipes and fascinating insight from Thompson and exquisite photography by Earl Carter. An essential – if rather pricey – addition to any Asian food lover’s library. From family in the UK I received a subscription to Waitrose Food Illustrated. Although ostensibly just the in-house magazine of the Waitrose supermarket chain, this is to my mind one of the finest food periodicals around today, with a veritable who’s who of UK food personalities contributing, and gorgeous design work throughout. I couldn’t be happier with this one!

 

On the gadget front I finally got one of those very dinky pineapple slicers – I should have picked one up years ago. This very simple, but devastatingly effective, little device cores, skins and slices whole pineapples in a few effortless turns of the handle, taking all the work out of preparing one of my favourite fruits. As if that wasn’t exciting enough I also received a mango corer (available from the excellent Jessica’s Design store in Napier), which makes quick and tidy work of that notoriously fiddly but sublimely lovely fruit. Now I’m usually pretty scathing of gratuitous kitchen clutter, but these two deserve a place in any fruit lover’s arsenal.

There were others gifts too – some edible, some not. There was the most welcome company of my sister and her children (who have been away from us for too many years), of my parents (divorced for decades but still the closest of friends), of my perfect and ravishing best beloved, and of my funny and thoughtful baby brother in law. There were halcyon skies and a blazing sun, cicadas rattled, and the summery perfume of the sea filled the air. Overwrought cliché perhaps, but a fine Christmas indeed.

 

 

 

Tell us about Christmas in your neck of the woods…



Let them eat cake

 

 

Virgil Evetts

There is danger in declaring one’s passions too noisily. At certain times of the year friends and family will be carefully taking note of any subtle clues you may unwittingly drop about your likes and dislikes. This is a very dangerous time, because if you’re not careful you may end up trapped in the festive ground-hog day that is the unwanted gift loop. Every Christmas and birthday forevermore you will be kindly inflicted with well-meaning op-shop fodder. The trick I have learned is to be quite specific. Children send lists to Claus of the Arctic, so how come we lose that right as adults? The injustice of it…

Gift buying is a ghastly business at the best of times, so people are bound to work with what little information they have on your personal predilections. You can’t blame them if they pick a theme and stick with it. My best beloved has a very public penchant for the colour green, which for many years was interpreted by family as “give me green frog ornaments”. This eventually got quite out of hand, and frankly irritating. I know, Christmas is about giving not receiving, or something, but there’s no point giving or receiving unwanted amphibians for all of eternity.

In my case, people know I’m interested in food, and most gifts are themed along those lines. A select few, my inner sanctum if you will, know my la-de-da tastes inside out and rarely fail to dazzle. But a number of other kindly souls swamp me in ‘clever’ gadgets and jars of not-as-clever-as-they-think-they-are pickles (quince, horseradish and 2005 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc relish etc). All I can say is that egg-masher industry is clearly in a state of wild and unchecked growth, and the home-spun condiment trade is (as ever) swooning under the influence of its own misguided sense of usefulness.

So I offer up the following list, for the sake of anyone who knows me and was planning on “surprising” me with any of the above redundant nonsense, or for those of you who are shopping for the food- fixated (and I don’t mean people with eating disorders – these items might not be the best choices for them), and don’t quite know where to begin. Of course, if you’re bothering to read this drivel (take note person who accused me of writing ‘dribble’ recently), you are probably a well-informed Foodlover who needs no steerage from me. In which case either skip to the bottom and add your own list, or follow this link to Heston Blumenthal’s wonderful Christmas special (hosted by Google videos) of a couple of years ago . Truly delightful.

 

Panettone/Pandoro

Not to everyone’s tastes, but to fans of festive baking (like me!), a good-quality Italian panettone or pandoro will be very gratefully received indeed. Price does to tend equate to quality with these generally artisanal products- expect to spend no less than $20 if you really like the person, and upwards of $50 if they seem like a keeper. Brands to lookout for are Flamigni and Fiasconara.

No written description really does justice to the charms of a well made panettone. By definition it might just be a big old fruit-studded brioche sort of thing, but by taste, aroma, texture and provenance it’s so much more. There is a sublime sophistication to this bread. I make quite a ritual of eating the stuff and find it a strangely hypnotic and personal thing. My whole body relaxes and a smile spreads across my lips. When I’m eating panettone the rest of the world just isn’t important.

 Apart their possible psychotropic properties (which might be more to do with my lack of perspective around food), they also make a beautiful focal point on the Christmas table. In the following days when the bread starts to lose its supple spring, panettone is still fabulous toasted and spread thickly with butter. As I’ve said elsewhere recently, those of us who spend a lot of time in the kitchen just love it when others cook for us, so if you fancy baking you own panettone to give away or just for the hell of it, here’s an article (with recipe) I wrote on the subject last year.

Meat

Meat might not be the most obvious choice for a gift, but personally I’d be thrilled to receive a nice piece of eye fillet or a great slab of sirloin on Christmas morning. Good-quality red meat has become quite the luxury item, and for the most part is outside of the realms of my normal weekly budget (and I suspect many others’). Go to a butcher you trust (I’m currently wildly in love with Westemere Butchery in Auckland), tell them your budget and go crazy.

If you really shop around its possible to find fabulously marbled wagyu and ethereally tender South American grain-fed beef, but keep in mind these come at something of an ethical (not to mention crippling fiscal) price, as both are usually raised in intensive feed-lot or barn-based systems.

Personally I’m more than happy – often quite ecstatic, if truth be known – with local, pasture-run Angus or similar. Also worthy of consideration  is the new and ethically permissible Rose veal from Gourmet Direct . The result of careful, selective breeding, Rose veal is produced from fully weaned calves, unlike its’ traditional counterpart, white  veal, where the calves are dragged to slaughter, kicking and bawling from the udder. The result here is a pink-blushed, sweetly flavoured and butter-tender meat of a calibre (both ethically and gastronomically) previously unseen in New Zealand.

For some reason I can’t quite imagine giving pork for Christmas. It just doesn’t seem appropriate. Merry Christmas, here’s some pig I picked out for you.

Chocolate

I can think of very few people who wouldn’t appreciate a decent bit of chocolate under the tree. But Jesus H, we’re fed a lot of subjective puritanism about chocolate these days! Apparently the only chocolate worth eating is 85 % (minimum) bitter-sweet, preferably single estate and Fair Trade (ok, so I agree with that last one). While some of my favourite renderings of the bean fall into this category, I angrily reserve the right to eat milk chocolate, and dare I say it white chocolate, if and when I bloody well want to In fact, I think it would be in the interests of furthering a nay-saying loved one’s theobromic education to give them some very good examples of either of the above.

 

There are myriad premium chocolate brands to choose from these days and each has their own special quirks and nuances, so it might a prudent – and so very torturous, I’m sure – to try before you buy. For the record my favourite imported chocolates brands are Caffarel , Valrhona and Lindt – and I certainly wouldn’t kick Green and Black out of bed either. On the home front my favourite chocolatiers (bad pun alert), bar-none are Greytown based Schoc. These guys take a unique and most agreeable approach to chocolate – as a legitimate form of therapy- and produce some of the smartest flavour combinations around, such the very opulent Frankincense, Myrrh and Gold Christmas block. Magical stuff.

Cheese

Cheese is among my greatest pleasures in life. Be it gooey and fungoid, mouldering and piquant or dense and crystalline, I’m anyone’s for a decent wedge. And who isn’t? Just quietly, this is probably the best item on my list. It’s something we don’t tend to splash out on for ourselves very often (usually only for dinner parties and specific recipes), and a carefully selected wedge or two of something special can make for a touchingly thoughtful gesture. The possibilities are endless here, so go somewhere that allows you to taste the cheeses, be sure to ask about country and region of origin, style of production, age and wine matches. All of this adds to ambiance of the gift. If you’re shopping for me, you’ll be well on track to my good books with Gorgonzola Piccante, Roquefort, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano , Taleggio, Meyer vintage Gouda… go on, surprise me.

Fruit

Fruit can either be insultingly dull as a gift (think hospital lobby fruit baskets), or breathlessly good (think Otago cherries). So with a little thought and sadly no lack of dosh, fruit can make you very popular indeed under the mistletoe.

Cherries are probably the best choice for a Christmas gift. The season peaks right around Christmas, and you can buy handsome 1-kilo cases from you local fruiter (watch the price double on Christmas eve), or better still, order directly from the grower and have them posted to your dear one. Cherries are a very sexy fruit and could be seen as a somewhat suggestive gift, so you might want to think carefully about who you give them to. I’m sure whole books have been written about flirting with fruit. Another good choice for the fruit lover who has everything is a case of fresh lychees, mangosteen or brazen Thai mangoes. You might have to hunt around a few Asian fruiters for these, but you can be assured they will not disappoint.

Novelty

Last year a friend gave me a couple of geoducks for Christmas. They looked like penises in the half shell and scared me silly (no, the Freudian implications haven’t escaped me either). Although I can’t say I enjoyed eating them, they were nowhere near as awful as I expected and, more importantly, represented that very rare thing for the well versed consumer – a genuinely new experience. So, judging from my own reactions here (not that I’m the most reliable compass of normality), a well-thought-out novelty food gift got can be just the ticket.

A whole Durian (available frozen and fresh from Asian supermarkets and fruiterers) would test the mettle of many, and at the very least will clear the room of noxious in-laws. For a less intimidating and odiferous choice you could track down a fresh bread fruit (try Otara market in Auckland), or perhaps a mutton bird (carried by some fish shops), and a whole pig’s heads wrapped in pretty paper would definitely cause a stir. I, for one, am hoping for something freaky and fetid under the tree again this year.

Restaurant gift vouchers

Ok, so vouchers, like cash can make for a rather crass and unimaginative gift. They have that whole ‘here is how much I like you in money-form’ vibe about them. However, I don’t think this applies to restaurant vouchers. Issued by the Restaurant Association of New Zealand these are available in $20, $50 and $100 denominations and can be used pretty much anywhere of note.

Splashing out on a really special night is something most of us reserve for only the most important of occasions – if at all. These vouchers not only subsidise (or if you’re really lucky, cover) the sometimes staggering bill, but they also give us permission to treat ourselves, just because. You know what I mean?

So where would I redeem a restaurant voucher or two?

Well, I’m pretty staid in my tastes, mostly because very few places meet my terribly unreasonable expectations of exceptional service, intelligent, well executed food and consistency throughout (the last one is a real bug-bear of mine). Likely suspects in Auckland right now are The Engine Room, The French Café, O’Connell Street Bistro and Antoine’s.

 

So, what’s on your Christmas list this year? Share your tips, list and advice on shopping for the fickle-Foodlover below.

 

 

 

 

 

Saffron- Like Sun On The Tongue

Virgil Evetts

The other night I threw together a dessert quite shameless in its simplicity – five ingredients and no cooking; yet it turned out to be among the best things I’ve eaten in months, serving both literally and figuratively as an entrée to summer. White peaches, plucked warm from the tree, a sprinkle of icing sugar, a splash of grappa, a glug of cream and most importantly, as it turned out, a crumble of gorgeously musky, improbably yellow, saffron meringue.

Somehow the bittersweet flavour and almost medicinal fragrance of the tres luxe spice pulled everything into line. It was one of those all-too-rare moments with food where the flavours just snap into place, almost of their own accord. It was a roughly assembled, lazy affair and I claim no credit for its grand success. That accolade belongs solely to the quiet grace of saffron.

And this is so often the way with saffron; the subtle complexities of flavour never clamour for attention, they just discreetly go about the business of pushing a good but earthbound dish straight through the stratosphere.

Much has been written about saffron being the world costliest spice. This may be perfectly true, but it’s rather missing the point, because although the proceeds from the sale of ten kilos of saffron would probably clear the average mortgage, few cooks could ever use this quantity in a lifetime. Saffron is very much a ‘less is more’ sort of spice, as anyone who has the extravagant audacity to overdo the stuff in a risotto ala Milanese or paella will find out. What in moderation was delicate and flirtatious becomes pungent and brash in superfluity.

The spice saffron is derived from the dried stigmas of variety of crocus (Crocus sativus), thought to have originated somewhere in South West Asia as a result of careful hybridising and selective breeding over 3000 years ago. Since then it has infiltrated the many cuisines, belief systems and pharmaceutical repertoires of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, by way of the various religious, political and later colonial movements that have shaped and shaken the modern world.

Saffron has always been a precious, exclusive commodity. Its use in food and as a fabric dye has long been a means of flaunting ones wealth, and in various religions (through the anointment of god-figures etc) it serves as a gesture of selfless devotion. Certainly the appeal of saffron in these situations is in part due to its irrepressibly golden hue – gold being another perennial and rather clankingly obvious emblem of prosperity; but most of all, saffron is symbolic of wealth because it’s really, really expensive – depending on how you look at it anyway.

Right now, the international price of saffron sits at well over NZ$10,000 per kilo. That may seem a little steep but it buys over 100,000 stigmas (each saffron flower contains only 3 stigmas), all picked by hand from a planting site which will exceed the area of 2 football fields. All things considered, not bad value really. Despite thousands of years of saffron growers attempting to improve yields and cut costs, there is simply no easy way around these production costs. Although many commercial plant breeders would give up their first born (and yours too for that matter) for the secret to breeding new and improved strains of saffron, they’re probably chasing a pipe dream, because as a result of its parent species’ genetic inability to play nicely, saffron is infertile- it cannot set seeds. This means that all saffron plants in the world today are almost genetically identical, having all been produced from corms which divide asexually each year. In other words, they are all clones of the original saffron plant bred 3000 years ago. As with any species – bananas being another good example – this makes saffron extremely vulnerable. With their limited gene pool, a single disease could theoretically eradicate the entire species.

As well as being a few cards short of a genetic full deck, saffron is also a rather fussy plant. It won’t grow just anywhere, preferring a fairly dry Mediterranean climate, with hot summers and cool (but not overly wet) winters. The international market leaders in saffron production (Spain and Iran) are able to provide these conditions in abundance; and better still (from the growers point of view anyway), both have access to very cheap labour forces – both legal and otherwise. The vast majority of imported saffron sold in supermarkets today will have originated in one of these countries. Until recently, US trade sanction restricted the flow of Iranian saffron (along with anything else the poor buggers had the temerity to produce), onto the world market; this has fortunately started to change. If you really must purchase imported saffron, it’s worth seeking out Iranian (Persian). As with Persian pistachios, dried figs, mulberries and sour cherries, the quality is usually very high.

But that said, why bother with dusty imports when our home-grown product is so very good?

Saffron has been grown commercially in New Zealand since the late 90’s, with production centred around the Hawkes Bay region and a few similarly suited locations in the South Island.

Terraza saffron – owned by Janice Potts and Mark Tyro – oversee a small network of growers managing a total of about 5 acres around the Hawke’s Bay. As the Terraza network expands, and individual corms multiply, the company’s annual harvest is steadily increasing – weather permitting. The total 2009 harvest was a little over 3 kilos, with early predictions for 2010 at around 5 kilos. These figures may seem but a drop in the ocean compared to the 300-odd tonnes that represents the average global harvest, but when you consider that most consumers purchase only a gram or so at a time, this is more enough to supply high quality saffron to discerning cooks and chefs around New Zealand.

New Zealand-grown saffron has an exuberance and freshness far surpassing the various mass-market supermarket brands. Described most aptly by Charles Noville (former chef at Parliament Buildings), as “like sun on the tongue”, the rich, iodine/hay bale fragrance penetrates the packaging; and in cooking both flavour and colour are released with free and copious abandon. Janice and Mark have a policy of only selling the current season’s harvest, which to my way of thinking is testament to just how seriously they take their business, and how passionately they believe in their product.

As well as selling pure dried saffron stigmas, Terraza also produce a small range of saffron-based products. The mini- meringues mentioned earlier are one of Terraza’s newer lines, and are so far just about the most interesting off-the-shelf saffron products I’ve come across (closely followed by saffron pashmak– divine Persian candy floss). Once again, eggs prove to be the perfect vessel for flavour. I’m always saying that. Also in development – and eagerly awaited by this shameless fan – are saffron lemonade (!!!) and saffron pasta.

I have used Terraza saffron on numerous occasions over the years, and thoroughly recommend it to true saffron-heads, for use in risottos, paella, korma, mayonnaise and most exquisitely gelato –ala Antonio Carluccio. Yes, you can get by with imported saffron, but on so many levels, local is simply better.

Because of its freshness and intense flavour, locally grown saffron can be used even more sparingly than its imported equivalent. For maximum flavour extraction, soak gently crushed stigmas in a little warm water or stock. For slow-cooked dishes such as tagines, add saffron towards the end, as the flavour can be destroyed by prolonged heating.

Be aware that adulteration is still a problem with some imported saffron; usually through the addition of ground or finely sliced safflower petals. Although these will yield a similar colour to real saffron, they posses none of the genuine articles flavour or fragrance. Basically, suspiciously cheap saffron probably isn’t saffron.

Saffron corms are available to the home gardener during the summer months from Terraza, various other growers and via Trademe. With great excitement I threw myself into growing a small patch for a couple of years, but for a variety of reasons am now happy to leave it to the experts. The fragile mauve blooms were indeed a lovely sight on crisp autumn morning, and the thrill of harvesting and eventually using the precious stigmas was something very special, but it was to be a short-lived endeavour. The dependable wetness of Auckland summers caused most of the corms to rot, my cats took a uniquely feline pleasure in uprooting the remainder, and the near microscopic yields of saffron in no way justified the space the plants occupied. But that’s just me. If you have the room, climatic advantage, better-disciplined cats (mine are famously naughty), and a more than mildly obsessive nature, you should definitely lay down a saffron bed.

 

 

What’s your greatest kitchen extravagance?

 

 

 

 

A Glacé Act

Virgil Evetts

At the risk of startling more than a few of you, I feel it timely to point out that Christmas is coming, (at an alarming rate of knots), and the goose is getting positively obese.  I’m not telling you this to induce the cold sweats of Christmas-shopping-yet-to-be-done, but from a purely practical point of view.  If, like me, you’re of the ‘everything from scratch’ persuasion, you really need to be getting on with your Christmas cakes, mince and puddings.  But in terms of offering recipes for those old chestnuts, I’m not about to enter the fray.  Way too subjective.  No, this week I’m campaigning in defence of a much-maligned ingredient, and one that is quite indispensible to myriad festive classics – glacé peel.

I’m well aware that peel is not to everyone’s taste – I myself grew up hating the stuff with an inflexible passion, but over time have come to realise that there is peel, and then there is PEEL, if you follow.

Thanks to the laziness and general beige-ification of mass-produced foods, most of us today only know glacé (or candied) peel as that finely diced, insipid and implacably nasty stuff found in sweaty little packs on supermarket shelves. We tend to associate it with foods we eat out of habit, but possibly hate (in my case, Christmas cake).  It’s become a real going-though-the-motions type of ingredient.

Like so many previously esteemed culinary crafts -and candying fruit surely was esteemed-, the process has been bastardised by time, mechanisation and a less than discriminating market, (or perhaps in fairness one that doesn’t know any better).

In its original form glacé peel – be it made from citron (cedro), lemon or orange – is a succulent, jube-like pleasure, headily fragrant and glowingly pretty.  During the slow process of candying, natural citrus oils are drawn deep into the skin from the outer layer of zest, along with brine and sugar syrup, saturating the peel and imparting a gorgeously glassy – i.e glacé – appearance.  In France and Italy, this luscious sweet-meat is not merely the obligatory addition to heavy festive baking, but a relished and costly treat to be savoured au natural.

Candying fruit is a true artisan craft, requiring great skill and patience. In years gone by, European candy makers would flaunt their talents through displays of whole pineapples and great hands of bananas – all perfectly preserved in this manner, luminously lovely as if they were carved from glass. Like so many traditional crafts, even in its home-lands, it is a dying art.  Little has ever been written about it – especially in English – and it’s a skill many years in the making.

Well I wasn’t about to let that get in my way.  When it comes to clever food – and candied peel is quite the cleverest – I have a child-like need to understand, to know how it works.  And bit by bit, like many foods before it, the baffling mechanics of glacé peel consumed my every thought. So I spent untold hours reading, bought a sack of sugar, purloined a load of lemons, suffered some nasty burns in unlikely places, and in an around-about sort of way, taught myself to candy.

The following recipe, the fruit of my labours if you will, produces something akin to a true Italian or French-style glacé peel. The finished goods should be translucent, delicately flavoured and fairly dry to the touch, and if stored correctly will last for several years.

But this isn’t one of those quick-fix, boiled-in-syrup and rolled-in-castor-sugar affairs so often presented as glacé peel.  This is a recipe for people who take their kitchen projects seriously, and for people who find happiness in geeky authenticity. People like me.

Technically, it’s possible to candy any sort of fruit, but so far my own ability and inclination has not extended beyond citrus peel.  That said, if you can manage it with a watermelon (why does that sound so indecent?) I just might want to marry you – gender irrespective.

At any rate, this recipe works swimmingly with oranges and lemons, but for some reason limes just don’t play nicely with the process – instead becoming leathery and ruddy.

All-up, the whole hullabaloo takes 2-3weeks; whether you’re working with 200 kilos or 200 grams of peel. Don’t let that put you off though – for most of that time the peel will be sitting in a bucket of syrup or brine, quietly minding its own business. The process relies on very little actual cooking, (which would impart a marmaldey-bitterness to the peel and damage its lovely svelte texture), instead employing the process of osmosis to draw tasteless, treacherous water from the tissue, and replace it with sweet, preservative sugar.

Glacé peel

This recipe is designed for roughly 1 kilo of peel, but you can safely multiply without risk of incident.

Ingredients:

1 kg organic citrus peel

1 kg+ sugar

1 kg salt

2 cups+ glucose/dextrose powder (available at the supermarket or a home-brew shop) 

 

1.    Use only organic citrus peel -the thicker the better. (The skin of conventionally grown citrus is not intended for human consumption, and is therefore doused repeatedly with some very nasty things indeed. Organic fruit is not spray-free by any means, but the chemicals used are considerably less life-threatening.) Peel the fruit into two or three large sections (this is purely an aesthetic thing), and take care to remove all fruit pulp.

2.    Make a brine solution from a kilo of non-iodised sea salt stirred into to about 8 litres of cold water.  Add the peel and use a weighted plastic colander or sieve to keep it completely submerged.  It’s important that nothing metallic is left in contact with the brine; the slightest hint of rust will taint an entire batch of peel.  Keep in a cool dark place and drape with a tea towel to keep out flies.   

3.    Check the peel each day and carefully remove any scum or mould that forms on the surface.  The peel will require approximately 1 week in the brine. 

4.    After 1 week, drain and rinse the peel in fresh water. 

5.    Make a syrup from 4 cups of water, 1 cup of sugar and 2 cups glucose powder.  Bring to the boil and simmer until sugar and glucose are dissolved.  Remove from the heat and add peel. 

6.    The next day, remove peel from syrup, add 1 cup of sugar and re-boil. Remove from heat and return peel to hot syrup. 

7.    Repeat daily for five days. 

8.    At the end of five days the peel should look quite translucent and the syrup will be very thick.  Remove peel from syrup and carefully wipe away any excess.  (The left-over syrup can be used as a sauce for desserts/cakes.) 

9.    Dry the peel in a very low oven (well below 100° Celsius) or a dehydrator, until the pith no longer exudes syrup when gently squeezed.  Take great care not to over-dry or burn the peel.  

10. Once dried, allow peel to cool completely. Rub with a very small amount of olive oil (to prevent desiccation and crystallisation). Keep in an airtight container in the fridge. 

Use your peel (roughly chopped) in Christmas cake, fruit mince, Christmas puddings, hot-cross buns, Panettone, Pandoro, Cassata, sliced very thinly and served as part of a cheese platter, or dipped in good quality dark chocolate. 

So forget all you think you know about glacé peel, because believe me – this is not just any old peel. 

 

Have you started your Christmas baking yet?

What do you have planned?

On The Snail Trail

Virgil Evetts

I used to view snails on a dinner plate with such squinty-eyed scepticism – for all the usual reasons I suppose – their sliminess, their squelchyness, the havoc they wreck in the garden. On the rare occasions when I’ve felt (reluctantly) compelled to push aside this prejudice for a tong-full of butter-sodden, grilled (and most assuredly tinned) escargot, I’ve been underwhelmed at best  by what little flavour was left standing under the onslaught of garlic (and quietly horrified if I’ve paused to examine what I’m slipping into my mouth). So it would be safe to say that up until very recently, when I experienced a minor gastropodal epiphany, I was no great fan of the snail in any way, shape, form or location.

 

It’s quite an achievement to change a person’s (culinary) perspective – period; and pure witchcraft to do so with the lowly snail.  Yet Raewynne Achten and Jaye Sims, of Hawkes Bay-based Silver Trail Snails, managed just that with this humble food freak. I met this good keen pair of snail-pokes at a small soirée in Napier recently which featured the fine company and wares of several esteemed Hawkes Bay food and wine producers.  While there was much to ooh and ahh over that evening, the star attractions for me, and certainly the cause of the greatest stir, were Silver Trails’ fabulous fresh snails -served either crumbed and deep fried, or in the form of an excellent pâté with pork shoulder. I can be a jaded, unmoveable cynic at times (more often than not if I’m honest), but these snails delivered exactly what I crave in food – surprise, excitement and innovation.

 

Unlike the black and very chewy tinned French (-labelled but mostly Thai-produced) Burgundian snails, which are the most commonly available in New Zealand, fresh petit gris (garden snails) have a delicate texture, reminiscent of very good squid, and a flavour somewhere between clams (cockles) and mushrooms.  They really are quite startling good – not that I should be surprised; snails have been eaten by humans throughout the world for thousands of years and have acquired the status of a true delicacy in many cuisines. Unlike many ‘gross – factor’ novelty foods (scorpions, snakes, prairie oysters et al), snails are not merely edible, they’re delicious. I’m just sorry I wasted so many years determinedly avoiding them.

 

While the larger Burgundian (Helix pomatia) variety is the most famous of the European edible land snails, it’s considered by some to be inferior to the common garden snail, or petit gris (Helix aspersa).  This is the very same creature we routinely poison with pellets, stomp on with glee and curse to Hades in the vege patch.  Now before you get too caught up in flights of fancy (as I did) about making the best of a bad situation, although a committed gardener/cook technically could harvest and prepare their back-yard nemesis, it is a laborious and time-consuming process. The snails require a protracted period of purging on bran  to clean their guts of toxic or disease-carrying matter, followed by a great deal of fiddly cooking and shelling. A job best left to the experts methinks. Having said all that, one of these days, too-much-time on-his-hands food geek that I am, I’ll probably give it a whirl.

 

 

Snail farming, or heliciculture (who knew it had a name?), is certainly a specialist field and a rather niche endeavour to say the least.  Silver Trails are currently the only commercial operation in New Zealand, but through the sheer quality of their products have earned a loyal following among some of New Zealand’s best-known chefs, including Tony Astle (Antoine’s) and Martin Bosley (Martin Bosley’s Yacht Club Restaurant). 

Raewynne and Jaye originally conceived of the business as a means of making a relatively easy income from their modest Hawkes Bay lifestyle block. But the pair quickly learned that snail farming is not quite the walk in the park they had imagined and, being as it was an almost unchartered territory in New Zealand, they endured their fair share of pioneering trial and error along the way. But despite the best efforts of marauding birds, and the unpredictable extremes of the Hawkes Bay climate – ranging from scorching heat to floods – the business prevailed and is now turning more than a few heads in food trade, with production increasing every year. Silver Trails expects a harvest of around 100,000 snails this summer season alone.

 

Silver Trails breed and rear their snails in outdoor enclosures, which offer shade and protection from predators as well as plenty of food in the form of living brassicas and plantain. Only the biggest, plumpest snails are selected for harvesting, which occurs during the summer months when they are most active and rapidly gaining weight.  The snails are sold pre-cooked, whole and un-gutted. This makes for a better-looking (the blackened splatter that is the tinned and gutted French snail attests to this) and, experts insist, better-tasting snail.

 

 

At present Silver Trails supply fresh, whole snails direct to restaurants, and jars of snails preserved in white wine and cider vinegars for the general retail market. The snail and pork shoulder paté mentioned earlier is still a product in development, but I for one would be greedily pleased if it appeared for sale (hint-hint if you’re reading this Raewynne and Jaye) in the future. It has all the best qualities of a rustic French country pate with a unique and delicate sweetness imparted by the snails. My kind of food.

 

The world is awash with recipes for snails if you care to look – from paella to pasta, risotto to soup – but to the snail neophyte, and let’s face it, that’s most of us, I would suggest starting with something a little less confrontational. The standard French bistro approach is to pop the pre-cooked snail back into the shell along with a generous plug of parsley-flecked garlic butter (go easy on the garlic with this recipe, as the fragile snail flavour can be lost so easily), and then grill until sizzling and oh-so-fragrant.  This makes a fine and dandy morsel when served with good, crunchy baguette and plenty of rough red wine.

 

The best way to approach any natural revoltion you may have at the thought of eating snails is to remember that, in fact, all shellfish – be they mussels, oysters, paua or clams – are really just types of snails. If you enjoy eating those, land snails shouldn’t be too big a leap.

Do try snails if, or when, the opportunity should present itself, because like me you might just discover a slimy new love.

 

 

We have a jar of beautiful Hawkes Bay snails- kindly supplied by Silver Trails Snails- to give away to one lucky Foodlovers reader. To enter, just tell us about the scariest thing you’ve ever eaten…

 

Long-haul gluttony

Virgil Evetts

Being on the receiving end of long-winded holiday recaps can be so bloody boring don’t you think? It’s like hearing about a really great party that you wern’t invited to.  So, as much as possible, I like to let the pictures do the talking when it comes to travel stories.  And that was certainly my intention here, but it looks like the keyboard has run away with me again.  Sorry.  Feel free to skip to the pictures if you’re that way inclined.  And before you ask, yes they are labelled – just move your pointer over them and all will be revealed.

Singapore

Singapore is easily one of greatest food cities in the world.  This melting pot (what the hell is a melting pot by the way? ) of Indian, Malay, Chinese, Peranakan (Nonya) and European cultures offers something for all tastes.  While the city has a number of internationally-regarded fine dining establishments, it’s the street food that really counts here.

Hawker centers can be found all over the city, offering a bewildering array of cuisines, consistantly high quality and low prices.  Depsite the somewhat rough-around-the-edges appearance of some of these places, the Singaporean Government keeps a close eye on hygiene standards, and food poisoning is probably rarer here than in New Zealand.  A visit to one of Singapore’s wet markets should also be high up on any foodies’ must-do list: but be warned, along with the fabulous fruit and vegetables, you will also see a good many animals being briskly dispatched and dismembered, including some you wouldn’t immediatly regard as edible.  If you need a little fresh air after this, I can highly recommend a stroll through the excellent spice garden in Fort Canning park.

Highlights:

Paratha (roti): Served with dhal or potato curry for – breakfast! It doesn’t get much better than that.

Kaya: Pandan-flavoured coconut jam spread thickly on toasted white bread. A Singaporean institution.

Bak kwa: Amazing smokey sweet pork jerky.  Extraordinary stuff.

Ikan Bali: Sweet and spicy fried fish at Padang Padang, in the excellent food court of the gargantuan Ion Orchard mall.

Satay: Skewers of beef, pork, prawns, lamb, chicken and duck served with perfect peanut sauce at Lau Pa Sat food centre.

Sugar cane juice: Ice-cold, freshly squeezed (through a very dangerous looking giant mangle) and utterly delicious.

Snowskin Mooncakes: These delicately-flavoured and highly decorous mid-Autumn festival treats are just perfect with strong green tea.  Hell, they’re just perfect any which way.

 

 

Southern Thailand

 

A province of Malay-influenced, yet still distinctively Thai, food.  Seafood abounds in the cooking of this narrow, coastal region, and thanks to the woeful state of the Thai economy it’s usually dirt cheap. Markets are well stocked with jumpingly-fresh fish, prawns, crabs and more, along with many other tempting delights both sweets and savoury – not to mention spicy.

Highlights-

Thai sweets: Luridly-coloured but intriguingly flavoured with salty-sweet combinations of coconut, pandan and jasmine flowers.

Pineapples: A local speciality in the South, and probably the best I’ve ever eaten.  Think fragrance, think juice.

Santol: Little-known fruit outside of Thailand, but worth seeking out for its lovely pineapple/strawberry flavour and peach-like juiciness.

Yellow curry: Predominantly flavoured (and coloured) with turmeric, which when used with such unbridled enthusiasm as is de rigour down south, brings a lovelly resinous, peppery quality to the dish.

Kai yang: The best chicken dish ever.  Seriously.

 

London

 

Forget all those negative conatations about British food.  London is a world class food city – years ahead of Auckland,  Wellington or even the uber-urbane Melbourne.  The sheer range of ethnic eateries is breathtaking and, if you know where to look, the quality and variety of produce simply extraordinary.

Borough Market: down by the Thames (and near the magnificent Tate Modern gallery), is this raucous, sprawling treasure trove of some of the finest produce I’ve ever seen assembled in one place – from wonderful English cheeses, ciders and game, to superb fresh fruit and small goods from the continent and beyond.  Admittedly, it’s very much a hangout for the sort of wealthy Londoners who like to throw pretentious dinner parties, but the atmosphere is very pleasant and prices surprisingly reasonable.

The food halls of Harrods and Selfridges are both eye-popping exercises in edible excess.  Every imaginable high-end food stuff and drink is available and displayed with deft artistry.  But bloody hell, you don’t half pay for it.  Quite literally conspicuous consumption.

Although the pound-to-NZ dollar conversion can be a bit hard to swallow at times, good quality affordable meals can still be had in London. Many restaurants offer excellent value lunch time deals of as little as seven quid for a decent plate of pasta or pizza and a drink.  Competition is stiff, so the quality is generally high.  At the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of places where you can easily part with $500 for a light lunch.  Generally speaking , the further out of London city proper (the old city), the lower the prices.

Highlights-

Burmese food: A surprising blend of Indian, Thai and Malay aesthetics.  I really look forward to the day when Burma becomes an ethically-permissible holiday destination again, so I can properly explore this cuisine.

Cider: From New Forest Ciders in Hampshire, this is the real deal – balanced flavour, super-dry and strong as an ox.

Nduja (en-doo-ya): A spreadable salami from Calabria in the far south of Italy, Nduja is loaded with fiery Calabrian chilli, rich creamy fat and an afterthought of pork meat.  Stunningly unhealthy stuff but damn!!

Waitrose supermarket: Like an enormous deli with supermarket prices (sort of), and an in-house magazine that puts most real food publications to shame.  Foodtown-schmoodtown.

 

Tuscany

What can I possibly say about the food of Tuscany that hasn’t been said too many times before?  Yes, Tuscany gets far more attention than it probably deserves in the global scheme of things, but the fact remains that when Tuscan cooking is good, it’s startlingly good.  Even the low points would seem stellar in Auckland.

Highlights-

Fresh porcini: Known to most of us in their dry form, porcini mushrooms are one of the key-stones of the Italian food identity. As the season was well underway while we were there, these were on the daily specials boards of almost every restaurant we passed.  My favourite way with the king of fungi was simply sautéed in butter and tossed through fresh tagliatelle with a little parsley.

Raw pork sausages from Volterra: I was bit nervous about the prospect of eating raw pork mince, but the delicate spicing and rich, luscious texture of these quickly banished all fears.  Among the finest things I’ve ever eaten.

Consuming prodigious quantities of: Parmigiano reggiano and prosciutto cruda with devil-may-care abandon.  They’re both so bloody cheap in Italy you can afford to eat them like Chesdale and luncheon sausage.  I’m yet to be convinced that one can ever eat too much of this sort of thing.  I hear the Heart Foundation thinks otherwise…

Buratta: Cows-milk mozzarella, with fresh double cream folded into its filament-fine silken layers. Beautifully moist, succulent and sweetly-scented, with a flavour that can only be described as pastoral. One of the finer moments of this trip involved watching the sun set over the thickly wooded Chianti hills, eating mouthful after luscious mouthful of burrata and freshly picked sangiovese grapes, while sipping Chianti Classico (made from the very same sangiovese grapes). Picture-postcard cliched bliss!

Premixed Campari and soda: Cute retro bottles, and the finest drink for a hot summer day, Campari is virtually part of the Italian psyche.

Good food- it’s everywhere!: Affordable and very good quality food is available in even from the most unlikely of places in Italy – such as railway stations and airports.  At Florence’s railway station (Santa Maria Novella), I lunched on freshly-made prosciutto cruda panini with excellent pane Toscana (unsalted Tuscan sourdough), slices of crisp pizza bianchi with potatoes and truffles, and perfect fresh cannoli –  washed down with blood orange juice.  You would never find this in New Zealand.  The difference is, I think, Italians simply don’t tolerate bad food anywhere, and New Zealanders are just glad to escape botulism.

Coffee: The Italian tradition of paying less to drink coffee at the bar than at a table is right up my alley.  Users-pays (or doesn’t) in action.  And did I mention the coffee is gooood?  Watching American tourists ordering una latte and being presented with a glass of cold milk by the bemused barrista never gets old either.

Eavesdropping…

I like eavesdropping when travelling- either to test my rudimentary grasp of another language, or just to be nosey around people I’ll never have to see again.

Chianti local discussing Sting ( you know: blah blah blah rainforest, blah blah blah fields of gold…), who has a house in Castellina, the town where we spent most of our time: “He makes some wine and oil on his estate up there. Of course it’s no good at all…the butcher is very friendly with his wife.  Every day it’s good morning Signora Stin-ga, how are you today Signora Stin-ga?”

Italian shopkeeper explaining why her large dog is chained up inside her shop and howling like a moonstruck wolf: “He is very sad today. You see, he is in love, but it is forbidden he wander the village”

Waiter: “Signorina, do not order the salad.  Salad is not good for the health.  I have some very nice veal today…”

Appalling English woman at Pisa airport: “I know I should be more tolerant, but I really do think they could make more effort with their English.”

 

 

 

 

 

Asparagus Fever

Virgil Evetts

I’m one of those people who sulks and pouts their way through the dark months. I loathe the short days, cold nights and the lack of vital produce, and so desperately wait for the first tell-tale signs of spring. Buds on fruit trees, love songs from black birds and all associated optimism all help lift my spirits, but nothing quite says spring to me like the arrival of the first asparagus.

Not only does the arrival of asparagus do wonders for my serotonin levels, but it’s also one of my favourite vegetables taste-wise, and the first one I remember really enjoying as a child. But then I suppose I wasn’t exactly a normal child.

Asparagus is a bushy deciduous plant native to Europe and Asia, and is often mistakenly described as a fern on account of its frond-like feathery growth. The parts we eat are the very young shoots which start to appear in early spring and carry on up until midsummer. Although the asparagus season is quite long, with different varieties successively coming online, the very best asparagus is found in spring, when the shoot are still pencil-thin, sugary sweet and full of that uniquely asparagus flavour. But beware of thick, tree-trunk like asparagus: although it may look to be bursting with verve and crunch, it is often woody and lacking in flavour. A lot of this stuff turns up late in the season quite cheaply when the wholesalers are trying to move the tail end of the crop.

I always celebrate the annual arrival of asparagus by making a creamy, delicate asparagus risotto. This is the perfect dish for marking the end of winter, with its gentle herbaceous flavour and the delicate crunch of the barely cooked young shoots. At the most I garnish it with crispy twist of sautéed prosciutto and sprinkle of wine.

My earliest memories of asparagus stem from return trips to wellington aboard the Silver Fern. This was in the final days of rail being a viable, or even possible, way of getting about the country. It’s a bloody long journey by slow train, but a breathlessly exciting experience for a small boy from the city, punctuated by stops at obscure main trunk towns, and the periodic arrival of the complimentary refreshments trolley. Along with the gallons of tea (still served in those charming Crown Lynn cups), ANZAC biscuits and mini-mince pies that were handed out along the way, were old fashioned uber-kitsch (even in the early 80’s) asparagus rolls. Made with tinned asparagus and pappy white bread (crusts removed, naturally), these were an icon of the New Zealand tearoom scene from the 1950’s. NZ Railways never really escaped the 1950’s, and if they hadn’t been sold for a song some year back, I’m sure they’d still be dishing up the very same food and curt service today.

Although not remotely comparable to its fresh counterpart, tinned asparagus is not without its charms. Due to being cooked at very high temperatures, it has a silky (a less charitable person might say slimy) texture, and sweet, earthy, almost nutty flavour. Although I normally cross the road to avoid food like this, I have an inexplicable fondness for tinned asparagus. Call it nostalgic masochism if you will.

As summer rolls along I briefly come over all alpha-male, fire up the BBQ and, among other things charred and smouldering, indulge in good deal of BBQ asparagus. I make a marinade of 2 parts dark soy sauce, 1 part peanut oil, 1 part chilli oil and a little brown sugar. I liberally brush this over the grilling asparagus until slightly shrivelled, embarrassingly limp and utterly delicious. Serve this with whatever else you happen to be burning at the time.

Thinly sliced raw asparagus makes a beautifully crunchy and clean tasting addition to spring salads, and all on its own-some makes exquisite crudités for dipping in freshly made balsamic vinaigrette. I ignored this idea for years, thinking it to be more of that boring sort nonsense health-freaks like to pretend is tasty. I was a rash fool – its child’s-play simple but disarmingly delicious.

My grandmother was a woman of generous proportions (if not disposition), which was due in part, methinks, to her firm belief that butter was a condiment. Most of her cooking was ‘seasoned’ with salt, pepper and a liberal dousing of butter. She had particular fondness for steamed asparagus, swimming in a golden slick of perfect, molten butter. This remains one of my favourite ways of enjoying both asparagus and butter. While I may not have quite the same disregard from my arteries and girth as my late Nanna, she did have a point about butter. It’s the perfect embellishment to the very best produce.

Asparagus has a natural affinity for eggs. Steamed asparagus, served with quivering poached eggs and richly silken hollandaise, is a brunch of the most regal proportions. Back in the 80’s when complimentary vegetable sides were still the norm in Auckland restaurants, asparagus with Hollandaise or vinaigrette was a very popular choice. Having grown up in the restaurant industry, I still baulk at having to pay extra for a side salad or plate of steamed greens: labour costs be damned.

The two main colour varieties of asparagus seen in New Zealand are green and purple, but in terms of taste they are much of muchness. However, in Europe white or blanched asparagus is a popular and pricey seasonal treat. This is produced by keeping the emerging asparagus shoots in complete darkness, and thus preventing chlorophyll from developing. It’s a carefully tended crop, is picked by hand and must be kept in darkness right up until the point of sale. So it’s no surprise that it costs many times more than regular asparagus. White asparagus is produced on very small scale in New Zealand, but is almost exclusively destined for the off-season export market. It has a very sweet, mild flavour, and should be dressed with nothing more than a little extra virgin olive oil or butter. If you’re lucky enough to find some, snap it up quick smart.

The one black mark against the otherwise saintly status of asparagus is the rather antisocial affect it has upon certain bodily functions. More to the point, it makes your wee smell nasty. Noxious and obnoxious though it may be, this odour is a harmless side-effect of various sulphur compounds present in asparagus being broken down. It’s nowhere near as disturbing the post-digestive affects of too much beetroot: beetroot pigment passes through the personal plumbing unchanged and ominously sanguine, thus creating the alarming impression that you are haemorrhaging like a Romanov with a paper cut.

Asparagus crowns (dormant root clumps) are available from garden centre during the winter if you care to grow your own. They are not difficult plants to grow, and the feathery summer growth and golden autumn finale is very ornamental. But in most backyard situations, it’s not all that practical or even possible to grow enough asparagus to make it worthwhile. The plants take up a lot of room, need a permanent bed, and only produce edible shoots for a few months each year. But those of you in the provinces, with backyard space to burn should definitely lay down a bed. When it comes to asparagus, fresh really is best.

So for me, the appeal of asparagus lies not only in its exquisite taste and texture, but also because it signifies the end of the monotony of winter and the return the warmth and vitality that is spring.

What are your favourite ways with asparagus?

Mince Words

Virgil Evetts

Mince gets a bad rap these days. It’s gained a low-rent reputation, and is subject to so many scurrilous lies and rumours about its origins – nought but snouts and sphincters according to some. But preciousness and pretensions aside, mince is (usually) affordable, highly versatile and curiously comforting stuff.

Although there are probably a few less-than-scrupulous butchers out there, modern mince – be it of beef, pork, lamb or chicken origin) is generally free of offal or floor sweepings. There a number of regulatory reasons for this, but it’s mostly because offal is perfectly saleable individually, and its addition affects the colour, flavour and shelf life of the mince. So in this modern and excessively sterilised age, minced meats is most often just that – finely chopped and ground muscle tissue, fat and maybe the tiniest bit of sinew.

Mince is often criticised for being excessively fatty, and while it’s certainly true that the cheaper the mince the higher the fat content, it doesn’t naturally follow that this any bad thing.Fat carries flavour, and improves texture and mouth feel. Super lean beef mince for example may be kinder on the ventricles than its fattier kin, but it sure makes for some tedious eating.

Good quality mince should be lean, but not anorexic. If you’re really in froth about the lipid count, you can dry –fry it and drain away any excess fat, or allow the dish to cool completely and skim off the solidified, rendered fat.But let’s not be too paranoid. Fat, per se is not dangerous – it only becomes so in the hands of ill-disciplined eaters and irresponsible cooks.

Mince-based meals are almost universally popular with children, who often don’t appreciate the texture and toothsome nature of large cuts of meat. As a small child I certainly felt this way. Many of my favourite dishes were mince-based too, including my most beloved childhood dinner of all- lasagne. I originally pestered my mother to make this on account of it being the food of choice for Garfield the cat, who was something of hero of mine, due to his shameless gluttony, dry wit and violent intolerance of stupidity. I learned such a lot from that cat.

Lasagne can be a bit of chore of a dish to make, requiring two separate sauces: the (usually) beef mince based ragu and cheese béchamel, and then followed by baking. But in my books, it’s always worth the effort, with its crunchy crust and steaming layers of silken pasta, velvet, rich béchamel and full flavoured ragu.

As an adult I’ve come to find the name meatloaf strangely disturbing – a loaf of meat?! But I certainly savoured it as a child, and when well executed meatloaf can be a very decent dish by any reckoning. I’ve encountered some rather desperate attempts to modernise meatloaf with the addition of various Asian and Indian spices, but personally I can take or leave this kind of meddling. Like so many things, the (unlikely) charm of a good meatloaf is in its simplicity.

I recently read an excellent article in Australian Gourmet Traveller which asked several well known Australian chefs to describe their family recipes for spaghetti Bolognese. Every recipe was different- some insisting that only beef mince is canon, while other argued vehemently in defence of pork mince. Some swore by white wine, some red – still others included milk, or chicken livers, bacon or mushrooms. None of these were restaurant-quality dishes, but just the various ways these chefs had learned to make spag bol at home. A purist will tell you that these modern pretenders are nothing at all like ragu ala Bolognese (the original spag-bol ), but does it really matter? I’ve eaten some wonderful homemade spag-bol in New Zealand, and some terrible so-called restaurant quality ragu ala Bolognese in Italy and vice versa. Provenance alone does not make a meal great – ultimately it is only as good as the love and care imbued by its creator. Regardless of your familial flourish, spaghetti Bolognaise remains a firm favourite in the kiwi kitchen and has the rare status of being real family food in that it’s loved by all ages.

I think anyone who enjoys spag-bol would enjoy chilli con carne. It has a similar depth of flavour, but is in many ways a more rounded dish, with the inclusion of beans, cocoa and complex Tex-Mex spicing(it is not a wholly Mexican dish). I resisted this dish for years – finding it all together too wet – but it’s now a firm favourite, particularly in summer when it can be joined with an endless array of zinging, spicy fresh salsas<

Lamb mince is a very affordable way of eating what is otherwise a quite prohibitively expensive meat – something I vehemently object to in New Zealand. Most often I use lamb mince in Middle Eastern and Moroccan themed dishes. Kofta (made with lamb in place of beef) and shwarma are both very popular in my household, and are particularly welcome in winter when the intoxicating aromas and warming flavours of these cuisines are most uplifting. Lamb mince is also very good when dry-fried (until slightly crispy,) with plenty of garlic and a teaspoon each of ground black pepper, allspice and cumin. Serve on a bed of hummus with a salad of cucumbers, ripe tomatoes and mint.Dress with chilli oil and lemon juice and scoop up with hot, toasted pita bread.

I once devoted an entire article to my love of Swedish Meatballs, and time has in no way weakened my love. These tender, flavoursome and delicately fragrant treatsare the very finest use of pork and beef mince that I can think of ,and offer all the understated sophistication we have come to expect from the Swedes.

It may surprise some to know that I’m a big fan of mince on toast and very much appreciate any café with the guts to offer it on their menu. In my opinion the mince in this self explanatory dish needs nothing more than generous seasoning and perhaps a little garlic. I like it dry-fried and very well browned. But not everyone agrees. Typically, Americans took mince on toast and supersized it into the wet and rather worryingly-titled Sloppy Joe. This is a sort of hybrid bolognaise sauce / hamburger/ mince on toast mess. It certainly lives up to its name by slopping and squirting itself all over your hands, clothes, shoes and friends. This is frankly a dish I could live without meeting again, but Americans go wild for it. Take that however you please.

In summertime, during my brief annual fling with the BBQ, I quite enjoy a homemade hamburger or two. For these I use the very best beef mince I can afford, season it generously, mix in an egg and kneed it into a well blended paste. The only additional flavouring I ever add is a little finely chopped fresh thyme. These should be rolled into balls, pressed out to about the thickness of your little finger and grilled or gently fried on both sides. I’m not a fan of onion, garlic, cheese or any of the other additions popular in hamburger patties. For me it’s all about the quality and flavour of the meat. But, just for the sake of being a screaming hypocrite, I will tell you that pure (free-range) pork hamburger patties, made with loads of garlic, fennel seeds, chilli and smoked paprika, are wickedly good, and the robust embellishments actually enhance the sweet piggi-ness of the meat.

Minced fish is a fairly common ingredient in many Asian cuisines, where it is used to make fish balls, patties and sausages.I don’t strongly recommend you buy this as a premade product (due to the varying quality and freshness of its components) but I’m very partial to homemade Thai fish cakes made from freshly minced white fish. These delicate, kaffir lime-spiked morsels are such a breeze to make and are quite addictively more-ish. These can also be made with chicken mince and are then reminiscent – in a good way – of a very grown-up chicken nugget.

Speaking of which, chicken nuggets are one of the very few uses of chicken mince I can bring myself to indorse. Homemade real chicken nuggets seriously tickle my fancy and are a huge hit with kids. Better still, they’re completely free of any of the frightening miscellany that dominates the ingredient lists of their industrial kind.

So if you’ve fallen prey to mince’s bad publicity in recent years, it might just be time for you to let bygones be bygones and give it another chance. There is no end to the uses for mince in the kitchen, and as economies collapse and household budgets tighten, it remains one of the few affordable forms of fresh meat.

What do you do with mince?

The Virtues Of Snacking

Virgil Evetts

I don’t know about you, but I just can’t go anywhere near the supermarket on an empty stomach. I’ve done it a few times and ended up stumbling around the isles in a starved stupor, eventually getting home to find I’d bought a trolley load of mismatched food – mostly pricey, instant gratification, caloric rubbish – that I didn’t really want. So I have learned to either shop on a full stomach, or leave the shopping to someone who can be trusted to stay within budget and reason. My best beloved is good in this regard, being largely immune to hunger-driven lapses of taste.

But hunger doesn’t just make me a weak-minded trolley pusher: it also leads me seriously astray in the kitchen. The whole decision of what to cook becomes an unbearable burden on an empty stomach, and I throw myself into perspective-challenged despair. I’m told it’s quite the spectacle.

So the bottom line is that, after feeding the cats and checking the chickens, the evening can’t possibly get going until I’ve refuelled with a light but tasty snack. Being a very fussy eater – and I mean VERY fussy – I have high standards for my snack foods. But (and here’s the rub) it has to be super easy to assemble (certainly no cooking involved), taste great and go well with wine.

Now let me just say that I do realise everyone has their own favourite snack foods – some prefer sweet, some prefer savoury, some like it wet, some like it dry – so I’m not trying to say that this is the definitive list, it’s just my definitive list. This is just the stuff the puts the wind back in my sails after a long day of toil, so I can get on with the more serious business of my nightly cook-fest.

Cheese

By far the easiest option when you walk in the door, and just about my favourite food full-stop.

The only downside to cheese is that it’s a bit on the fattening side. I blame my mid-20’s waist expansion on the double cream brie addiction I was trapped in at the time. Not that it stopped me.

Cheese is however the very best kind of snack food because it’s salty, fatty and high in protein, thus giving your worn out body a gentle kick in all the right places. I go through phases of preferred pre-dinner cheeses, but usually vacillate between brie, something blue and creamy, and good, crumbly cheddar.

Ideally all cheeses should be served at room temperature, but after work on an empty stomach, who has the time to wait?

I usually prefer my cheese served with water crackers – these add some much needed carbs, but don’t interfere with the cheese’s complex flavours. If I’m really lucky my best beloved will have treated me to some criminally good and fiendishly expensive Duchy Original oat cakes. Made from ingredients grown organically on the estates of dear old Prince Big Ears, these are a serious weakness of mine.

Brie is not a cheese that needs any further accompaniments – it’s too delicate for this sort of thing – but I do like a bit of chutney or relish with my cheddar. Sticky, sweet Indian green mango relish is particularly good. Unlike most cheeses, which are sold prêt a manger (ready to eat), brie requires a bit of planning. Because I like my brie very ripe – as in ammonia-scented and oozing – I always buy it several days before I intend to dig-in. Kept loosely wrapped in the pantry it quickly ripens to that perfect degree of solid/liquid bliss sticky bliss.

A nice ripe blue cheese is just fine on its own, but a little honey comb (If you can be bothered with all that wax) or quince paste is always most welcome.

Fromage fort –when I have it – certainly makes the grade for my 5:30 top-ups and goes exceptionally well on warm toasted ciabatta.

Nuts

As I covered nuts ad nauseum not so long ago on Foodlover’s , I won’t bore you with too much detail here.

A bowl of pistachio nuts is probably about the laziest sort of snack food, but it’s also among the most delicious. But, as I’ve already confessed, I have no self control whatsoever when faced with any quantity of pistachio nuts. I will keep eating until they are all gone, however ill it may make me feel. Don’t look at me, I’m disgusting.

Being in the thrall of the pistachio not only plays havoc with ones inner workings, it also does serious damage to the war-chest. They’re prohibitively pricey and therefore only a very rare indulgence these days.

Peanuts are a more affordable option and with a little effort can make a surprisingly snazzy snack. To make spiced peanuts, heat little oil in pan, toss in 2 cups of blanched, peeled peanuts. Stir the nuts until well browned. Add a teaspoon each of garam masala, ground cumin, salt and a generous pinch of ground allspice and stir until evenly coated and fragrant. Remove from heat and drain on kitchen paper. Serve completely cooled to get a decent crunch. These nut can be little messy to eat, but are a cheap and easy way of injecting the total yawn-fest that is the peanut with some much needed verve.

Crostini

These take a bit of initial effort but are welcome addition to the pantry when hunger busts the door down. Crostini are nothing more than thin slices of (usually stale) bread, drizzled with a little olive oil and baked in moderate oven until completely dry. They should be very brittle and crunchy. In an air tight container they will keep almost indefinitely – willpower permitting.

Crostini are great smeared with whatever you have in the fridge – pesto, taramasalata, aioli etc. My favourite topping for crostini is fresh chicken liver pate made in the Tuscan style with a few anchovies and capers blended in with the livers. Just about as fine as snacking gets and the kismet- perfect partner to glass of blood & guts red.

Bruschetta

First of all, I have to clear something up. It’s bruu-sketta, not brush-etta. I know, it doesn’t really matter, but what can I say – I’m a total pedant.

Anyway, bruschetta is really just garlic bread with an Italian flourish. Best made with Italian-style sour dough bread, such as ciabatta or pugliesse (fluffy, soft breads will burn too quickly), cut to the thickness of a couple of fingers and toasted until it to burns a little around the edges. The bread is then rubbed with a clove of raw garlic, drizzled with some very good extra virgin oil and finished with a sprinkle of flaky sea-salt. I’m not a big fan of the lingering taste of raw garlic, so usually blanch it for about 10 seconds in the microwave first. Not often you’ll hear me mention microwaves with any kind of positivity.

Bruschetta is traditionally grilled over charcoals. Yeah, whatever.

Corn Chips & Salsa Cruda

There is something about the smell of cheap corn chips that I just can’t abide. So strong is my aversion that I’ve banned their consumption in my presence at home. EMO –Boy (my brother in law) on the other hand would quite happily subsist on the noxious shrapnel, and is forever testing my boundaries. He got quite snippy the other night when I exiled him back to his fortress of solitude (his bedroom), after he briefly surfaced with a sack of said stinkables. What is it with gangly students and peculiar smells?

But being a card-carrying hypocrite I do make the odd self-serving exception to this ban. Blue corn chips can do no wrong. I’m such a fan of these, and not because they are organic or blue – they just taste, and smell, really good. Blue corn chips are made with a naturally blue variety of maize grown for centuries by the Native American Hopi people. They have a wonderfully toasty, mellow corn-flavour (the chips, not the Hopi), but with none of the sickly, sweaty odour I find so disagreeable elsewhere. Basically these are the corn chips for people who don’t like corn-chips.

To make an a perfect salsa cruda (raw sauce) to accompany these, or any other corn chips that tickle your fancy, roughly process together 2 or 3 peeled and burstingly-ripe tomatoes, a clove or 2 of garlic, a couple of chillies, a de-seeded red capsicum, a glug of olive oil and plenty of salt to taste. Use your fingers to squish together but do not use a food processor. Finish with a little fresh coriander. This should be a rough, chunky sauce with a zingy freshness from the raw tomato and good kick from the chilli and garlic. When you can find them, tomatillos make an excellent substitute (pictured) for the tomatoes. The tomatillo version is known as salsa verde, but shouldn’t be confused with the very good but complexly different Italian sauce of the same name.

As you might have noticed, none of these ideas is exactly innovative or original. But that’s because when I’m really hungry I don’t want to think, I want simple pleasing flavours that recharge my batteries, so I can focus on the real matter at hand-dinner!

There’s nothing wrong with going to lots of effort with your snack foods, but it’s often wasted on the tired and hungry.

In my professional life I attend a great many gallery and exhibition openings. Quite often the catering for these affairs is very lavish indeed, with an endless array of very clever, very fussy canapés and amuse bouche sweeping through the crowd. As most of these events happen in the very early evening, the assembled company is usually desperately hungry, and as result virtually inhale whatever they are offered. I often think they’d be just as happy with sausage rolls and curried eggs. So ultimately, my personal golden rules for après toil pick-me-ups are: keep it simple, keep it quick, keep it tasty.

So what do you think? Are you a snacker by nature ?

The Very Good Oil

Virgil Evetts

Since my recent foray into deep-frying, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the many oils we use in the kitchen. At any one time I have at least 4 or 5 different types of oil in the pantry, and use them all in different ways and for different reasons. It’s taken me years to work out what oil works where – and although it’s largely matter of taste, there are a few guidelines that are best adhered to in terms of oil appropriateness. Strangely, considering how widely and frequently we use oils in our cooking (probably every night for most of us), it’s not something often discussed. Modern food books seem to mostly to be in the pocket of the olive oligarchs (as evidenced by the frivolous over-prescribing of extra virgin olive oil for everything from pesto to pad Thai,) or worse still they demand the use of a mythical substance called ‘vegetable oil’.

So it seems to me that a brief guide to the best and brightest of edible oils – at least as I see them – might be timely. I’m not going to delve in into the dull complexities of nutrition in any detail, except to say that vegetable oils are fats – albeit of a slightly gentler kind than animal fat – but if taken in quantity will generously deliver on the promises of that name. Do you really need me to expand upon this? It’s been said by some – far too often, If you ask me – that the secret to a long and happy life is to take everything in moderation. Makes sense, I suppose, but the history of popular culture is littered with contradictory evidence that the secret to a brief and bloody fabulous life is to indulge in everything to catastrophic excess – think Cass Elliot, Elvis Presley etc. I’m not about to tell you which way is better. It’s your trip.

Culinary oils fall into two main categories – the ones we use for actual cooking (frying, deep-frying, bastings etc) and the ones we use ‘raw’ for dressings, dips, sauces and marinades. Some, like peanut oil, can serve both functions; whereas others should never rise above their stations. (For example, dark sesame oil, which would be a very odd, not to mention expensive, choice for deep-frying; although I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before Heston Blumenthal gives it a whirl! )

There are a great many more oils available to the keen cook than those listed below; these are just the ones I know best.

Olive

Considering the word ‘oil’ is derived from oleum – the Latin for olive oil – it seems appropriate to start here.

A number of different grades of olive oil are available, but as far as I’m concerned extra virgin is the only one worth talking about.

Pomace olive oil – should you have the misfortune to come across it – is a barley food grade abomination extracted with detergents from pre-squeezed olive dregs. It’s nasty stuff and will again never pass my lips. As for light olive oil – what’s the point?

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

By definition extra virgin is any oil resulting from the first pressing of the olive mash, which is stirred and re-pressed several times to obtain successive grades of oil. It’s often vibrantly green, almost syrupy, with a strong herbaceous fragrance and slightly acrid tang. If you only know extra virgin olive oil by way of those blockbuster supermarket brands, my description may seem a little OTT, so allow me to explain: although allegedly within the required parameters of acidity, body and colour to be classed as extra virgin olive oil, the vast majority of oils sold under that name in supermarkets are worlds apart from the best of their kind. Its long been rumoured that various parties abroad are telling greasy little porkies, because the apparent annual extra virgin olive oil yield of Europe is impossibly high – there just aren’t enough trees  in Europe today to be making the volume of extra virgin oil sold under that title. Accusations of adulteration and tampering are thrown around from time to time, but are quickly silenced by the all-powerful and powerfully litigious International Olive Council. Based in Spain, this uber- bureaucratic cartel is alarmingly influential and highly secretive – rather like an oilier version of Opus Dei.

The fact is, if you’re paying around $10-$12 per litre for so-called extra virgin oil, you will be getting oil that is excellent for frying and maybe the odd salad dressing – but that’s about it. However, as long as you don’t believe a word of the faux-talian marketing spin, its great stuff. Supermarket extra virgin is my preferred oil for everyday use, and I go though around a litre per week. It may not be anything special but it makes a damn fine kitchen workhorse.

True extra virgin oil, by contrast is wasted in the pan. It may be THE oil for drizzling over bruschetta, or insalata Caprese, and for making the finest vinaigrette , mayonnaise and aioli but never for cooking. It’s best thought of as a condiment oil. To be enjoyed at its best, extra virgin oil should be very fresh, preferably no more than 6-9 months old) and have been stored in darkness (UV light destroys the delicate flavour and colour).

The New Zealand olive industry is going from strength to strength, and our oils have won many international accolades. These home-grown EVO’s represent excellent value for money, when compared to their high end counterparts imported from Tuscany and beyond. In fact, the best local olive oils are generally superior to any of the imported equivalents I’ve tasted, and better than many I’ve tasted overseas. This is something to be proud of. Better still, along with our growing reputation for producing world class wines, it annoys the hell out of the Europeans!

There is no great art to choosing a premium olive oil – but always try before you buy. Quality can vary hugely from year to year, and is dependent on freshness and correct storage. In other words, don’t assume that what was breathtaking last year will be quite so incapacitating this time around.

Peanut A.K.A Groundnut oil

A much-maligned oil on account of its pedestrian progenitor, high saturated fat content and potential for purging the world of people with nut allergies with all the swiftness of sarin in the Tokyo tube network. But to hell with that; peanut is the only oil to use for Asian style stir fried cooking. Simply nothing else will do. It has a warm, peanuty aroma and similarly pleasing taste, which blends so beautifully with the salty-sweet flavours of many Chinese creations. There are few finer scents of the kitchen that that of onions sizzling in smoking-hot peanut oil.

Apart these obvious applications, peanut oil also turns up in a few unexpected places – most startlingly in Julia Child’s classic crepe batter recipe from her magnum opus Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I too was sceptical at first, being far more used to liberal lashing of butter, but now wouldn’t do it any other way. Side by side with olive oil this stuff deserves a permanent place by your stove.

Sunflower

Rather as the name suggests, pressed from oil-rich sunflower seeds. I like this oil for its very clean, slightly sweet taste. Although I rarely cook with it myself, it is a very decent oil for frying, but is even better suited to more subtle applications. I personally find mayonnaise made with pure EVO too strongly flavoured – too olivey to be exact – so instead use 2 parts sunflower to 1 part olive. The resulting mayo is still rich and eggy, but has a little more finesse than the usual uber-olive slap in the face.

Sunflower oil works particularly well for preserving sundried tomatoes and other vegetables in the Italian style of sotto oleo (under oil). Made in the traditional way – with olive oil – any subtleties of the produce are lost under a screaming excess of olive. So, once again, a 2-1 dilution works very well to my taste. (It’s easy to get carried away with the romance of preserving things in oil; it seems so very easy and the results look almost better than they taste, which is seriously saying something. But be aware that it’s also a potentially lethal practise, which in the wrong hands can lead to botulism poisoning and ergo a whole world of unpleasantness. So for the love of Vishnu, do your homework first. A very good place to start is by reading Preserving the Italian way. This extraordinary book remains the only authentic English language-guide to traditional Italian preserving methods, covering everything from jams and pickles to salami and hams. It’s a wonderful read and deserves prime real estate on any serious Food Lovers bookshelf.)

Grape seed

Disappointingly for most newcomers to grape seed oil, it doesn’t taste even remotely of grapes. Actually it doesn’t really taste of anything at all, but this quality, coupled with a very high burning point, is what makes grape seed oil one of the unsung heroes of the modern kitchen. This is the oil to use when you don’t want your food to taste oily. It has a remarkably light mouth-feel and squeaky- clean finish, making it is equally well placed in salad dressing or the frying pan. Grape seed oil is a relatively new product – as in the last few decades – and is unsurprisingly a by-product of the wine industry. It has a reputation for being one the finest oils for deep-frying, but is (at least according to my finances) a tad too pricey for this extravagance. If you can afford such lavish fry-ups, then by all means go crazy.

Canola

If you’ve ever wondered what exotic plant, nut or seed yields canola oil you’re in for a bit of disappointment. Canola is simply the patented name for a couple of strains of rape (a type of mustard). The word is a hybrid anagram for Canadian Oil Low Acidity and, as you might have guessed, it was first developed in Canada. Canola has that classic cooking oil aroma, and although too coarse for salad dressings or mayo is well suited to deep-frying, as it lacks the heavy, lingering odour that is typical of other low-cost oils.

The biggest negative associated with Canola is that it is one of the most genetically altered of all food crops (which despite what certain zealots would have you believe is not necessarily a bad thing in itself). What is really worrying is the reason why canola has been so wildly manipulated -to resist herbicides. This means farmers can cheerfully douse their canola crops with what would be, to any other plant, a lethal dose of deadly chemicals, thus saving farmers the costly, laborious effort of manual or mechanical weeding. It also means that the crop has been exposed to an alarming amount of God knows what, which is often detectable and very possibly concentrated in the seed-oil.

Soy

To me soy oil is a bit of last resort. I don’t like the heavy, rank odour it releases when heated and, as with canola, the parent plant has a seriously buggered-up gene pool. However, it does lend itself very well to deep-frying (as long as you have a decent range-hood to suck away that awful chip-shop funk). In case I haven’t said it before, deep-frying really isn’t  something to fear. As long you follow the golden rules of NEVER WALK AWAY, NEVER ABOVE 190 CELSIUS (some oils can be safely heated well above this but it’s a good safe guideline) and NEVER OVER-FILL ( some foods- especially if they are wet – cause much wild bubbling which in too small a pot will over-boil and burn like Hades in a heat-wave). The only limit to how much you can deep-fry is the width of your arteries.

Dark Sesame

Strictly condiment oil and a true must-have for any pantry with a bit of pride. Chinese dark sesame oil is pressed from roasted sesame seeds (unroasted sesame oil is popular in many Middle Eastern countries) and has a wonderfully rich, toasty flavour and that definitively ‘Asian aroma’.

This oil is best added to dishes just before serving – so as to preserve its potent, yet fragile, nature. It’s just dandy with pork and chicken, and has an even greater affinity for cashews and celery, odd as this may sound. Dark sesame oil is also an excellent base for the most exquisite Asian-accented vinaigrette. Shake or whisk together 2 parts dark sesame to 1 part soy sauce, 1 part rice vinegar and good slug of fish sauce. This dressing lifts any salad well beyond the over-blown garnish status, and is especially good with finely shredded, raw Savoy cabbage and a scattering of roasted peanuts.

And finally, the almost rans:

Rice-bran

This was the darling of the health-conscious set not so long ago and, as is consistent with all they hold near and dear, it’s vile stuff. Blessed with a wet-cardboard aroma and highly forgettable flavour, rice-bran oil is best left to those with whose main criterion for food is how well it will regulate their bowels. Tastes better than cod-liver oil I suppose.

Coconut

I tried with all my might to like coconut oil, but the fact is it stinks. Really stinks. The rancid, almost viscous ‘fragrance’ permeated every thread of every soft furnishing in my house, and I was duly banned from ever using it again. But that wasn’t the end of the fetid affair: I tipped the entire economy size bottle down the kitchen sink (with a good glug of detergent and a lot of hot water) and was then haunted by the distant, but undeniable, odour of stale coconut every time I went near a drain in or around my property for weeks.

I’ve since learned that some coconut oils are better than others for cooking and I might, one day pluck up the courage to try again. I’ve seen deodorised coconut oil – a lard-like solidified mass at health-food shops from time to time – but as with ‘lite’ olive oil, I really can’t see the point.

Well that certainly ended up being a more long-winded diatribe than I had in mind, so you’ll be pleased to know I’m done.

But now I want to hear what oils you use, abuse and detest. Come on. Out with it then.



Winter Finger Food

Winter Canapés

By Michal Haines

Winter entertaining can be a drag. The colder weather seems to makes everyone ravenous. It can be hard to concentrate on your cooking when your guests turn up at your door looking like they may eat you if you don’t hurry up and give them something straight away. The ideal dishes to serve are slow cooked creations that will feed plenty but they do, as their names suggest, take a little longer to get to the table. Everyone is cold and if you live in a house like mine, not all of you can huddle about the heater at once. So how do you make winter a time of entertaining?

One of the most common questions I get asked is what can I serve people for canapés in winter?
Summer is so easy with its flashy fruit and warm weather. You feel it is easier and totally acceptable to pop out a wonderful platter of cold meats and spreads in the antipasti styling followed by some well barbecued meat. Winter seems to demand more from you as an entertainer and without all the taste sensations of summer fruit made into fresh cocktails to help out, you do have to think a little harder.

Canapés to most seem to be open a packet of chips and tear the lid off some dip but in my world, canapés mean the actual art of creating small eats. Small eats don’t have to be time consuming and fiddly but they do demand a high level of taste to have maximum impact and to get those stomach juices going in time for the main event.

They need to be large enough that any male doesn’t feel like a giant when picking them up and yet small enough that they go in into your mouth easily. There is nothing worse than a canapé that immediately crumbles into one a thousand pieces as soon as you have bitten into it making you immediately try to rescue it from your front with your hand that is already holding a wine glass. Napkins are a must but better still make it easy to eat.

The Spanish have it down with tapas. The idea of wee plates of delicious, unfussy nibbles is exactly what you are looking for. The Basque call them pintxos and have an array of taste sensations within the collection. Small sandwiches (bocadillos), fried seafood treats (fritos), small mini braises (estofados), skeweres (pintxos) and topped slices of bread (montaditos). All of them are the careful matching of tastes with textures but most a relatively simple. Well seasoned squid, deep fried and served with a lemon aioli, a prawn fritter, a good quality chorizo served sliced.

Flavour is all important here so you can get away with big bold flavours as it is a precursor to what is to come. Naturally it is good to work with a theme. If you are serving a rather classic French cassoulet as a main or an Indian array of dishes (even Indian inspired) it is best you stick with that. No fusion confusion.

If you are serving meat for a main best not see it first as an entrée or canapé. The only time I may make an exception for this is with Asian as all meat, all the time is the motto that works for them. I am happy to have pork five different ways in one meal!

The other vital one is not to over do it. Your main is the star so you don’t won’t to put all your time and effort into canapés. Look at 3 to 4 items per person as anything else would just be greedy. Make sure you are on time. If your guests are waiting for and hour or more for dinner then they may well need more than three items each, especially if they are drinking.

A few ideas may help to get you thinking differently about how winter canapés.

Seasonal produce as always is the best place to start. Look to see what you like and think about how you may be able to use it. Pumpkins and squash are abundant so think polenta cakes made with pumpkin and plenty of parmesan, think pumpkin risotto balls, think pumpkin slivers roasted and served on bruschetta with crispy bacon or pancetta.

Pears work well with lamb and venison and are cheap right now. Roasted and served thinly sliced with a wee piece of rare venison or lamb backstrap on top wont break the budget and will look amazing. Drizzle over some reduced balsamic or balsamic glaze and you have a great, robust and very man friendly treat.

Citrus can be found in many a back yard and can be utilised to match with meat and poultry for a bright and zesty winter treat. Marinate chicken nibbles in fresh orange juice and zest with a little honey, whole grain mustard and sherry vinegar for a few hours. Simply roast in the oven for 30 minutes and serve with a napkin.

Make a citrus salsa with lemons, orange and grapefruit. Add freshly chopped coriander, a little touch of chilli or red capsicum finely diced for colour and mix well with salt, pepper and a little olive oil. Top pieces of hot smoked salmon on toasted pieces of bread with the citrus and serve. A little messier but worth it.

Don’t discount precooked items also as ways that you can save time and work your magic. A roasted duck from an Asian food-store can be shredded and rolled into rice paper or little pancakes with spring onions. Rhubarb works very well with duck as the more acidic and sweet taste helps cut the greasiness of the meat .
I chop –
200g of rhubarb up roughly and place it in a saucepan with
¼ cup of sugar and
1 whole star anise and
enough water to stop it sticking (1/4 cup).
Set it to cook on a medium heat and allow it to cook till it is very jammy and all the water has reduced away. Taste to see if it needs a little more sugar and remove the star anise.
Serve in Chinese spoons with shredded duck meat on top and a garnish of very finely chopped spring onion.

Little pastry cases are ideal for mixing big intense flavours together. Think chorizo sausage and a little beaten egg. Fill the case and bake till golden brown. Top with a tiny bit of onion jam and a left of garnish and they will look a million dollars. There are good number of pre made pastry cases available at supermarkets now and while they can be a little dull on flavour, they are a perfect vehicle for enhancement. Things like tinned salmon or tuna can be turned into a real treat with the addition of fresh herbs and a little ricotta mixed through it as well as some key textural ingredients such as artichokes or capers.

Toasted bread is a fine vehicle for messier toppings and is an economical way of creating a winter canapé. Toast rounds of French bread ahead of time and then use a good store bought hummus to top each round. Top the hummus with roasted pumpkin seeds or slivers of roasted carrot.

Thick slices of potatoes can be roasted ahead of time. Lay them out on a baking tray and top with a little slice of dry mozzarella, sage leaf and a very little piece of proscuitto or streaky bacon and bake for 12 minutes till bubbling. Serve with a toothpick through it for easy eating.The same can be done with kumara and topped with salami that has been fried till crispy.

Remember that oysters are at their best in winter, these can be served chilled or in a delicious hot sauce and once again look great on Asian style china spoons.

Skewers and sticks are easy and can be threaded well ahead of time. A good marinade is all you need to make them delicious. Short cooking time makes them also a good one to have ready to go as people arrive that can be served straight from the oven piping hot. Try simple items such as salmon, baby roasted onions skewered with a good quality tangy sheep’s milk cheese or roasted baby beetroot with olives and feta. Taking the time to roast a few little vegetables while you are cooking dinner the night before will make all the difference to your pintxos.

Get thinking about ways that you can make simple ingredients work for you. Be economical too. Often your main has already swallowed up a chunk of your budget so working with a few ingredients and making them sing by matching them well can make all the difference.

What are some of your favourites?

Slow Cooking Low-Down

Virgil Evetts

The thought of deep, earthy slow cooked food is so very appealing amidst the miserable chill of winter. Tough but tasty cuts of meat cooked until meltingly soft, swimming in rich complex gravies along with sweet nuggets of onion, carrot, parsnip and mushroom. If there is indeed any sort of upside to the misery of the cold months, it’s food like this.

Trouble is, most of us lead such crazy, hectic lives nowadays that this kind of cooking is either overlooked or roundly dismissed. Long hours every day spent in the bill-paying grind and then for many of us the tedious (and in Auckland often terrifying) trip home.

Thankfully though, the ever resourceful appliance peddlers have more than a few toys for hungry, weary travellers like us. Bench top slow cookers – rather like bread makers- are a modern kitchen phenomenon. Rather than being just another gimmick and object of clutter, they actually make life easier- which is the whole idea of technology after all.

Slow cookers don’t really do anything that can’t be achieved in a casserole or tajine, but- and I think this is their biggest selling point- they have timers- meaning you can do your prep and then set the cooker to have dinner ready for the table when you walk in the door at night. Kind of like a plug-in 1950s housewife but without the gingham and Tupperware.

As I said, you can do all of this with an oven, but personally I’m always anxious about leaving my oven switched on and unattended. Who knows what it might get up to? Most slow cookers are packed with safety feature which help to minimise the risk of coming home to smoking ruins.

Slow cooking- stews- hot-pots, casseroles and myriad others are common to all cuisines and hark back to the days when most home cooking was done in heavy clay or cast iron pots over an open fire or better still in the glowing embers. This softly, softly approach to cooking renders the toughest cut of meat succulent and tender, brings out the natural sweetness in root vegetables and concentrates flavours to a depth and clarity that is quite simply ambrosial

Gravy beef, chuck steak, blade steak and other economy cuts are the only way to go in the world of bovine based slow cooking. Shanks, neck chops and the off-puttingly named flaps are the sheepish equivalents. I can offer little advice when it comes to slow cooked or stewed pork dishes except to recommend you invest in a good extractor fan first. Rendered pig is more than little a wiffy.

The best vegetables for slow cooking are the cool climate classics- carrots, parsnips, potatoes, celeriac, onions and dare I say, it even Swede. Given time and patience, this most odious and odiferous of roots can be transformed into something quite special. Yes, seriously.

As you might have guessed by now, I’m a bit of an Italio-phyle. Being a bit of milkshake of Maori and European ancestory, I was often mistaken for Italian or some other Mediterranean extraction as a child- which suited me just fine. Although I’ve since learned that masquerading as another ethnicity is a bit sad, I do still have a love for all things Latin- specially things of an edible nature. So it’s probably no surprise that one of my all time favourite slow cooked dishes is osso bucco. This recipe, from Italy’s milk-fed north, uses one of the most under-rated of cuts- veal or beef shins. Although initially startlingly tough- (the shin muscles get quite a work out in life) but when cooked down slowly  in a stew of tomatoes and wine they become fall-apart tender and yield bucket loads of gorgeous bovine depth. Although not to everyone taste, the built-in fount of luscious, creamy marrow in the centre of the bone is just the icing on the cake for me. I could eat that stuff all day or at least until my arteries gummed-up.

I’m a huge fan of parsnip either mashed, as crispy wafer-thin chips but most especially in rich, beefy stews and casseroles. Always referred to as ‘snarpips’ in my family, their silky, sweetness and delicate herbal flavour is the perfect partner to so many of my favourite dishes. Whether they feature in the recipe or not, parsnips can do no wrong- so don’t hold back.

Lamb is often over looked as a stewing meat, but Irish stew; a restrained but hearty dish of lamb meat- neck chops do particularly well here- potatoes, onions and carrots, is easily among my favourite winter offerings. Served with soda bread or dumplings it’s a dish of the very deepest satisfaction.

Lamb shanks’ are probably the best know cut of the sheep for the slow cooked treatment, and while not as affordable as other stewing meats, they offer gorgeous buttery, flavoursome meat and a wonderfully lamby stock.

Lamb shanks’ work particularly well in a tajine- and can replace the rump specified in this recipe quite admirably. I probably make more tajines in winter than any other kind of slow cooked dish. There are literally hundreds of variations on the tajine- (which is in fact a cooking vessel, but much like the casserole is most often used to describe dish itself), but they all follow a similar pattern. Tajines are usually meat based (lamb, duck, kofta, beef, goat), contain basic vegetables such as carrot and onion and are flavoured with typically North African spices like cinnamon, cloves, turmeric and saffron. The inclusion of dried fruits such as apricots, prunes, fig and quince is a hallmark of tajine cooking as is the addition of various nuts. Many tajine recipes also include honey, which while quite traditional can be a bit alarming to the western palate when added too liberally. On the other hand, I very much appreciate the Moroccan habit of breaking an egg per diner into the tajine shortly before serving (pictured).

And before you’re wooed by the wares of Milly’s et al, no you don’t need an actual tajine (the conical lidded cooking vessel) to make a tajine stew- they work equally well in a casserole or electric slow cooker.

If I was the whiney, pleading type and hell, maybe I am, I’d be pushing you towards tajines more than any other style of cooking this winter. They’re perfect for lazy cooks because you don’t need to brown anything, making them the archetypal one pot wonder and I’ve yet to find a person who doesn’t visibly swoon when the lid comes off.

I’m of the opinion that chicken is usually wasted in stews, casseroles and even tajines. The flesh disintegrates into pappy fibres and I’m often left wondering how I can dispose of the whole mess without the host noticing (Labradors are very useful here). However, there are one or two very passable chicken stews and similar, of which my favourite by far is coq au vin. Not a million miles from Beef Bourguignon (another Grande Dame of the French cooking repertoire) coq au vin – meaning rooster in wine- consists of chicken portions slowly cooked in red wine with onions, mushrooms, bacon and the classic bouquet garni. Older recipe specify an actual rooster for this dish along with its blood. Anyone who’s spent much time in the proximity of a rooster may find this rather appealing.

Once you’re in the habit of making tajines, stews, casseroles and other slow cooked pleasures of the cold months, the style becomes quite addictive. I’ve even been known to stretch out my tajine season well into summer. After all, it gets hot in Morocco, right?

In these rather worrying days of crumbling economies it’s a pleasure and relief to find recipes that are affordable, nutritious and thoroughly delicious. This is certainly true all of the above and most slow cooked dishes for that matter. So if you’re not a slow cooking convert just yet- get thee to the crock pot!

Sweet Slices

Slices are a great favourite of mine, they are generally quick and easy to make and are fairly quick to cook.  While most of mine don’t get a chance to make it to the freezer many of them are easily cut and then frozen for later use.

At the peak of the easy to make slices must be the varying combinations of ingredients that have a can of condensed milk poured over them prior to baking. There is no mixing bowl or spoons required but the entire slice is made in the pan.  All Saints Slice aka Hello Rosie slice is a perennial favourite.  I don’t make it too often as it one of those things that will power simply can’t stand up to.  A more fruity variation of the same recipe is Tropical Slice where varying dried fruits are layered on a biscuit base along with chocolate chunks.

Another favourite slice using sweetened condensed milk is Tan square.  I like this as much as I did as a child and unfortunately it is one of those sweets that are so popular they disappear in a flash.

Lately in our house the kids have been keen on Chocolate Weetbix Slice, this is great for using up weetbix crumbs in the bottom of the packet and also it is simple enough for them to make themselves.

Ginger crunch is another crowd pleaser – either in the traditional short base or this delicious Takaka Oaty Ginger Crunch.  Chunks of crystallised in the icing are lovely or topping the icing with chopped toasted pistachio nuts.

 

Chocolate lovers will find this Chocolate Fudge Brownie really good – it is just the right level of sticky chewiness combined with a firmer crust….

While I like my mints in a bag this Chocolate Mint Slice is always a hit and particularly good with coffee after dinner.

Caramel and chocolate is a marriage in heaven and this oaty chocolate caramel slice is highly decadent.

For those who like citrus then Sticky lemon slice is heavenly!  For a quicker sweet citrus fix try the citrus uncooked biscuit fudge slice .

Anzac slice is a pseudo healthy slice – the oaty component works for me!  It is very similar to the English flapjack slice.

A friend of mine at school was often sent packages of Chocolate Rough Slice from her mum that the rest of us were eternally envious of.  I have yet to make it for my children but am sure they would like it as much as we did.

Belgian slice is another old fashioned favourite although I think I like the sandwiched biscuits  a little more!
My brother is a big fan of Louise Cake and whenever mum goes to stay she makes it for him.

For slices that don’t requre an oven think of coffee fudge slice, coconut and apricot fudge squares, fudge slice and Tammy’s fudge slice,

Do you have any favourite slice recipes that you would like to share?
Helen

Roasting Meat

Sunday Best-Rules of Roasting

By Michal Haines

The classic New Zealand Sunday roast is a tried and true tradition. I recently did a wee poll at work and found, quite to my surprise, the traditional Sunday roast is still going strong.

I would have assumed that in these days of careful healthy eating, huge chunks of roasted meat just weren’t on the menu so much anymore.

The traditional roast didn’t appear often on the kitchen table of my childhood. On the rare occasions it did it was most likely to be chicken, which, to this day remains my favourite roasted meat.
My grandmother on the other hand was a whiz with the roast chicken, wrapping it elegantly in bacon to keep in the moisture, jugs of gravy at the ready to swim those peas in. I remember her chicken so fondly that I am striving constantly to achieve the same taste and tenderness but to no avail. I sometimes wonder if the memory was better than the actuality.

Roasting meats can be a bit haphazard if you don’t stick by some good golden rules. These little things can really be the difference between a dry horrible roast and a fantastic one. Like all cooking it is about learning to achieve the best results. There simply isn’t anything like a good roasted chunk of meat and sure, it is in a different league to a well made curry or an expertly crafted risotto but it still is a thing to rejoice over at the table.

There are a few ways to cook a hunk of meat however.

Low Temperature Roasting

Ranging from 120◦C to 160◦C this ensures less shrinkage of your meat, more even cooking through the meat and certainly more flavour and a more tender result as well as an easier piece of meat to carve. Some chefs even go for a 100◦C for an even longer time making the meat very soft but in no way pink.

High Temperature Roasting

Between 190◦C and 230◦C this is best used to create a crusty exterior and a tender, rare interior.

You can also achieve a crust when low temperature roasting by starting the meat at 200◦C until it has browned and then reducing the temperature back down to the 120-160 range. I am a huge fan of this technique. In theory this sears the meat and holds the moisture in to keep it all nice and juicy in there. It also helps create that fantastic crust that makes the whole enjoyment of a roasted cut of meat just that little bit better. Remember that this initial stage in no way cooks the meat-it just gets thing moving a little quicker.   

Tips for Roasting
Take the meat from the fridge half an hour prior to roasting to at least bring it partially back to room temperature. This will help the cooking speed as the heat will move through the flesh quicker.

 Cuts are important. Selecting the correct cut for the right job makes all the difference.

 For roasting beef look for the following cuts:

Standing Rib Roast -cut from the rib section of the forequarter, this cut is very juicy and should be well marbled. Sometimes this cut can also be referred to as prime rib roast but be warned this does not indicate a superior quality of meat. Trimming will have been done on the ribs themselves to partially expose them as with a lamb rack. The bone will provide you with extra flavour and then you have the choice to serve it with bone on or off. This cut looks impressive at the table and a whole rib roast of 7 ribs will easily feed up to 14 people.

Sirloin Roast-this cut is taken from the lower middle of the animal’s back .Generally cheaper than whole fillet, this is a great cut that can be cooked easily and feed many. Cooked properly it is fantastic. In its traditional form it would come with bone attached but I certainly have never seen this before. Sirloin can very easily be portioned and seared at high heat as a steak cut also.

 Whole fillet roast-this is the whole tenderloin of the animal and will require trimming once you get it home unless a butcher has done that for you. It will cost more per kg but the trimming process can loose up to a kg depending on the size of your fillet so it can sometimes be worth the extra cost, particularly if you are not that great at trimming.
From this whole fillet smaller cuts referred to as filet mignon are created.
Tri Tip Roast-has a similar texture to sirloin. Taking its name from the triangular shape of the cut it is a good slow roasting meat with good texture and flavour.
 Shoulder Roast-cut from the forequarter and can come boned or not. Roasting is fine for this cut but can be helped with some extra fat to keep things moist.

 For Roasting Pork look for:
Centre and Rolled loin of Pork-Centre pork roast will still have its bones attached where as rolled will have all the bones removed and it will be tied to make it easier to carve. This is a very popular roast and the skin can be salted and scored or dried out to encourage perfect crackling.

 Belly- My favourite cut for roasting. Don’t be put off by the fat as without it the meat will be dry. Thin cuts will take little time to roast and by drying the skin out in the fridge uncovered for three days or so you will get fantastic crackling.

 For Lamb look for:
Rack of Lamb-Number one for many reasons-easy and fast to cook, delicious, great texture and it has its own handle to make eating easy. No tenderloin makes this a small cut but when well cooked a delicious one. You may also see something that is called a Crown Roast and this is the two racks joined together and formed into a circle to make one large roast.

 Loin Roast-can be boned and rolled or complete. A very delicate cut that will need fat to help it along. If boned, it can be stuffed and rolled for extra flavour.

 Leg Roast-a classic New Zealand cut that can be butterflied, rolled and boned or roasted complete with bone for extra flavour.

 Weight, size and shape

All of these factors play a part in how long your meat will take to cook.

There is no shame in a meat thermometer. They are well priced (usually under ten dollars) and can really be the difference between dry or juicy. They do need at least twenty seconds in the meat to get an accurate reading. Push the skewer in to the thickest area of meat so it is as close to the centre as possible. If you are pushing into bone this can skew the reading slightly but it will be close enough.

Experience goes a long way to being able to just look at a cut and know what cooking time you will need but before that comes practice.

For the most part there are golden rules which have always worked really well for me:

Per 500g red meats need 10 minutes for rare, 15 for pink and 20 for well done

Per 500g pork needs 25 minutes per 500g for well done and 25 for very well done.

 Ovens
All ovens are a little tricky. They do behave differently so everything you learnt about your old oven you will have to relearn if you move house or renovate. Pop a thermometer in also to see if your oven is actually reaching the temperature it is telling you it is. If it isn’t getting to 200◦C then you are going to have some issues with roasting.  

 

Basting
This keeps the meat nice and tender. Basting can be done using the fat that will appear in the pan as the meat is cooking.
There seems to be two schools of thought here and I tend to agree with the one that feels that the meat already has a covering of fat so basting shouldn’t be needed. The repeated opening and closing of the oven door will slow things down. The only time that I think it is a must is to achieve crispy chicken skin.

Barding utilises bacon or pancetta-or really any fat-and wraps it about the meat in order to give it more moisture in which to cook. Useful when roasting cuts with little or no fat but remember to remove any barding ten minutes prior to the end of roasting in order to brown the area well.

 Resting
Resting is essential. At least fifteen minutes is recommended for the meat to relax enough that when you do make that first cut, it will be juicy and succulent through out. It greatly enhances the meat feel and if you have taken the trouble to cook it well, I am sure you are willing to wait that little bit extra. Fifteen minutes gives the moisture enough time to resettle back into the meat through out the cut, not just at the surface.

Rest meat at warm room temperature or a little higher and avoid any draughts as the meat will go cold. I know a few people who feel that leaving the oven door open and the oven off will be ok for this process but I do feel that the temperature remains far too high and the meat just continues to cook.

 The Roasting Tray
The roasting tray itself is an important tool in the success of your roast.

Too large a tray will spread the juices too evenly and allow them to burn quickly. Too small and the meat will be lying about in its own juices stewing away. Pouring fat or excess liquids off during the cooking process can be beneficial if the cut itself is very fatty but otherwise, why loose all that flavour!!

 Extras
Seasoning is good but use a little oil or butter to make it stick. The oil will help with the initial high heat cooking stage and the end result will be a little more juicy. Herbs and flavour rubs can be applied but make sure they are done so with oil or butter otherwise they will burn badly before the meat has cooked.
There is a lot here to take in but for the most part it all comes back to the cut itself.

Quality here is all important and why not. If you are going to do little more than rub a little salt and oil into the meat it should be all about that wonderful flavour. Roasting is one of the few times where the meat must really speak for itself. Poor quality meat just won’t stand up to that and you will always be disappointed by the taste. I am not dictating by any means that you should run out and spend you entire budget on one cut of meat for the feast but think more about the quality than the quantity.

Good farming practice produces good meat that will look, smell and taste better when it hits your table. In my mind it doesn’t have to be organic but it does need to have been raised by some one who has taken the time and money to raise the beasts appropriately, has feed them what is natural (certainly no other animals would be an excellent start), and it has be killed in a manner that is both humane and has allowed for the meat to be at its best. I am being very simplistic here and I could lead you further into what would be a rather long rant about ethical farming, production and processing of meat but this is not about that issue. It is a simple fact that you get what you pay for and we all know this. We can’t get around it so if you find a cheap roast cut, I suggest walk away from it. On the whole meat is not cheap and the true test will always be in the eating.