Saturday, July 26, 2008

If life gives you (lots of) lemons....

Last week I lucked upon a well-loved copy of Claudia Roden's hard-to-find Book of Middle Eastern Food which I planned to keep for myself, until a customer came in to the shop today desperate for a copy - so of course I gave her mine. Like many of my customers, I'm going through a Morrocan stage. My palate, which favours curries and spicy food, took a while to adjust to the more subtle flavourings of many Middle Eastern dishes, but now I love to cook a tagine and am starting to expand the repertoire. On the weekend I took advantage of our ancient lemon tree's huge bounty to make preserved lemons - which are a real signature flavour of Middle Eastern food. Although I don't have Claudia's original book I do have in the shop a copy of her Tamarind & Saffron - "a collection of new and updated recipes" according to the blurb.

Roden has three methods for making preserved lemons: in the traditional method lemons are quartered, stuffed with salt and then packed into a sterilised jar, topped up with lemon juice after 3-4 days and then left for at least a month; in another method the lemons are prepared in the same way but then topped up with brine. The third method is super-quick - Roden promises these will be ready in 4 days. The lemons are boiled for about 25 minutes in brine until soft, the flesh is scooped out and the skins are packed into a glass jar and covered with sunflower or light vegetable oil. Greg Malouf's fabulous book Arabesque also has a recipe for preserved lemons in which cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds and lemon or bay leaves are packed into the jar with the salt and also honey dissolved into the lemon juice which is poured over the lemons. In Malouf's method the jar, once sealed, is boiled for 6 minutes. Stephanie Alexander also has a great method in Cook's Companion ( I'm a traditionalist and swear by the first, orange, edition which a friend who works for Penguin gave me when it first came out).

I've done my usual thing of reading lots of recipes for a particular dish and then adapting them as I go. You can see some of the photos here, and they don't look too bad for a first attempt. I'm looking forward to using them in tagines and couscous, and in risottos and pasta dishes. I'm also planning on using Greg Malouf's recipe from Arabesque for Preserved Lemon Butter which combines the finely chopped lemons with garlic, thyme, parsley and sumac and softened butter - delicious with chicken and it can be kept in the freezer for several weeks .

I've also made a classic old-fashioned lemon cordial, from a recipe in my falling-apart copy of the PWMU cookbook (I'd love to get a better copy, but like Roden's Middle Eastern Food, there's always a customer whose need is greater than mine, so I never get to bring one home!). I'm sure everyone knows the recipe, but here it is anyway (this recipe makes around 3 litres). Of course the cordial is lovely as a refreshing drink (water down about 1 part to 6 with mineral water), but is even better with gin or vodka (although probably not in the same proportions!):

Lemon Cordial

2 kg sugar
grated rind and juice of 6 lemons
1 TBS tartaric acid
1 TBS epsom salts
2 TBS citric acid
6 cups boiling water

Put all the dry ingredients and lemon juice together in a basin, add boiling water, mix and dissolve, strain and bottle (in sterilised bottles if you intend keeping it, which it does well for several months).

Thursday, July 17, 2008

"I've been everywhere man"

A call came in yesterday from Marcia, about to depart to remote outback Western Australia as a cook for a mining camp. "A friend tells me you have a copy of Standard Recipes for Fifty. I need one asap" Her friend Andra cooks at the remote Auski Roadhouse and is also after a metric copy of this Australian classic. First published in 1942 by the Department of Labour & National Service for use in government hostels, camps, hospitals and so on, it gives a somewhat sobering picture of institutional eating sixty years ago. The 1952 third edition introduces some Continental Dishes to "meet a little the tastes of migrants from Europe living in camps..." and it has been regularly updated over the years, but still retains many of the 'cafeteria' type dishes of the original. I can't imagine Marcia will be needing the 1970 edition's recipe for fruit punch, but am sure the ones for scones (ingredients start with '5lbs SR flour'), apple slices, curries, stews and breakfast dishes will be of great assistance.

The minerals and resources boom in Australia means I often get orders like the above from some really remote places - the Bugle Ranges & Adelaide River in SA for example. Some customers have no street address but books instead are sent to a station via the nearest post office. One customer works on oil rigs for weeks at a time and buys old Australian cookery books during his leave. Another is on secondment in Yemen. I might be sitting in my little shop on the outskirts of a major metropolis, but with the help of Google Maps I can have a look at these remote locations and imagine one of my books making its way there and being used and appreciated out in the middle of nowhere. It also brings out the travel bug in me - watch this space.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Vale Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy

Heard the sad news from a customer this week that the kitchens in the Melbourne cookery institution Emily Mac are being ripped out and the building will now instead be home to business/economics degrees rather than cookery. I am not one of the thousands (?) of students who passed through its doors but I think it's worth a minute's silence for the passing of an institution which trained so many home economics teachers as well as giving home cooks the "foundation for plain cookery". The college's Household Cookery book is often requested in the shop by former students, and for such a slim volume it's a really excellent source of foundation recipes and thorough instructions. In case you ever need it there are also detailed instructions on boiling sheep's head, preparing dripping for cakes.
Here is their very simple recipe for scones, one which I use time and again without failures - no lemonade or soda water, just flour, butter and milk:
Plain Scones
1/2lb self-raising flour
1 TBS butter
3/4 cup milk
pinch salt
1 tsp sugar
1. Prepare oven and gather ingredients.
2. Sift flour, salt and sugar.
3. Rub in butter
4. Mix with a knife into a dough with milk.
5. Turn onto a floured board, pat into a smooth shape and roll out half an inch thick.
6. Cut into shapes place on baking tray, glaze with egg and milk and bake in a hot (220C) oven.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Comfort Food

Mmmm winter in the hills: long periods of grey interrupted by the occasional bright blue day when you don’t notice the cold because you’re too glad to see the sun. The theme of my window this week is ‘Comfort Food’, books on decadent desserts, Tamara Milstein’s gorgeous soup cookbook & Clarissa Dickson-Wright’s amazing book on the Sunday roast are on display. Customers are fewer but tend to stay longer rather than go back out in the cold. Books on stews, casseroles, soups, curries & Moroccan tagines and the old faithful crock-pot cookbook walk out the door with them.
At home I’ve been cooking curries using a wonderful wagar (cook-in sauce) and a rich, slow-cooked veal ragu to serve with pasta or soft polenta. Enjoy.

Slow-cooked veal ragu

1kg cubed veal or beef
Light olive oil
Three onions, finely chopped
Five cloves garlic, finely chopped
Two sticks celery, finely diced
600ml hearty red wine
Four fresh bay leaves
3 tbs tomato paste
Three tins diced tomatoes
Fresh basil leaves

Roll the cubed meat in combined cracked black pepper and salt.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.
In a large oven-safe casserole (Le Creuset or its clones are perfect), heat some olive oil over medium heat and brown the meat on all sides. Remove and set aside.
Add more oil and cook the onions, garlic and celery gently until soft. Pour in the wine and add the bay leaves, let simmer for a minute, then add the tomato paste and the tins of tomatoes. Return the meat to the casserole and bring to a boil.
Give the ragu a good stir and add enough water to make sure the meat is well covered. Cover the casserole and place in the oven. (Note: this can also be cooked on the stove-top but will probably need the addition of more water as it cooks. Place on to your lowest element and keep simmering).
Cook for three hours, checking occasionally to see if it needs any more water.
When cooked, stir in a generous handful of torn basil leaves, break up the cubes of beef and stir the ragu through cooked, good quality dry or fresh pasta (I use orrechiette) The ragu is also delicious served with soft polenta.

Curry ‘Wagar’ (Cook-in Sauce)

8 TBS vegetable oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
3 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp cumin seeds
12 cloves
575gms onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic
15g fresh ginger peeled and crushed
5 med sized green chillies (Cut in half, scrape out seeds and slice thinly)
3 x 400g tins diced tomatoes
2 TBS ground cumin
2 TBS ground coriander
1 TBS turmeric
1 tsp cinnamon
3 tsp salt
500ml water (approx)

Heat oil in wok or large heavy saucepan until hot. Add mustard seeds, cover pan and cook until popping (be careful not to burn).
Add cinnamon sticks, cumin seeds and cloves. Fry gently, covered for 5 minutes.
Add onions. Crush garlic and ginger into pan and mix well and fry gently for 5 minutes. Add chilli strips and fry until onions are soft and golden brown, stirring occasionally.
Add tomatoes and all remaining ingredients. Stir well to mix and simmer for 10 minutes. Amt of water can be adjusted up or down to achieve a thick and smooth sauce, not too watery, not to chunky.
This sauce can be made ahead and either frozen or bottled as you would any chutney or tomato sauce – sterilise bottles and pour sauce in while hot, put lid on immediately.

This sauce is particularly good for making vegetable curry – fry all vegetables before adding sauce and cooking until veges are tender. Also great with beef – as above, brown beef then pour in sauce, water down slightly and cook until beef is tender