Monday, February 27, 2006

On being a mindful cook: part 1

Before Christmas I was browsing in Books for Cooks. Clever clogs that I am, I’d finished present shopping days ago (it’s easy when the bulk of it has to be airmailed to another country ahead of time) and I had lots of time to indulge. I came across a modest, little tome called “The Mindful Cook: Finding awareness, simplicity, and freedom in the kitchen”. Now that’s a title that speaks my language. The book is plain, unillustrated, understated and thoughtful. There are exercises to get you thinking, some very zen recipes (the first one for a most chasteful dish of brown rice and tofu – but don’t let that put you off) and as you would expect, essays on food. From format to content, this is the antithesis of the usual gastroporn you find.

I am only at the beginning of this journey through culinary mindfulness, so if you want to join in, consider yourself tagged and play with the first exercise as a meme.

1. Your kitchen persona:
How do you picture yourself when you cook? Are you relaxed, anxious, hurried, preoccupied – write about what you like and don’t like about cooking.

I have multiple personalities when I cook. There is the solo show and performing for an audience. By myself I am more relaxed and fluid. Though a bit speedy, I am pretty happy and focused as I slice, dice, whiz, sauté and bake. I taste as I cook, usually guess measurements unless it is something requiring exactness. Sometimes there is music, often there is silence.

With others, I probably add a frown or two into the mix. It is hard to be as focused, especially if there is a glass of wine at hand. As much as I like wine, I sip little while cooking, the glass tends to get forgotten. Then if the conversation gets really interesting, my concentration is torn and in the end I have to decide what is more important – food or a good discussion.

I am learning to cook with my partner, we make a pretty good team. It helps me be less precious (and virgo) about how some ingredients need to be prepared but I prefer to be the one in control of seasoning. I’d make a better head chef than a kitchen hand, I fear.

Being experimental
Simple recipes
Detouring along the way, substitutions and recreations
Doing it “my way”

When I don’t read a recipe properly (then get to the bit about letting something marinate for hours…after I have already started cooking and getting hungry)
The physical limitations of my kitchen (but that is changing..more on that later)
The fact I am a bit of a control freak

By the end of the book I expect all that will change!

You are welcome to play with the other two questions in the exercise:

2. How do you imagine others perceive you when you are cooking? Ask a few friends or family to confirm or correct this perception.

3. What do you see as the major obstacles to being more comfortable and effective in the kitchen? Include in the list hang-ups, fears, preoccupations, and practical limitations.


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Saturday, February 25, 2006


I’ve had gastro twice in the past week. The first left me aching and weak, the second a mere reminder of my intestinal fragility. Today all I could face was a piece of toast before heading off to a matinee of “An Inspector Calls”. The tickets had been booked weeks ago. Pale and tired I trudged out into the world. Melbourne was hot and sticky, an unbearable night which had broken into a day hitting 30c. Getting off the tram I was hit by a blast of dust and debris roaring up Bourke St. The storm had broken. By the time we were seated in the faded glory of the deco theatre, hail hammered overhead.

After 2 hours of theatrical amusement, I turned down the offer of some civilized drinking in city bars, followed by the Balinese meal I had been looking forward to all week. The rain still poured and the temperature had dropped. Sitting on the damp tram, I knew finally what I could face eating. Mash.

Comfort food is an odd beast. Most of my nostalgic foods from childhood are lost on me now I don’t eat meat or cheese. I have fond memories of my mother’s meatballs studded with bacon and garlic, roast chicken and grilled creamed corn and cheese on toast. My tastebuds can still vividly conjure them, though that is as far as I now take the desire.

These days new foods comfort me – miso soup with shitake mushrooms, tortilla espanol and mash. Mashed potatoes were never a childhood favourite. I’ve always been very fond of spuds but preferred them crispy and roasted. Mash wise my neighbour did a great one with parsnip and carrot, which made parsnip – a vegetable never eaten in my family home, seem exotic and exciting. In recent years I have revisited the whole genre of mash, rarely just potato, but usually a concoction of root vegetables.

Tonight I wanted the soft, bland comfort of the spud, but with more flavour and colour. The combo my veggie basket came up with was – potato, carrot, kumara (I admit I usually prefer the orange version, but the redskins are a worthy alternative) and a couple of cloves of garlic. Making mash is simple, so I won’t insult your intelligence. I chopped, boiled, poured off the cooking water and returned the pot to a low heat to evaporated off any excess moisture. I cheat when it comes to mushing it up – no masher, no potato ricer – but a quick whiz with the hand blender (not so much it turns to glue) and finish it off with a fork. I like the smoothness off the blender, but make sure there are still some textural chunks. The secret of a good mash is like most things - lashings of butter and salt. Admittedly not all comfort foods are ‘health foods’. Due to the delicate gut, I was as restrained as I could be with the butter and added some coarsely ground black pepper with the sea salt.

I sat down with a large bowl of orangey goodness. My stomach had stopped protesting and I enjoyed every mouthful.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

fish fest continues

I am always amazed at how intimidated people are of fish. I hear it all the time ‘I love seafood, I just don’t know how to cook it'. Sure fresh flesh requires more thought than nuking a frozen fish finger – but in reality only slightly more effort.

Today’s delight is sardines. These are fillets, not the whole shaboodle. My favourite propagandist does a mean whole sardine dish – the cavity is stuffed with lemon thyme (or often just ordinary thyme and some lemon) and marinated for a couple of hours in a combo of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, lemon rind and cumin. The fish is then grilled on a cast iron grill. I swear they taste even better each time he makes it.

With these flavours in mind, I adapted it for fillets.

Sardines so easy anyone can do it

Combine: 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil and half as much lemon juice. Add 1 tsp of ground cumin, another of grated lemon zest, 2 cloves of garlic and some freshly ground salt and pepper. Actually I used limes as I was out of lemons. I had no thyme, but with heaps of rosemary in the garden I figured that this was a strong enough herb to meet the robustness of the fish. Strew in your herb of choice and let marinate for an hour or 2. In this case it was how long it takes to get through a delicious sauv blanc with my neighbour.

Visitor dispatched and fish ready to be cooked, I was planning on teaming it with potatoes and salad. To speed things up I made some kumara and potato roesti. Necesity is the mother on invention. This is the basis of my cooking – start with an idea and adapt according to available ingredients, time and energy. I had one lame spud and the wine demanded I have a little more starch for ballast, hence the addition of sweet potato.

Kumara and potato roesti
Grate a potato and squeeze it out in handfuls over the sink to get rid of excess juice. Do likewise with a kumara (red skinned, white flesh sweet potato that can make a homesick kiwi cry). Don’t let the grated kumara sit unattended for long or it will oxidise and go an unappealing grey colour. Combine in a bowl with some olive oil (enough to lightly coat, but not so much it swims), salt, pepper and fresh rosemary. Cook in a medium-hot fry pan – either in 2 inch discs or as one big cake. When brown and crispy turn over to cook the other side.

When the roesti are almost done, slip the sardines under a hot grill. They are skinny little beasts and already half cooked by the marinade so they need barely 2 minutes a side. Serve with a rocket/tomato salad or what ever takes your fancy.

The fish has the tang of citrus and a slight under current of cumin. Somewhere in between is the rosemary and garlic.

It is all far too easy.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

wild barra

Thursday, I may have mentioned already, is my favourite day to cook. This is when the fridge groans with fresh produce and I have time to play. However of late various impediments have got in the way of anything other than fast and furious cooking.

Thursday again and I find myself with some fish and a hungry tummy. After last weeks high due to discussions about how I can get a decent kitchen, one with real benches, room for a table and a dishwasher – the preliminary plan and quote was presented today. I had been chrystal clear with the dynamic duo about my budget but the figure they gave me was at least 80% over my absolute limit. I felt like sitting down and weeping.

Instead I went out for a massage and come back hot, sticky and hypoglycaemic. But first, before I could contemplate cooking, something more important – a large brandy and soda because I had peaked at the quote again and felt downcast. Drinking, of course is never the answer, however in moderation it can fall under the heading of “first aid” sometimes.

Once revived I approached the fridge. Today’s challenge was a large chunk of fresh barramundi. This was the dinky-di version from the Northern Territory not a suss Asian import. Really, you have to have a good relationship with your fishmonger these days. I haven’t cooked barra before but found the lure of the wild version too good to pass up. I asked the kind mistress of fish how she liked to cook it. “Steam or bake it” she advised, “It gets a bit dry if you fry it”.

I am comfortable with baking fish – fillet or whole, scattered with various flavours and wrapped in baking paper. An ex had a penchant for wrapping in paper bark from trees lining his street – but on a major road the pollution makes me hesitate to follow suit.

But steaming is another kettle of, um, fish. I was thinking – ginger, spring onion and soy but finding only a wizened knob of ginger put paid to that idea. I love the flavour of kaffir lime leaves and whenever friends donate some to me from their trees, I put them in a ziploc bag and throw them in the freezer. In a dessert bowl I mixed about a tablespoon each of lime juice and fish sauce, added some finely sliced fresh chilli (little round, red - blow your mouth off kind that the florist sold me as a decorative bouquet), kaffir lime leaf and long slivers of spring onion. The barra was at least 5cm thick, so I scored some deep slashes and rolled it in the liquid in the bowl, then leaving it skin side down placed the lot in a bamboo steamer.

While the tasty fish steamed in its sauce, I julienned a lot of carrot and zucchini and added that to the matching steamer to be placed on top for the final five minutes.

Now timing those minutes was a bit hit and miss. Stephanie Alexander tells us that a fillet took about 8 minutes, but this monster was closer to 15.

The verdict. The flavour was sensational; the lime leaves and chilli made my taste buds sing. In fact the juice was so perfect, at first I sipped it off the spoon like a rich soup. The fish was dense but really moist and well mingled in the marinade. The skin though was a bit gelatinous, so I gave it to a grateful cat.

Fortunately I rinsed off the chilli first!

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Friday, February 10, 2006

fish cakes

Key words:

The flathead tails from the market sat in the fridge with dreams of being a thai curry. Sometime in the afternoon dinner for 2 turned solo and creative energies were sidetracked into my first foray in consulting a builder about renovating the house. For far too long I have cooked in something that is barely a kitchen – a cranky stove, a sink at dwarf height (thankfully I am only a smidge over being a midget), a total lack of storage or bench space. Worst of all no adequate room for a table big enough to sit around with friends and enjoy long meals. The dynamic design and build duo filled my heads with amazing possibilities that involved ‘rearranging my envelope’ so to speak, or more niftily how I can do more without actually knocking down the back and getting building permits, a huger mortgage and other such inconveniences.

By the time I was left to my own devices my mind was spinning. A curry was not going to be made because I wanted food and I needed it now. I looked at the flathead and thought “its fish, its fast” while the seafood addict cat almost knocked me over with enthusiasm. The feline got sashimi and I the speediest fish cakes on the simplest salad.

Quick Thai Fish Cakes
Fish fillets
Good quality red (or whatever colour you prefer) Thai curry paste
A slurp or two of fish sauce
A spring onion, sliced

Place the above ingredients in a food processor and whiz. Reserve half the spring onions to throw in for the final pulse, so they keep their shape.

Now I know some of you are going to comment as to quantities. The amount of paste depends on the strength you are using. Some of the more gourmet ones you get in punnets from the chiller I find are quite oily and sloppy and don’t always pack much of punch. Desired quantity of punch depends on the individual. I use about 1 tsp of Mae ploy red curry paste/per 100 g of fish.

How much fish you need, depends on whether this is finger food to have with drinks (roll into balls and serve with some good quality chilli sauce for dipping), entrée (smallish discs) or in this case main (mini burger size). For a main count on about 200-250g fish per person depending on appetite.
With damp hands shape into desired size and shallow fry in a mild oil (raw sesame, peanut etc) til golden on each side.

I served this on a huge bed of rocket with diced tomato, cucumber and a little chilli as a relish. The rocket was otherwise naked, but the juices from the fish cakes gave it a delightful flavour.

As I cleaned up I picked at the residue left in the pan. It tasted all caramalized and amazing, and my head spun with thoughts of deglazing..with what? Rice vinegar perhaps and then what? But I was too tired for such flights of fancy.

Though surprisingly a while later I found myself a tad peckish. In 30 seconds a couple of yellow peaches were halved, dotted with a bit of organic butter and sprinkled with brown sugar. The sat under a hot grill for about 6 minutes and were unbelievably fabulous. Why on earth hadn’t done this before? I took a modest bow.

* variations – chopped snake or round beans are probably more traditional than spring onions. Fresh ginger or chilli can be good too to give it a kick. Tofu, squeezed out and crumbled can be combined with the fish to double the mixture when you need it to go further (trust me, the don’t notice).

I had a little of the uncooked mixture left over. The next night I looked for some fish stock in the freezer but was out of it - so just simmered a bit of ginger, chilli, shitake mushroom, spring onions and green beans in water, with fishcake mix rolled into balls. At the last minute I added some fresh rice noodles. I tasted the broth expecting it to need lots of seasoning but the fish cake flavours had come through strongly - it just needed a dash of fish sauce. A wonderful easy spicy fish ball soup with noodles.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

You Are What You Eat Cookbook

In today’s review I will reveal my true colours as a “food nazi”. So far I have tiptoed down the line of moderation but now is the time to come out, so to speak.

My standpoint is that good food is the basis of harmonious health. The problem is many people associate healthy food with bland hippy fare. The reality is a diet that is broadened with a variety of foods will encompass many flavours and has no reason be dull. Remember the taste of the first mango of the season? The sweetness on your tongue, the velvety texture, the sticky residue dribbling down your chin. Such simplicity is stunning, some would say almost orgasmic. Far from dull, unless mango isn’t your thing – so think warm ripe peach, an organic strawberry or a juicy rambutan.

I need to work at keeping my diet varied as the vagaries of my body has narrowed it somewhat. Most dairy products cause me to get perpetual sore throats and colds, they also create acute gastrointestinal pain so the joy of indulging in a slice of stilton or a creamy dessert is entirely lost on me. Vegetarianism in my early 20’s caused my gut to stop producing the enzymes needed to break meat down and the results are highly uncomfortable and just not pretty. As for peas and capsicum are concerned, no excuse just plain fussy, but I think we are all aloud a few exceptions.

I adore seafood, embrace the whole spectrum of fruits and veggies, experiment with grains, munch on seeds and nuts, devour nori and play with pulses. Melbourne is an exceptional place to live, with its ethnic diversity fresh ingredients, herbs and spices are plentiful. There is no reason that any dietary limitation should lead to a boring culinary life.

I have become the mistress of adapting recipes. No one has noticed the replacement of milk with soy in sweet recipes (fortunately small quantities of butter are ok, the person who invented margarine should have been shot). I scramble eggs without cream. Or when caught short have squeezed and crumbled tofu to eek out the eggs and added sautéed spring onion and semidried tomatoes. I once served this to a self confessed beancurdphobe who declared it was the best scrambled eggs he had ever had (I just smiled sweetly). Nothing replaces meat, but some deep sea fish like tuna gives a similar chew factor and satiety.

What makes me well may make someone else sick. There is no perfect diet, just a perfect dialogue with your own body to understand what makes it zing.

But my biggest gripe is with a lack of cookbooks that really embrace these ingredients, with recipes that are simple to prepare and results that taste good. Many vegan books come up with meals that make cardboard look appetising or fallback on 101 things to do with pasta. Worst are the ones that employ a host of pretend foods – soy cheese, not-bacon and horror of horrors – tvp.

So finally I have found a book that hits many of the right bases, Dr Gillian McKeith’s “You Are What You Eat Cookbook” (Michael Joseph Books. 2005). If I had watched the series McKeith’s doggedness and the smug Australian commentary may have put me off checking out the book. What little I saw reminded me of why I dislike the reality television genre. As for food nazi, I hand her the crown. I am a mere courtier by comparison. However, the book looks good.

The extensive recipes are largely gluten free, dairy free (except for a couple with fetta) and feature only a few carnivorous offerings (organic chicken) making it predominantly vegan + fish, which sings very nicely to me .

I will get back to you with seeing if the recipes pan out, but on first pouring over the book I have earmarked the following:
Shitake mushroom risotto using barely instead of rice.
Cauliflower and millet mash (I have tasted one before which was delicious).
Smoked tofu and kidney bean burgers.
Sesame rice balls with umeboshi plum paste.
Some great spreads/dips including sweet carrot butter, butter bean, asparagus and miso and nut butters.

The book also features a basic flavouring guide, healthy snacks and inspiration for tailoring your own muesli. The recipes appear very simple, after all she wrote them for people who only knew how to ‘cook’ frozen oven chips or order takeaways.

With the detoxing craze heading into another year of popularity (the lard revolution must be just around the corner) this book offers interesting tastes that fit the virtuosity of the phase.


Recipe update: Yes I have blogged my own version of smoked tofu balls!

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