Norwegian fish soup, with a Danish twist

In mid-June 2018, Maggie and I flew into Bergen, Norway, after spending eight delightful days in the Scottish highlands. We had booked two nights’ accommodation in the old centre of Bergen, ahead of a cruise that would take us along the southern coast of Norway before disembarking in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

When we arrived at our hotel, it was the middle of the day, too early to check in, so we adjourned to a cafe located a few doors along the street. The menu was short – in keeping with the size of the kitchen – and I soon settled on the fish soup. (Eating plenty of fish was one of my priorities for our fortnight in Scandinavia.)

The soup was delicious, so much so that I had a second helping the following day! I also made a mental note to try my hand at making something similar in our home kitchen back in Melbourne. A search of the internet didn’t turn up much that inspired me but I did find a recipe which gave me a sound starting point, from which I could make my way towards something I would enjoy.

(It didn’t help that I hadn’t taken a photo of what I was served in Bergen, or that my palate memories were subsequently overwhelmed by the endless variety of delicious seafood dishes available on our Viking cruise ship. Certainly, I had no memory of there being tomato in my bowl, although this ingredient appears in many recipes.)

We already have a creamy mussel dish in our repertoire and scallops are a luxury worthy of a higher calling, so my first homemade pot of fish soup contained some pieces of prawn (shrimp) and some 2cm cubes of a firm white-fleshed fish. The texture of the cooked prawn flesh didn’t work well with the other, softer elements of the finished soup, so I replaced it with some Atlantic salmon. The only “optional” ingredient I used was potato and I added some soup-friendly celery.

I have now made fish soup four times and settled on my recipe. Since my forced conversion to a low-carb routine, I use less potato than specified below. And I would be happy to consider adding some tomato next time, probably in the form of Maggie’s cooked tomato reduction or some slow-baked tomatoes.


Ingredients

20g butter
1-2 leeks, trimmed, halved lengthways and finely sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
3 tsp plain flour
4 cups fish stock
1/2 stick celery, halved lengthways and sliced semi-finely
1-2 potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
1 medium carrot, peeled and finely sliced into wafers
salt and pepper
200-250g firm, white fish cut into 2cm cubes
100-120g Atlantic salmon, cut into 2cm pieces
100-150ml cream

Method

  1. Melt butter in a heavy-based saucepan over gentle heat, add leek and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes.
  2. Add flour, cook for one minute then gradually add stock, stirring constantly.
  3. When liquid is simmering, add celery and potato, bring back to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.
  4. Add carrot wafers and simmer for 4 minutes
  5. Add seasoning, allowing for saltiness of fish
  6. Add fish, return to simmer and cook for 3 minutes
  7. Add cream to taste and simmer for 2 minutes
  8. Adjust seasoning and serve

And where is the “Danish twist” you might wonder? Well, we bought the ‘pencil sharpener’, which produces perfect vegetable wafers, in Copenhagen, a few hours after disembarking from our cruise ship.

  

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Giving a fig about halloumi? Who me? And you too?

In a recent post, I mentioned a recipe which had introduced us to a “new genre of summer dining pleasures”. Now I will tell you what I meant by that and explain how we prepared the salad and applied its logic to other ingredients.

It is common enough for a salad to include salad leaves and a protein. Think of the classic  Caesar salad and its many variations. I have been making that style of salad for at least 25 years.

And it is not unusual for a salad to consist of a mixture of vegetables and fruit. Think orange and fennel, or, with some nuts, the classic Waldorf.

Then there are the many different salads built on a foundation of rice, lentils, pasta etc, some of which include vegetables, fruit and protein.

What is less common is to find a salad which comprises just leaves, protein and fruit, ie with no other vegetables, no carbohydrates, no seeds and no nuts. (But please tell me if I am simply revealing the limitations of my knowledge of the world’s cuisines.)

Until this summer just gone, the only dish in our repertoire which approximated this formula was a semi-warm salad of leaves, fig, spiced duck breast and walnuts. In fact, for several years, this was our go-to dish on Valentine’s Day, accompanied by a glass or two of pinot noir. (Alas, its place in our culinary pantheon has been taken by our version of duck larb, inspired by a meal we enjoyed in Vietnam on 14 February this year!)

But I digress!

In Melbourne, black figs begin to appear on our greengrocer’s shelves around mid-December, which is when we found a Neil Perry recipe for a warm salad featuring leaves, fig, prosciutto and grilled halloumi.

We pared the recipe back by doing without the pine nuts and the sumac. And we dressed the salad by tossing the rocket and mint leaves with some mild olive oil and lemon juice before assembling the salad, as shown in the first photo.


Here are the other raw ingredients:


Here are the pieces of halloumi in our grill pan, almost ready to serve. (This cheese can be grilled without fear because it has a high melting point.)


The salad is assembled by placing a mound of the dressed leaves in a wide-based bowl, followed by pieces of torn prosciutto, narrow wedges of ripe fig and then the halloumi.

Delighted by the satisfaction of preparing and eating this salad, we went on to apply its logic to other combinations of ingredients to go with various types of salad leaves. These included: prawn, avocado and tomato; ditto with caramelised mango replacing the tomato; poached chicken breast, fig, avocado and prosciutto; and ditto with fig being replaced by the mango.

Fig season is drawing to a close now but, thanks to Neil Perry, we have many happy palate memories that will sustain us until next December.

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Not so crusty that we won’t learn to singe a new tuna

How do I explain why Maggie and I have reached the age of 65 without ever cooking sesame-crusted tuna? Ignorance? Carelessness? Bloody-minded commitment to European culinary conditions? All three of those reasons and probably more besides.

Anyway, I am consoled by the fact that we regularly introduce ourselves to new home-cooked dishes of food, at an average rate of about one per week; and that we are willing to order unfamiliar dishes when we travel overseas.

Which is how we came to eat some sesame-crusted tuna when we stayed at the Sheraton Grand Resort south of Da Nang. This is how it looked on the plate:

The tuna was served with a refreshing side-salad and a line of wasabi ‘dust’.

By the time we had left Da Nang for home, we had begun to bookmark recipes for the tuna, with a view to preparing it in our kitchen, sooner rather than later. Numerous online recipes are available, generally following the same method for the tuna component. This is what we did.

For starters, it is critical that the tuna is very fresh, ie sashimi quality. Secondly, we suggest that you take the piece(s) out of your fridge about 20 minutes before you cook them, so it is not unpleasantly cold in the middle when you serve it.

Then you should season it with some salt and pepper, to your own taste, before you use a wide-based bowl to coat it generously with raw sesame seeds. We just used white seeds, ie the ones that have had their black hull removed.

Don’t worry if there are gaps between the seeds, revealing the pink flesh. They will aid the cooking process and, speaking from experience, will also come in handy if you forget to season the fish first.

Now you are ready to heat some lightly-flavoured oil with a high burning point in a flat-based pan. We used plain vegetable oil; canola would be a fine alternative. Once the oil is quite hot – I’m not brave enough to wait until it is smoking – you should gently place the tuna in the pan, cook it for no more than one minute (60 seconds) before turning it. The tuna must come out after one more minute, to be briefly drained on paper towel before being sliced in pieces up to 1cm thick. (A sharp, serrated knife will help you to produce slices of even thickness.)

But before you cook the tuna, you need to organise the rest of your plate.

You’ll need a dipping sauce. The easiest option is a mixture of wasabi paste and soy sauce, preferably the soy sauce designed for having with sushi. Or you could kill some time by making something more elaborate, such as the wasabi-ponzu sauce you’ll find here. Given our liking for fiddly recipes, it is a safe bet that Maggie and I will head down that track quite soon.

And you need a salad. We chose to attempt a facsimile of the salad we were served in Vietnam. Our chosen ingredients were peeled daikon, peeled carrot, cucumber, mint leaves, chilli and the sweet & sour dressing that Adam Liaw had introduced to us.

The first three of those ingredients were prepared using our spiraliser, a utensil that was invented to separate backyard zucchini growers from their spare change. As each strand emerged from the spiraliser, Maggie just tore them randomly and put them in a bowl. Then she added the other ingredients, taking care with our homegrown hot chilli, tossed the salad by hand and put it on the plates ready for the tuna to be cooked and served.

Here’s how it turned out. Not bad looking for a first attempt! And it was quite delicious.

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Adam Liaw’s cooking: always up to par

As is the case for many other countries, cooking competitions are produced for television in Australia. Some are for amateur cooks, in teams or as individuals; others provide opportunities for professional chefs to test themselves against their colleagues.

For the last decade or so, two shows for amateur wannabe-cooks on competing Australian TV networks have proven to be especially popular: My kitchen rules, for teams of two; and Masterchef, for individuals.

The latter has one notable point of difference, compared not only to its competitor but also to the vast majority of such shows across the globe. On Masterchef, the contestants, numbering 24 at the beginning of each season, are NICE to each other. They encourage and support other members of the group, swap cooking tips, share ingredients in emergencies and form friendships which endure long after each year’s winner has been crowned.

Such is the level of bonhomie, on and off the set, that ‘celebrity’ cooks and chefs from Australia and overseas queue up to make guest appearances. So, the contestants and we viewers get to enjoy a ‘Heston Blumenthal Week’ or a ‘Nigella Lawson Week’, to drop a couple of English names.

Unsurprisingly, most would-be contestants go to great lengths to make themselves competition-ready by the time auditions are held around Australia.

And, for the lucky 24 who earn their Masterchef apron, the combination of ‘happy family’ – the contestants all live in the one house – and the high-level of expert input generates a standard of cooking and on-camera personality that enables many of them to forge careers as multi-media cooks. Think: cook books, guest appearances at events, regular news media columns, and television spots or even whole series. Former contestants are actually referred to as Masterchef alumni, if you don’t mind!

Which brings me to the subject of this post: Adam Liaw, who won the second season of Masterchef. If you are interested, you can find out more about Adam and his impressive career here. For now, I want to introduce you to a couple of his recipes, which we took from one of his regular Sunday contributions to our preferred metropolitan newspaper.

Adam’s recipes are diverse, consistently appealing, use ingredients which are widely available close to home, are easy follow and, most importantly, they work!

The first recipe was for a dish going by the name of ‘kuku paka’. Adam wrote that it is of east African origin and that ‘kuku’ is the Swahili word for chicken, while ‘paka’ is the Bengali word for delicious. And the dish is spicy, as in the curry genre. Spicy, delicious and chicken: what’s not to like?

We followed the recipe fairly closely, noting that it is very important to cook the onions until they are quite soft, as there isn’t enough cooking time afterwards to finish the job for you. We varied the spice mix a little, substituting some Madras-style curry powder to provide as much turmeric as we will tolerate and then reducing the amount of chilli powder a little.

Also, we added about one cup of peeled, diced sweet potato, for both variety and the hint of sweetness. With acidity from the tomatoes, we don’t think the dish needs the lemon juice and, unlike most of you, we just don’t like fresh coriander.

You might find you need to add a little more salt and a pinch or two of sugar; and the volume of coconut milk will vary according to your own taste. But the dish was delicious and will be a regular item on our cold-weather menu for the rest of this year, at least.

Here is our version of ‘kuku paka’, in the pot and on the plate. We accompanied it with a raita of yoghurt, fresh mint and cucumber.

Adam’s second recipe on that Sunday also featured chilli, this time in fresh form.

Having recently returned from Vietnam, where sweet & sour salads are commonplace, we jumped at the opportunity to make this dish. All the more so, because we had hot, cayenne chillies growing in our garden.

Again, the recipe worked well but we did make some minor changes, beginning with 25% of the solid ingredients to make just enough for the two of us. However, we made 50% of the pickling liquid and found that it was sufficient for making the 25% version of salad on three separate occasions. (I hope you can follow the maths!)

Also, once we had sliced our eschallot finely, we put it in a dish and poured over the pickling liquid, allowing it to soften and macerate while we prepared the other ingredients.

We also suggest that you try to pick up a chilli that has plenty of heat but also fruitiness, something we could ensure by picking a very ripe chilli from our bush.

This salad is quite tasty on its own but it is an excellent side dish with grilled pork ribs which have been marinated with south-east Asian flavours. You can find an example here.

 

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Green grow the salads-o!

Over the last three months, Maggie and I have made an unusually large number of salads, including various single-bowl salads that were complete meals in themselves.

Why so? Well, it has been a long, warm, dry summer in our corner of the world. So, refreshing salads have appealed much more than cooked vegetables. Secondly, we defied the outlook for dry weather by planting cucumber and zucchini plants. We did produce an abundant crop of both vegetables, but at what cost we will only know when the next water bill arrives!

Our appetite for salads was also stimulated by a recipe in our weekend newspaper which combined prosciutto, char-grilled halloumi and fresh fig with green leaves. This recipe guided us to a new genre of summer dining pleasures, including those featured in my previous post. (I will discuss this recipe in more detail in a subsequent post.)

And the other influence on our frequency and style of salad dishes was a warning from my doctor that my blood sugar level was on the rise. A sizeable reduction in my consumption of carbohydrates was my best hope of avoiding type 2 diabetes. (As Murphy’s Law would have it, this warning came just after we had dug up our potato crop, all five kilos of it. Sigh!)

The early casualties of my low-carb regime included two summer favourites: meat & salad sandwiches and Caesar-style salads with croutons. (And don’t get me started on the no-pasta disaster!)

However, armed with our supply of long, green things and stimulated by new recipes, our repertoire of salads blossomed and quickly neutralised my lingering longings for carbs.

Now, cucumbers tend to get a bit lost in mixed salads; they can’t compete with other, more illustrious ingredients. So, we mainly use them peeled and diced in a raita, with yoghurt and chopped mint, to accompany a fish curry. However, a short visit to the internet unearthed a deceptively simple recipe, which uses salt to concentrate the cucumber’s own flavour and convert it to a salad hero.

Our method used old tea towels to press the slices dry after rinsing; we dressed it with our own vinaigrette; and we replaced the red onion with fresh chives from our kitchen garden. I swear it tasted more interesting than it looks! And it kept well for a day or so in the fridge.

Next, the zucchini. They were always destined to be charred on the grill of our Weber Q, which is ridiculously easy to do. Trim the ends of each zucchini, then cut them lengthways into slices about 5mm thick. (Cut longer zucchini in half across beforehand.) Salt all the flesh lightly, on both sides, and leave for no more than 15 minutes. Rinse well and pat dry with kitchen paper or tea towels.

(The salting is designed to reduce the water content of the flesh, which accentuates the effect of the subsequent charring. It has nothing to do with bitterness. That is an old husband’s tale!)

Once the zucchini is dry, heat your grill and drizzle some olive oil over one side of each slice of zucchini. When the grill is hot enough to cook a piece of steak, place the zucchini oiled-side down on the grill, cook for 4 minutes, turn and cook for another 4 minutes and, if you think they need a bit more charring, put them back on the first side for another minute or so.

Alright, that might not be intellectually challenging but it is a bit fiddly. So, to get a decent return on your time investment, complement the grilled zucchini with premium partners. We have two combinations to recommend.

The first is to cut your zucchini slices into shorter lengths and toss them with pieces of toasted walnut and small pieces of soft feta, also known as Persian feta. No further dressing required.

The second option was inspired by a recipe my friend Bill sent to me. (Bill was the first person I knew well who had cut carbs from his diet in order to fend off the threat of diabetes. So, it was delivered to my Inbox with the admonition to delete the croutons.

We made it once, more or less following the recipe, and then we modified it to suit our palates. The biggest change was to replace the asparagus with our homegrown zucchini. Minor changes? Drop the parsley, so the basil could shine, and we used our vinaigrette rather than the vinegar.

The oiliness of the zucchini is balanced by the acidity of the tomatoes. And the saltiness of the capers and preserved lemon is balanced by the bright flavours of the basil and tomatoes (we also used less salt than usual in our dressing).

The result is a colourful salad, full of summertime flavours, delicious in its own right but also a great partner with grilled lamb or chicken or pan-fried white fish.

The final salad of this post also uses soft feta.

Bill and I meet a few times each year for lunch in central Melbourne. The most recent of these was a few days after I had received my warning about blood sugar. So, I was quite keen that we should fine a dining spot that offered some attractive low-carb lunch options. The end result was that I ate a salad of mixed leaves, grilled Portobello mushroom pieces, soft feta and some toasted pine nuts. Sounds simple but the flavour profile was quite complex and very more-ish.

At home, I have produced a modified version several times, replacing the pine nuts with toasted walnuts and, for the mushroom element, gently frying chunks of Swiss Brown mushrooms and finishing them off with a bit of beef stock under a lid.

It makes for a very satisfying light lunch and comes in handy on days when Maggie really wants a toasted ham sandwich!

And now, after all those key-strokes and with Maggie due home from work soon, it is time for me to start lining up the ingredients for the salad that will form part of tonight’s summertime dinner and then feature in my next post.

Until then, cheers
Rick Grounds

 

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Woman go to Da Nang, like da mango tang

I mentioned in my previous post that Maggie took a liking to the Vietnamese salads served at the Da Nang resort where we holidayed in February. Think lots of fresh herb leaves and the distinctive mix of sweet and sour.

A particular favourite was a dish of char-grilled prawns (shrimps), with a side-salad in which caramelised pieces of fresh mango were the feature ingredient. (The resort’s mango sorbet was also delicious; I had it three times and I don’t even like mangoes that much!)

So, we resolved to find a recipe for caramelised mango to use in our kitchen and then marry it with some prawns in a salad.

The recipe that appealed to us is here. (At the resort in Da Nang, the pieces of mango had been cooked on a grill. This involves sprinkling the individual pieces with sugar baefore putting them on the grill. You can find recipes for that method via Google as well.)

But first, we mango novices needed some tips on how to peel and cut a mango, which we found on youtube. (Of course we did! And Maggie has now mastered the art and is ready to go on tour.)

As for the caramelising, the only variations we made to the recipe were to use soft brown sugar and to reduce the ingredient volumes to suit just one mango, which produced enough for at least four serves of salad. And a tip: make sure that your pan/skillet is wide enough to leave space between the mango pieces; otherwise, they will stew!

In Australia, there is a plentiful supply of cooked local prawns and our local supermarket offers them at a very reasonable price. So, prawn salads in various styles have been a feature of our menu through the long summer months. (Even today, in mid-March, the temperature is going to reach 27 degrees Celsius here in Melbourne.)

For the salad with mango, we combined some soft lettuce leaves, pieces of ripe avocado, prawn segments and small pieces of the caramelised fruit. We then dressed it with some homemade vinaigrette, to which we added some fresh lime juice and some of the cooking juices from the pan of mango. It looks pretty, doesn’t it? And  it was delicious!

We have also used the mango in a salad of poached chicken, prosciutto, avocado and green leaves; almost as delicious! And here is a plate of our prawn salad, with tomato replacing the caramelised mango

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

 

 

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From Laos, via Da Nang: Duck larb (we larv it!)

In September 2008, Maggie and I flew to Rome to join a coach tour of Italy; it was our first overseas trip together. We met our tour guide – Marco the Magnifico – on the evening before the tour commenced. Addressing our group, he uttered the infamous words: “this is not a holiday; it’s a tour”!

And that has been the case for all but a few days of our many subsequent travels – we go touring, either on an organised itinerary aboard a coach or a boat, or under our own steam, by car or train.

Last month, however, we broke away from our established pattern and travelled to a faraway resort – The Grand Sheraton Da Nang – and had a holiday. No wake-up calls, no repacking the luggage every second night. Just a beachside bar, an abundance of dining options, one of the world’s great mattresses for late awakenings and free-range siestas, and a swimming pool, all 210 metres of it at a constant waddling depth of 1.3 metres.

We booked this holiday with a view to having a “taste” of Vietnam and then deciding if we would return for a thorough exploration, ie go touring. And “taste” we did, especially your correspondent. I would begin each day with a bowl of pho or similar and continue to select mostly Asian dishes from the diverse menus at the resort’s three main dining spaces. So0n enough, Maggie joined the party, finding the Vietnamese style of salads very attractive; more of that, in a follow-up post.

Of all the dishes I ordered, the one which really got my palate excited and begging for more was the head chef’s version of the Laotian dish ‘duck larb’. (Larb is the generic term and can be made using minced meat of various types.)

The duck larb I ate at the resort – not once, but twice – included some non-traditional, small, crunchy pieces of peeled pear, which added appealing texture and flavour variety. Once we were back home in Melbourne, we found a recipe that gave us a sound starting point, from which we added our own twists, including the fruit element.

Here is a plateful of our version of Duck larb, followed by our recipe

Ingredients

vegetable oil, for shallow frying
3 large French shallots, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
2 duck breasts, skin removed and reserved, flesh finely chopped (350g – 400g)
3 cm piece of ginger or 1½ tsp ginger powder (we use powder if step 1 doesn’t work)
1 tbsp arborio rice or similar
20ml lime juice
15ml fish sauce
2 tsp caster sugar
60ml chopped parsley, or 30ml each of parsley and coriander
30 ml chopped mint
½-¾ tsp chilli flakes
1 crisp apple or pear, peeled and diced (use about 80g)
4-6 crunchy lettuce leaves (to refresh your palate at regular intervals!)

Method

  1. Peel the ginger and slice it finely (about 2mm). Dry roast the ginger in a small frypan over mild heat until dry and toasted (12-15 minutes). When cool, pound it in a mortar and pestle until finely ground. Set aside.
  2. Add rice to pan and cook over medium heat, shaking occasionally, until toasted (3-4 minutes). Tip into mortar and pestle and grind to a powder. Set aside.
  3. Pour vegetable oil into a flat-based wok to a depth of about 4mm and heat until hot. Add two-thirds of the shallot and stir occasionally until golden brown and crispy. Remove and drain on paper towel.
  4. Slice the duck skin into strips (about 8mm long), add to wok and turn occasionally until crisp and golden. Remove and drain on paper towel. Discard the oil and wipe out the wok.
  5. In the meantime, use three separate small bowls to combine fruit and 2 tsp lime juice; remaining shallot with fish sauce and 2 tsp lime juice; and 2 tsp ground rice, 1 tsp of the ground ginger, the chilli flakes and the sugar.
  6. Heat wok, add chopped duck meat and 2 tsp of water. Stir frequently until duck is cooked through (3-4 mins). Remove from heat. Spoon out excess liquid.
  7. Add the herbs and the contents of the three small bowls. Briefly stir to combine.
  8. Serve scattered with the fried shallot, duck skin and 1 extra teaspoon of the rice powder with the cos lettuce leaves on the side.

Diced duck breast meat ready to cook

The three bowls with ingredients to fold into the cooked meat

Herbs, crispy shallots and crispy duck skin

 

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