Thai, French, Italian, English, Filipino, Chinese, Euro-Turkish-Indian crossover and au naturel – we have prepared and eaten dishes from all of these cuisines over the last week or so, with varying degrees of success and enjoyment. The variability of the results was instructive, and mostly a result of using recipes for the first time without really knowing how they would work or what the result was meant to taste like.
To begin though, a meal of pork Thai red curry, which we cook a few times every year using a red curry paste we make at home according to a published recipe. We first made the paste after we returned home inspired by a cooking class we took in Siem Reap, the Cambodian city close to Angkor Wat. (And we will continue to make our own paste – it works and none of the commercial equivalents contain any shrimp paste, probably due to food safety regulations.) On this occasion, we steamed some bok choy and carrot batons to add to the dish just before serving. Delicious.
The first new recipe we attempted was for porterhouse steak with a green pepper sauce, written by renowned English food writer Simon Hopkinson. (Simon is one of the owners of Bibendum restaurant in London, where we will be dining early in October.)
The recipe called for two very thick pieces of porterhouse, with plenty of marbling. We found what we were looking for at Gary’s Quality Meats – one of five butchers at Prahran Market – who supplies beef from the Cape Grim brand. (Cape Grim, in NW Tasmania, is reputed to have the world’s cleanest air, not that the cows necessarily notice or, for that matter, help to achieve this result.)
Having been removed from the fridge an hour beforehand, the steaks were cooked side-by-side in a hot pan over medium heat on their fatty edges – one of the reasons for choosing thick pieces – then cooked on each of the main sides for a few minutes in the rendered fat. While the meat was seasoned and resting, the fat was discarded and we made the sauce, beginning with butter and crushed garlic, then some brandy, green peppercorns and cooking cream. The steaks and their resting juices were returned to the pan briefly before serving. It proved to be a delicious winter’s Saturday night dinner dish, including some comparatively unremarkable vegetables; and, equally unremarkably, there was enough left over for a second meal a few days later.
The following evening, we used another first-time Simon Hopkinson recipe, for a dish he calls “fragrant duck ‘pilaf'”. The grain ingredient was, in fact, a pulse – mung dal – which is often used in the preparation of dishes of dal in the Indian sub-continent; and here in Mount Waverley as well!
To begin, we placed three duck legs (aka marylands), which we had bought from John Cester’s at Prahran Market, skin-side down in a non-stick pan, turned them when golden brown, transferred them to a plate a few minutes later and tipped out all but 2 tsp of the rendered fat. Some butter, chopped onion and sliced garlic went into the pan over moderate heat; when they had begun to colour, we added some ground cumin and chilli flakes, then the mung dal, chicken stock, fresh mint leaves and some peeled slices of lemon skin. When it reached a simmer, we added the duck legs – jointed by Maggie – and their resting juices, put the lid on and baked the dish for about 40 minutes in a moderate oven.
Despite the fact that we’d used less mung dal than the recipe specified, it still dominated the dish, overwhelming the pieces of duck. We are very fond of duck – there are five duck dishes in our repertoire – so, if we were to use this recipe again, we would reduce the quantity of dal by around half. But we like the overall concept.
While we were at Prahran Market, we also went to Neil’s Meats, where we now buy most of the veal we cook with. We came away with some beautiful escallopes, which yielded an evening meal and lunch each of veal parmigiana; and two cutlets, which will soon become a meal cooked according to our Dijon-inspired recipe.
Maggie works from Monday to Wednesday each week, so I often take the opportunity to prepare something that doesn’t appeal to her so much. This usually involves a soup – I have twice as many favourites as Maggie – or fish, ditto. Last week, it was a batch of salmon rissoles, to provide me with lunch over the following days. I am writing a post about the rissoles, which are made using fresh minced salmon, so I won’t take up any more of your time here.
Meanwhile, I was thawing out a fillet of hapuka – a firm, white-fleshed fish – ostensibly for it to be made into a fish curry, to which I have converted Maggie. Then I made a fateful decision to use a recipe for an adobo (Filipino) style of dish, which I had clipped from our Saturday newspaper. I didn’t know how the dish should work out; I lacked the correct form of chilli and blindly tried to compensate; and the piece of fish was too thick for the dish. I scored my dish 1 out of 10 and we have binned the recipe. But, next time we are in Manila …
We returned to form a couple of nights later when we had pizzas for dinner. We used to make our own pizza dough but, for the last couple of years, we have been buying good quality bases made by a respected pizza business and carried by Toscano’s, our preferred greengrocer.
Of the two pizza toppings we added to the bases, one – shown in the lefthand photo – was a Margherita-style combination of chopped basil combined with Maggie’s cooked-down peeled tomatoes, some slices of prosciutto and portions of bocconcini. The other pizza began with a lesser amount of the tomatoes; then a dozen or so peeled prawns which had been halved lengthways, briefly fried (to reduce their water content) and tossed in basil pesto; and torn pieces of the prosciutto; the second photo is a close-up of this pizza.
Towards the end of the week, we visited Camberwell Market with delicatessen items and fresh, quality seafood on our shopping list. There are two fishmongers there; we prefer Kingfisher Seafood, having experienced a bit of inconsistent quality from its competitor. As planned, we bought a handful of cooked tiger prawns from South Australia, to be combined with some avocado and a cocktail sauce and served on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce for lunch; and a bag of local mussels, as Maggie was craving a meal of our Nice-inspired mussel dish. Not so planned were the six Sydney Rock oysters and 10 large Tasmanian scallops; we were assured that the latter were dry, ie not plumped up with water, and with good flavour.
The oysters became a savoury late-afternoon snack, served simply with a squeeze of lime and a modest grind of black pepper. Maggie transferred the scallops to a container lined with kitchen paper and put them at the back of the fridge for the night.
Now for the item of English cuisine – roast lamb. The only cut of lamb that we roast is a section of whole boneless leg, which we buy on a regular basis and split into three pieces, two for roasting and one to be diced, minced and made into croquettes with feta, herbs and spices.
On this occasion, the piece – about 650g – was too small to stuff and roll, so Maggie simply cut a series of slits through the thin upper layer of fat and filled them with grated garlic, then seasoned the whole piece with olive oil, salt and pepper. We roasted it for just over 35 minutes, sitting on a piece of baking paper in a baking tray, then wrapped it in foil to rest while we roasted some Dutch carrots, pieces of parsnip and chunks of potato. The potato chunks had been boiled for 4 minutes – to ‘set’ the starch – then tossed with olive oil, seasoning and chopped rosemary leaves. A shallot and tomato ‘pie’ and some fresh peas cooked with sprigs of mint completed the meal. The flavour of the lamb was as good as we could remember – thank you Ashburton Meats – and there was enough left over for a weekday lunch each.
Next day, we used the scallops to prepare a light lunch. There are three scallop dishes in our repertoire. In one, the scallops are seared in a little oil, one minute each side and served with a dressing of mayonnaise blended with anchovies, dill and pepper. A second dish, inspired by a childhood memory of mine, is to cook them briefly in butter and then build a meurniere-style sauce from the pan juices up, with dry white wine, a little lemon juice, lots of herbs, seasoning and cream.
Our third method produces this pretty dish, as it turned out last Saturday. It’s not too difficult and, provided the scallops are of good quality, the result is delicious.
Maggie used a small sharp knife to remove any dirt – hardly necessary in this case – and wrapped each one in some prosciutto; say, about one and a half times around the scallop. Meanwhile, I heated the oven to 190C and warmed a non-stick baking dish for a few minutes. (We are in the depths of a long, cold – but not lonely, by George – winter in Melbourne, so we need to de-chill baking trays etc in order to maintain oven temperatures and get timings right. I’m serious!)
Once the oven was ready, I sprayed the baking dish lightly with olive oil, distributed the wrapped scallops evenly on the base and put the dish in the oven, quickly. After 4 minutes, we turned the scallops, baked them for a further 4 minutes and served them on warmed plates. They were accompanied by a salsa comprising chopped ripe tomato, sliced spring (green) onions, a dash of sweet chilli sauce and salt and pepper.
In the past, we have prepared this dish by grilling the wrapped scallops. We now think that baking produces a superior result; this was certainly one of the best feeds of scallops that we have ever eaten at home. Our scallops – thank you, Kingfisher Seafood – were about 5cm long; for smaller ones, the total baking time should be reduced to 6 minutes. But you must insist on ‘dry’ scallops; unless you want a scallop stew, that is.
For Saturday evening’s dinner we cooked the dish that Maggie had set her palate on – our steamed mussels Nicoise. As I have written about this dish before, I won’t go into details. Except to say: it is now officially the second favourite recipe in our repertoire; and Maggie was so excited when she was taking a photo of the finished dish that it is a bit blurry but still very colourful!
On Sunday, we dug up this year’s crop of horseradish for Maggie to clean and put through our mincer. She ended up with about five jam jars’ worth, two to give away to fellow-enthusiasts and three to be stored in white vinegar in our fridge.
The last meal of the week was the Chinese classic, Sang choy bow, made using pork mince according to our slightly modified version of an Australian Women’s Weekly recipe. The result was fresh, crunchy and delicious.
Now, I know there’s a lot of protein in this post – and we probably do eat more protein than the average Australian – but our diet does actually include plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs, as well as rice, pasta etc. In any given fortnight, we will, between the two of us, consume three punnets of strawberries, one rockmelon, one pineapple, a dozen apples, half a dozen bananas, at least a dozen oranges and several lemons from our tree. As for the vegetables, many of them are prepared somewhat plainly, without any significant chef-ing, so they often go unreported and hidden from the camera lens. So sad!
And some of the fruit finds its way into delicious desserts. In the period covered by this post, we have made a baked Italian apple cheesecake, crepes with lemon & sugar, and hazelnut meringues to go with fresh strawberries.