Back in the saddle

A few weeks ago, I told my small body of regular readers that I would be taking an indefinite break from blogging. At the time, I had too many challenges in my life and I needed to devote more of my time and effort to tackling them. In some cases, the challenges were also eroding my desire to write.

This week, I am happy to report that some of those challenges have been resolved and I am ready to return to blogging, hence the three short cooking posts I published yesterday.

However, I am still struggling with two chronic problems.

The first is my left hip, which is afflicted with severe osteo-arthritis. Late last year, I went from finding it frustrating and, occasionally, very painful, to feeling miserable, with constant low-level pain, reduced functionality and tiredness, punctuated daily by several moments of sharp pain. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. In just 26 sleeps I will be in an operating theatre having my hip replaced, followed by a period of rehab. (Bet you’re hoping I don’t share too much of that experience!?)

The other chronic problem is less amenable to a permanent solution. For more than 40 years I have suffered from depression. A prescription medicine and occasional psychotherapy help me to enjoy life most of the time, but I remain more vulnerable than most people to experiencing the blues. Happily, one of the main triggers for me going downhill has been resolved in the last couple of weeks, and that has helped to rekindle my enthusiasm for writing.

So, between now and going under the knife, I will try to publish some further posts about our travels in France last year. Beginning with our visit to Musee Picasso in Paris.

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Plum job puts some spice in our life

We had a ton of tomatoes, our neighbours had a surplus of satsumas. Plums that is. And they kindly shared the feast of fruit with their friends. Like us!

Normally, I would convert these fleshy, red plums into one of my plum cakes and stew the balance to have with muesli and yoghurt of a morning. However, this year’s supply was delivered when Maggie was in a mood to make savoury condiments, so she hit the internet to find a recipe or two for me to appraise.

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You can read the one we decided to follow here. Over the following fortnight, she made three batches and we made some modest modifications along the way. Firstly, we took up suggestions from some of the recipe’s reviewers: add some ‘plum’ tomatoes, known as Roma in Melbourne (we peeled them first); simmer without a lid; and more ginger (we made it 80ml and used what is known here as ‘naked’ ginger).

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We also discovered that you need to be mindful of the flavour of the plums when you add the cayenne pepper – the ‘fruitier’ the plum, the more cayenne it can handle, so perhaps use half a teaspoon if your plums have a mild flavour.

What else? We were casual about how many plums we used in each batch but it was probably a good 10% more than specified. Maggie put all the ingredients in her pan at the same time, cooked them over gentle heat until the sugars were dissolved and then cranked it up to a busy simmer. To finish, she mixed about 15ml of cornflour with some cold water and stirred it into the chutney to thicken it a little more. And, for Australian readers, ‘raisins’ translates as sultanas.

So far, we have found the chutney to be a pleasing partner for roast poultry and baked pork ribs. Before long, it will be put to the duck test!

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Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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‘s a lot of tomatoes in those tarts

Each summer, Maggie and I grow ‘cherry’ tomatoes in pots, one plant per pot. This season, the crop began slowly – plenty of small, green tomatoes but none of them were ripening. Maggie even wondered if we had planted them too late. Offended – preparing the pots is my job – I assured her that was not the case!

Then, in the second week of January, the fruit began to ripen and, before long, Maggie was cropping at a rate of 20 or more per day. We had three bowls of them in a corner of our kitchen, sorted according to ripeness, and tomatoes were being distributed to grandchildren and friends, and still the supply kept coming. It was as if some sort of hybrid of the Pied Piper and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice had taken control of our cherry tomato plants!

Alright, that sounds a bit hysterical, but the bounty did stretch our culinary ingenuity, that is, until I remembered a dish that we hadn’t made for a decade or so – tartlets of caramelised shallots, feta cheese and cherry tomatoes.

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We cooked four tarts, using loose-based, non-stick, flan tart pans that were 11.5cm or 4.5 inches in diameter. The shortcrust pastry was made according to our recipe for quiche lorraine, with quantities reduced by about 10%.

Maggie peeled about 200g of (French) shallots, halved them lengthways and sliced them finely, then added them to a pan in which I had melted about 20g of butter, over a gentle heat. (You need a generous knob of butter but not as much as when you sauté onions for a quiche; the latter is almost like ‘poaching’ the onions.) As the shallots began to cook, we added a generous grind of pepper and a couple of pinches of salt.

Once the shallots had softened, Maggie added 15ml of sweet sherry and 1 tsp of sugar. When the sherry had been absorbed, another 15ml was added and the shallots were sautéed until they began to turn golden brown in colour.

There was about 70g of pastry for each tart and I rolled it out a little thinner than I would for a full-sized quiche – you don’t want to overwhelm the tart’s filling. To assemble the tarts, we spread the shallots over the bases, added a layer of crumbled Greek feta – 35g per tart – and then a generous layer of halved cherry tomatoes, flesh-side up. After adding a generous grind of black pepper, we cooked the tartlets for about 25 minutes in a fan-forced oven heated to 165C.

The next photo was taken just before we put the tarts in the oven. The final one shows the profile of the tarts’ filling, with just a small amount of tomato skin scorching by the time the tarts were cooked.

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Cheers
Rick Grounds

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Knowing my onions

I am publishing this short post because I will soon be writing a more substantial post about a dish for which one of the elements is caramelised shallots. However, what Maggie and I refer to as a ‘shallot’ is known by other names in some parts of the world. Why, just 300km from our home, across the state border in New South Wales, it would be called ‘eschallot’. Not that Sydneysiders don’t cook with shallots – that’s their name for our ‘spring onions’!

Confused? Especially you North Americans?

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In this photo, the green item is the top section of our ‘spring onion’. I think it is called ‘green onion’ Stateside, yes? But, a Google search tells me, ‘shallot’ in New Orleans and sometimes ‘scallion’ in other places.

The two smaller specimens in the centre of the pic? Those are what we call ‘shallots’ or, in some stores, ‘French shallots’ (that’s to help immigrants from Sydney).

At back left is what we call a ‘brown onion’. I think North Americans give it the moniker ‘yellow onion’, as I have discovered in Julia Child’s recipes. And it is also known in some parts as a ‘Spanish onion’

Finally, at back right, is what we call a ‘purple onion’ or, as is the case elsewhere, ‘red onion’.

Our greengrocer also stocks ‘white onions’, which are popular for roasting whole. We have used them in past years, in a veal braise to take advantage of their mild flavour, but not lately.

Capisce? Savvy?

Rick Grounds

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Indefinite leave of absence

Just to let my small band of followers know that I am taking a break from blogging.

Reluctantly!

I have a range of challenges in my life at the moment. In the face of these, I can’t summon the energy to write, much as I would like to complete the story of our 2016 travels in Europe.

I hope to return to the blogosphere but I cannot predict when that will be.

Until then …

Cheers
Rick Grounds

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Into the closet: folio 4

A few weeks ago, we updated our ‘loo view’, replacing images from our visit to Spain in 2011 with a selection of photos from the three days we spent in Burgundy in May 2014.

Although we enjoyed several bottles of the region’s famous wines, the main themes of our explorations and experiences were fine dining, scenery and the old heart of the town of Beaune. These themes are illustrated by the images that now adorn the walls of the little room in our home:

Group 1

Here are two of the dishes that we both enjoyed during our time in Burgundy and took as inspiration for cooking in our kitchen back in Melbourne: chicken with a mustard cream sauce and a refined presentation of boeuf bourguignon.

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Group 2

This group comprises a colourful public park in the centre of Beaune; vineyards at Montrachet, some of the most expensive agricultural land in the world; and bunches of lily of the valley, sold on every street corner on the morning of May Day, a very French tradition.

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Group 3

The last pair of photos is of the famous Hotel Dieu, constructed in the middle of the 15th Century by the Chancellor of Burgundy and his wife, as a hospice and hospital for the poor. From its inception to the present day, this facility and its successors have been the direct financial beneficiaries of the sale of wine from an an allocation of fine Burgundian vineyards arranged by the founders.

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Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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It’s pickling time again!

Happy New Year everyone!

One of the things we like most about the warmer months is the abundance of fruit available for converting to condiments, ie pickles, chutneys and relishes. In our home, that will always include green tomato pickle and pear & ginger chutney; we tend to make these later in the season, when there is an ample supply of not-ripe-enough tomatoes and the first pears of the new year.

So far this summer, we have made three condiments that we didn’t get around to making in the 2015/16 season: pickled cherries, red tomato relish and spicy peach chutney.

Pickled cherries

The recipe for the pickled cherries leaves their primary fruit flavour largely intact, whilst adding a savoury edge. We have mainly used them with duck, smoked eel and antipasti, and in a festive rice salad to go with ham or poultry.

Ingredients

500g firm, ripe cherries, stems attached (to prevent bleeding)
200g sugar (white or raw)
200ml white wine vinegar
650ml water
1 fresh bay leaf (or 2 dried leaves)
2 long strips orange zest
2 long strips lemon zest
1 stick cinnamon
4 black peppercorns
4 cloves
1 tsp salt

Method

  1. Pack the cherries into sterilised jars.
  2. Bring the remaining ingredients to a boil in a saucepan, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then simmer for 5 minutes.
  3. Pour the spiced vinegar mixture over the cherries, cover with lids immediately and tip jars upside down to seal.
  4. Leave for a month before eating. When you open a jar for the first time, remove all the solid elements of the pickling medium, eg zest, cinnamon, bay leaf.
  5. If stored in a dark, cool place, the cherries will keep for up to 2 years

The third of the photos shows how the jar of cherries looks after 24 hours. The last photo was taken three weeks later.

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Tomato relish

Maggie grew up living with her parents in the home of her grandmother, who was an expert in culinary self-sufficiency. Tomato relish was a regular summer product, using home-grown tomatoes. This recipe produces a spicy condiment that matches Maggie’s palate-memory.

Ingredients

1kg ripe tomatoes, peeled and sliced
375g brown onions, peeled and sliced
40-50g salt
330g sugar
3 tsp mild (Madras) curry powder
3 tsp mustard powder
pinch of chilli flakes
400ml white vinegar

Method

  1. Place tomatoes and onions in a large bowl, sprinkle with salt, cover with cling wrap and leave overnight.
  2. Next morning, strain off the liquid. Place the tomato mixture in a large pan, add vinegar and sugar and bring to the boil. Boil rapidly for 5 minutes.
  3. Add spices to the pan and stir. Boil gently for 1 hour, stirring regularly to prevent the relish from catching.
  4. Pour into sterilised jars and seal. Stored in a good fridge, the relish will keep for
    at least 18 months.

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Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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