Tag Archives: foodie

A Day at Ballymaloe Cookery School

19 Aug

Every day I spent at Ballymaloe Cookery School was different – challenging, interesting, intriguing. I did things I never thought I would do (milk a cow!), I sat for exams (my first in 20 years) and I changed – subtly, indelibly, and for good.

I wish I could explain what was so empowering and positive about the experience, but things happened, and changed, in incremental ways. The satisfaction of cooking something, presenting it, tasting it with your teacher and knowing … that was damn good! The joy of watching the earth unfold its bounty – picking fresh peas off the pod, planting corn and watching it grow, picking herbs and salads in the gardens, making friends with and knowing the animals on the farm.

And being around a glowing, enthusiastic (for the most part!), intelligent, dynamic group of people – teachers, students, support staff – who all were immersed in the culture of Ballymaloe, and who all appreciated good food, from the source – that was just so inspirational. I learned something from everyone I met, and was so humbled to be a part of such a rich tradition.

These images were probably not all taken on the same day (may be a day or two apart, because they are in order in my camera)… but they represent for me, in my memory, what a day at Ballymaloe was like – full of colour, flavour, joy, achievement, quiet amazement, and pure, pure happiness.

Waking up in the gorgeous early morning (again, not something I did regularly in my old life) was always a revelation to me. Granted, I didnt do it every day … but when I did… walking through the gardens before class, saying hi to Trevor and his sister as they waited for their mothers to be milked … all these things sang to me of real abiding joy.

and his luckier sister

I fell in love with Trevor at first sight. Just to be able to interact with the animals on the farm was such an eye opening experience. And one day, I walked into the school, and was motioned into the front office by Tim. There, to my amazement, was a small incubator with eggs that were literally hatching before my eyes. Tiny baby chicks. And we got to hold them in our hands as they were born! For a city-bred woman like me, this was truly beautiful (and also raised some interesting questions as to how baby chicks are made… but thats another story!)

Just born!

And then … the morning spent cooking. In uniforms that in the first few days felt stiff and slightly strange. It made me self conscious to wear a chef’s jacket … but after a while, it got to feel like a second skin. At our house, Mrs Walsh’s Cottage, we were constantly doing laundry to make sure we had our whites and our aprons! Prepping for a days cooking is no easy feat. But when you cook with presence and in the company of people who are in the same rhythm… well, magic happens. Our teachers were so knowledgeable – and shared their depth of cooking expertise freely and with grace.  And they were so incredibly accommodating to me as a vegetarian cook. I was allowed to adapt recipes, and challenge myself to cook vegetarian, the Ballymaloe way. And honestly .. the bounty of the gardens, the farm, the kitchen. It would be difficult to mess up such fresh, extraordinary produce.

And sometimes… I looked at what I had made, and I was proud.

A Caesar’s Salad to start.

Fresh egg from the chickens, fresh salad + flowers from the garden, home made bread

A vegetarian Shepherd’s pie for main course.

With a salad of fresh greens and flowers

And a simple dessert – Victorian sponge cake, layered with whipped cream and home made raspberry jam.

with home made raspberry jam and whipped cream

Of course, sometimes, some of my classmates, decided to show off with a flurry of cakes that were beyond gorgeous!

And then… we would sit down as a group and eat together. Starters of all sorts, main courses, vegetable side dishes, a cheese tray, green salad (always green salad), and desserts of every possible description. And we ate… and ate … and ate…

Sometimes we would have a few minutes before our afternoon demonstration, or else we might have chores to do. But whatever the case, at around 2pm, we would be in the demo room to watch Darina Allen, Rachel Allen or Rory O’Connell demonstrate the dishes we would cook the next day. All three lecturers had their different styles, but they were all vibrant, interesting, and so knowledgeable about food. It was a master class each and every day.

with a big fish!

And yes, in case youre wondering… we got to taste everything they demonstrated… so that we knew what it should taste like when we attempted it the next day!

And sometimes… in the afternoon… after such a full and multi-faceted day…happy and replete, I would look out the window of the demonstration room, to the small courtyard outside the school. The green of Eire and that huge beautiful sky soothed my soul.

And one day, beneath a ponderous sky…. there it was. A breathtaking double rainbow. So perfect. So Ballymaloe.

Perfection

Making Cheese at Ballymaloe Cookery School

17 Aug

One of the wonderful things about going to Ballymaloe Cookery School is that you really get a chance to understand where food comes from – how its sourced, how it is produced, and sometimes… you even get to see the entire cycle. Its a very humbling process, and incredibly powerful. It makes you stop and think about the food that you eat, and how important it is for body, mind and soul to try and eat as cleanly and carefully as possible.

While I was at Ballymaloe, I dont think I ate very many things that were processed. The milk came from the Jersey cows on the farm, and they provided some of the butter, the buttermilk, and the cheese that we ate too! And we got a chance (if we wanted to) to make our own cheese. Mine is still awaiting me at Ballymaloe … I will pick it up in a few weeks and sample it. I cant wait!

Cheese making is a very zen process. Its all about feeling the milk turning into cheese, and knowing when each step is complete. A group of us gathered in the milking shed to help Tim turn milk into a cheddar style cheese… and it was such a powerfully beautiful process…

You can make cheese on the stovetop, but Ballymaloe has a very cool industrial sized container that heats the raw milk very slowly to the correct temperature.  After making sure we had all washed our hands, put on aprons, and hairnets (can you imagine finding a stray curly hair in your cheese?!), Tim added a vegetarian rennet to the warmed milk. This made it solidify … he then checked the temperature.

Making cheese!

When he felt the curd was at a proper temperature, he felt it by dipping his hands into it. He told us that once you start making cheese regularly, you can begin to get a feel for when its ready to be cut. There is a smoothness, a responsiveness to it that happens only at a certain moment.

He then got out what looked to be a massive square metal tennis racquet, and started cutting the curd into smaller chunks. This is when it got fun!

with a big metal tennis racquet!

The curd started separating from the whey – the liquid obviously inherent in milk. Once the curd had been cut by the metal tennis racquet apparatus, we were allowed to plunge our hands into the container and start squeezing and separating the curds out. A small tap was opened at the bottom of the container for the whey to drain out.

For the piggies!

I have to say, the process of separating the curd from the whey was very therapeutic. It felt so lovely to be elbow deep in this textural stuff, knowing that this movement was actually part of the making of the cheese. Tim told us that cheese makers have wonderful skin on their hands! I can believe it … the feeling of dipping into the vat was soft, smooth, warm, comforting. And cheese is a live thing, so you have to treat it with respect, no squeezing too hard, or sudden movements. It was beautiful.

No wonder cheesemakers have such young looking hands!

Once most of the whey was drained off, we started packing the curds into round plastic molds, with holes that allowed drainage. Each of us filled one mold full, and then covered the molds with heavy weights.

Making the cheese!

After about fifteen minutes, we were actually able to take the cheese out of the mold, and flip it over. We then covered it again with the weights (and some extra just for good luck) and waited again for another few hours. This process of flipping the cheese over ensures an even distribution of curd, and gets as much moisture out of the cheese as possible.

in their molds

After a day or two, and some regular flipping (my housemate Gina and I traipsed to flip cheese at midnight!) .. the cheese would be removed from the mold, salted, and set in this temperature controlled ripening cave. We had the responsibility of coming to flip our cheeses on a regular basis. They would be ready in about three months!

Yum ..

Very thorough notes were kept about each batch of cheese. When it was made, how it was made, how much milk, temperature, time of day. But this was not the end of the process! Gina and I accompanied Tim to distribute the whey on the farm…

It was like they knew we were coming!

It was like they knew we were coming! They were extremely happy to drink up every last bit of the whey, and Tim told us that it is very good for them.

They loved it!

The little ones loved it so much, they actually got into the trough to drink it. There was a little bit of a fight to drink it all up, so the runt took advantage of the ruckus, and went directly to the Mama source.

being clever

And this was just one evening in Ballymaloe .. magical, full of learning, part of the cycle, and so very wonderful. It taught me so many things … but most of all that I am connected to all that is around me, and if I treat the earth with respect, and a conscious understanding… well, then, the joy is infinite.

Ballymaloe Cookery School – Days 1 – 4

5 May

It has begun. Finally, I am in cooking school. I have worn my uniform, cooked good food, forgotten to add salt, tramped in the rainy Irish gardens, and learned so much that my brain feels completely overwhelmed at times. But oh the joy. To immerse oneself in a place where food and cooking, respect for the earth and the environment, laughter and honest hard work are the dominant themes … this is pure joy. This is testing myself – seeing if, as I suspect, I am made for this cooking life.

Before I came to Ballymaloe Cookery School, I was scared. Worried that I would not fit in, wondering if I could get accustomed to living with other people again (6 adults in one house!), and most of all … there was this little, nagging feeling that may be I would be exposed as a fraud-cook – someone who loved food, but really did not have the cojones to live a life of cooking. But fear met, is fear conquered… and the last few days have been real, deep, abiding bliss. I come back to my little room atop Mrs. Walsh’s Cottage every night exhausted, but so excited about what tomorrow will bring.

Of course, there have been adjustments that needed to be made. Negotiating the living space has been one of them, but also learning how to cook in a new kitchen (someone elses, not mine), with new rules and new places for everything. Accepting that I have to ask, and ask again … about just about anything. Being humble. Being present, really present. And pacing myself, and accepting that perfection is in the trying and learning.

I have had an amazing time, and to try and encapsulate the last few days in words… well, I just dont think thats possible. So instead, here are a few photographs, which I hope will give you a feel for the breathtakingly beautiful place I am in, right now – on every level.

Day 1 – The Lay of the Land

The first day was pure confusion. There are 64 people on this course (and 10 teachers – so the student to teacher ratio is 6 to 1, and sometimes even less – amazing!). Trying to introduce everyone to everyone else, and help us learn the lay of the land is a daunting prospect. In the morning, we walked around the farm, though we kept on having to come inside due to the mizzle (mist and drizzle).

From the beginning, the philosophy of Ballymaloe is abundantly clear – respect and tread lightly on the earth, honour and recognise local artisans and producers, be careful and conscious about what you consume and produce, and always maximise the potential for using and re-using the natural gifts all around. The Allens, who run Ballymaloe, raise chickens (in the Palais des Poulets!) and Jersey cows for milking, as well as managing a 100 acre organic farm, including a 1 acre greenhouse. Everything co-exists in an eternal cycle – and they work extremely hard to ensure that there is balance and harmony. Food and waste gets recycled for the hens’ feed every day, and then gets remade into compost, which enriches the earth to grow fruit and vegetable. Its carefully and stringently managed, and we received a crash course in how they expect us to live for the next three months.

Darina welcoming the students in the main lecture room. Note the amazing mirror above so that we can all see the cooking and work as it happens.

Some ducklings near the Palais des Poulets, being fostered by a very proud hen!

Everywhere you look, there are things growing - and most everything is edible in some way.

The lushness - the layers of green - are stunningly beautiful.

The greenhouse is Tim's domain - and its incredible. A full acre of the most beautiful produce, grown organically and with great care and love.

We all planted our own sweet corn plant, and over the next three months will watch the plants growing, and tend them, until right at the end, we will be able to eat sweet corn that we put in the beautiful earth our selves. Such a brilliant way to teach by doing.

We also had our first cooking demonstration and learned some of the basic skills – chopping, slicing, sauteing and making a brown soda bread. We were fed an astonishingly beautiful tasting lunch by our teachers – and were exposed to our first taste of how breathtakingly beautiful good organic food, prepared simply and with grace, can be.

Day 2 – Herding Cats

If Day 1 was confusion, Day 2 was chaos! All fresh and awkward feeling in our new uniforms, we arrived at the school. This was the day when we were given an overview of how Ballymaloe Cookery School actually works – we met our teachers, walked through the kitchens, were given instructions on how everything worked and where everything was, and learned about our duty rosters and kitchen rotations. Its a very organised system at Ballymaloe, but given that 64 people were asking the same questions over and over again, our teachers were remarkably patient and kind.

We also cooked! (Well, with a lot of assistance).

Darina giving us an in-depth demonstration on how to make Ballymaloe Green Salad - a staple at every lunch meal - and a revelation of taste, texture, deliciousness.

Introducing our teachers - the patient and wise women who will guide us through the next 12 weeks.

What bliss ... these are the kitchens I get to cook in for the next 12 weeks! Do note the carrots, onions and potatoes lined up on cooking boards for us - the first and last time that our ingredients are laid out for us during school 🙂

Darina demonstrating our first set of recipes in the afternoon. We learn a whole set of recipes in the afternoon, and the next morning, after preparing an order of work, we cook our own lunch from the recipes of the previous day. Each day, they give us new techniques and skills to learn, and we are constantly building on our skill set. We started with simple soup, pastas and crumbles, and we then graduated the next day to more complex tarts, biscuits and compotes.

Day 3 – We Cook!

Having assessed us, and made reasonably sure that none of us were likely to chop fingers or toes off, we were allowed to have our first full morning session of cooking. We had to prepare an order of work – basically a timed list of what we had been assigned to prepare, and the order in which we would go through each step of the cooking process. We were watched carefully by our teachers, who answered all our questions with grace and patience, and we learned the rhythms of the Ballymaloe style. We gathered the ingredients, and worked towards serving ourselves lunch. It was exhilarating and scary, and absolutely wonderful – and totally exhausting. Every day, in addition to our cooking, different people are assigned jobs they need to do – from feeding the hens to picking and making the salad to setting the table to cleaning up the kitchens. This way, students are exposed to the stringent requirements of working in a professional cooking environment, and learn not only the Ballymaloe cooking style, but also how to work in a structured and organised manner.

In the afternoon, we had two visits – one from the inspirational and funny Jane Murphy, who makes the artisanal Ardsallagh Goat’s Cheese – and the second from representatives of Ireland’s food research institute, who spoke to us about GM crops and their effect on the environment. This process of learning is incredibly multi-layered. We are exposed to so many different points of view and ideas – so much information and so many stories. We are given the space to make up our own minds, but we are constantly shown, in the food we cook and eat, and the histories of the land and its cultivators, how important it is to be conscious and aware of what we are doing as a community to our greatest resource – the earth.

We made these breads! I also made a potato and onion soup with a wild garlic pesto, using vegetarian stock, and a mixed berry compote with a wild sweet geranium syrup.

Jane Murphy telling us the story of how she began Ardsallagh Cheeses. The importance of provenance, and knowing your suppliers, and understanding the philosophy of the artisanal food makers is constantly reinforced.

We were also given an afternoon demonstration by Rory O’Connell, who showed us how to make scones, salads with the beautiful Ardsallagh cheese, jams, preserves and a hazelnut chocolate tart, as well as a chorizo pasta. We will be making these dishes for lunch on Friday.

Scones and raspberry jam - amongst the many dishes Rory made for us in afternoon demo.

A composed salad of wild rocket, figs, pomegranates, and Ardsallagh Goat's Cheese

I was so exhausted on this day – but so very very happy and satisfied.

Day 4 – Theory Day

Every week, we have one day which is theory day. This day exposes us to new ideas, concepts and methodologies. Today we learned some basics about cheese and wine, had a visit from William Cahill of Callan Fire Protection, who walked us through basic fire precautions and safety tips, and had a lecture on food hygiene and standards.

The highlight of the day was a visit from Peter and Mary Ward of Country Choice in Nenagh, County Tipperary. Peter spoke to us about his delicatessen, which he opened many years ago, with a focus on highlighting slow food, organic produce, and artisanal products. Peter spoke to us of the imperatives of his business, his philosophy, and the ways he sources products that all have a story, an identity and a clear provenance. His passion was overwhelming, his humour was infectious, and he seduced a roomful of hungry cooking school students by talking to us as he sliced open a huge wheel of parmesan. As he sliced, he told us about the artisan that produces that organic cheese – and knowing the back-story gave the cheese added depth, flavour, resonance.

Peter Ward and his parmesan cheese. An inspirational talk that was at once funny, thought provoking and hunger-making.

And now, I sit here organising my filing system – so many recipes, so many ideas and thoughts and learnings going through my head. Tomorrow I make a hazelnut and chocolate tart, a composed salad of wild rocket, Ardsallagh cheese and honey, and another loaf of brown bread. And I cant wait!

O’Gourmet Food Hall Vegetarian Tartiflette

22 Apr

Sometimes, inspiration comes from the most surprising sources. I was wandering the halls of O’Gourmet recently, wondering what I could make for a tantalising, delectable meal. I saw M. Seb (the cheese and wine maestro) … and stopped to have a chat. We walked into the cheese cave, and I started asking him to tell me about his favourite dishes – something that I (as a vegetarian) could make and enjoy. “Tartiflette!” he said, with great enthusiasm and excitement. This traditional Savoie dish is a layered potato gratin, given unctuousness and warmth from Reblochon cheese, cream, onions and lardons. Hmmmm. Lardons are pork fat, fried until crisp on the outside and melting on the inside .. and decidedly un-vegetarian! (But M. Seb is French, so I forgive him for being confused!) … However, Reblochon is a gorgeous, creamy raw-milk soft cheese made from the day’s second milking (when the milk is said to be creamier and richer). It is nutty and velvety, and has a soft lusciousness that is hauntingly beautiful.

So, I was definitely interested, and I decided to try and think of a new take on tartiflette that would keep all that rich depth of flavour, and at the same time elevate it to new heights. I had some black truffles (also from O’Gourmet) that I decided to use in place of the lardons, and instead of onions (which would overwhelm the truffles), I used delicate and yet sturdy leeks. This is not a vegan dish – it just cannot be – but it is warming, full of love, easy to make, and joyous. You should serve it with a sharp green salad – arugula or young spinach – simply dressed with a lemon vinaigrette. You need the balance of something clean and bright to offset the richness of this meal. But oh, its worth it. Smooth and comforting, imbued with the scent of truffles, this vegetarian tartiflette is an instant classic.

Its as good cold as it is warm, and can easily be assembled the day before, covered, refrigerated and baked a few hours before you want to serve it. Do try and let it sit for at least 20 minutes before serving – this allows the bubbling cream and cheese to solidify a bit and sink into the potatoes. Bake in a large ceramic ramekin or pot, and enjoy. It soothes the soul while pleasuring the senses. Such a wonderful combination!

Serves 6 – 8 (and wonderful as leftovers!)

  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 leeks, sliced thinly (white and light green stalk only)
  • 1/4 cup white wine (I used a Sauvignon Blanc)
  • 4 – 6 large waxy potatoes
  • 1 Reblochon cheese, refrigerated (or even frozen for a few minutes), rind removed
  • 2 – 3 black truffles, sliced thinly
  • 1 cup creme fraiche
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • Salt and pepper

You can prepare the leeks up to two days in advance. In a large frying pan, melt the butter and olive oil together over medium heat. Slice the leeks thinly, and rinse them under running water to remove any grit. Saute the leeks in the melted butter until they just begin to sweat and soften. Pour over the 1/4 cup white wine, and season with a bit of salt and pepper. Allow the leeks to simmer / saute, stirring every so often, until they just begin to colour. Raise the heat to medium high, and brown the leeks for a few minutes. Transfer the leeks to a small bowl, and allow to come to room temperature. You can refrigerate the leeks, covered for up to two days.

Peel the potatoes, and slice thinly. Submerge in water as you work so the potatoes do not brown. Bring a large pot of water to the boil, and quickly drain the potatoes from their water bath, and tip into the boiling water. Allow the potatoes to soften (but not fully cook) – about 10 – 15 minutes. Drain, and let cool for a few minutes.

If you are baking the tartiflette immediately, preheat the oven to 200 C / 400 F, and prepare a baking sheet by lining it with parchment paper. Place your large ceramic ramekin or pot on top of the baking sheet (this will protect your oven should the cheese/cream bubble over – and it will!). Whisk the creme fraiche and cream together, and season lightly with salt and pepper. Ladle about a tablespoon or two of the cream mixture into the bottom of the ramekin. Place a layer of potatoes over this, a scattering of sliced truffles, a few thin slices of Reblochon cheese, and a sprinkling of leeks. Over all, spoon about 2 tablespoons of cream. Repeat these layers until you run out of ingredients – or reach the top of the ramekin – whichever comes first! Reserve about 5 – 6 thin slices of Reblochon to scatter over the top of the dish.

Do note that you can cover the ramekin at this point and refrigerate up to 24 hours. I would highly suggest that you bake the tartiflette at least 2 hours before serving. This will give it sufficient time to set up.

Bake the tartiflette in the hot oven for at least 1 hour, and up to 1 1/2 hours. The tartiflette is ready when the top is bronzed and bubbling, and the potatoes are soft and yielding to a knife. Do not be alarmed if there seems to be an inordinate amount of liquid and cream bubbling up. Remove the tartiflette from the oven, and allow to rest for about 20 minutes (and even up to an hour) before serving. The cream and cheese will settle, and you will have a wonderfully solid potato gratin.

Serve with a bright, sharp salad for a wonderful and loving meal.

Ms Tina’s Gluten-Free Granola

4 Apr

Since I decided to take a pause in my life – and yes, thank you, I managed to turn 40 very successfully with the help and love of some dear friends – I havent been cooking a lot. Other life issues demanded precedent. I needed something to get me moving again, and of course, I do love a challenge. My dear friend, Ms Tina gave me a challenge that was intriguing and exciting. She asked me to create a truly tasty and delicious gluten-free granola for her.

Gluten-free is basically a diet that is completely free of any gluten containing cereals, specifically wheat, spelt, barley, and rye – and ensuring that no ingredients used have any gluten based cereals as an additive or filler, and even that non gluten flours / ingredients have not been processed on machines which also are used for wheat. This is a moment which calls for vigilance in shopping! I am lucky in that I have O’Gourmet Food Hall as a wonderful resource for hard to find ingredients that are also natural, not overly processed, and organic.

While the recipe is very open to interpretation, you must make sure that all ingredients are gluten-free – and the best way to do that is by reading the small print. I found some rice flour for this recipe, but I did not read the small print. When I got home, I found that the rice flour had been processed on machines that were also used for wheat flour – so I ended up using gluten-free buckwheat flour instead. I had to search quite hard to find gluten-free ingredients, but the effort was worth it!

This makes about 10 cups of granola. Its not labour intensive, but it does take quite a bit of time in the oven, with checking and turning every 20 minutes or so. Bake it in the still of the night, or on a lazy Sunday. Please also do feel free to chop and change ingredients. You may not like nuts in your granola as much as I do – add raisins, cranberries, apricots, etc. I could not find gluten-free oats (and remember, not every oat is gluten free!) so I used gluten-free muesli instead – it already had raisins and apricots, so I decided not to add any more. You need about 11 cups of mixed granola ingredients. I also tried to add as little oil as possible to the granola – but the result was a granola which did not clump together as much as I would have wished it to. Add up to 1/2 cup more oil to really bind the mixture together.

With a bit of care and creativity, you will find that this granola is well worth the effort – delicious, gluten-free and vegan to boot!

Makes 10 cups

  • 4 cups gluten-free oats (or gluten-free muesli if you cannot find pure oats)
  • 2 cups quinoa flakes
  • 1 cup sunflower / sesame seeds
  • 1 cup raw whole macadamias, roughly smashed
  • 1 cup raw hazelnuts, roughly smashed
  • 1 cup raw pistachios
  • 1 cup raw cashews
  • 3 tbsp rice flour
  • 3/4 cup best quality honey (I used a mix of leatherwood and manuka)
  • 3/4 – 1 1/2 cups canola or sunflower oil
  • 1/2 cup organic juice (I used an organic raspberry and pear juice)
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 2 – 3 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • Large pinch of sea salt

Preheat the oven to 115 C (250F). Line your largest baking tin with parchment paper and set aside.

Mix the oats/muesli, quinoa flakes, sunflower/sesame seeds, macadamia, hazelnuts, pistachios, and cashews together in a very large bowl. Use your hands, and really ensure everything is mixed well. Sprinkle over the rice flour, and combine again.

In a small bowl, whisk together the honey, oil, juice, vanilla extract, cinnamon and ginger. Pour this mixture over the dry ingredients, and using your hands, mix well to combine. The granola should be quite soggy. Sprinkle sea salt over, and combine again with your hands. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Turn the granola out onto your prepared baking sheet, and pat it into a very large, well packed rectangle. Place in the oven and bake for up to three hours, removing it every 20 minutes or so, and turning the granola over  in sections to make sure it crisps every where.

After about 3 hours, remove the granola from the oven, and pat and pack the granola down quite well, and switch the oven off, but return the granola back to the cooling oven. Leave, undisturbed for at least another 2 hours, or even overnight.

Break the granola into large chunks, and store in air tight containers, for up to 2 weeks.

Enjoy!

Red Wine Poached Figs Baked with Fourme D’Ambert

27 Feb

I could eat these figs all day. They are sensuous, sweet, sticky, salty, just a little burnt… totally delectable. I created them for the O’Gourmet Food Hall wine tasting, and they were paired with (and poached in) a Luberri 2009. The figs interacted extremely well with the wine, opening it up and accenting its unique properties.

This is an easy dish to prepare, as long as you take your time, and are aware of the quality of ingredients. I used large, soft Turkish dried figs to start with, and slowly poached them in a bottle of red wine until they were succulent and very soft. I then drained them, and allowed them to cool for a few hours.

When they were ready, I split them sideways, and stuffed them with a dream of a cheese: one of the oldest French cheeses, Fourme d’Ambert. This blue is nutty, semi-hard and complex. Its manufacture dates back to Roman times, and it has an ageless grace and elegance. Baked stuffed in the figs, the cheese goes soft and slightly burnt around the edges, capturing and contrasting with the sticky sweetness of the figs. Fourme d’Ambert also has wine notes, so it also picks up and amplifies the flavours of the wine the figs have been poached in.

These gorgeous babies can be prepared a few hours in advance, and still be incredibly delicious. I must admit though, they are phenomenal straight out of the oven, with the Fourme d’Ambert bubbling away, and the scent of wine and cheese tantalising. I would serve a few with a bitter salad as a starter.

I made 20 figs for the wine tasting. Do adjust to your own crowd 😉

Red Wine Poached Fig baked with Fourme d'Ambert

  • 20 large, soft dried Turkish figs
  • 1 bottle Luberri 2009 (or other complex red Spanish wine)
  • 300 g Fourme d’Ambert (or other semi-hard blue cheese)

Place the figs in a large saucepan. Cover the figs with wine, and bring to the boil over medium high heat. As soon as the wine is boiling, turn the heat down to medium low, and poach / simmer the figs for at least 20 – 30 minutes or until very soft and yielding.

Drain the figs out of the wine (reserve the wine for the optional sauce below), and leave to cool for at least 2 – 3 hours, or even over night.

Preheat the oven to 180C (360 F). Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Using a scissors or very sharp knife, split the figs in half side ways – though if you really want to do it top to tail, who am I to stop you?

Stuff about a tablespoon of cheese in the centre of each fig, and place the fig on the baking sheet, stem side up.

Once you have stuffed all the figs, bake in the hot oven for 5 – 10 minutes, until the cheese has melted, and is bubbly and starts to burn just around the edges. The wine soaked figs will also become shiny and sticky.

Serve hot, or at room temperature.

These figs will keep for 2 – 3 days, covered in the fridge. To serve, bring to room temperature.

For optional wine glaze:

If you are serving the figs as a starter, you could glaze them with a reduction of red wine.

  • Remaining wine from poaching figs
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1 tbsp balsamic

In a medium saucepan, combine the wine, cinnamon, honey and balsamic. Simmer over medium low heat until reduced to a thick shiny glaze. Taste and adjust seasoning. Drizzle over figs just before serving.

Zucchini Chocolate Spice Bread

12 Feb

I love zucchini bread – bold in its simplicity and perfectly comforting. Its a good bread, one that is easily frozen and surprisingly easy and quick to make. I thought of this bread when I saw some luscious zucchini at O’Gourmet last week, and thought that it might be a nice idea to try a new twist. I found Bentong ginger powder at PastryPro – organic, sun-dried and so deep and complex in scent its almost overwhelming. I wanted to use it in a bread, and with my beautiful zucchini to hand, I set about inventing a new, enticing version of my beloved old standard.

I have to admit, this new zucchini bread is pretty spectacular. It is damp, lush, complex and dark. I really decided to go all out in this bread … I used dark and light brown sugar, freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon and the amazing Bentong ginger, a touch of ground hazelnuts, beautiful Tasmanian Leatherwood honey, and both white and bittersweet chocolate. I realise, its full on! I thought to myself, when I put the loaves in the oven … either this is going to be delicious, or its going to taste like a muddled mess!

Luckily, its a wonderful, complicated, intriguing bread. Its very moist and it will get better over a few days – the flavours compounding and playing off one another. It freezes well, and its wonderful lightly toasted, as a snack, breakfast or tea time treat. Plus, what a wonderful way to get people to eat their zucchini and love it too!

I know that this seems a load of ingredients to bring together. If you cant find ground hazelnuts, or dont want to make them, substitute ground almonds, or even just plain flour. Chop and change as you wish, its a very forgiving recipe. Try though to include the honey and the spices … they really deepen and improve the bread immensely. And who doesnt like chocolate? Hehe … though if you want to be more healthy, try a few seeds or dried fruit instead. And do try and wait at least 10 minutes after you remove the bread from the hot oven – its very delicate at first, and needs a moment to firm up! Says she, who never waits 😉

Makes 2 loaves

  • 2 medium-large zucchini (approximately 2 – 3 cups grated)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup canola or other vegetable oil
  • 1 scant cup sugar – half dark brown, half light brown
  • 1 heaping tbsp honey
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract or 1 vanilla pod, beans scraped
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup ground hazelnuts
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 2 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp dried ginger (I used Bentong ginger, which is very flavourful – you may want to up the amount of ginger – may be 1 – 2 tsp –  depending on the quality of your source)
  • 1/2 whole nutmeg, grated
  • 2 cups chocolate chips, drops or chopped (I used half bittersweet, half white, best quality chocolate)

Preheat the oven to 175 C (350 F). Line two loaf pans with baking paper. I usually cut out a large piece of baking paper, centre the loaf pan, and cut in at a 90 degree angle on all four corners. I can then fold in the paper, and have a bit of nice overhang. Set aside the pans.

Set a sieve over a small bowl, and grate the zucchini into the sieve. I use the very fine grater, but depending on the texture youre going for, you might want to grate it slightly more coarsely. Press the zucchini into the sieve to encourage as much water out as possible (you will probably get about 1 cup worth). Set aside while you prepare the rest of the ingredients (and reserve both the zucchini and its liquid!).

In a large bowl, place the eggs, vegetable oil, sugars, honey and vanilla. Whisk together well until everything is well combined and integrated. Set aside.

In a small bowl (or large measuring jug, which is what I use) combine the flour, ground hazelnuts, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Stir to combine completely. Set aside for a moment.

Measure out about 1/2 cup of zucchini water.

Stir the flour and zucchini water into the sugar/oil mixture, in thirds, mixing gently but thoroughly. You might not use all of the zucchini water – just add a splash each time to really help the flour to integrate into the sugar/oil.

Add all the zucchini and mix well, and finally add the chocolate and mix well.

Divide the batter evenly between the two loaf tins.

of Zucchini Bread!Bake, switching the tins in the oven half way through if youre concerned about hot spots, for about 45 minutes – 1 hour. A cake tester inserted into the loaf will either come up covered in chocolate (in which case, wipe down and try again!) or with scant crumbs attached.

Allow the bread to cool for 10 minutes or so before devouring. This freezes exceedingly well, and will stay good in the fridge for a week or more (though its always finished up by the first day or so in my house!).

Enjoy!

 

O’Gourmet Food Hall Sauteed Zucchini + Gratin

9 Feb

Sometimes, you read a recipe, or a friend sends you some ideas, and you immediately want to make it, bake it, taste it, create it. Other times, the idea is welcomed, is intriguing… but it sits in the memory banks awaiting a moment of inspiration and action. My friend Karo sent me an email about her version of Julia Childs’ sauteed zucchini, and how it can be transformed into a gorgeous gratin. I liked her email so much that I posted it here. And I kept the recipe in my head, waiting for a moment to be inspired.

That moment came earlier this week, when I saw the most luscious, green and gorgeous zucchini (courgettes) at O’Gourmet Food Hall. Zucchinis are a member of the squash family – and they are not actually vegetables, but fruit… the swollen ovaries of the zucchini flower. Quite sexy actually, and absolutely delicious. The specimens at O’Gourmet were lovely – crisp and bright green, a nice size and shape. My initial instinct was to bake zucchini bread. I still may do that, but Karo’s Julia inspired letter bubbled to the front of my mind. The key to the recipe is grating the zucchini – it turns it into a totally different vegetable and tastes … of pure green and sunshine.

I love the fact that Karo was inspired by Julia, and she in turn inspired me. Each version is made and remade into the cook’s own style. And each version is dependent upon the quality of ingredients, season and inspiration. Recipes are like stories – they are personal and reflect the cook’s personality and joy. Recipes like this – based on the genius of Julia Child, and her innate ability to bring the best out of simple, classic ingredients – can be deeply personalised, and joyfully shared.

This is actually a double recipe … and it is incredibly adaptable and forgiving. Use the sauteed zucchini as a wonderful side dish – or add a few tomatoes or mushrooms, and serve with rice or pasta as a main course. The gratin takes the sauteed zucchini and gilds them with cheese and cream and egg – bake this concoction, and you create a lovely crustless quiche that is satisfying and delicious. You could of course, pour the whole thing into a crust – or even saute thinly sliced rounds or stops of zucchini and create a firmer base. You could add more cheese on top – or breadcrumbs – or pine nuts. You could dot the whole thing with roasted tomatoes or mushrooms. The limits are you imagination. I do think that the gratin is best eaten at room temperature or even cold. The heat tends to flatten out the delicacy of flavour and texture.

Green Goodness

Sauteed Zucchini

Serves 4 (may be less if greedy, or served as a main course)

  • 3 – 4 medium – large zucchini (courgettes) – about 2 – 3 cups grated
  • Salt
  • 1 tsp + 1 tbsp butter (or use all olive oil if you wish it to be vegan)
  • 1 tsp + 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 small white onion (or shallots or leeks), finely minced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • Few tablespoons of white wine (optional)
  • 1 tsp mixed herbs
  • White pepper

Set a strainer over a medium sized bowl. Wash the zucchini well, and top and tail them. Grate directly into the strainer. I grated half the zucchini very fine and half the zucchini quite rough – I like the contrast in texture, but do with it what you prefer. Add a pinch of salt, and allow the zucchini to drain for at least 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large pan, over medium heat, melt 1 tsp of butter together with 1 tsp of olive oil. Add the minced onion and garlic, and saute for at least five minutes or so, or until transparent. If you are using white wine for added flavour, add it now, and allow to bubble into the onions and garlic, and cook away. Season with herbs, salt and pepper.

Squeeze the zucchini in the strainer to remove as much liquid as possible. Reserve the liquid if you are making a gratin. Add the extra butter and olive oil, and add the zucchini to the hot pan. Spread it out in the pan so it cooks, and bring the heat up to high. Saute for five minutes or so, or until just the edges of the zucchini strands are starting to brown. You want to keep the bright green colour, but you also want to make sure that it does not taste raw.

Serve, hot or at room temperature.

Zucchini Gratin

  • Sauteed zucchini as above
  • 1/2 cup milk (or cream, coconut milk, oat milk etc)
  • About 3/4 cup reserved zucchini liquid
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup pecorino plus extra for topping if you like – I used a Pecorino Sardo
  • 1 tsp mixed dried or fresh Italian herbs
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • About 1/2 cup melting cheese – I used a gorgeous Raclette from O’Gourmet – delicate enough not to overwhelm the dish. You could use a Gruyere, Emmental, even a light Brie.

Preheat the oven to 200C (400F). Have a baking pan ready. I used a round glass baking dish.

Spread the sauteed zucchini across the bottom of the pan, ensuring that it covers the entire dish.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cream, zucchini liquid, salt and pepper, eggs, 1/2 cup pecorino, herbs and mustard. Set aside for a moment.

Chop the raclette into small chunks and dot all over the sauteed zucchini. Pour over the cream mixture, and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes or until puffed and browned. It will just wobble, but be firm as well. About five minutes before time is up, sprinkle some extra cheese over the top if you really want to be decadent.

Serve at room temperature or even cold, with a crisp bitter side salad.

Enjoy!

O’Gourmet Food Hall Truffled Gnocchi

29 Jan

I have always been fascinated by gnocchi – those delicate, pillowy little Italian dumplings made from flour and potato. They seem so simple, and yet they are intimidating. It seems that there could be so many ways to stuff it all up. Because the key to making gnocchi is in the simplicity – some recipes call for just potato and flour and a bit of seasoning – you need to follow directions really closely, and you need to have top grade ingredients.

You can play around with gnocchi, but you really should try a basic recipe first. This one actually is quite simple and quick.  It includes the addition of an egg (for richness and flavour) and some diced truffles, but actually, you can forgo them if you want to. Or add other ingredients – parmesan and butternut come to mind, or spinach and garlic. But do try a basic version first. You need to get the feel of the dough, and the lightness of the handling.

Basically gnocchi have a base of potato that needs to be as dry as possible. There are a few ways to ensure that this happens. First of all, ensure you use starchy, not waxy potatoes. Russet are excellent. Next, bake the potato, dont boil it. Peel the potato after it has been baked, and then mash it lightly with a fork or put it through a potato ricer. Treat it very gently. Add the egg / seasoning if you are using, and salt and pepper. And finally, toss in the flour, a tablespoon at a time. This will ensure that you use the bare minimum of flour, which will avoid thick, heavy gnocchi, and a smooth supple dough.

It sounds like a lot to remember, but really its common sense. Gnocchi are delicate, therefore you need to treat them delicately. Use your hands, so you can feel the dough coming together, and go slow, and soft. It will work out, I promise. Plus, a home made gnocchi, even if it is a little tough, is a thousand times better than a store bought one, any day!

For about 60 – 80 gnocchi (serving 4 – 6 people, depending on greed and hunger)

  • 2 large russet potatoes (approximately 2 kg)
  • 1 large organic egg
  • 1 small truffle, grated or finely diced
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 scant cup 00 flour (bread or pasta flour with high gluten content)

Preheat the oven to 200C (400F).

Pierce the potatoes with a fork, and bake in the oven for about 30 – 45 minutes, or until a skewer or knife goes all the way through with little resistance.

Peel the potatoes while they are still hot. Put the potatoes through a ricer or mash very gently, in a large bowl. You dont want the potatoes gluey – fluffy is what you are looking for. A ricer is the best way to ensure this – and they are relatively cheap (I bought one from Ikea for less than RM50).

Break the egg into a small separate bowl, and finely grate the truffle over. I use a Microplane lemon zester to get very fine strips of truffle, but you can even chop the truffle finely if needed. Add a generous pinch of salt and peper, and whisk. You could add half a teaspoon of truffle oil if you like, but the entire point of gnocchi is to ensure the dough is not too wet, and not handled too much.

Make a well in the centre of the mixture, and pour in the egg/truffle concoction. Toss lightly with your fingers. The egg will not make the potatoes gluey if you have treated them properly to start with, but will definitely make them wet.

Measure out your flour. You will probably only use about half a cup of flour, but its useful to have extra if needed. Add the flour to the warm potatoes and egg by the tablespoonful. Toss gently after each addition with the tips of your fingers. You will see the flour slowly incorporating into the potatoes. After about a half a cup of flour, knead lightly and bring the dough together. Add a little more flour, a tablespoon at a time, to get a smooth mixture that is not too sticky.

Turn the dough out onto a floured work space, and let it rest for a few minutes. Place some wax paper on a large baking tin or cookie tray.

Divide the dough into four equal portions, and work with one portion at a time. Roll the portion out into a long thin sausage, and dust lightly with flour. Using a sharp knife, slice into small gnocchi sized portions. I usually cut about 1 – 1 1/2 inches. Using the tines of a fork, mark the gnocchi on one side, and place gently onto the cookie tray.

Let the gnocchi air dry for at least 10 – 15 minutes. You can store them in a ziploc baggie and freeze them, for up to six months. Or you can use immediately.

To cook gnocchi: Bring a large saucepan of water to a rolling boil. Work quickly, and be ready to serve immediately. Gnocchi are not good cold! Have a warm bowl at the ready. Work with about 20 gnocchi at a time (or more depending on the size of your saucepan). Once the water is boiling, tip the gnocchi in, and allow them to bob to the top. This should take less than 3 minutes. Using a sieve, fish the gnocchi out, and place in the warmed bowl with a touch of olive oil or butter. Continue with the remaining gnocchi. Once all the gnocchi has been prepared, toss gently with warm sauce and serve immediately.

I served a very simple sauce of spinach, wine, garlic and a touch of cream with these gnocchi. It was sublime!

Baby Shower!

20 Jan

This coming Sunday, I am hosting a baby shower for one of my dearest friends. It was going to be a rather casual affair, but we suddenly realised we have more than 60 people coming! Luckily, we live in the tropics, and the party can spill out into the pool area.

Cooking for those you love is a form of service and joy. I have cooked for birthdays and weddings, for those who are ill and for those who want to celebrate. I dont think I have ever cooked for a baby shower though. This crowd is going to be a lovely mix of women, some who are new friends, and others who I have known for decades.

Making food for a celebration is always special – but to celebrate a new life, well, now, thats just a beautiful moment. My friend is gathering around her all those who mean much, and it is such an honour to be able to provide the food for such a group.

I love cooking for parties, but I have to admit, 60 people is a bit daunting. At least we invited them for tea, and not for a major meal! AngelKitten and I have been working quite hard to come up with a balanced and delicious high tea, that has luxurious and exotic elements to it.

Here is what we are going to serve:

  • Baked spinach and artichoke dip – this one is a standby that is delicious every time we make it. We have adapted it somewhat to suit the Asian palette – we add a lot of very hot chili powder to the mix. It transforms the dip into something very special.
  • Mini cheddar cheese scones – stuffed with herbed cream cheese / chili jam / cranberry cheese – I love these, and they are easy to make and delicious to eat. Stuffing them with a variety of fillings gives variety from a single bake.
  • Avocado and feta dip – salty, creamy, fresh and bright. Avocados always feel luxurious, and feta is the perfect complement to the cool green flesh. A little lemon juice and some herbs make this dip complex, and yet it is so easy to make.
  • Sliced carrots and chips on the side – so that those who want a little indulgence can have chips, and those who want a lighter option can munch on the carrots!
  • Truffled potato salad – because sometimes a new, decadent twist on an old favourite is called for! I like having at least one dish that is different, and that will spark people’s interest and appetites. I will probably use mascarpone with the truffles … simple and deeply flavourful.
  • Starry starry night cookies – these baked truffle cookies, made with bittersweet chocolate, honey, almond flour, eggs and sugar, are my friend’s favourite. They are so good.
  • Ginger cake with vanilla cream cheese frosting – a request from my friend. I have some gorgeous ginger curd from O’Gourmet Food Hall which I am considering using in the cake batter to make it deeper, damper and more delicious. Luckily, we also found some Bentong ginger at O’Gourmet, so I know that the cake will be bright and beautifully gingery.
  • Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting – because you cant have too much chocolate, and because AngelKitten and I were worried that with 60 people, one cake wouldnt be enough!
  • Fruit salad with iced raspberry puree – a fresh alternative to all the rich desserts. We have a watermelon, kiwi and dragon fruits… and we are freezing raspberry puree into ice molds. These will be dotted amongst the salad, and will keep it cool and fresh, as well as add flavour and taste.
  • Iced fruit tea with starfruit

And for thank you gifts for all our guests, I am making blondies – ten per person … Ive just filled about 45 little gift bags, and will do the rest tomorrow.

What do you think? Any other suggestions? 🙂