Monday, August 23, 2010

Holy Smokes!

Not just the fish but the entire flat was smoked! Yes, I didn't heed warnings to do this outside because I was too curious and excited to get to it. I had learned about smoking fish using simple tools like a wok and some foil from a Masterclass episode of Masterchef a few months ago. When I read this blog post last week I remembered that I wanted to try it out.  

Taking the tips from both sources, I got started. I had some green tea leaves, trout fillets and a wok with a rack. This really felt like a kitchen experiment. Smelling the wonderful aroma and thinking about the rich smokey flavored fish we were going to have for dinner, I was smiling all throughout the process. Mr. P is not a huge fan of fish. He likes it but is a little picky about it. Smoked is not on the top of his list. Yes, I was taking a risk here but the discovery of a new technique was definitely worth it.

Tea Smoked Trout
400g of trout fillets
Splash of white wine and lemon juice
salt and pepper

1/2 cup jasmine rice
1/2 cup tea leaves (I used the peach flavoured green tea I have now)
1/2 cup sugar 

Season the fish with the salt, pepper, lemon juice and white wine while preparing the rest of the ingredients. I read that some cure the fish prior to smoking while others just go straight to smoking. So, I decided to go half way and marinate my fish briefly.
The smoking mixture in its foil receptacle.
Make a receptacle out of foil for the smoking mixture. Put the rice, tea and sugar and in it and place the whole thing at the bottom of the wok. Spray or brush the rack with some oil. Turn the heat to med-high and cover the wok. Once the mixture starts to smoke, lay the fish fillets on the rack and cover the wok tightly. Use some foil to seal off the sides if like mine, your cover is not tight enough. Allow your fish to smoke for 6-8 minutes until it flakes easily with a fork. Turn off the heat and set fish aside. (If you plan on doing this indoors, I suggested taking your covered wok outside and removing the cover there. That way most of the smoke will just waft through open air, and not into every room and corner of the house.)
I decided to make an herbed yogurt sauce for the fish.

Yogurt Sauce
1/2 cup of Natural Yogurt
1 clove of Garlic
a handful of chopped herbs: I had basil, chives, parsley and a bit of rosemary
1T lemon juice
2T extra virgin olive oil

Put the yogurt in a sieve lined with a sheet of paper towel or a cheese cloth. Allow it to drain for about 6 hours. Meanwhile, grind the garlic, chopped herbs, a dash of the olive oil, salt and pepper in a mortar and pestle. 
Once the mixture is finely ground whisk in the rest of the olive oil and the lemon juice. When the yogurt is ready, put it in a bowl and whisk in the garlic and herb mixture to blend. You can do this in a food processor too. Add lemon juice and/or olive oil to thin it out if necessary. Season to taste.

To cut through the rich smokey taste, I made a citrus salad and to make it a full meal, accompanied it with lentil puttanesca and a forgotten sweet potato that I just roasted.

Green Salad with Fennel and Citrus
a bunch of mixed greens good for two
half a bulb of fennel
segments of 1 mandarin orange

I'm not a huge fan of raw fennel so I just roasted it for 8 minutes in the oven with a little bit of salt, pepper and olive oil. Once done, let it cool and toss with the greens and orange segments. I like to do the segments over the salad so any juice that runs just works to further dress the leaves. 

Lentil Puttanesca
-half a red onion, finely chopped
-1 garlic clove, finely chopped
-1 anchovy fillet, chopped
-1 tablespoon of capers
-2 tablespoons of black olives, roughly chopped
-1 tomato, roughly chopped
-1 can of french lentils
-2T red wine vinegar
-1-2T extra virgin olive oil
-1T parsley, finely chopped
-1T basil, finely chopped
-dash of chili flakes
-salt and pepper

Chop the onion finely and saute in the olive oil until tender. Add the chopped garlic to the pan. Season with a little salt and pepper. Once the garlic begins to cook, add the tomatoes and allow it to soften slightly with the heat. Toss in the anchovies, capers, olives and lentils. Stir lightly to combine and heat through. Pour in the red wine vinegar and stir through. Remove from heat and finish with the chopped herbs, chili flakes and a dash of extra virgin olive oil. 

Due to the saltiness of the anchovy, capers and olives, you may just need to add pepper and omit the salt in the final seasoning. Check to see if the taste is to your liking.

For the final assembly, toss the fennel, greens and cooled lentils together. Arrange the orange segments nicely over the salad and place the roasted sweet potato discs neatly around the dish. I then flaked the smoked trout into slightly large chunks and put this on top of the salad, in between orange segments. Spoon the yogurt sauce over each chunk of fish. 

The combination of flavours was really refreshing. Both Mr. P and I could not get enough. The light citrus and vinegar from the lentil salad cut through the richness of the fish perfectly. It was a light and delicious one-dish dinner and would make a great addition to a barbecue or a picnic.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Baking Exploits: Lemon Yogurt Olive Oil Cake and Key Lime Pie

My First Cake Ever!

My family and my close friends know that I am not a big fan of baking. I love the kitchen and I love cooking, but baking is a whole different story for me. I just really find the need to measure each and every ingredient so tedious. Not to mention, the need to follow each and every step in sequential order. In many ways, I just like to freeform. In my cooking, I usually modify a recipe that interests me so I achieve the taste I know I want out of a dish. Once in a while I'll follow the recipe exactly. That's when it is a dish, cuisine or a technique I'm exploring for the first time, or if it comes from someone I know is an excellent cook or chef. 

In my book bakers and pastry chefs are highly regarded. I think that their discipline and technique is amazing. I just love watching or reading about those who are so comfortable in their art that they can even freeform their baked goods. Amazing!

The thing that freaks me out the most about baking is the the thought that for an amateur like me, there seems to be no way of knowing whether the goods will be perfect or, god forbid, a complete disaster! Not until it's too late. Not until the only way to fix it is to chuck it and start over. My heart hurts just thinking of all the ingredients, time and effort that could possibly go to waste. 
WET ingredients, measuring going well so far...
All together now! Hoping for the best...

Mr. P and I were invited by my godfather to a picnic last weekend. Days have been getting warmer and I thought, hooray, what a fun way to spend what would have been a lazy Sunday. I of course ask what we could bring and while picnic-friendly savoury ideas are running through my mind, I get a text back saying: a cake. A CAKE?! Wow, left field suggestion. God help me, I don't bake. "But you don't bake," Mr. P confirms to me when I tell him the news. We were both laughing. My fighting spirit drove me to take this challenge on, a challenge from my godfather nonetheless. I resolved that I was not going to succumb to a store-bought mix or a bakery-bought cake. I was going to bake from scratch.

I announced on my Facebook page that I was going to bake. My wonderful cousins suggested in jest a donut cake, because that's what our Nana would serve for dessert every Sunday. No, it is not a giant sized piece of fried dough, but rather a regular cake baked in a pan with a hole in the middle. We liked to call it donut cake as kids. I went out to the store and found exactly that pan. I thought that since it was Nana's death anniversary that week, I would make a donut cake in her memory. As I was scouring through my cookbooks and favourite food blogs, Trina and Rachel (some of my favourite food exploring friends) both came up with wonderful suggestions. Two desserts that were fitting for a beginner baker like me.

Trina's suggestion was Key Lime Pie. I absolutely adore anything that involves tart and sour flavours. Reading her recipe here, I thought it would be easy enough. This was definitely going to be my back up in case my main cake did not rise, OR taste good.

"But how will you know that it tastes good if you can't cut the cake until it's time to serve it?" asked the very concerned husband. I think that knowing the potential for an embarrassing situation at the picnic was secretly killing him. "I don't know, I'll just follow the recipe to a T and it should be good, Rachel told me how to do it and she is one of those whose recipes I like to follow exactly." Obviously, I didn't realize that it would rise in such a way that I'd have to cut the top and yes, have a piece to taste before THE day.
Hooray! He has risen!

Rachel shared a fabulous Lemon Olive Oil cake recipe. I read it and it sounded very similar to Ina Garten's Lemon Yogurt Cake, only Ina's cake base had less steps. What I loved about Rachel's cake was the inclusion of Olive Oil and the topping of blueberry syrup and mascarpone cheese. So I asked Rach if it would be possible to do a hybrid and she gave me the go signal. Yes! I am going to get on with this cake. I was actually excited! 

Right as I was about to start, I speak to my awesome cook and non-baking sister Mrs. G who asks: "do you have extra ingredients in case you have to repeat?" Gosh, the faith in my baking prowess is apparent with both the spousal and sisterly units!

Here's my hybrid of both recipes:
Lemon Yogurt Olive Oil Cake
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup Greek style yogurt
1 1/3 cup sugar divided
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 170C, grease the pan, dust with flour and line with parchment paper. 

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the yogurt, 1 cup of sugar, eggs, lemon zest and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients slowly into the wet. I did it in three batches. Fold the olive oil into the batter using a spatula. Once all ingredients are incorporated, pour the batter into the pan. For my pan, I just needed 40 minutes in the oven. 

(At this point, I have to confess that I tasted the batter and it was not lemony enough for me. I knew about the next step but the freeform-er (and hard-headed girl) in me just HAD to add a little lemon juice. I just squeezed in the juice of about half a lemon.)

While the cake is baking, cook the 1/3 cup lemon juice and remaining sugar in a small pan until the sugar dissolves. Set aside. When the cake comes out of the oven, allow it to cool in the  pan for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and place on a baking rack over a sheet pan. Cut off the top, hurray for scraps that you can taste test! Pour the lemon syrup all over the cake and allow it to soak through and cool completely.

For the topping:
1 pint blueberries
1 lemon, zested
1/3 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 cup water
1 pint mascarpone

Combine all the ingredients except the mascarpone in a saucepan. Bring mixture to a simmer and cook for 20-30 minutes until the berries burst and the liquid comes to a jam-like consistency. Remove cinnamon stick and allow to cool completely.

Separately, whip room temperature mascarpone with the zest of 1 lemon and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract. 

I made my cake two days ahead, covered it tightly in plastic wrap and kept it at room temperature. About 15 minutes before serving, I spread the mascarpone mixture on top of the cake and poured the blueberry mixture over it. 

Finally, here they are. My Key Lime Tartlets and Lemon Yogurt Olive Oil Cake. They both tasted great to me and I think the reactions proved the same. 
Not so great looking but yummy nonetheless.
The real star of the show.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bowl Food: Thai

Dinner time is sacred, to me at least. I attribute this to the way we grew up and spent so much time at the dinner table. In our family, like most I'm sure, we sat together for meals. Dinner time however, being the only meal of the day when everyone was surely home from work or school could not be missed. All seven of us would sit and eat our dinner course by course. We'd start with soup and nobody could go on to the next course unless each one was done with their soup. If you just had one serving and I wanted to go for seconds or thirds, you and everyone would have to wait for me to finish before starting on the main dishes that followed. Once in a while, someone would get impatient about another taking long but more often, these "waiting periods" were the most enjoyable moments at the dinner table. These were the moments when lively family conversation would happen. Sometimes it would be two people conversing, other times three or four or more. It was so much fun growing up at the dinner table like this. I'm sure it is one of the things that brought us so close to each other that to this day no matter how scattered we are all over the globe, we still want to and manage to keep the lively conversations going - dinner time or not.
I'm thankful that our parents (unbeknownst to us back then) designed dinner time as family bonding time. It is something I want to continue with my own unit. So for now, our unit of two (not seven) looks forward to meal time not just for the food but for the bonding as well. More often than not, we'll sit at the table for dinner, say grace and chat endlessly over our meal. BUT, we do make exceptions. Mr. P. works really long hours so on some days, he'd rather stay on the couch from the time he gets home until the time he showers and goes to sleep. On nights like these, I make sure to prepare something that can be eaten easily with one hand holding the bowl of food and the other hand holding just ONE utensil. We'll cozy up on the couch, put on one of the shows we follow and happily eat our bowl food. It may not be the ideal scenario for building closeness if and when we have our own kids but for just the two of us, it definitely works. It feels like quality time and dinner time all rolled into one.

Bowl food night last week was Thai inspired: Satay Style Chicken over rice with sauteed vegetables on the side.

Satay Style Chicken (for 2)
This recipe was adapted from here. Marinate 3-4 chicken thigh fillets overnight in equal parts (as per original recipe, it's 2 tablespoons each) of:
-lime juice
-fish sauce
-soy sauce
-curry powder
In addition, I put in about 1 teaspoon of Sriracha sauce into the mix and seasoned the chicken with salt and pepper prior to marinating. I just think that despite the marinade, this step ensures a tasty piece of chicken. I for the life of me, cannot stand under-seasoned chicken. Cut the thighs into strips before marinating to further enhance flavour absorption of each piece.

The ideal way of cooking this is to grill the chicken if you have a barbecue grill. Since we don't I just placed the chicken pieces on a baking rack over a cookie sheet and grilled them in the oven. I put the outer leaves and unusable parts of two lemongrass stalks on the baking sheet, beneath the chicken, for added fragrance and flavour while grilling. Preheat the oven to 180C. Since the chicken had been cut into strips, it only took about 10-15 minutes in the oven. It came out really juicy and tender. For the real satay effect, you can skewer your chicken, but for this meal, it had to be bowl food.
Of course, chicken satay is not chicken satay without the peanut sauce. Here's how I modified the original recipe:

Peanut Sauce
1T ground ginger
2 cloves of garlic
1/3 red chili, minced
3T ground lemongrass
3T chopped cilantro
1T ground turmeric
1/2 tomato, diced
4T peanuts
1/8 c rice bran oil and a dash of sesame oil
1/8 c soy sauce
1/8 c mirin
2T sugar
1/8 c coconut milk
1/8 c peanut butter
Heat the oil in a saute pan and add in the ginger, garlic, chili, lemongrass, cilantro and turmeric. Heat over med-low heat until very fragrant. Add the tomato, peanuts and a dash of sesame oil. Continue to heat for about 3 more minutes, until tomato softens. Stir in the soy sauce, mirin, sugar, coconut milk and peanut butter. Allow the mixture to simmer for 5-7 minutes until it thickens. Stir pretty constantly so that nothing burns. Remove from heat and use a stick blender to crush the peanuts and process the mixture into a thick and slightly chunky consistency. Serve hot with the chicken over rice.

He was happy so I too was happy. It was exactly what he needed after a long day at work. We'll definitely do this again.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Decadent Breakfast at bills

My friend Cat was in town with her cousin Trish and for her final morning in Sydney, we decided to have breakfast at bills in Darlinghurst. This is the original breakfast joint of Bill Granger and one that I have been wanting to eat at.
There's Cat outside the door of bills.
My breakfasts whether out or at home can NOT start without a cup of coffee. I'm glad I had that taken care of before heading out this morning because there was no way I could pass up on bills Hot Chocolate made with Callebaut. I was expecting a cup of brown chocolate-y liquid to arrive at the table but was pleasantly surprised by something even better. A glass of warm milk with the actual nibs of Callebaut chocolate in it, melting slowly. Ah, it was decadent and it was divine. Enough said.
Lusciousness in a glass!
Apparently, bills is famous for their organic scrambled eggs. The eggs is the food item that supposedly brought him his fortune. I decided to see for myself if it is all it's cracked up to be, and all I can say is: wow, who knew that something as simple as scrambled eggs could be so good! These are your favourite hotel style scrambled eggs taken to the next level. With a side of house cured trout, fresh butter and organic sourdough bread, I was in heaven. It reminded me of why breakfast is my favorite meal of the day.
The other thing I love about bills is the ambience. Glass windows that allow lots of natural light into the place, minimalist wooden furniture, and warm lighting makes the place feel smart and homey at the same time. The best part: his cookbooks are there for you to read through while you wait for breakfast to be made. Lo and behold, the recipe for his scrambled eggs calls for 2 eggs and a THIRD OF A CUP of cream. Ay! No wonder it is so rich and fluffy at the same time. Can I say decadence part two? And that I'll need a major workout tomorrow and for the next three days?
The communal table at the center, making the place really feel homey.
Trish leafing through one of the cookbooks.
Here is Cat's breakfast which was equally delicious. Ricotta hotcakes with fresh bananas and honeycomb butter. Though she was looking for something salty after a while, the two bites I had were really yummy. The pancakes were as fluffy as they look and the honeycomb butter is a new pancake accompaniment that I would crave and come back for.

So there you have it, our bills experience was a fantastic start to our morning. To burn off some of those calories we splurged on, we decided to stroll through Darlinghurst and Paddington as the sun finally decided to beat the wind and rain. And I leave you with a decadent reminder along our walk.
Max Brenner side wall
A day of decadence indeed! You would have loved it.