lemongrass-poached chicken with harissa tomatoes

In response to requests for the lemongrass-poached chicken recipe, click here.
This is such a great and super easy way of cooking chicken breasts which can have a tendency to become dry when grilled or oven-baked. If you don’t have lemongrass to hand, just omit and add more ginger. I sometimes throw in the end of leeks as well. An added bonus is that the left over poaching liquid makes for a good basis for a soup or stock.

The uses for poached chicken are endless; great as a basis for a laksa chicken dish, numerous salad dishes such as my favourite Vietnamese Chicken Salad and even for ever-so-delicious chicken and herb sandwiches.

Never too old for birthday cake

One of the best things about birthdays is celebrating them. I used to work with a great bunch of women – all of a certain age – and birthdays were always celebrated with some style. A cake would be brought in – some rather wonderful creation, wether  home made or purchased from a fabulous bakery. Morning tea served with appropriate ceremony: plates and napkins, tea and coffee pots, flowers and candles on the cake. We always made time for this little ritual irrespective of how busy or frantic our day was. And of course there was a present. Great thought would be put into this gift – invariably something somewhat indulgent. All unnecessary but very much appreciated. It marked a sense of occasion.

This year, having moved from Sydney I found myself having no-one to play with on my birthday and no celebratory feasts organised and realised how much I missed the birthday cake, the bestowing of warm wishes and gifts. It doesn’t matter how old you are or even if you don’t (generally) eat cake. The birthday cake is always a treat and a gesture of friendship and love.

So having missed out on cake (and presents) I decided to treat myself and make my own birthday cake: apple and blueberry with ground almonds and a sticky flaked almond topping. It ticks all the boxes – even the (almost) healthy one.
It’s easy to make and is quite a stunning looking cake. Just right for someone’s birthday.
Apple Blueberry cake
Apple blueberry and almond cake
125g butter, softened
125g (1/2 cup) caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs, beaten
100g (3/4 cup) self-raising flour
50ml milk
125g ground almonds
2 apples, peeled, cored and sliced
1 punnet (125g) blueberries

Topping
125g butter, melted
2 eggs
125g (1/2 cup) caster sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
50g flaked almonds

Preheat oven to 180C.  Grease the base of a 20cm spring-form cake tin.  Beat butter, sugar and vanilla extract until fluffy then gradually beat in eggs, one at a time.  Add a little sifted flour if the mixture looks as if it might separate.  Lightly fold in remaining flour, milk and half the almonds until combined.  Spread into the base of the cake tin.  Sprinkle with remaining ground almonds then top with apples and blueberries.

To make topping, put melted butter in a bowl and whisk in eggs, sugar and cinnamon. Pour over cake.  Sprinkle with flaked almonds.  Bake for about 60 minutes; when ready it should be firm to the touch and a skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean.  Cool completely in the tin before turning out.  Dust with  little icing sugar to serve.

 

Storming the Bouillabaisse

The Eiffel Tower is illuminated during the traditional Bastille Day fireworks display in Paris July 14, 2013.  REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes (FRANCE - Tags: SOCIETY TRAVEL CITYSCAPE ANNIVERSARY) This year we decided to have a Bastille Day* dinner – simply in order to get together with friends and eat French food and drink French wine: an indulgence. What to cook? Something that is suitable for a dinner party but doesn’t require a lot of last minute attention.  I decided on a bouillabaisse. Simple, but delicious.  And for before and after? I have a recipe for a terrine that is probably as old as my youngest child – pheasant and pickled walnut terrine, courtesy of Two Fat Ladies – which I’ve never properly made, either because I couldn’t find fresh pheasant or pickled walnuts.  This time I was able to source both, in fact I had a jar of pickled walnuts in my pantry and a pheasant was readily available from my favourite poultry shop – A.C.Butchery.   And for dessert?  I’m not a dessert person, I don’t have a sweet tooth; but I always feel that I should make something for guests.  I decided on a classic Tarte au citron.

So today has been my prep day.  I went to the fish market to purchase fish and seafood for the bouillabaisse; bought ingredients for baking, some cheese and all the other things I needed.  Back home I skinned my pheasant and took all the meat off it (they’re tough birds!), chopped up the meat and set it to marinate with red vermouth.

Next I put the fish heads and bones into a pot to make stock and thought I may as well use the pheasant carcass to make a stock. It went into the oven to roast first (in order to make a richer stock).  I also decided to make some pickles to go with the terrine.  I’d bought some little Dutch carrots, baby turnips and tiny little radishes.  A quick pickle which will be ready tomorrow.

Then to the pastry for the tart.  I came across an interesting recipe that is probably the easiest and fastest I’ve ever seen (courtesy of David Lebovitz):  you place butter, oil, sugar, water and a pinch of salt into a bowl in the oven (210 degrees) and leave in for 15 minutes until the butter has melted  and there’s a slight brown foam around the edges.  Take the bowl out, add flour and stir.  For less than a minute!  Its that simple.  And then line the flan shell with the pastry and bake it in the oven for 15 minutes.  The texture of the pastry is very buttery.  It was extremely thin which meant it tended to crack but David provides a neat trick: leave aside a small amount of dough to smooth over the cracks with. Works a treat.

All I have to do tomorrow is make the terrine, bouillabaisse and the rouille, mix the filling for the tart and bake it, et voilá!  Dinner is ready.  Its going to be a rather early dinner so that we can get through it all – I think I’ve rather over-catered. We won’t be storming the Bastille.

Our menu:

  • oysters
  • pheasant & pickled walnut terrine with pickled vegetables and freshly made rye bread (courtesy of my husband)
  • bouillabaisse with rouille on toasted crusty baguette slices
  • tarte au citron
  • cheese (a comte and a St Siméon, which is a rich creamy cow’s milk cheese.  I’ve been warned that its very, very runny – yum) with dried muscatels, pear and walnuts.

So to all francophiles:  bon appetit!

*I have to note that the French do not call it Bastille Day – its an American invention and one which Sidonie Sawyer from the Huffington Post is particularly insistent about. She points out that according to Wikipedia: “Bastille Day is the name given in English-speaking countries to the French National Day, which is celebrated on 14 July each year. In France, it is formally called La Fête nationale: The National Celebration) and commonly Le quatorze Juillet: the fourteenth of July).”

this dieting life

130129145417-girl-on-scale-super-169Now that I’m not drinking wine or other alcohol, I find that I can fit in that much needed protein shake after a gym session.

Protein drinks are the go if you work out.  They help build lean muscle and supposedly prevent you from putting on fat.  How does that work?  To my way of thinking it’s consuming extra calories, but then I come from the days when dieting was all about calorie control.  When I was in high school, salads were all the rage, though way back then they were pretty ordinary: lettuce, cucumber, tomato, celery, carrot, cheese.  Maybe some beetroot if you were adventurous (as in the kind that comes out of a tin).  Later on there were all kinds of diet fads:  the Grapefruit Diet – also known as the Hollywood Diet – based on the claim that grapefruit has a fat-burning enzyme and so helps burn body fat when eaten with foods high in dietary fat.  The Grapefruit Diet is a low carb diet and the idea is to eat half a grapefruit with each meal. You can imagine how boring this would become.

After that came the Pritikin Diet which was actually a “Program for Diet and Exercise”.  It stipulated the need to get plenty of daily exercise, including at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise like brisk walking, weight training two to three times weekly, and stretching, optimally every day. I adopted this for a couple of years and found it quite satisfying.  Mind you, I didn’t have a weight issue, it was just one of those things that girls/women grew up with.  Strange, but true.

The Pritikiin diet is low in fat (only 10% of total daily calories) and high in fibre and carbs. The focus is on avoiding refined sugars, salt, and refined grains as well as processed meats, foods high in  and those made with trans fat, and high-cholesterol foods like eggs. A fairly sensible diet for the times though I do remember making a particularly disgusting zucchini & carrot loaf with sultanas etc.  Without eggs, baking was difficult.  The texture was spongy, but not in a good way – more like rubber.  And of course it wasn’t really sweet. I managed to eat it (toasted) but when I served it to guests they spat it out.  Lesson learnt.

Then there was the Fit For Life Diet which claimed that you could lose weight without needing to count calories or undertake anything more than a reasonable exercise program. The key to this diet was “food combining” based on the claim that if you eat foods in the wrong combination they would ferment in your stomach. The dietary principles included eating only fruit in the morning, eating predominantly “live” and “high-water-content” food that cleanse the body (while “dead” foods are those that are highly refined or processed and clog the body) and if eating animal protein to avoid combining it with complex carbohydrates.  Here’s the deal:

  • Fruits are best eaten fresh and raw. Where possible they should be eaten alone.
  • Carbohydrates & proteins should never be combined in the one meal.
  • Water dilutes stomach digestive juices and should never be drunk at meals.
  • Dairy products are considered of limited value and due to their allergenic capacity, should seldom, if ever, be eaten.

Needles to say I didn’t last on this very long.

I then gave up on all diets and instead became obsessed with cooking complex gourmet meals (this was the 80’s), reproducing recipes from Vogue Entertaining and Gourmet Traveller (which I still subscribe to!).  I did however learn some basics that have stayed with me:  low fat (but not when it comes to yoghurt, milk etc because you don’t want to sacrifice taste and flavour), nothing fried, no processed foods, no foods that have additives etc.  And then more recently, low carb and having discovered I was lactose intolerant, no cheese (except for the occasional chèvre).

Having indulged in too much good food and wine whilst travelling recently, I came back with a few extra kilos.  No problem I thought – back to our normal eating and exercise routine and those kilos will fall off.  Wrong.  Instead, they kept creeping up.  One morning I got on the scales and got such a fright I jumped off! Eekhh. How could that happen?  I talked to my doctor who said that sadly, being menopausal could do that.  Just had to ensure that I exercised.  And I do.  So its come down to the wine.  All those calories obviously add up at the end.  So now we’re on the 2:5 Fast Diet.  This is essentially a two day fast diet.  On two non-consecutive days your calorie consumption is restricted to 500 (for women, 600 for men) while on the other five days you can eat (and drink) whatever you like.  Sounds good.  And its actually do-able as long as you can not drink on those two days.  That’s where it became a bit tricky for me.  To not have a glass of wine while cooking?  Could do without drinking with the meal but to not have a glass after?  That was a big ask. I actually really like the taste of wines.  It’s a sensory experience.

Well, now having undertaken Dry July, I’m not only able to go without wine but – getting back to my original topic – I can fit in the freshly made juices and protein shakes.  And I’m finding that I actually like the recipes available for the 5:2 Diet and adopt them on the other days, albeit not worrying about the calorie count.

Today is Day 9 and I’ve got a new gym program that I like and I’m hoping that at the end of the month, I’ll be back into that little short green/violet tweed skirt I bought in Scotland.  Stay tuned.

 

 

Pumpkin time

Thai-inspired pumpkin soup

As a child I really disliked pumpkin. It made me gag. I would rather eat boiled cabbage than pumpkin. My mother used to make a particularly vile (or so I then thought) dessert with pumpkin and rice; it was a variation on rice pudding. I hated it and dreaded those nights when it was on the menu. We always had a 3 course dinner: soup, main, and dessert. And we had to eat all three; even not wanting ice-cream and jelly was not an option – had to sit at the table until we ate it all. Not unusual for those days  post war when so many of our parents’ generation had had either little or no food. Times of scarcity and hunger. No wonder the idea of “more is better” was the overarching philosophy. There was too, the constant cajoling: “eat it up – think of all the starving children/people in Africa”. This never made sense to me – I was happy to send my unwanted dinner to starving people. Surely that would be noble and reasonable?

As a young adult my aversion to pumpkin continued and it always surprised me that people liked it, so I began to try it in various incarnations. I once made an American-style pumpkin pie – surely something so popular should taste good?  Alas, it tasted of pumpkin.  I didn’t even like pumpkin soup.  And then one day at a dinner at a friend’s house pumpkin soup was served and to my surprise, I actually liked it. Essentially because it wasn’t sweet: instead of using milk he used orange juice and had included some chillies. From then on, pumpkin soup became part of my repertoire.

Whenever I made this soup I ensured that I put enough chicken stock to give it some saltiness to combat the sweetness of pumpkin.  (I have to confess that in  those days I used to use stock cubes.  Nowadays I make chicken stock just about every week – it’s practically the only thing I have in my freezer – apart from vodka!) The addition of freshly chopped chillies towards the end and a good cracking of black pepper, grated orange zest and some chopped coriander gave it further depth.  For balance and richness I used to put in a couple of tablespoons of sour cream.  Later on I changed to yoghurt which was just as good, without all the fat and added calories.

More recently I made a pretty standard pumpkin soup with potatoes, carrot, pumpkin and chicken stock and after pureeing added fresh chillies, coconut milk, fish sauce and lime juice.  Delish.  So much so that it has now become one of my passions: variations on a theme of pumpkin soup.

If you’re not a fan of the traditional sweet flavoured pumpkin soup, try this one.  Even my daughter loves this soup and she’s not a soup person.  Nor a pumpkin fan.  In fact, once when she was little (just over 2yrs old) after announcing she was hungry she then insisted – when confronted with pumpkin soup – that she really wasn’t hungry after all.  Despite it meaning that there was no dessert or anything else. Now that’s a serious pumpkin aversion.  Fortunately though, I’m not of the school that thinks kids should eat everything they’re given.  My philosophy is:  if you don’t want to eat it, that’s fine, but there’s nothing else.  My other food rule is:  if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it, but you have to try it first.  I said this to my daughter when she was around 3 yrs old at Christmas when we were having oysters.  I had assumed she would not like the look of them and therefore not eat them. She loved them.  And they have been her to-go-for special dish ever since.

A couple of days ago with the weather turning cold and having had enough chicken soup to last me a lifetime, I decided it was time for pumpkin soup.  I had some freshly made Thai-style curry paste left over from a batch I made for a chicken and apple-eggplant curry so thought I would use that in the initial stages of the soup together with some finely chopped lemongrass.

First I sweated some chopped  onion and then added the curry paste and the lemongrass and stirred till it became lovely and fragrant and then added the vegetables:  pumpkin, potato, carrot and some ends of a fennel I had,  stirred to coat in the oil and spice paste, poured in freshly made chicken stock, simmered till the vegetables were cooked and left it to cool.

That evening, we went out to listen to some food bloggers at a General Assembly event, coming back home quite late.  We brought some fresh bread on the way home and then all I had to do was puree the soup and put it back in a pot to heat up then add a tin of coconut milk (I use Ayam because it doesn’t have any gum or preservatives.  Its the only one I have found that is just coconut and water so I figure its worth paying more for it), fish sauce and some salt (because it still tasted a bit sweet) and finally, a good squeeze of lime juice.

I have to say, this version of the soup was absolutely delicious.  Fragrant (lemongrass, lime leaves and coriander), spicy but not too much, and deeply aromatic and complex (due to the fresh spice paste mixture). Served with fresh chopped coriander and thinly sliced lime leaves (I have a tree in my courtyard) and the baguette – its was the perfect post-event supper.

While I still haven’t ventured on the pumpkin pie journey, my distaste for this vegetable has turned into an appreciation of how teaming it up with spices and “umami” flavours changes it into a delicious food.
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Can’t help but cook

I can’ help myself. I have a need to cook or at least be involved in the process.

Recently I had surgery on my right hand which rendered me quite incapacitated – amazing how many things I couldn’t do – including cooking, opening jars, bottles, squeezing toothpaste etc. I was most frustrated one day when my husband had gone out and I wanted to open up a bottle of sparkling red (perfect for late autumn afternoons). I thought it would just be a matter of undoing the foil and then twisting the cork with my left hand. Alas, no. It also required the use of my right hand to hold the bottle tight. Which I could not do.

For the first couple of days while I was still aneasthetised and sedated with pain killers I was quite happy for M to do the cooking – I didn’t even feel the need to make a decision on what to cook/eat. I told him I was happy just to leave it all to him. Day 3 however, things changed. M was going to cook some kangaroo fillets and serve them simply with some greens and I suggestd that the woodfire roasted capsicums would make a good addition – both in terms of colour and texture and flavour. Easy. However in the interim I had been watching Rachel Koo’s Cosmopolitan Cook – an episode where she was in Sweden and had cooked venison steak with pureed celeriac and pickled blackberries. She had also quickly pickled some finely sliced carrot to look like petals. Sounded divine. And I thought that the kangaroo would do well as a substitute for venison. So whilst shopping I was on the look out for something to pickle – not blackberries – but something small and crunchy. I found tiny little baby turnips – perfect. Also found some lovely little dutch carrots and a big celeriac. So when we got home I made up the pickling mixture and trimmed the turnips (bit of an effort given my invalidness) and set them to pickle. I wasn’t sure how they would turn out as all the recipes I had read called for turnips to be pickled for at least a week. Fortunately though they were just right. I had quickly blanched them beforehand but they still retained a nice crunch.

The celeriac was beyond me so I simply gave instructions. Meanwhile M had done his own bit of research into celeriac and had sautéed it with fresh thyme and garlic and then steamed it till it was cooked and mashed with a fork.  Not how I would have done it as I had envisage a very smooth white puree spread on the plate and the kangaroo on top, but it was absolutely delicious; so much so that I could have just eaten that on its own!!

I did have to apologise for my intereference but I just couldn’t help myself. While M is a really good cook he’s often a bit pedestrian while I’m always on the look out for new ways of doing things and even though I may not set out to get inspiration from a cooking show or recipe, inevitably I do get inspired and want to create something that sings on the plate and palate.

However having overstepped the mark yesterday I have sworn to not interefere with his ideas and repertoire – after all, everyone has their own way of doing things and I think he likes to cook for me as much as I like to cook for him.

So I shall embrace my debilitation and just sit back and enjoy being catered to.

 

Baby turnips
Baby turnips

Food, wine and sommeliers

Food and wine – what else is there?

My brother’s partner has a birthday close to mine and my husband’s – 5 days in between each – so this year we celebrated all three together here in Sydney.  My brother and his partner live in Auckland and they planned to arrive Friday night (the day after Helen’s birthday).  We didn’t want anything high-end – we’re all struggling financially but we all also felt that we’d “been there, done that”, so low key but fun was the plan.

We decided on Berta’s in Sydney and I booked a bar table – always much better fun than the more formal settings – and had a lovely night with great food (Chui Lee Luk, formerly of high end French restaurant Claude’s, was currently cooking there) and fabulous Italian wine.

Next day we met for lunch at Yellow – one of my favourite Bentley Bar places; in fact, the Bentley is one of my all time favourites, dating from way back when it was a tiny place in Surry Hills.  Sommelier Nick Hildebrandt who is also Front of House, is warm and friendly and extremely knowledgeable and helpful when wondering what to drink.  Deservedly, Nick has been awarded Gourmet Traveller’s Good Food Guide 2015 Sommelier of the Year, while Brent Savage was awarded SMH Good Food Guide’s 2015 Chef of the Year. The two are quite a team, but so are their staff, and it’s this aspect – great friendly service – that makes the Bentley bars such good fun.  Which brings me back to our lunch at Yellow.

Because it was such a simple affair – really we were only going to have a glass of champagne and a nibble before going on to see a performance at Hays St theatre – we ended up ordering toasted sandwiches.  Doesn’t sound very interesting but my smoked brisket pastrami with cheddar and pickled cabbage (Reuben) was the best I’ve ever had – and I’m very fussy about my Reubens.  Two of us had these while the other two opted for a pulled pork and chilli mayo sandwich – I can’t remember what else was in them but there were groans of delight at first bite.  So what to drink?  We had started off with a glass of Roger Coulon – superb. To go with both the pork and the pastrami (very different flavours) we thought perhaps something white but decided to ask the sommelier. I don’t know why people don’t like (or is that they are are scared of?) sommeliers.  To me, they are the source of all knowledge:  what shall we have with all these different dishes?  Our sommelier that day was fantastic – a young guy who works in fashion and moonlights in restaurants to make money.  He was great fun: chatty, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable about the wine. He recommended a nebbiolo which was not only the perfect match but absolutely delicious.  Could have stayed there and had another bottle.

So, if you’re ever confronted with a wine list where you just don’t know any of the wines – ask the sommelier.  He’ll make recommendations.  A good sommelier will even give you a taste of the wine he recommends to see if you like it – no pressure.  Really. And its such a great way to try new wines.

What to do with adzuki beans

I’ve been seeing an acupuncturist who is helping me adjust my system.  She’s working on my kidneys and suggested a number of food that would help, one of them being adzuki beans.  Because most people (me included) don’t know what to do with them she gave me a recipe – and its really good: pumpkin and adzuki beans in a thai-style curry. Unlike kidney beans, adzuki beans (also called aduki or azuki beans) are small, reddish-brown beans with a cream coloured seam and sweet, nutty flavour.  They originated in China and in Japan are regarded as the king of beans due to their health-giving properties:  benefitting the liver and the kidneys. In both Japan and China, adzuki beans are often puréed and mixed with sugar to make a paste to use in cakes and desserts.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, adzukis are said to support kidney, bladder and reproductive function. They’re also low in calories and fat and easy to digest 🙂

The beauty of this dish is that’s its really easy to prepare – no need to grind/blend ingredients to make a curry paste, just use a few dry spices and some tamarind.  It makes a lot so you can have leftovers.  In fact, I used this as something of a ‘master curry’ and kept adding to it – extra coconut milk, fish sauce, extra pumpkin, then more beans and one time:some pork- so much so that we ate it – with variations – for 4 days!  Now that’s one good curry.

Adzuki beans are available dried in Asian shops or good health food shops.

Pumpkin adzuki curry with coconut, lime & ginger

If you’re using uncooked adzuki beans, soak them for between one and four hours, rinse them thoroughly and cook for 45 minutes before adding to the curry.
Ingredients:
1 medium brown onion
splash olive oil or 1 tbsp ghee
3cm knob ginger, cut into thin matchsticks
2 hot chillies, finely chopped (I find this very mild so if you want to turn up the heat, add more chillies)
1tsp ground turmeric
1.5tsp ground cumin
1tsp ground coriander
1tsp tamarind puree
half a small to medium-sized pumpkin, cut into large 4-5cm pieces (leave the skin on)
1 cup Adzuki beans
400ml coconut milk
400g tin whole tomatoes, chopped
8 kaffir lime leaves, 4 of these finely shredded
juice of 1 lime
splash fish sauce
 To serve: lime wedges, chopped coriander, mint and/or Thai basil

Method:
Heat oil or ghee in a large heavy based pot over low-medium heat. Add onion and cook for five minutes, then add ginger and chilli and cook for a couple of minutes. Stir in the turmeric, cumin and coriander and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes (or add them whole and roughly break them up in the pot) and tamarind puree. Cook for five minutes, then add the coconut milk and whole kaffir lime leaves. Return to boil then reduce to low simmer.

Add the pumpkin pieces and cook for about 8 minutes, checking on the pumpkin – you don’t want it to turn to mush. Add the adzuki beans about two minutes before you think the pumpkin is just cooked. Sit the lime juice and shredded kaffir lime leaves and a good splash of fish sauce before serving.
Serves 4

If anyone has any other interesting recipes for adzuki beans, do let me know.

Cooking for foodies

What to cook for foodies who have eaten everywhere?  When we get together with my brother and his partner here in Sydney we generally go out one night and then have a night at our place – cooking, drinking, eating, drinking.  A lot of drinking.

Generally we confer on a menu and then all pitch in to cook.  Food is most often Asian – Vietnamese or Thai – and always lots of little dishes.  It’s a lot of work.  I usually begin a few days in advance, making lists, shopping, preparing rubs and marinades and then on the day I’m generally in the kitchen chopping, mixing, etc while everyone else is either sitting reading papers or standing around chatting to me.  Its a small kitchen so more than two people gets a bit, well, let’s just say it cramps my style.

This time, celebrating three birthdays we decided that we would do low-key and simple.  And just for a change: Indian.  My husband is a great South Indian cook, having lived in India for seven years – he make fantastic dishes including lots of vegetarian ones as well as delicious fresh chutneys. One of his most outstanding dishes is a chicken liver curry.  Sounds weird but it is to die for.  Its very rich and very hot (lots of green chillies) so we don’t have it often (maybe just once a year). For anyone who is a fan of chicken liver this is a must try dish.

For entree I made crab and prawn cakes wrapped in banana leaves with a coriander and mint chutney.  M made a coconut and red chilli chutney to go with the curry as well as a vegetable dish with zucchini and carrot cut into matchsticks and then  tempered with traditional South Indian spices:  mustard seeds, cumin seeds, black gram dhal, asafoetida, split red chillies and curry leaves.  To temper: heat a tablespoon of ghee and when hot throw in a tspn of mustard seeds, cumin seeds, the black dhal, half a teaspoon of asafoetida (this is very strong smelling) 2 split red chillies and a handful of fresh curry leaves.  When the leaves begin to split and the seeds pop add the raw vegetables and a few tablespoons of water, put a lid on the pan and turn the heat off.  The vegetables will steam and absorb all those wonderful flavours. Its quick and easy and incredibly delicious.  You  can add shredded coconut over the top.

 

Although none of us are really dessert people it never feels right to me not to make something.  But it has to be light and not overly sweet and not complicated.  So I thought a coconut panna cotta would be the go – rounding out the flavours of cardamon etc in the previous dishes, I roasted some peaches with cinnamon, cardamon pods, rosewater and a dash of wine.  It was the perfect ending to a flavour packed meal.  And to top it off:  coconut vodka!

Celebrations

My birthday and my husband’s birthday falls just 5 days apart.  This is always awkward.  Celebrating two birthdays in the one week in style is just overkill, but then who’s birthday get’s the big celebration and who’s ends up with “well lets just stay at home and have some great champagne and good food”?  Generally its my birthday (falling first) that we go out for – and not always to high end places, sometimes its just a fabulous lunch somewhere or a causal place like “…” in Newtown – just somewhere that I would like to go to eat.  I’m not really into the big flash dinner thing.  Perhpas we’ve done too many of them but I’d rather go to those places on the spur of the moment rather than as a planned event.  Too much pressure.

The trick to celebrations – birthdays/anniversaries etc – is to make them feel special.  One year I took my husband (and daughter) to the Sydney Fish Markets early in the morning.  We bought some wonderfullly fresh oysters and had them with a bottle of champagne and some lovely ripe brie and huge juicy strawberries.  We sat on the pier – picnic style and watched the boats unloading.  And then we all drove home and off to work/school.

Another time, for an anniversary celebration I decided to do something right out of the box:  a night time picninc by the water.  But I wanted it to be a surprise. So I told my husband I had made a booking for a flash restaurant where the dress was very formal.  Meanwhile, Pip and I shopped and cooked and prepared everything and packed the car with picnic rug and chairs and t-lights, plates, linen napkins, glasses, champagne etc.  I can’t remember what I made (although one of the dishes was a pigeon and pickled walnut terrine – that took days to source ingredients for, another was individual plum frangipane tarts).  Pip and I scurried around getting everything ready and packing the car in a bit of a frenzy before M got home.  Secrecy was the key.

And then it was time to get dressed and go.  I wore the Akira outfit I had worn for my wedding and M put on his tux.  Stylish.  And then we got into the car and I drove.  M wondered where we were going – he started to recognise some of the landmarks so the next step was to blindfold him.  We drove to Neilson Park and Pip and I set up our little picnic spot near the water, lighting all the candles and setting out the food while M sat in the car – no doubt wondering what was going on.  We then led him out and only when we were at the spot did we let him see.  The look of surprise on his face and pure joy was so worth all the effort we’d gone to.  It was, relatively, such a simple thing – a picnic at the beach – but it was so enjoyable – we even danced barefoot on the sand with the waves lapping our feet – that it remains in my memory as one of the best celebrations ever.