Rainbow trout curry

There was nothing very inspiring in the way of fish at the shops today and I didn’t feel like meat but there were some nice looking rainbow trout.  I’ve been cooking rainbow trout ever since the early ’80s.  A simple grilled rainbow trout – rubbed with salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil – accompanied with lemony potatoes and a simple green veg was a stand-by dish.  It was one that I could serve up to guests (though strangely I discovered that a lot of people were scared of whole fish with bones.  Actually a lot of people just didn’t eat fish!)  The potatoes were key:  cubed and cooked in a small amount of chicken stock which was then reduced with some butter and the addition of lemon juice and then fresh chopped dill, chives and parsley folded through and a final cracking of black pepper.  It still remains a dish I do on occasion.

I have a rather wonderful – and super easy – Thai recipe for rainbow trout with little Thai pea and apple eggplants.  Alas here in Noosa there are no such things.  And in that particular dish, you can’t just substitute ordinary eggplant or even the Japanese variety.  But I did think that a red-style curry with pumpkin would work well, perhaps with some zucchini and a handful of snow peas for colour and to accompany, a cucumber relish.  Quick and easy.

Making Thai-style curries is a process of just going with whatever’s in your fridge/pantry and letting your taste buds guide you.  So if you don’t have a particular ingredient, either skip or substitute.  For this curry I had on hand:

  • lemongrass
  • coriander (you need the roots for the paste)
  • garlic
  • kapi (shrimp paste)
  • coriander seeds
  • white peppercorns
  • galangal
  • red shallots
  • chillies

and that’s all that is needed for a basic curry paste.

To make the curry I brought some coconut cream to the boil and then added my curry paste (just blitz all the above ingredients) and let that cook until it was nice and fragrant, then added some coconut milk, fish sauce, shredded lime leaves (I have a little tree in the garden) and some extra chilli (because I like my curries hot) and then put in the whole trout and then the pumpkin, then zucchini and finally towards the end, the sno peas.  A final flavour adjustment – dash more fish sauce, squeeze of lime juice and meal done!

Jasmine rice on the stove – also something that you just set and forget.  The  cucumber relish is super easy too.  It’s equal parts sugar, coconut vinegar and water (4 tablespoons) and some chopped coriander root , brought to the boil and stirred until the sugar dissolves then set aside to cool.  If you have in your pantry a jar of pickled garlic, this goes in nicely, but if not, it doesn’t really matter. Finely slice red shallots, chilli and cucumber into a bowl then pour over the vinegar mixture.  Delicious and super quick and easy.  All you then have to do is wait for the evening to get on  – never a good idea to start cooking too early.

Another week, another round of recipes to create

It seems my life revolves around food – cooking and eating.  Every day I think about what to make for dinner.  Maybe it’s my age, but these days I’m leaning towards lighter meals and less meat. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve eaten more than my fair share of food and my body is shouting “enough!!”

I now find myself searching for more interesting interpretations of salads and while Ottolenghi has produced some very fine books with delicious vegetarian meals, I find a lot of them tend to be on the labour intensive end of the cooking spectrum.  By the time I get home from yoga, I want something quick.   Quick is also the key to shopping expeditions:  I generally have 10 minutes before my yoga class to race into the shops to purchase my ingredients, so I can’t afford to have huge lists.  Nor can I afford to aimlessly wander the aisles searching for inspiration (something that is at times a challenge in Noosa – the tale of my frustrating search for instant polenta being a case in point).

So to this week’s eating. I have a bunch of kale in the fridge and some zucchini, brussel sprouts, cos lettuce, cucumber, coriander, mint, a pomegranate, a hot -smoked trout, haloumi, a jar of baby roasted peppers and in the cupboard: two potatoes, onions, preserved lemons, chick peas and a whole host of vinegars.  In the garden: sage, rosemary, parsley, thyme, curry leaves, kaffir lime.  What to make?

The kale needs to be eaten as does the smoked trout. So here goes:

A kale and smoked trout salad with haloumi and roasted peppers.

The other day I came  across a recipe for a kale and smoked trout salad that looked very appetising but when I read through the list of ingredients it seemed that everything was thrown without consideration of how all the ingredients would actually taste together.  Kale, smoked trout, haloumi, roasted chickpeas dressed in olive oil and smoked paprika, chimichurri (an Argentinian sauce traditionally used for bbq meats), pomegranate, yoghurt-tahini dressing, and poached eggs.  Overkill? The maxim ‘less is more’ had clearly never been heard of, so while it looked good in the photo, I’m sure it would have tasted … well, how to politely put it: much like those piles of food that people heap on their plates at buffets.  Lacking a flavour profile with too many conflicting tastes and textures.

So here is my version of the salad:

  • 1 bunch kale leaves, trimmed and torn into bit sized pieces
  • 1/4 cup coriander leaves, torn (or roughly chopped)
  • 1/4 cup parsley leaves, chopped
  • 1/4 cup mint leaves, torn (or coarsely chopped)
  • quarter segment preserved lemon, finely sliced into strips
  • 1/2 jar baby roasted peppers, sliced into strips
  • 1 hot-smoked trout, flaked
  • 1 block haloumi, sliced and dry seared then cut into strips

and for the dressing, I opted to mix:

  • 2 tbsp tahini,
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • salt, pepper
  • 3 tbsp olive oil

There are obviously many variations on this dish.  You could just as easily use chick peas and haloumi (but omit the trout); or trout with poached eggs (omit the haloumi), or trout and pomegranate and maybe some lovely little tomatoes, but never ever, everything at once.

As for the brussels sprouts  – they’re for tomorrow’s meal.   Oh, and there’s tofu too.  I’m starting to get inspired.

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.

Starting out? What are the essentials?

Over the past years I have made little books of recipes for my children and their friends when they have gone off to live on their own and fend for themselves. Knowing they have a tiny budget and equally tiny kitchens, not many resources and few ideas (and limited skills), I thought I’d help them out by putting together a list of pantry items, essential utensils and some basic recipes.
Over the years, I’ve shared these with a number of people who weren’t into cooking (because they found it too daunting) but have since come to embrace the joy of cooking. Both my children are great cooks and I’m pleased to say that those friends who once didn’t even have a grater or olive oil (!!) in their kitchen are now being very experimental and preparing amazing food.
So what do you need?

Equipment


  • good wooden spoon (better to buy one good spoon and throw it out after a year rather than a whole lot of cheap ones.
  •  two good knives – one small one and one large cook’s knife – you’ll need this for chopping things like pumpkin. Buy the best you can afford. Everyone has a preference for the kind of knives they like to handle. I like a really big heavy knife but it has to have the right weight/balance. I use Furi and although I have an entire set, I generally only use two of them. The others are specialist knives – for filleting fish etc. So my advice is to go and handle the knives and choose whichever one feels best in your hand. And don’t worry about price – they vary. In fact, if you’ve got a good Asian cooking shop nearby, go there as they have very good knives for usually a fraction of the price of the big name ones.
  • colander
  • slotted spoon
  • spatula
  • tongs – the ones you get in the supermarket with the rubber ends are perfect for all sorts of things from grabbing pasta, turning meat, serving salad, etc.
  • vegetable peeler
  • grater
  • flexible spatula
  • *heavy duty mortar and pestle – these are available quite inexpensively at Asian grocers and will last you a life-time.  For years I relied on one of these instead of using any food processors to mix my spice pastes.  Alternatively, buy a wand – even the cheap ones do a reasonable job and can last for years.

Cookware


  • one small saucepan
  • one large sauce pan – large enough to cook your pasta – enough to serve, say four
  • a medium sized frying pan.  As you get more competent/interested you’ll want a range of pans but essentially you’ll always want one small non-stick pan, one large non-stick pan and one heavy-duty deep(ish) pan.  The best of these are cast iron and found in hospitality stores for a fraction of the cost in department stores.  I’m still using a large cast iron pan I bought over 20 years ago.
  • if you can, buy a wok.  Again, go to an Asian kitchen shop – or even just an Asian grocery store as they generally have them – and buy a standard round bottomed wok.  Oil it and put it in the oven to ‘cure’ a couple of times and then it will last you for ever.  Truly.

In my opinion, if you’re just starting out – that’s basically all you need.  Once you’re venturing into more complex dishes, then there are things that you’ll want – see here for details.

Pantry


  • tin tomatoes –  the Coles brand are especially good because not only are they cheap but they don’t have anything but tomatoes and water in them (no nasty preservatives or additives)
  • chickpeas in a tin – amazing what you can do with chickpeas (ditto re Coles brand)
  • anchovies
  • stock cubes – beef and chicken
  • olive oil
  • rice bran or other vegetable/peanut oil for cooking (sometimes you want an oil that doesn’t burn as high as olive oil or have so much flavour – particular in asian cooking)
  • salt, pepper
  • cumin – this is a great spice which will see you through a huge range of recipes
  • chillies – fresh and ground
  • coconut milk
  • sugar
  • fish sauce
  • soy sauce
  • sesame oil
  • mirin
  • rice vinegar
  • balsamic vinegar – if you don’t want to use a range of vinegars, then this is one that will do for just about anything.

And now to recipes. Click here for a selection of easy recipes that can be made both cheaply and quickly with limited equipment.  I’m not one for exact measurements but rather its a “go by feel” attitude, which after a few times, you’ll understand.  By then you’ll be able to adapt and make things up on the fly.

*this is an ideal item but if you’re just starting out  and are in temporary digs, don’t bother with it.  There are other ways of making do.

Measure for measure – now you’re cooking

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I read lots of recipes – for me they’re like mini novellas; short stories that fire my imagination. I have some favourite recipe books – Ottolenghi’s Plenty, Karen Martini’s Where the Heart Is, and (embarrassingly) Bill Granger’s Bill’s Food – though I must say in both my defence and Bill’s the recipes in his book are really good – easy and delicious and I would recommend them to anyone starting out on their cooking journey. Then there are some long-time treasures such as David Thompson’s original Classical Thai Cuisine  and Luke Nguyen’s My VietnamStephanie Alexander’s original A Cook’s Companion is a never ending source of information and inspiration and then there are all the issues of Gourmet Traveller – dating back to the 90s but now in digital format on my iPad.

Mostly though I just make it up as I go along. I generally follow a new recipe to the letter and then next time tweak it. Improvise. Sometimes this happens because I haven’t read the recipe properly and forgotten to buy some of the ingredients; other times it’s because I’m cooking from whatever I have to hand and the recipe is just a guide. This is where my saviour Google comes in: what flavourings/how long to cook pork belly? Within nano seconds I have a whole list of recipes for pork belly. The problem then is to sort through all the dross and find exactly what you want.

My other source of recipes (because sometimes I just can’t think of what to make) are the  ones in the Saturday papers. Often they provide great inspiration and Neil Perry’s recipe page in The Sydney Morning Herald’s magazine is usually very do-able.

But sometimes, sigh, recipes can be really exasperating. When, for instance, a recipe calls for 40g of rocket. Really? 40 grams? Who measures rocket? It’s like specifying 15g mint leaves. What is that? Why not just say: “a handful of rocket”? (which, by the way is around 40g). And what’s 15g of mint or coriander?

Now I know that real chefs are very precise in their measurements – after all, they need to ensure that every dish that goes out is exactly right; that each time you have a certain dish its exactly as it was last time. Consistency. There is no room in a professional kitchen for improvisation when cooking for patrons.  I’ve seen chef’s working in concentration on plating up – its quite a thing to see – such precision.  But for the home cook?

I’ve been cooking long enough to be able to gauge by eye and feel. I know that 50ml of lemon juice is roughly 1 medium lemon and that 250ml is about 1 cup. I would much prefer a recipe stated 1 tsp rather than 5ml. (Up until very  recently I only had a measuring jug that had increments of 50 ml so trying to guage what 25ml was – let alone 5 – was rather haphazard).  And after all, cooking is an art, not an exact science (unless you’re Heston Blumenthal) and we all have different palates.   When I’m cooking Thai or Vietnamese dishes I always go by taste.  I don’t even bother with tablespoon measures.  I know approximately how much fish sauce and palm sugar to put into a nuoc cham and always, I taste and adjust.  Of course you could buy all those little sets of measuring gadgets but my kitchen drawers are already cluttered with too many utensils and besides, it’s just one more thing to wash.

So, just to make things easier for those who have no idea how much 10ml lime juice is, here’s a rough guide to some of the things that have perplexed me in recipes:

  • 5ml = 1 tsp
  • 20ml = 1 tbs
  • 75ml = roughly 4 tbs
  • 250ml = 1 cup (just your standard  teacup)
  • 120ml is almost half a cup
  • 40g = 4 tbs
  • 40gm coriander is a small bunch of coriander (just the leaves)
  • Half a lime is about 1 tbs (20ml)

Should you have any measuring tips, do let me know. Happy cooking.

 

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