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Seared Asparagus and Fennel with Black Olives, Balsamic and Ashed Goat’s Cheese

Introduction:

This dish is influenced from one of my all-time favourite and inspirational chefs, Alain Ducasse.

Why inspirational? Alain Ducasse is a master of French cuisine (apparently he holds 21 Michelin stars which is pas mal in anybody’s book) and I believe that if you can master the techniques of French cuisine and patisserie you are armed with the skills to be able to cook and create anything you want. I am a great admirer of French cooking (and hopefully one day  be a great exponent of) and for me Alain Ducasse is one of the chefs that I get inspiration from, not only to create new dishes, but to actually cook.

There is much leaning these days towards local produce; that is making the most of the ingredients about you. I agree that are times that certain ingredients need to be brought in from another country. For example Jerez sherry vinegar from Spain, the cacao bean from South America say, a true Reggiano from Italy, or a scrumptious black pudding from the north of England (I am a little bias with this one being a Yorkshireman). However, on the whole, I think it’s a great idea to try and source as much ‘fresh’ produce from as near to your locale as possible. Take René Redzepi from Noma in Copenhagen (voted the world’s best restaurant for three consecutive years in 2010, 2011 and 2012), his complete philosophy of cooking is about using what he can find locally.

Alain Ducasse has a great book out called ‘Nature’ which aims to get cooks and chefs to think about cooking amazing but simple dishes which are healthy and taste great.  The emphasis is on sourcing local vegetables, cereals and fruit. And with some simple techniques under your belt and a keen eye for some terrific produce, simple yet outstanding dishes can be a stone throw away.

If you want to read more about techniques I wrote this article about Produce, Technique and Harmony.

With locally sourced vegetables in mind here in Melbourne we currently have some great asparagus on offer, and I have taken the basis of one of Monsieur Ducasse’s dishes and give it a Yorkshireman’s twist – not that the twist has anything to do with Yorkshire, mind you.

This dish is the amalgamation of rich nutty asparagus, mild aniseed from fennel, saltiness from local Kalamata olives, sweetness from an aged balsamic vinegar, and the tart and salty creaminess from an ash coated goat’s cheese; all of which harmonises to make this an all-round taste sensation in the mouth. It can be eaten as a side dish, or if you are feeling particularly non-carnivorous pile it high and eat it as your main.

 

Serves: 4 as a side or 2 as a main   |   Preparation: 15 minutes   |   Cooking: 10 minutes

 

Ingredients:

About 12 | Green Asparagus Remove the woody ends – these should snap off easily. Cut each stalk into 3 (angle the cuts for aesthetic pleasure).
1 bulb Fennel | Remove the outer layer, the green stems and the woody bottom, and then thinly slice.
2 tbsp.  Extra virgin olive oil |
1 good pinch Sea salt | Maldon anyone?
5 tbsp. Balsamic vinegar | Aged is ideal for this dish.
2 tbsp. Kalamata olives | Pitted (stones removed).
150g Ash coated goats cheese | I use a mild and creamy cheese. The ash is mainly tasteless but is said to help mellow the acidity to promote the ‘affinage’ (refining of the cheese).
Seasoning Black pepper | Freshly cracked.

 

 

How To:

To a bowl add the cut asparagus, the sliced fennel, the olive oil and the good pinch of sea salt. Mix gently until the asparagus and fennel are coated with oil – a hand is a great tool to do this.

Heat a large heavy based frying or sauté pan. Add the oiled asparagus and fennel to the pan and cook until slightly browned and tender. You can check the asparagus with the tip of a sharp knife to see if it is done. The aim is to still have a little ‘crunch’ but not so much that it isn’t cooked.

Set aside the asparagus and fennel, and then add the balsamic vinegar to the hot pan. When the vinegar sizzles add the olives and stir for about 30 seconds, enough just to warm the olives. Put the asparagus and fennel on a serving plate, pour over the warm balsamic vinegar and olives and then season with black pepper. Finally, crumble the goat’s cheese over and serve immediately. Bon appétit!

10-Minute Melbourne Bruschetta

Introduction:

Whilst typing away listening to the brand new tunes from Daft Punk’s new album Random Access Memories, the urge for a spot of tiffin took hold. Now, I am pretty partial to spending two days in the kitchen to create and cook dinner for a few friends; in fact I get incredible pleasure from such a feat, but there are times that only a 10-minuter will suffice. I have just seen that Jamie Oliver’s 20-minute meals is topping the book lists at the moment, so there is an obvious interest out there for food that is quick, clever and cheerful.

Most of my ‘quick’ lunches are not really blog material; I mean there’s not too much one can say about peanut butter on a stick of celery or opening a tin of tuna and mixing it with rice. But just for a little bit of a challenge I thought it would be cracking if I could create a grand looking lunch using only what was available in my kitchen with the time limit of 10 minutes.

Without thinking about a name for this concoction until writing this particular sentence, I am going to call it 10-Minute Melbourne Bruschetta.

A review of the Daft Punk album goes along the lines of a “mix of disco, soft rock, and prog-pop, along with some Broadway-style pop bombast and even a few pinches of their squelching stadium-dance aesthetic”. I am not sure I have the linguistic capability to transpose such a description to this dish, suffice to say that it was brill.

 

Serves: 1  |   Preparation:  10 minutes   |   Cooking: 3 minutes

 

Ingredients:

1 Large Free range egg | Fresh organic if possible.
A splash White vinegar | Used to stabilise the egg whilst poaching.
1 medium Black Russian tomato | Black Russian tomatoes are beautifully sweet. If not available try 3 or 4 cherry tomatoes.
½ Lebanese cucumber | Lebanese cucumbers are short and contain very few seeds.
3 Sun-dried tomato | In oil, from a deli,
A pinch Sumac | Adds a nice subtle tartness.
A pinch Smoked sea salt | I use Maldon. Non-smoked can be used.
A drizzle Olive oil |  
A pinch Black pepper |  
1 slice Ham | Ham off the bone is ideal.
1 ½ slices Wholegrain bread | Cut into 3 triangles.
A few drops Extra virgin olive oil | For garnish.

 

 

How To:

Toast the whole grain bread. Meanwhile put hot tap water into a wide pan, put on a high heat until boiling, and then reduce to a very gentle simmer. Add the vinegar, swirl the water very gently and then crack open the egg and very gently add to the centre of the pan. Poach the egg until the white is fully cooked and the yolk is still runny. For me this was about 90 seconds. Remove and drain with a slotted spoon.

Finely dice the cucumber, sun-dried tomato and Black Russian tomato on a chopping board. Add the sumac, salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Now mix with a large knife by using motions of cutting, scooping and turning. Continue until the mixture is consistent, ensuring that the tomato and cucumber are not cut too finely.

To serve create an overlapping ‘circle’ with the triangles of toast in the middle of the plate. Carefully spoon on the cucumber and tomato mix, reserving a spoonful for garnish. Roll the ham and place on the cucumber and tomato. Then carefully place the yolky egg on top. Garnish the outside of the plate by placing pieces of cucumber and tomato and drops of olive oil. Now break open that unctuous egg and enjoy.

Pickled Baby Octopus

Introduction:

Diving for the illusive Jules Verne cephalopod, the monster of the deep, and probably twenty thousand leagues above (and below) what I should be diving for, I was suddenly attracted by a mysterious wailing; a wailing that dreamily emanated from a distant island, a tropical oasis in the midst of the ocean. Unnerved and helpless I drifted towards the haunting sound, and as my vision focused in on it’s source I became aware that this island was a fantasy adorned with a veritable feast of all my favourite marine delights: lobster, sea trout, banana prawns, oysters, monkfish, sea urchins, snapper, Atlantic salmon, sardines, octopus, mussels…the list was endless. With only metres to spare before landing on this paradise, I was swept away by an unknown of the deep, taken down and down into a helical vortex only to emerge moments later sat in a café and wondering how I can introduce the next recipe on the blog…

And as I struggled to introduce the majestic recipe for pickled octopus, my mind wandered and suddenly I found myself diving for the illusive…

 

Serves: A few as nibbles   |   Preparation:  30 minutes  |   Cooking:  2 hours + 2 days marinating

 

Ingredients:

1 kg Baby octopus – cleaned | Most baby octopus is already cleaned when bought.

For the Marinade
350ml  Extra virgin olive oil |
2 cloves Garlic | Finely sliced.
250ml Red wine vinegar | A good quality aged vinegar is ideal.
80ml Sherry vinegar | This is very flavoursome vinegar, adored by French chefs in particular.
2 tsp. Dried oregano | Fresh doesn’t impart as much flavour.
2 tsp. Lemon juice | Freshly squeezed.
2 pieces Lemon zest | Each piece about 5cm x 1cm.
4 Szechuan peppercorns | Crushed.
8 Black peppercorns | Coarsely ground.
A drizzle Extra virgin olive oil | A drizzle to coat the octopus.

 

 

How To:

I have written a post about Cooking Octopus, Squid and Cuttlefish and the science behind it. I recommend giving it a whirl if you are interested as to why this is cooked for so long.

Preheat your oven to 90 deg C (195 deg F) – it’s essential to use an oven thermometer as if the temperature is too high the octopus will over-cook.

Prepare a pan of boiling water and add the cleaned octopus.  Blanch for 20 seconds and then immediately remove from the water. Add to a dry pan, cover the pan with a lid and then put in the oven for 2 hours, regularly checking the temperature of the oven.

To prepare the marinade, add all the ingredients to a bowl and then stir gently to disperse; we are not looking to emulsify the oil and other liquids, however.

Remove the octopus from the oven and drain the juice. The juice (or jus) is quite gelatinous and extremely flavoursome. It can be reduced to a very rich sauce or used to flavour other sauces or soups. I usually freeze it for later use.

Let the octopus cool for 10 minutes and then carefully add it to the marinade. Gently coat the octopus in the marinade, cover the bowl with cling film and then refrigerate for two days. This allows for the pickling process to occur and means that the octopus becomes infused with those lovely herby and zesty flavours.

After two days remove the octopus from the fridge and if the marinade has set just allow it to come to room temperature so that it liquefies. Pick out and eat the octopus.

Notes:

  • Great served on a platter as an appetiser.

Brilliant Basil Pesto

Introduction:

It’s a beautiful late autumn day here in Melbourne, and whilst basking in the afternoon sun the waft of basil perfumed air drifts by, and I am taken to the rolling hills of Tuscany. This, however, is only my imagination as firstly I am in Melbourne and secondly I have never been to Tuscany. But the basil aroma is so evocative that momentarily the dreamland became my reality.

As I return to the reality of my front garden, the gentle warm sun is illuminating the aforementioned basil, and I ponder on just how wonderful an experience it is to be able to grow, pick and then cook with things that I have grown; just like the natives of Tuscany.  For example, the tomato season is coming to an end but for the last three months there has been a steady stream of sweet and ripened Roma tomatoes from my two tomato plants. I also have sorrel (and citrusy salad leaf), jalapeno chillies, Jerusalem artichokes, strawberries, bay leaves, sage, Vietnamese mint, rosemary, mint and of course basil.

I am looking forward to the winter months as this means the growing of ‘green’ vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, green beans and maybe peas. I will also try potatoes once the artichokes are all finished. Whatever is grown though, there is something immensely pleasurable in nurturing seeds or seedlings and seeing them grow in to produce. It is not only a mark of our human ability to grow our own food but it is food that is also packed with the fresh flavours that seem to be lacking in produce that has been transported and been sitting on store shelves for a few days or more.

So, back to the basil; the thought of Tuscany has created a desire for pasta and pesto. A truly match made in heaven combination which is delectable not only for its flavour and texture but its simplicity. Here is my recipe for pesto; I use an imported Pecorino instead of Parmesan as I feel it is less overpowering and imparts a smooth bite to the pesto. Of course the basil is just about to be picked from the Tuscan hills…garden.

 

Serves: Makes about 250g  |   Preparation:  20 minutes   |   Cooking: No cooking required

Ingredients:

1 clove Garlic | Peeled.
Pinch Sea salt |
30g Basil leaves | Pick, wash and dry the leaves.
60g Pine nuts | You can toast them to add intensity, but I use them untoasted.
55g Italian Pecorino | Finely grated. I state Italian as Pecorino is made locally here in Australia and it is just NOT the same.
95ml Olive oil | Extra virgin olive oil is great.

 

 

How To:

This can be made in a food processor, but I like to use the more traditional method of a mortar and pestle. The crushing and grinding seems to draw out more of the basil and pine nut oils than by cutting (as it would in a food processor).

In to a mortar and pestle add the garlic and sea salt. Crush and grind until a garlic paste is formed. The addition of salt to the garlic causes the garlic to break down aiding in making it a paste like consistency.

Now add the basil leaves and bash until a green paste has formed. The basil does break down wonderfully, and the desire to go and dive in to the Tuscan hills takes hold as the aroma dissipates through the kitchen.

Now add the pine nuts, and continue to bash until paste like. Add the Pecorino and again some bashing and grinding until a thick dry paste has formed.

Now for the transformation in to pesto; a tablespoon at a time add the olive oil whilst stirring and grinding with the pestle. Adjust the oil to get your desired consistency. I like a nice ‘wet’ pesto if it is to be used in pasta. You may want something a little less oily if to be used as a spread on water crackers, for example. And hey p(r)esto, it’s finished.

Notes:

  • A fantastic way to use this pesto is to cook Spaghetti (#4) and then add the pesto, some chopped semi-dried tomatoes and some wok fried diced chicken thigh fillets.