Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Road Trip!

Last Wednesday I went on a super fun road trip with my friend Fiona. We had luckily chosen the only day of the week which was not pouring down with rain. The previous day I had bought some gumboots for the lovely price of $21, but they were not needed because the day was so nice. I won't leave you hanging for much longer trying to guess where I went. I spent the day engaged in the favourite sport of the under 12 set - berry picking! The farm we sent to was called Chappies and it's in Silvan, just past Monbulk.
Throughout the day I managed to pick 2.5 kilos of blackberries and 5 (that's right, 5!) kilos of cherries. It was immense fun running around, eating our weight in berries and fighting off the old Spanish ladies for the best fruit. By the end of it all I had blue teeth and had probably ingested my fair share of spiders and other berry dwelling insects but it was all worth it. I had all these grand plans of cakes, cobblers, crumbles, pies, muffins and tarts, but to be quite honest with you I actually ate most of the fruit fresh. I did manage to leave a bit of fruit to cook with, most of which turned into jam. The recipe I am sharing with you today is for cherry jam. I had never actually tasted cherry jam before, which on reflection seems odd because as a child I was pretty much addicted to cherries. This jam is really delicious. And while it's essentially 50% sugar, just close your eyes and think of summer.

Cherry Jam

1kg cherries
1kg sugar (plain white works best)
juice of 2 lemons
250g liquid pectin (or powdered equivalent)

Ok guys, this starts out hard but gets easier. The first step is to pit all the cherries. I would HIGHLY suggest investing in a cherry pitter. I got mine from cuisine world in Melbourne but most kitchenware shops should have them and they cost around $20. So, wash your cherries, take off their stalks and pit them.

Next put the cherries in a pot with 150ml of water. It is best to use a wide pot as it is easier to stir when the mixture starts to froth up. Cover the pot and let it simmer for around fifteen minutes or until the fruit is tender. Essentially you are just stewing the fruit at this stage.

Once the fruit is soft, turn off the heat and add the lemon juice and sugar. Stir the mixture until the sugar has dissolved completely. This may take some time. It's easiest to detect sugar granules if you taste a little of the juice.

Sugar all dissolved? put the pot back on the heat and bring to boil for two minutes. You should probably stir it a bit while this is happening as well. Light coloured froth will come to the top. I think, technically, you're meant to scrape this off and discard, but I just left mine in there and it all worked out fine, so it's up to you (word of mouth tells me that if you freeze this froth it makes a really nice sorbet!)

Take the pot off the heat and add the pectin, stirring well. If you're using powered pectin then just follow the directions on the packet, you may need to add it at a different point in the process.

Put it back on the heat and and let boil for around ten minutes or until it is at setting point. To test this, put some plates in the freezer to cool. Take a little jam and place on a plate. let cool for a minutes then push the jam around with your finger. If the jam wrinkles then you're all set!

Pour into sterilised jars and seal.

*A note on sterilisation: If you're going to make jam then you need to learn how to properly sterilise jars. There are heaps of instructions online and in books to help you learn to do this. Basically it involves heating the jars to a very hot temperature.

*A note on sealing jars: I used plastic covers to seal my jars. The brand I used is called FowlersVacola Kleer View. To use, wet one side of the plastic and place, wet side up, on top of the jar. place an elastic band (provided) over the cover. As the jam cools the cover will tighten.

Happy jam making adventures! xxx

Sunday, December 13, 2009

ricotta, hazelnut and broad bean salad

How I love broad beans! Their subtle flavour, spring-fresh texture, bouncy greenness... I've been using broad beans in every way possible in the past few months. They are very cheap at the moment - I've been getting them for $2.50 a kilo - but they will not be around for much longer. They are also not as fantastic as at the beginning of spring, but I will continue to buy them until they disappear. They command so much attention - first you have to pod them, and then painstakingly take each one out of its skin. You can feel a little sucked in after buying a whole kilo of them, shelling them carefully, and then ending up with a little green puddle of beans which hardly covers the bottom of a bowl. The best way, I've found, of overcoming the repetitious nature of shelling broad beans is to take them away from the kitchen and do it with a friend whilst sitting on the couch.

This salad is a broad bean vehicle - creamy ricotta and crunchy hazelnuts coat quickly blanched broad beans and asparagus (another love!), which is tossed with rocket, and then a dressing made with honey and apple cider vinegar.

ricotta, hazelnut and broad bean salad

1 kilo unpodded broadbeans
1 bunch asparagus (or green beans), rinsed
100 grams fresh ricotta
handful of hazelnuts
2 handfuls rocket, rinsed
2 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste

Dry toast the hazelnuts in a pan until slightly brown. Remove from pan and allow to cool. Chop or crush roughly.

Pod and peel the broad beans and trim asparagus into 5cm pieces. Blanch both vegetables for 1 1/2 minutes in a pot of boiling water. Drain immediately.

Place rocket, asparagus and broad beans in a salad bowl. Add ricotta and toasted hazelnuts and gently stir.

In a small frypan, heat apple cider vinegar until it starts to simmer. Add the honey and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat. Drizzle the vinegar and honey dressing over the vegetables and stir gently.

Sprinkle salad with a pinch or two of salt and plenty of cracked black pepper.

Serves 2 - 3

I served the salad with some pan fried chicken marinated in chilli and apple cider vinegar, but the salad stole the show.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Wabi Sabi and the idyll of inner-city living

Originally written March 21, 2008.

I've spent my Good Friday writing an essay about Japanese ceramics. Amongst all the talk of clay, there is one theme that repeatedly comes up: Wabi. Wabi is a Japanese word, a concept. It means such things as the beauty of poverty, the feeling of being alone in a crowd, poetic nostalgia for emptiness, seclusion, the approach of death, the love of simplicity. It goes on. It is apparently impossible to comprehend Wabi properly unless you are Japanese, or have at least lived in Japan for a long time. It's often coupled with the word 'Sabi', which means rustic, or the patina of age, the appearance of being worn down by time. What I find interesting about these ideas is that we have no English equivalent - these feelings are completely incongruous to our daily life. Whilst I spent many hours rubbing my bare feet over the worn down bluestone in the hallway when I lived in Fitzroy, trying to get a sense of the lives that had walked across it in its 140 years of existence, I didn't have a word for that feeling. To others, it was just me being vague, distant. To me, that stone held some sort of phenomena, it had seen so much. It was smooth in the middle, and had formed itself into a valley shape.

Today was cold and quiet, autumnal and conducive of reading and studying. My family gathered together and ate, we picked on each other and laughed and made each other angry. We hugged a lot. The door to my room fell off when I got up. My Dad spent the day digging in the garden and found an old spoon drain, possibly a hundred years old. My Mum found a photographic slide - we looked at it and thought it was me. It was only on close inspection that we found that it was in fact her, the clue being her brother sitting in the distance beside her. They were young teenagers. We looked so similar - even our expressions are the same. Spending the day together I thought would leave me with an exuberant feeling - rather I feel slightly lonely and still, like someone is pouring cold water through my blood.

Riding my bike to work, whole families are getting around together. Bicycles built for two, tricycles, kids getting to school on roller-skates. I go by bike track, it's leafy, everyone gives way to everyone else. People smile at each other. At work, everyone laughs and chats and gets things done. Boring tasks like filing are ameliorated by cups of fragrant tea and encouraging words by benevolent managers. Books are read at lunch time, someone shares some left over cookies.

At home, something delicious is cooked, the house smells of onion. We chat, discuss the news. We are anti-racist, anti-war, pro-love, pro-academia. We talk about our latest efforts. We are peaceful - talkative, but reserved. There are always books, talk of books. If we have problems, we believe a book might solve it. We look at each other with the respect that only knowing someone too well can bring, to be able to predict their jokes and put up with their terrible puns. Friends come and there is more laughter.

There must be some name for this feeling - that you are living in some sort of idyll, a beautiful but temporary state. You know that everything around you is falling apart; there is economics and greed, war, racism, boredom, exploitation, starvation, ennui. To be quietly peaceful is to be ignorant. You are patriotic in loving your surroundings, but commit treason in hating your government.

If I could find a word to express all this, it would be my own Wabi Sabi. The feeling of being completely happy and completely sad at the same time.

the discovery of salted caramel

You know how trends pop up gradually - you hear about them here and there, not paying complete attention, but the term enters your conciousness. Then one day it reaches critical mass - you've heard about this 'thing' - ingredient, bar, item of clothing, song, whatever, just one too many times to not investigate what's so darn hot about it. Obviously I am not an early adopter.

Recently the concept of 'salted caramel' came into my sphere of recognition. I'd heard about it on plenty of Melbourne Gastronome's fabulous degustation adventures (surely a sign of an 'It' ingredient) and pondered it quietly to myself. I'd heard countless other chefs and food bloggers gush about it, whether as a flavour for the equally fashionable macarons, or an icecream recipe, or some molecular gastronomical desert involving foams and highly calibrated temperature control equipment.

Caramel. With salt in it. Such a simple thing, but I constantly daydreamed of what those two flavours would taste like, mingling with each other. I couldn't figure out how to get some of this salted caramel for myself - I'd never seen it on a restaurant menu, not in the low-end restaurants I frequent. I considered making it myself but didn't know where to start. Should I make caramels, ie the sweets? Or something with caramel sauce in it? And why did caramel sauce recipes always seem to come with danger warnings? Off putting to say the least! Each caramel sauce recipe I read had some associated flesh-searing story that alluded to caramel being for hard-core trained chefs, not flavour-curious apartment dwellers with no kitchens (ie me).

One day whilst walking home my dear Andrew was eating a Magnum Ego - that decadent icecream with a layer of caramel sauce in the middle. I asked him to let me look at the wrapper rather than throwing it out, and I analysed the ingredients. There it was. Hidden amongst the vegetable gums and numbered sugars - SALT. And I thought - yeah, salt goes where caramel goes. They follow each other around. Caramel so sweet, salt so... salty, why wouldn't such different things taste just inexplicably wonderful together? I had imagined the flavour so much by now that I didn't even really think I needed to try it anymore.

Until I came across a recipe for salted caramel cupcakes. They contained dark beer, and they looked amazingly over the top. But I couldn't make them. I was smack bang in the middle of exams. At work at the time, I covertly copied down all the ingredients I would need, and kept the list in my bag. Every so often I would look at the list and pique my excitement for life-post-essay - the cupcakes were my light at the end of the tunnel.

Final deadlines for uni came and went and I bought everything I needed for the cupcakes, including corn syrup ( ?! - it's an American recipe). I excitedly made the caramel sauce to top the cupcakes with, wearing rubber gloves whilst pouring cream into hot bubbling sugar as the recipes all recommended. Nothing dangerous happened. No flesh searing. I stirred in the half-teaspoon of sea salt flakes into the brown sugary goo and hoped for the best.

Once the sauce cooled, I had a teaspoon full as a taste test. It was caramel alright. Not caramel I'd tasted before, but richer, fuller-flavoured and more rounded. It was addictive. I now knew what all the fuss was about. Caramel needed salt! It was just too plain sugary without it. I went through quite a few spoons of it before I forced myself to stop. I needed some caramel left for the cupcakes!

I felt satisfied in my discovery, which was exciting but certainly not unique. I came to salted caramel the way I do to so many things - by endless pondering followed by gradual action. Welcome, salted caramel! I will be making it again.

Salt is a wonderful thing, if used sparingly and in the right place. Which brings me to another story, for another day - the endless search for sulphurous pink salt...