Wednesday 31 July 2013

Braised fennel wedges with saffron and tomato

It may come as a shock to anyone reading this blog regularly that I don't subsist entirely on cake, or pulled pork or pie. From time to time I have been known to eat the odd vegetable... and no vegetable is odder than fennel - a pale, squat, decidedly hardy bulb with delicate green fronds. Last Sunday I was looking down the barrel of an unusually busy week. I knew I'd get to the end of each day and not feel much like cooking. I'd be hungry though and want something warm and hearty to sustain me after a long day and propel me into the next. Fennel wouldn't have been the obvious choice but I had a new recipe I was keen to try out and because of this, had all the ingredients to hand. 

For a non-meat dish, I have to say this was one of the messiest I'd ever cooked. The splatter factor with the fennel (when frying it prior to adding the stock) was on par with bacon, but the end result every bit as delicious. And there was something thoroughly satisfying about hoeing into a fat wedge of fennel as you would a steak, pinning it down with your fork as you sawed into it with a knife. Apologies to non-carnivores for the constant mention of meat in what is an entirely vegetarian - vegan even! - recipe. No comparison is necessary. This dish stands on its own - rich, robust, salty, sweet and so, so good. 

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Tarte Tatin

Apples are often overlooked. They're a humble fruit - not as delicate as berries, not as fleeting or full-bodied as stone fruit, not as exotic as mangoes, as bright in colour or flavour as citrus, as quirky as quinces or watermelon or lychees... Here's what they are though. They're versatile - as wonderful with pork as they are baked in a pie or tossed raw through a salad or a slaw. They're inexpensive and available year-round in markets and supermarkets. They're crisp, they're tart, they're sweet and - in the hands of the French - they transform from a humble fruit into a sleek, sophisticated star attraction.

Tarte Tatin is an upside-down apple tart. Cooked first on the stove-top, then baked in the oven til the fruit is caramelised and the pastry that forms its base golden brown. As fancy as it looks, let me tell you, it's not hard. Really, it all comes down to confidence. Here's what you need to know: you don't need specialised equipment, just a cast-iron skillet or a frypan with an oven-proof handle, the kind as readily available in army disposal stores as kitchen emporiums. Don't fret about how dark the caramel should be, or whether the apples are going to stick to the bottom. The truth is that butter + sugar + apples is never going to disappoint and, if something does happen to stick to the bottom, you can always patch it back together and no-one will ever know the difference. When you come to invert the tart, use two hands to clamp pan and serving plate together, rather than flipping the pan with one hand on the handle and the other flat on the base of the plate. When you serve it, resist the temptation to gussy it up with accompaniments. It doesn't need them. Just some cream or ice-cream. And finally - perhaps most importantly of all - when passing round the pieces, make sure you get the biggest slice.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Chocolate orange cake

Last week it was my friend Joanna's birthday. So I made her a cake. When I'm cooking for Joanna, the stakes are high. She's an excellent cook...  and an adventurous one. She has a piping bag and a blow torch - for brûlée not welding - and the ability and patience (and need with two small daughters) to make cakes in the shape of barnyard animals and geometrically difficult numerals involving multiple tins and creative assembly. I can't compete with that. So I went the other way, with my limited craft skills and a fail-safe recipe.

This cake - a variation on the Middle-Eastern orange cake - couldn't be more simple... or delicious. Here, cocoa is added to the traditional mix of boiled orange, eggs, sugar and almond meal, resulting in a stunningly light chocolate cake - nutty, citrussy and incredibly moreish. It's brilliant as a light dessert at a dinner party (when you've probably already overfed your guests), as something decadent for those who don't eat gluten or dairy, a treat to take camping (it's so moist it keeps for days), or with a cup of tea on a sunny Saturday morning to celebrate a birthday of a friend... who liked it so much she asked for the recipe. Here it is!

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Small-batch pulled pork with apple cabbage slaw

One of the best meals I ever ate was at a run-down BBQ stand on the side of a highway in upstate New York. It was the height of northern hemisphere summer and local families sat eating together at outdoor tables, sunburnt kids - still wet from lake swims - hula-hooped on the grass as the trucks thundered past. The American flag flapped in the breeze and 50s rock 'n' roll played on a sound system from roughly the same era. It was hot, and though it was evening, there was still so much light in the sky. My dinner came on a paper plate. I ate it with my hands. It cost less than $5 and it was so good. Two words: pulled pork.  

For those who haven't had it before, pulled pork is basically a large, boneless shoulder cut rubbed with spices and cooked slowly in the oven til so tender it can - quite literally - be pulled apart. It's then slathered in a sweet, spicy barbeque sauce and served stuffed in a roll, usually with a slaw of some kind - a light, crunchy contrast to the dark deliciousness of the charred, juicy meat.

I'm just about as far away as you can get from that BBQ stand at the moment - in Sydney, indoors, dark mid-winter. I can't recreate the place or the weather, but the pork, that I can do. And so much more easily now since The New York Times published a recipe for small-batch pulled pork, that allows me to fulfil my nostalgic cravings without having to invite hordes of people over to help me eat it (this wouldn't normally be something I'd consider a problem but somehow my social circle seems to include quite a lot of vegetarians) or be condemned to have pulled pork every meal for a week, maybe two (and while I do love it, I'm not sure I would after that). This recipe scales down the quantity to a manageable amount of meat - enough to be generous, not so much as to be overwhelming. Just enough to conjure up summer on a cold winter's day. 

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Pear pecan streusel cake

Just last month, I went to the Blue Mountains for the weekend with friends. It rained. And rained. And when it wasn't raining, the fog set in - so thick as to obscure all trace of the majestic escarpments the area is famous for. So we hunkered down inside, in the holiday house we'd rented in Blackheath. The six of us, inner-city residents all, wandered from room to room marvelling at the sheer space, which was to our eyes as vast and impressive as the tourist vistas we didn't see. A table that seats more than three comfortably! A kitchen several people can be in at a time! A front and back yard! A separate living room! With a fireplace!

And so, in the end, we were more than happy to stay in. Playing board games and charades. Twirling sparklers on the terrace in the drizzle. Launching paper planes out into the misty backyard to see whose could fly furthest (not mine). Answering trivia questions. Sampling stouts, drinking red wine and coffee made from home-roasted beans. Roasting marshmallows. And eating this cake by the fire.

I hadn't made this particular cake before and quite honestly, wasn't sure how it was going to turn out. It was so modest in its list of ingredients - just one pear, a single egg, a mere two tablespoons of butter... I was apprehensive. But as it turns out, it's one of those cases where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Together, all those humble elements combine to make one lovely, rustic, truly memorable cake. The pear is pillowy soft, the pecan topping crisp and crunchy and the spices suffuse it all with a wonderful warmth, as satisfying as a fire on a rainy winter weekend. Regardless of the weather, this is cake worth staying in for.