Saturday, March 3, 2012

Vege-Based Lasagna

Every now and then, my Hubby and I get all inspired and spend a full afternoon cooking huge batches of food to fill our freezer up.

Sunday afternoon was one of those days.  In the end, we turned out a huge batch of mexican mince, ready for burritos, nachos, taco's or whatever takes our fancy, an endless amount of curry and a huge tray of vege lasagna.

For the curry and the mexican, I acted as little more than Hubby's assistant, stirring, cutting, adding as I was directed.  But the lasagna was mostly mine, so that's what I'm going to talk about.

I started out with my usual bolognaise, but amped up my 1/2 kg of kangaroo mince with half a capsicum, a carrot, a whole zucchini, mushrooms and two onions.

This time I did cheat slightly and added 2/3 of a jar of tomato pasta sauce to the mix, along with a can of diced tomatoes, tomato paste, worcestershire sauce, stock cubes, paprika, pepper, oregano, chilli powder and a few huge spoonfuls of Hubby's basil pesto.  I made so much bolognaise that it threatened to spill out of our biggest fry pan and could only be stirred VERY, VERY carefully.

Step two was to make the bechamel sauce, which I did with a bit of help, having not tackled it before.  But I melted a good knob of butter with a similar amount of plain flour and stirred it all until it made a sort of foamy dough, then slowly started adding milk while mixing it all together.  Hubby told me the trick is to cook the flour taste out of the dough, but not turn it all brown.... there's some tipping point in between apparently.  Once we'd added enough milk, I threw in a quarter of an onion and a few garlic cloves, then left it on a medium heat while stirring it occasionally. After about 15 minutes, I added in lots of grated parmesan and tasty cheddar and stirred it through til it was melted and the sauce was nice and thick.  The last step is to push the sauce through as sieve, so you get rid of the onion and the garlic and are left with a nice smooth sauce. 

While I sieved the sauce, Hubby sliced up a sweet potato, and about half an eggplant to use in place of pasta sheets.  It's one of the things I love about this recipe - it's almost all vegetables - there's some flour, butter, cheese and 1/2 kilo of  mince spread over about 8 serves of lasagna, the rest is vegetables.

So then it's time to layer up the dish.  I start with a little bit of bolognaise - just enough to really 'wet' the bottom of the dish (it helps stop things sticking to the bottom).  Then a layer of sweet potato, a layer of bolognaise (don't go too thick or you won't get many layers) and finally a layer of bechamel sauce.  Next comes a layer of eggplant, then repeat the bolognaise and bechamel.  I used up the ends of sweet potato and eggplant in the final layer, then topped with more bolognaise, the last of the bechamel, and then a light layer of grated cheese on the top.  It only just fit (Hubby banged the dish on the counter a few times to get rid of any air bubbles to help fit the last layers in) and it looked AWESOME.

The last step is to pop it into the oven for about forty minutes.

When it came out, it looked like this:-

Yeah.  You know you want some.

What did we learn?  Well, to be honest, we should have cooked the sweet potato and eggplant a little before assembly - when we reheated a piece each last night for dinner, it all got very liquidy from the water in the potato and eggplant.  It would have been a bit more 'solid' if we had of cooked some of that out in the beginning.  It was still awesome though.  And makes for a few super easy mid week meals.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Roast Pumpkin, Spinach & Feta Salad

I love salads that are a little bit different from the run of the mill garden salad.  Whenever I eat at the cafe below my sisters office, I'm always in awe of the sheer multitude of salads on offer, and how appetizing some of them look - even though I know that some of them are not healthy eating choices, despite being 'salads'.

One of my besties had a bbq last night, and Hubby and I simply couldn't bear the idea of showing up empty handed.  So she kindly shelved one of her salad ideas, and let me bring one instead.

After reading up on some recipes on our favourite, Hubby and I opted for our own version of a pumpkin, spinach and feta salad.

We started out by cutting up just over a kilo of butternut pumpkin.  We lightly coated the pumpkin in hot oil, salt, pepper and fresh rosemary, popped some garlic cloves in the oven tray and the whole lot went into the oven for half an hour.  
At that point, we took the trays out of the oven, drizzled the lot in balsamic vinegar and lemon juice and then put it all back in the oven, whacked up the temperature and let it finish off for about two and a half minutes.  Unfortunately, I clearly don't have suitable drizzling skills and the pumpkin really ended up doused in the vinegar.... but what can you do.  Sure smelled AMAZING in the oven....

 In the meantime, I rinsed off a can of chickpeas, grabbed about 150g of baby spinach and toasted enough pine nuts to cover the bottom of a small fry pan.  When the pumpkin came out of the oven, the balsamic vinegar had kind of caramalised over the top of it, and it took an IMMENSE amount of willpower not to just eat it all straight off the tray (it smelled and tasted that good).

I took the pumpkin pieces off the trays, and put them on a rack so the excess oil would drain off them while I finished preparing the spinach and pine nuts.  Then I put about 1/4 of the pumpkin in a bowl, 1/2 of the spinach, then 1/4 of the pumpkin, the rest of the spinach and then added the pine nuts and chickpeas.  The reason for separating everything up, was to let the spinach wilt a little bit with the heat of the pumpkin.  I let it sit for a few minutes, than gave everything a gentle toss to mix everything together.
Hubby made the dressing for the salad - more balsamic vinegar, the juice from 1/2 a lemon and some salt and pepper.
Just before serving, I diced up a big piece of feta and added it in, then drizzled the dressing over it.  This salad really cannot have been easier to throw together.  All it needed was the time it took to cut up and roast the pumpkin, and let's face it - you don't have to stand over the top of it while it roasts.

My final word?  Proof of the pudding was in the eating.  There wasn't a scrap left by the end of dinner.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Creme Caramel

Hubby and I have a shameful secret.  We've become addicted to My Kitchen Rules, and the pop up restaurants each pair of contestants have been creating.  On Thursday night I asked Hubby what WE would do, if we were contestants.  Thus began a very long conversation between the two of us, covering dishes from goulash, to pasta, to steak tartare and many things inbetween.  In the end, Hubby decided that he would want to do three courses of steak tartare for entree, duck confit for main with dauphinoise potatoes and creme caramel for dessert.

The next morning, Hubby remembered that my Sis was going to spend Saturday night with us, and suggested we actually undertake the menu, just for kicks.

So we did.

I left Hubby to deal with the steak.  And because Sis and I were at a Matisse exhibit all day, he ended up tackling the duck too, although he changed tack from dauphinoise potatoes and roasted them in duck fat as well.... a change we highly commended.  And he couldn't get hold of a whole duck, so he ended up with four duck breasts instead.

But when we got home, tired, weary, and with some ciders to share, Sis and I hit the kitchen for some creme caramel assembly.  We used a recipe from Francoise Bernard's 'La Cuisine: Every Day French Cooking', which Hubby had given me on our first wedding anniversary.

First off, we tackled our caramel - something Sis and I had never tried before.  But it seemed straight-forward enough - add sugar to water, and simmer in a saucepan until all the sugar is dissolved and it goes a medium amber colour.
At the same time, we started making a custard (also something neither Sis and I had tried before - Hubby always tackles that).  We heated 100g of caster sugar and a tablespoon of vanilla sugar in 500ml of milk until it came to a bare simmer (it had JUST started to simmer). 
 Then it was a case of carefully pouring the hot milk mixture into a bowl with three lightly beaten eggs.  While pouring, you have to whisk the eggs like mad, to stop the hot milk curdling them.  The end result is a light, frothy, vanilla custard.  Perfect.

That sat in it's jug for a few more minutes while we waited for the caramel to finish, then I carefully poured caramel into the bottom of four ramekins, and swirled it around to cover the whole thing.
Once the caramel was in, we filled the ramekins up with the custard mixture, then popped it in the oven for 35 minutes.  
 They came out and cooled down on the bench for a few minutes before being popped into the fridge to cool down until the end of our extravagant meal (I couldn't help myself - here are the piccies of Hubby's entree and main).
 When we got to dessert, the ramekins came out of the fridge and Hubby pondered dubiously over how we would actually get the creme caramels out of the ramekins without making a mess. 
 I smiled at him, ran a knife around the inside of the first ramekin, put a plate over the top and quickly turned it over.  A few sharp taps on the bottom of the ramekin as I lifted it away and VOILA!!  Creme caramel success!

The texture and flavour of the custard was perfect - it had set just the way it's supposed to.  The caramel was definitely overcooked - it had a burnt caramel flavour that wasn't unpleasant, but was definitely a beginners error.  All three of us were astounded at how well it all worked.  La Cuisine really IS every day cooking.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Impromptu Dinner Triumph

It gave me a little bit of a shock when I logged on tonight and saw how long it's been since my last post.  And it gave me pause as well.  I achieved a lot over the Christmas period in the kitchen, from tackling my first pavlova, making Adriano Zumbo's choc orange macarons with a friend, moreish roast beetroot, mint and feta salad and endless bbq fare.  So why didn't I blog about it all?  Possibly because I'm the last great procrastinator.  And because time always seems in short supply.  But I still felt, as I moved into the new year, that this blog (neglected as it may be on occasion) has actually seen me, for the most part, achieve what I set out to achieve.  Learning how to be a good home cook.  Or at least a capable one.

Yesterday my Sis-In-Law paid an impromptu visit so Hubby could install her new car stereo.  None of us were sure how long it would take, or how much of the day she would be spend with us.  But in the true spirit of 'it's the unplanned events that turn out to be the most fun', her lovely partner came and joined us, and they ended up staying the night.  I could wax lyrical about our prowess on Band Hero as a team, but instead I'll tell you about the food I cooked on the spur of the moment.

The best thing, for me, is that I did this BY MYSELF.  And I didn't get cranky half way though, or give up the ghost, or sulk the whole time cause I was stuck in the kitchen while everyone else was busy elsewhere.  Oh no.  For the first time, from the very beginning, to when we sat down to eat, I enjoyed every minute of providing a great meal for my family.  Something that I very much feel is going to be my signature meal.

What did I make?  Spaghetti Bolognese, with fresh home made pasta.  The sauce is my take on a version my Mum used to make when I was a kid.  I actually remade her version a couple of years ago and was amazed at how bland it was compared to what I eat as an adult, but to her credit, at the time it was a good, filling, tasty meal the whole family would eat.

I make it by browning off 1/2 kg of kangaroo mince with a diced onion, garlic (as much as you like).  Next I add in LOTS of paprika (I like paprika), two beef stock cubes, some chilli powder (but you could use fresh chilli) and give it a good stir.  Liquid ingredients go in next - a good slug of Worcestershire sauce, a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste (I buy those little tins and use the whole thing), and two tins of diced tomatoes.  You can throw in some red wine too, and I often do, but last night I didn't have a bottle open.  Lastly, I threw in some diced up veggies (whatever you have in the fridge - I had mushroom, capsicum, zucchini and carrot, but I've put everything from green beans to broccoli in it), gave it all a good stir through and left it on a medium-high heat for about ten minutes before turning it down onto low.

While I was getting the sauce off, I thought to myself that it was probably a good opportunity to bust out a quick dessert as well, so I grabbed a house warming gift from a very good friend called '500 Cupcakes'.  My plan was to whip up some plain cupcakes, then mix a little water with some icing sugar, dip the top of the cupcakes in the mixture, then dip them in dessicated coconut.  For some reason I always have a big jar of dessicated coconut in the pantry that NEVER gets used.... anyway.  The vanilla cupcake recipe in the book was super easy, I had all the ingredients and they looked gorgeous iced (as well as making the kitchen smell heavenly).

Once I had the mixture in the tins, and while waiting for the oven to get hot, I made a start on my pasta dough.  I was so proud of myself for this - I knew that the pasta dough needed to rest for 20 mins once I'd got it all together, and I knew that the cupcakes would take about 20 mins to cook.  So I cracked four eggs in a well around 500g of flour and started incorporating the eggs into the flour.  Usually I make half, or a third this much pasta, and it certainly was a bit more time consuming to get the dough together, but I got there in the end!  So I popped my ball of dough in a floured bowl, drapped a tea towel over it, bunged my cupcakes in the oven and set the oven timer to twenty minutes.

After 15 minutes my cupcakes came out of the oven and five minutes after that, I started the laborious job of rolling out my pasta.  It's only really laborious because we don't have a bench with enough 'overhang' to clamp the machine to, so instead it gets clamped to a little foldy table from Ikea, which wobbles all over the place while I work.  But I got there in the end, while simultaneously covering myself, the floor, the work benches and all three of my onlookers/assistants in copious amounts of flour.

The last step was getting the pasta in a pot of boiling water to cook for a few minutes (harder than it looked - Hubby accidentally turned the hot plate for the water down not once but twice, which dramatically increased the time it took to get boiling), getting the sauce nice and hot, then getting it into a dish and onto the table.  At the last minute, Hubby sorted out some garlic toast to go with my meal, and I'm glad he did - I hadn't even thought about it.

The pasta was an absolute win.  There is something just right about fresh made pasta.  It tastes so much better, and the sauce went really well with it too.  There was something very homey about the whole thing - a huge dish of pasta on the table, lots of red wine, and a table surrounded with family.  And lucky me - there's plenty left for dinner mid-week, and a couple of cupcakes left over too!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Best Celebration Cake - Take 2

Last weekend was my Mother-in-law's birthday, which, as usual, snuck up on Hubby and I without warning.  We went down to northern NSW for her birthday party - a BBQ at their home.  A BBQ with my parents-in-law is no ordinary affair, after all, my Father-In-Law is a chef and seems to love putting on an awsome spread.

My contribution to the cause was to take down a birthday cake for MIL.  What cake?  Well, to be honest, it was an excuse for me to have another go at smitten kitchen's gorgeous yellow cake.

Despite a momentary set back when I realised we didn't have any caster sugar (thank you neighbours!), preparing the cake went much more smoothly this time around.  Taking my lessons from my first attempt, I didn't overfill the cake pans this time and I also baked them separately.  I still felt like they would NEVER ACTUALLY FINISH baking though... but it's funny what an extra five minutes will do, and soon I had two round cakes and six cupcakes (I had to do SOMETHING with the extra batter) cooling on a rack.

Can I say now, that I am absolutely addicted to the dark chocolate and sour cream icing?  Honesty, it's icing for grown ups in that you get the full chocolate hit without the icing being overbearingly sweet.  Once the icing was ready, I trimmed up the cakes and set to icing them.

This time round I put much more icing between the cakes (that was a bit of a fail last time), and put a thin coat all over the cake, left it for a moment to 'set' and then put another coating over the top.  It worked a treat and looked far more polished this time than last time around.  Perhaps I'm getting the hang of this icing lark?

It traveled fairly well down the coast in a plastic container (Hubby even put a seat belt round the container so it wouldn't move in the car, and I maneuvered the window shade over the top to keep the sun off).

After dinner I finished it off with crumbled up flake and a few sparklers in place of candles - VOILA!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Duck Eggs - Version 1

One of the many things I've learnt from my husband over the last few years is an appreciation for out of the ordinary ingredients.  Through his strenuous coaxing (or, lets face it, occassional bullying), I've tried lots of things that I would never have considered putting in my mouth, from snails in France to horse in Italy and lots of things in between.

Last weekend my Sister-In-Law and her lovely partner took me to the Rocklea Markets.  Closed for months due to the flooding earlier this year here in Brisbane, it's become a regular ritual for them to go at the crack of dawn every couple of Saturdays.

I'm glad I went with two experienced market goers - the sheer amount of fresh fruit and veg (amoung other things) was absolutely staggering, and a concerted effort of scouting the stalls and determining where the freshest and cheapest items were was more than a one man job.

As we wandered amoung the mountains of veggies and fruit, Sis-In-Law pointed out a table set amidst the chaos selling boxes of duck eggs.  She started eating them while working in the UK, and has often told me that they make the creamiest, most amazing scrambled eggs.  Overlooking the steep price tag, and taking stock of Hubbies love to try new things, I bought a box.

The next morning, I left Hubby in charge of toast and sides and set about making scrambled duck eggs for a lazy Sunday breakfast. 

Let me say now.... I love duck - I will hone in on it if we're eating out and it's on the menu and there's never a mouthful left.  In Munich, I gorged on duck in an Oktoberfest beer tent.  It's one of my favourite foods.  So the thought never even crossed my mind that I would have any kind of issue with duck eggs.  After all, the only difference seemed to be that the eggs were bigger, and the shells a pristine white.

The problem arose when I cracked the eggs into a dish.  I was taken absolutely off guard by the strangely pungent smell of the raw eggs, and so began the loss of my nerve.  The eggs went into the  pan with diced bacon, mushroom and onion and cooked up just like chicken eggs, so again, there should have been no issue.  However, when I plated the eggs up (which I did overcook a little in my nervousness), I noticed the colour.  Oh so subtle, but definitely a different shade of yellow from a chicken egg.... with the slightest hint of green.  By now, my nerve has slunk out of the kitchen and out the front door without a backwards glance.  But I manned up and sat down to breakfast and, under the watchful gaze of Hubby, tucked into my much talked about duck eggs. 

They absolutely didn't taste any different from chicken eggs.  Really.  Maybe, at a push, I could say they tasted a bit creamier.  But, with a blindfold on, I couldn't have told the difference.  So why did I struggle to eat them?  Absolutely ridiculous, and proof that the picky child I was is still lurking inside me somewhere.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Microwave Strawberry Jam

One of my friends can only be described as the REAL domestic goddess.  While she and her husband lived in Australia, going to dinner at her house was inspiring - she always seemed completely unflappable and completely in control in the kitchen, even when catering for 30 or so people.

Not only that, be she seemed to have found the time to learn how to do EVERYTHING.  This clever lady makes amazing christmas dinners, puddings, wedding cakes and most importantly of all for today, jam.

My friend has returned to her home in the UK now, but still inspires me with her facebook posts.  Recently, she put up a few posts about the plethora of jam she was making, which I thought was incredible.  My understanding was that jam is really hard to make, hard to get to set and the idea of sterilizing jars seemed overly complicated, so I was in complete awe.

Last Sunday I had a heap of week old strawberries in my fridge (I'd been traveling for work, so hadn't got them eaten up), so I very tentatively did a search on for strawberry recipes to use them up with.

Feeling very brave, and with some encouragement from Hubby, I found this recipe here, which seemed unbelievably simple.  The additional commentary from other readers was very helpful too.

I weighed out all my strawberries - turned out I had about 340g rather than the 500g in the recipe.  I also didn't have the required lemon, but I did have a squeezy bottle of lemon juice we use to cook with, so that went in instead.  Can I just now that lemon, strawberries and sugar all in a bowl together smell AWESOME.  Then it was just a case of cooking the jam in a microwave for 15 minutes.

The most difficult thing about the whole process was simply patience.  I didn't have a 3L microwavable container (mine was about half that), which meant standing over the microwave, stopping it and giving it a stir to cool down every time it threatened to spill over the top.  That worked out to be roughly every minute, to minute and a half, and you have to watch it like a hawk.  The one moment I was distracted, sticky strawberry goo went everywhere.

I had no idea how to sterilize a jar, but Hubby told me to boil the kettle, fill a clean jam jar with boiling water for a few minutes (and the lid too) and then tip the water out and pour the hot jam in.  My 340-ish grams of strawberries made just enough to fill one 284g jam jar, with one spoonful left over.  I screwed the lid on, tipped it upside down and left it for two minutes, then turned it right way up to cool.

Amazingly enough, while I was doing that, the solitary spoonful left in the microwave container cooled down.... and SET with no extra effort from me whatsoever.  I figured that meant that the jam in the jar would set too when it cooled down, and did a celebratory jig in my kitchen while eating that triumphant spoonful.

What also amazed me, was that as the jar cooled down, THE SEAL ON THE TOP OF THE LID SEALED PROPERLY!  Regardless of whether I had sterilized my jar 'properly' or not, it seemed that I had still gotten it vacuum sealed.  For some reason, that makes me unbelievably excited.

We cracked into the jam a little to soon - it hadn't fully cooled down, so it hadn't quite set, but the crumpets Hubby bought for breakfast just looked too good not to spoon my jam onto.  We've actually eaten more jam this week than we ever normally would SIMPLY BECAUSE IT TASTES SO GOOD.  The remaining jam did set properly, and we have nearly finished the jar.... perhaps I need to get more strawberries and start again?