May 25, 2010

Heavenly Pumpkin and Parmesan Soup

Butternut pumpkin is just 90 cents per kilo this week at Safeway - the cheapest I've seen for a long time! For me, a great way to savour the sweetness and freshness in pumpkins is to simply roast in the oven with herbs or whiz them up to make a soup. 

My best kept recipe for pumpkin soup is based on one of Gordon Ramsay's, and produces a soup that not only looks appealing, but is also so velvety smooth and tastes superb - a guaranteed crowd pleaser. There is just something so moreish about it that makes you want to go for a second helping.  I find that stirring in some goat feta, when serving, adds a real kick to the dish and sets off the sweetness in the pumpkin; but it really is up to personal taste, as the soup is just as lovely on its own - mum prefers it without the cheese (although I did secretly crumble in a couple of small pieces and she loved it!) :-)

For this recipe, it is important that you use a nice, ripe pumpkin to ensure that your soup ends up vibrant in colour and intense in flavour. Check that the hue of the skin is dark and the texture a little wrinkly. Inside, the flesh should be bright orange and smell strongly of sweet pumpkin. Use any pumpkin that you can get your hands on or prefer - butternut is my favourite, because it is so versatile and I love the density of the flesh and its natural sweet and nutty flavours.

The pumpkin to the left is perfectly ripe, whereas the one on the right is too pale and won't be as flavoursome

Serves 4:
- 40g unsalted butter
- 2kg ripe pumpkin, peeled and chopped
- 25g Parmesan cheese, grated
- 1.2 litres chicken stock
- 3 tbs double cream
- Sea salt and cracked black pepper
- Goat feta, to serve

Put the butter in a large pan over a medium heat, and when it has melted, add the pumpkin. Turn up the heat and cook quickly until the pumpkin is completely soft, then stir in the Parmesan and add the hot stock.

Turn the heat down and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Leave to cool slightly, then blend in a food processor.

Pass through a fine sieve (optional step, if you want the soup to be smoother) back into the pan. Stir in the cream, bring back to the boil, check the seasoning and adjust accordingly. Serve immediately, crumbling over the goat feta.

Heavenly Pumpkin and Parmesan Soup

Golden Roast Pumpkin

I love the smell of beautifully roasted pumpkin wafting out of the oven - and it feels even better, knowing that very little effort and the simplest of ingredients go into creating such a mouth-watering delight. I usually use fresh thyme leaves to roast with pumpkin, but you can always opt for the dried type. Other herbs that work well are rosemary, sage and tarragon; and spices like paprika, cumin, cayenne and nutmeg - they all impart a lovely fragrance into pumpkin when roasted.

You will need:
- Pumpkin
- Olive oil
- Sea salt and cracked black pepper
- Thyme, leaves picked

Preheat the oven to 220°C. Cut your desired amount of pumpkin, to be roasted, into small wedges (roughly 5-6cm square), leaving the skin intact. Place the pieces in a roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil, season well and toss until the pumpkin is well coated. Arrange in a single layer, skin side down, and sprinkle over thyme leaves (or your choice of herbs or spices). Bake for 30 minutes, or until the pumpkin is tender and caramelised.

Golden Roast Pumpkin

Mini Blueberry Tarts

I know blueberries are not in season at the moment, but I was recently given a couple of boxes of them as a gift. Instead of indulging into the tiny balls of sweetness as a snack, I decided to use my newly acquired pastry making skills to create mini blueberry tarts with a delicious crème pâtissière filling, courtesy of the lovely Donna Hay.

*Note: Use 59g eggs at room temperature.

For the sweet shortcrust pastry:
(makes 350g - enough to make approx 24 mini tarts or to line a 26cm pie tin)

- 2 cups plain flour
- 3 tbs caster sugar
- 150g cold butter, chopped
- 2-3 tbs iced water

For the crème pâtissière:
(makes 2⅓ cups)

- 4 egg yolks
- ⅓ cup caster sugar
- ⅓ cup cornflour- 2 cups milk
- 1 tsp vanilla extract

For the garnish:
- 125g fresh blueberries

For the pastry, process the flour, sugar and butter in a food processor until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. While the motor is running, add enough iced water to form a smooth dough and process until just combined. Knead the dough lightly, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 180°C. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface or between sheets of non-stick baking paper until 2-3mm thick. Cut out circles to fit into the rounds in a mini muffin pan. Place in the base of the rounds in the pan, line with non-stick baking paper and fill with pastry weights or uncooked rice or beans. Bake for 10 minutes, remove the weights and bake for a further 10 minutes or until the pastry is golden.

For the crème pâtissière, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale. Add the cornflour and whisk to combine. Meanwhile, place the milk and vanilla in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to the boil. Turn off the heat and slowly pour the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking continuously.

Pour the mixture back into the saucepan over medium-high heat and simmer rapidly while whisking continuously for 5 minutes or until thick. Cool slightly, then spoon into a piping bag and pipe into the baked tart shells. Top with fresh blueberries before the mixture cools down to ensure it stays on. Serve immediately!

Mini Blueberry Tarts

May 19, 2010

"The 20 trends to avoid in 2010"

I came across this very intriguing article a couple of months ago, while getting my weekly fix of The Age Epicure. David Prestipino outlines what he believes to be the "The 20 trends to avoid in 2010," and I couldn't help but chuckle to myself as I read through each point, because even though I may disagree to what was listed, there have been plenty of instances at work where customers are guilty of asking for each of the drinks. I've picked out 10 of my favourties:

1. Mixing OJ and bubbly
"Why ruin a good glass of fizz with orange juice? Just serve half a glass on its own, and leave the OJ to those who really need the taste. Same goes for Midori and bubbly. Eeek!"

2. Having ice with white wine
"Not even on the hottest of days is this allowed - unless the wine is under $5. It ruins the taste and looks stupid. Sink your feet into an ice bucket if it's that hot, and sink your palate into the real flavours of the wine. Spritzers excepted."

3. Sparkling v champagne
"Champagne is the bubbly that comes from the region of Champagne only, in France. That $12 bottle of Jacobs Creek is not."

4. Red wine with lemonade/coke/water
"The only people allowed to do this are Italians - usually with their own home brew because it was made in 1986 and there's still heaps of flagons in the shed."

5. Hibiscus flowers and strawberries
"Sure it looks fancy mixed with bubbly at those B-list parties but, c'mon... They go to waste and then we're left to dispose of them on the floor when no one's looking."

6. Shandy (beer and lemonade)
"While I don't agree with this one, die-hards out there believe beer should be drunk as just beer. Those like me who are partial to beer and lime in the morning (to get through the hangover) should also beware."

8. Umbrellas in cocktails
"They were cool when you were little, because you had something to play with while mum and dad got boozed. Now they just get in the way and look like something from The Love Boat."

10. Southern Comfort and Canadian Club
"The only time I've felt the room spinning the next day was after drinking Southern Comfort. And the only times I find myself brawling with my brothers, is when we're all on the Canadian Club. No can do."

B is for Banana

Look what I found! A Bananasaver :) It prevents that ugly bruising bananas get from too much bumping about inside bags, especially when they get squished underneath books and drink bottles. Definitely handy, but it's a bit of a hassle to carry an empty case around after you've eaten the banana inside. You can purchase one at, which ships to countries worldwide; but I've also seen these nifty gadgets selling at Howard's Storage World in Australia.

- A cluster of bananas is called a hand and consists of 10 to 20 bananas, which are known as fingers.
- Bananas ripen best off the plant. They are cut green and stored in moist, shady places to ripen slowly.
- In Eastern Africa you can buy banana beer, brewed from bananas.
- There is no such thing as a banana tree. Bananas grow on plants.
- In 2001, there were more than 300 banana-related accidents in Britain, most involving people slipping on skins.
- Bananas have a natural antacid effect in the body, so try eating a banana for soothing relief from heartburn.
- Try rubbing the area of an insect bite with the inside of a banana skin. Many people find it amazingly successful at reducing swelling and irritation.
- The B6, B12, potassium and magnesium found in bananas can help smokers, trying to quit, recover from the effects of nicotine withdrawal.

Banana facts provided by

May 18, 2010

Sage & Prosciutto Stuffed Chicken; Rocket Mash

Serves 4:
For the Stuffed Chicken:
- 4 200g chicken breast fillets
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tbs fresh sage, chopped
- ¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
- ¼ cup dijon mustard
- 2 thin slices prosciutto, but in half
- 30g unsalted butter
- ½ cup dry sherry

Cut open chicken butterfly-style, place on a chopping board, cover with a sheet of plastic wrap and use a rolling pin to gently beat until thin. Smear mustard on inside of each fillet, top with prosciutto and combined garlic, sage and parsley. Starting with a long edge, roll up each fillet as tightly as possible and tie neatly with string in several places. Melt butter in a flameproof baking dish on medium heat, add chicken and cook for 3-4 minutes until golden, pour over dry sherry and bake for 10 minutes until juices run clear. Remove chicken from oven, cover with foil and rest for 5 minutes, remove string, slice and serve, spooning cooking juices over.

For the Rocket Mash:
- 800g desiree potatoes
- 40g butter, cold
- ¾ cup milk, hot
- 70g baby rocket
- ½ cup grated parmesan
- 1 tsp grated lemon rind
- 1 tbs olive oil

Place potatoes in a large saucepan of cold, salted water and bring to the boil. Cook for 15 minutes, drain and peel away the skin with your fingers - it should come off easily. Cut potatoes into quarters, mash and gradually add butter and milk. Finally, add rocket, parmesan and lemon rind, season to taste and stir until combined.

Sage and Prosciutto Stuffed Chicken with Rocket Mash

Carrots Vichy-style

I really should try to be more versatile when cooking and stop substituting thyme for everything. Despite what a recipe may specify for me to use - parsley, rosemary, oregano, bay leaf or basil - I still somehow manage to sneak in a few sprigs of my beloved thyme during the cooking process. It is just such a reliable herb - delicate, but always fragrant and never fails to enhance the flavours in a dish.

In a classic French way of preparing carrots, by Margaret Fulton, chopped parsley is sprinkled over the cooked carrots just before serving; but my misdemeanour ways told me to skip that step and add in thyme leaves at the beginning so that they can gently cook with the carrots until tender.

"Carrots develop their best flavour cooked in a covered saucepan with butter, seasonings and a small amount of liquid."

Serves 4:
- 500g carrots
- 60g unsalted butter
- 4 sprigs thyme, leaves picked
- 1 tbs water
- ½ tsp sugar
- Sea salt

Scrub or scrape the carrots, then cut into slices. You could also cut them into quarters, then into lengths. I used Dutch carrots, which are small, so I just left them whole. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the carrots, thyme leaves, water and sugar. Cover and cook gently until tender, turning them occasionally and taking care not to break them. Sprinkle with a little salt just before serving.

Carrots Vichy

Easy Peas-y

This is a brilliant and super-quick way to enjoy fresh green peas, inspired by the wonderful Margaret Fulton. Not only do they make the perfect accompaniment, served alongside any main dish, but the cooked peas also taste fabulous on their own, or with steamed rice or thick slices of buttered toast. If the peas must be shelled some time before cooking, put them in a bowl and cover them closely with washed pea pods.

Serves 4-6:
- 1 kg peas (still in their pods)
- Sea salt
- Sprig of thyme (or mint)
- A little sugar, to taste
- 2 tsp unsalted butter

Shell the peas. Have sufficient boiling, salted water to cover the peas. Add the peas, thyme and sugar. Simmer gently until soft for 6-8 minutes. Drain well. Reheat with butter, season to taste, and serve in a hot vegetable dish.

May 17, 2010

Chunky Vegetable Soup

In this chilly weather, all I want to do is snuggle up under the covers with a good book to read and my electric blanket on. It can take me anywhere from half an hour to over an hour to get out of bed in the morning, but I can guarantee that if there was a steaming hot bowl of this deliciously chunky vegetable soup on the kitchen table waiting to be devoured, I'd be up in no time! 

This a no-fuss dish that can be made all in the one pot and the great thing about it is that you can be as rustic as you want with it. Once you've got the basics underway, you can experiment with using different combinations of herbs and vegetables. I usually add in more stock, because I prefer the soup to be quite runny.

Serves 4-6:
- 1.2 litres vegetable stock
- 4 celery sticks, finely sliced
- 2 carrots, diced
- 1 turnip, diced
- 2 sweet potatoes, diced
- 4 sprigs thyme
- 400g can butter beans, drained
- Sea salt and cracked pepper
- 2 tbs chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Olive oil, to drizzle
- Freshly grated Pecorino (or parmesan), to serve

Heat the stock in a large saucepan. Add the celery, carrots, turnip and sweet potato, and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, add the thyme sprigs, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the butter beans and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Using a hand masher or something similar, carefully mash down on the vegetables in the soup to thicken the liquor slightly, while keeping a good chunky consistency. 

Stir in the parsley and check the seasoning again. Spoon the soup into warm bowls, drizzle with a little olive oil and serve, sprinkled with pecorino and plenty of crusty bread.

Chunky Vegetable Soup

Lemon Meringue Pie

I was at Cafe Greco (560 Chapel Street, South Yarra) for dessert the other night, and after much consideration, decided to try a slice of their Lemon Meringue Pie. The verdict? Absolute heaven! I can't believe how I've survived all these years without having eaten it! The pastry was fragrant and crumbly, encasing a delightful lemon filling that was surprisingly not as sour as I expected it to be. It is all finished off with an extravagant and slightly chewy meringue topping, which is sweet and cuts through the tartness of the lemon. This delicious pie is now, by far, one of my favourite desserts :)

Lemon Meringue Pie

It was mum's birthday last week, so I endeavoured to create the wonder of lemon meringue pie for her at home. The recipe I used was one of Donna Hay's and am somewhat satisfied with the result. The only problem I had was that the meringue was sliding around on the lemon filling. Does anybody know how to prevent this? I'm thinking that maybe I overbeated the egg whites, or could have scored the filling before spooning on the meringue to give it something to grip on to. I've also just noticed Greco's version has a layer of pastry between the filling and the meringue!

*Note: Use 59g eggs at room temperature.

Makes 6:

For the sweet shortcrust pastry:
- 2 cups plain flour
- 3 tbs caster sugar
- 150g cold butter, chopped
- 2-3 tbs iced water

For the lemon filling:
- 3 tbs cornflour
- 1 cup water
- ½ cup caster sugar
- ½ cup lemon juice
- 2 egg yolks
- 60g butter

For the meringue:
- 3 egg whites
- ¾ cup caster sugar

For the pastry, process the flour, sugar and butter in a food processor until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. While the motor is running, add enough iced water to form a smooth dough and process until just combined. Knead the dough lightly, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

To make the filling, place the cornflour and water in a bowl and whisk until smooth. Place the cornflour mixture, sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan over medium-high heat and whisk until the mixture boils, then boil for 5 minutes or until it thickens. Remove from the heat and stir through the egg yolks and butter. At this point, taste the mixture to ensure that it isn't too sour and is to your liking. Set aside to cool slightly.

Preheat oven to 180°C. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface or between sheets of non-stick baking paper until 2-3mm thick. Cut out rounds to fit 6 x 9cm round pie tins. Place in the base of the tins, line with non-stick baking paper and fill with pastry weights or uncooked rice or beans. Bake for 10 minutes, remove the weights and bake for a further 10 minutes or until the pastry is golden. Pour the cooled filling into the pastry shells and refrigerate for 1 hour or until set.

To make the topping, place the egg whites in a bowl and beat until soft peaks form. Add the sugar gradually and beat until the mixture is thick and glossy. Spoon on top of the filled pies and place under a hot grill for 1 minute or until the meringue is set and golden. Serve immediately.

Lemon Meringue Pie

May 16, 2010

Slow-braised Ox Tail Stew

As the mercury drops to mark the beginning of the cooler months, it's time to bring out those dusty casserole pots and heavy-bottomed pans for delicious, heart-warming and enriching braises, pasta bakes, soups and pot-roasts!

For a successful braise, try to invest in a durable, heavy-duty casserole pot with a tight-fitting lid to give you good heat control and to lock in moisture, which helps the meat tenderise. Depending on the type of cut and size of the meat that you are cooking with, braising until it reaches the melt-in-your-mouth tenderness can take as quick as 1 hour, or up to a long 7 or 8 hours.

Here's a stew I made last winter, using Gourmet Traveller's recipe for "Beef à la mode," as a basis for what I did. Cuts that you can use include: ox tail, beef chuck, osso bucco, lamb neck, beef blade, beef cheeks and lamb shoulder. 

Serves 6:
- 2.5kg ox tail
- ¾ cup plain flour, seasoned well
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 12 baby carrots, trimmed
- 1 small celeriac, diced
- 1 celery heart, cut into 1cm pieces (the tender, innermost stalks in a bunch of celery, which impart the most flavour)
- 200g button mushrooms
- 12 shallots
- 100g mild round pancetta, cut into thin strips
- 1 tbs red wine vinegar
- 250ml red wine
- 400g can finely chopped tomatoes
- 2-3 litres beef stock
- Few sprigs thyme (and fresh bay leaf or rosemary if you like)

For the Gremolata:
- ½ cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- ½ lemon, zest finely grated
- ½ garlic clove, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 150°C. Place flour in a bowl and coat each piece of ox tail evenly in the flour, shaking off excess. Heat oil in an oven-proof casserole pot over medium-high heat. Carefully add the ox tail, turning each piece occasionally until browned, scraping base of pan to prevent sediment from burning. Remove from pot and set aside. Add vegetables and pancetta to the pot, stir until browned (3-5 minutes). Remove from pot, cover with foil and set aside. 

Deglaze the pot with vinegar, add the red wine, scrape the base of the pot to dislodge sediment and simmer until the wine is reduced by half (5-7 minutes). Add the tomato, ox tail, vegetable mixture, herbs and stock and bring to the boil. Ensure that you use enough stock to completely cover the meat and vegetables. If you prefer a richer braise, use less stock. Cover with a lid and bake in the oven, stirring occasionally, until the meat is very tender and falling off the bone (approximately 5 hours).

Meanwhile, for gremolata, combine ingredients in a bowl.

Serve the stew with mashed potato, polenta, rice, couscous or plenty of crusty bread. Don't forget to sprinkle over the gremolata - it completes the dish by cutting through the richness of the braise with its zingy taste, while adding vibrancy with its bright colour.

Slow-braised Ox Tail Stew on Mashed Potato

Aya Japanese Restaurant

1193 High Street
Armadale, VIC 3143
(03) 9822 9571
Food: Traditional Japanese
Date visited: April 2008

I came across these very ancient photos, taken over a year ago, at Aya Japanese Restaurant. It is just down the road from one of my favourite Japanese eateries, Sozai, which I always end up opting for when in the area. Don't get me wrong - the food at Aya is of substantial quality. It's presented neatly, flavoursome and tastes exactly like what is described on the menu. The ambience is also warm, but slightly formal and the waiters very polite. The thing that doesn't cut it for me about Aya, is its lack of vibrance, innovation and the *wow* factor you get at Sozai - from the first impression you get as you step through the front door into the buzzing dining area to the textural and flavour sensations you experience, biting into a delicately wrapped dumpling.

Agedashi Tofu - Fried Bean Curd in Light Soy Based Sauce Topped with Bonito;
Kani Tatsuta Age - Fried Soft Shell Crab in Japanese Spiced Batter

Tempura Udon in Soup; Unagi Kabayaki - Grilled Eel Glazed with Sweet Soy Sauce on a Bed of Rice served with Miso Soup and Tsukemono (Japanese Pickles)

May 7, 2010

The Fringe Cafe

73 Acland Street,
St.Kilda, VIC 3182
(03) 9593 8550
Food: Modern Australian
Date visited: 22nd March 2010

Just as I thought we had run out of places to dine at in St.Kilda, where affordable, mouth-watering cafe classics with a modern twist are served in a welcoming and cosy atmosphere, we stumbled upon The Fringe Cafe. Every dish we ordered was generous, beautifully presented and really captured the freshness of the ingredients used. I literally just wanted to lick my plate clean, trying to scrape off every last bit of sauce with my knife and fork!

Confit Duck Spring Rolls with Soy Dressing

Polenta Chips with Forest Mushrooms and Basil Pesto

Garlic and Herb Crusted Lamb Rump on Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus, Dauphinois Potato and Red Wine Jus

Grain Fed Sirloin on Confit Kipfler Potato, Forest Mushrooms, Cafe De Paris Butter and Red Wine Jus

Bruschetta with Mushroom and Thyme Medley

With half a loaf of sourdough left over from making Bruschetta with Smashed Peas and Pecorino, I decided to create a vegetarian topping for more bruschetta with what was in the fridge at home.

Serves 4:
- 4 slices sourdough bread
- Olive oil, for drizzling
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 400g assorted mushrooms (I used button, enoki and oyster)
- 6 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked (reserve a little for garnish)
- 10g unsalted butter
- Sea salt and cracked black pepper
- ½ lemon

Heat a char-grill pan (or frying pan if you don't have one) over medium-high heat. Drizzle one side of the bread slices with oil and place them oil-side down onto the pan. Use your fingers or the back of a spoon to gently press down on the slices to help them char with grill marks. Drizzle the upturned side of bread with oil, and after 2-3 minutes, flip it over and gently press down on it again. After another 2-3 minutes, remove from the heat and lightly rub one side of the tosted sourdough slices with the garlic clove.

While the sourdough slices are grilling, you can cook your mushrooms as it is quite simple and will only take a few minutes. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or pan and add the button mushrooms and thyme leaves. Saute for about 2 minutes until juices start leaking out.

Add the rest of the mushrooms and cook for another 30 seconds.

Just before you turn off the heat, add the knob of butter, season well, squeeze over lemon juice and stir to combine.

To serve, top the toasted sourdough slices with the mushroom mixture, and sprinkle with thyme leaves

Bruschetta with Mushroom and Thyme Medley