Tag Archives: Dinner

Stuff it…

It’s funny what subjects get under a persons skin (pun intended), and one of those for me is stuffing.

I love stuffing. As an economical side dish for a deliciously roasted fowl, there isn’t much that can top the humble stuffing.

Unfortunately, it can be fraught with danger.

Cooked inside your bird of choice, you need to over-cook the poultry if you want to cook the stuffing buried deep within the cavity sufficiently to avoid a cross contamination bacterial explosion, and I don’t need to paint that picture for you. The problem with that, is you risk ruining your roast.

So, what is the solution?

Don’t cook your stuffing inside the bird.

Normally, I would cook the stuffing separately in a small roasting dish and serve it with the meal fresh from the oven, however this past Christmas, I had a light bulb moment.

COOK AND SERVE THE STUFFING INSIDE A WHOLE PUMPKIN!

Safer than cooking stuffing in a bird, and easy to turn into a vegetarian delight

Safer than cooking stuffing in a bird, and easy to turn into a vegetarian delight

First, select the pumpkin. I suggest a Kent, or a Jap pumpkin for up to 8 people. Using a sharp thin bladed knife, cut the top off of the pumpkin and mark a notch to help align the lid and base later. Now clean out all of the seeds and fiber…don’t forget the lid. At this time you can choose to scrape flesh out to make more room for stuffing, but don’t make the walls to thin.

Fill with your favorite stuffing, bake, and serve!

What’s that? You don’t have a favorite stuffing recipe?

Well here’s one I prepared earlier…

A good stuffing starts with good bread. Use a nice heavy loaf, like a genuine sourdough or Rye.

Cube it up and toss with oil and salt. I also like to add fresh garlic and fresh rosemary, if I have it on hand.

Cook in a moderate oven until golden brown. congratulations, you just made the best croutons you’ve ever eaten. Put them aside, those you don’t eat immediately anyway, and remember this technique for the next salad you make.

Cook some wild rice, per the directions. You won’t need more than 1/4cup uncooked.

Fry some mushrooms in olive oil, with something porky (chorizo, bacon, etc) and a couple of anchovies. You won’t taste the anchovies, just the seasoning they provide. If you don’t want to, skip it…but add some worcestershire sauce later.

Add some diced onion and garlic, and cook until the onion is translucent. At this point, I also like to add some slivered almonds or Pine nuts.

Add in some rosemary, thyme (not much, it can overpower), and some ground pepper.

Deglaze the pan with a little red wine, Port, or Brandy, and cook it down so there is barely any liquid left.

Now add the rice and mix together.

Take the pan off of the heat, and mix in the croutons.

In another pan, or microwave oven, heat up about half a litre of chicken stock until almost boiling. Pour enough into the mix to make it moist, but not sloppy. Taste and season.

Then bake it in a dish, or a pumpkin like above.

Serve it next to a roast chook or turkey, and lap up the accolades (as well as enjoy the stuffing with the generous scoop of pumpkin).

Pita Pockets – A Healthy Choice for the BBQ

Pita Pockets or Kebabs are a great fast food alternative.  They’re fresh, healthy, and packed with great flavour.  Making them at home is not only easy, it’s delicious, and very easy on the budget.  These are ideal for hot day, or for when friends drop around.  There’s nothing more social than people constructing their own dinner using the ingredients you have laid out.

Traditionally these would be made with lamb, but here is a recipe for a chicken version which is lighter, but still very more-ish.

Fresh, healthy, and delicious.  Chicken Kofta Pita with Couscous

Fresh, healthy, and delicious. Chicken Kofta Pita with Couscous

Chicken Kofta

  • 1kg Chicken Mince (I would use breasts or thighs chopped up in a food processor)
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced or grated
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup breadcrumbs
  • 20g Salt (or a seasoning like Vegeta)
  • 1 tbsp, or about 3 cloves, grated or crushed garlic
  • 1 tsp chopped rosemary
  • 1 tsp ground sage
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • ½ tsp dried chilli flake

Mix all of the above ingredients and form into large thumb shaped (and sized) pieces, or wrap them around a kebab stick.  Chill in a fridge for about an hour.  Fry or BBQ until done.

Tzatziki

Controlling the amount of moisture in a tzatziki is critical.  Suspending the natural yoghurt bundled in muslin (or a clean chux cloth) over a container to catch the excess water makes a “labneh” which is a bit like a zesty and creamy feta.  Alternately, you can blend a 50/50 mix of Danish style feta with Greek style natural yoghurt or sour cream.

Blend the following:

  • 1 cup of the labneh, mentioned above
  • Squeeze ½ cup grated cucumber wrapped inside a cloth or paper towel to remove moisture
  • 1 clove crushed or grated garlic
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • Salt to taste

Harissa

I love Harissa, but my family are not a huge fan of capsicum flavours.  It’s a great size dish to flavour boost anything, like a sambal might, or a punchy Mexican salsa.  Tonight it’s served on top af a couscous.  Here is an adaptation that I think is packed with flavour.

  • 2 long mild chilli’s or a roasted capsicum (can buy them preserved in jars or cans), finely diced
  • ½ finely diced or grated onion
  • 3 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp Cumin
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • ¼ cup red wine
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire
  • Salt to taste
  • Dried chilli flakes to taste
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • Chopped fresh basil or mint

Fry the onion, anchovy, garlic, and diced chilli with the cumin and coriander over a medium heat until the onions are soft.  Add the red wine and cook until almost all the wine has evaporated.  Stir in the tomato paste and worcestershire sauce and continue cooking for about 5 minutes to cook out the paste and develop the flavours.  Taste and season.  Add basil or mint and drizzle in the olive oil while stirring to incorporate.

Couscous

  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1 cup boiling water (or stock, you can use a cube or seasoning powder)
  • ¼ cup almond slivers
  • oil or butter
  • Toast the almond slivers in a pan until lightly golden

Add the couscous and almonds to the boiling water/stock (season with salt if using water).  Stir quickly and cover with a lid, removing from the heat immediately.  After 2 minutes, add the oil/butter and stir with a fork to fluff it up.

Putting it all together

Slice up some cucumber, tomato, and onion. Chop up a fresh lettuce, and mix with chopped parsley and coriander.  I also like to add some sliced avocado, but that’s me.

Slice open some pita bread, and stuff it with the lettuce mix and cucumber/tomato/onion (as you like).  Add the chicken kofta (you could use falafel for a vegetarian version).  Sauce it with the tzatziki.  To take it from a fast food snack to a meal, serve it with a side of couscous topped with a flourish of harissa.

Genuine Mexican Delicacy: Chilli Relleno’s

When I mention the words “Mexican Food”, what comes to mind?  Nachos perhaps, covered with melted cheese, guacamole, and sour cream?  Crunchy tacos filled with mince and lettuce, topped with cheese and a salsa?  Maybe Fajita’s (pronounced fa-hee-tahs), with sizzling strips of beef or chicken served on a warm flour tortilla with grilled onions and capsicums?

Sadly, wrong on three counts.

Mexican food is one of the most loved foods in Australia at the moment, yet in truth, we’re actually eating Tex/Mex food…not original Mexican fare at all, and I think it’s time we all learnt a little bit more about true Mexican cooking (and perhaps a little about some of the pronunciation).

The fact is, Mexican cooking is something we can and should all adopt.  Authentic Mexican food is not born from modern kitchens and closely guarded recipes or techniques.  It traditionally makes the most of the cheap cuts of meat from old animals that served duty as egg layers or beasts of burden, so Mexican food makes delicious use of cheap ingredients using simple techniques and very little kitchen trickery.  Its a food that is ideal for the household on a budget, and these days, who isn’t?

Mexican food is more corn than flour…ground maize (or masa) that is formed into a dough (for tortillas; pronounced tort-ee-yah) or a cake (for tamales) and used to carry tid bits of slow cooked cheap cuts of meat, or to soak up the flavours of a punchy mole (pronounced mol-ay) or sauce.

Mexican food uses foods that are readily available, and therefore cheap to find.  Small amounts of slow cooked shredded beef, pork, and chicken (meat and offal) is what you’ll find on taco’s and inside burritos, not minced meat and not choice steak, and you’ll almost always find it served with a hunger buster like beans or rice.

Seafood is used more often that you think, with much of Mexico’s population living along coastlines.  Fish and shellfish are as likely to be in a stew or taco as shredded chicken.

And of course there’s chillies.

So Mexico is famous for hot food, no doubt, but not all chillies are hot…and many Mexican dishes rely on the flavour of the chilli itself, rather than the heat it may bring, so there are many dishes that use varieties of chillies (or peppers) that have little or no heat at all.   On the mild side are Capsicums and, if you can find them, Pobano’s and Anaheims…also called “Bull Horn Chilli’s” in Australia.  Hot Chillies are usually used sparingly, to add a zing to normally delicate dishes, while the milder chillies are used whole, as an ingredient or vegetable/fruit in it’s own right.

Look for chillies that are longer and narrow, rather than ball shaped.

Look for chillies that are longer and narrow, rather than ball shaped.

Which brings me to my most favourite of all Mexican dishes.  It’s a dish of stuffed chilli’s, usually stuffed with a mild melting cheese (traditionally queso, a Mexican cheese, fried in an egg batter and served with a smooth salsa or a Mole.  It’s as easy to cook as it is sublime to eat.

Chile Rellenos (pronounced re-yen-nyohs)

  • Look for chillies that are longer and narrow, rather than ball shaped.  Larger is easier, smaller works too.  Try Bullhorns for mild…Jalapeno’s (pronounced Ha-leh-pen-yohs)if you’re more adventurous.
  • Make a slit in them and extract the seeds.  Try to keep the slit as small as possible, but large enough to do the job.
  • Blister the peppers in a scorching oven, or over a gas flame, and place them in a plastic zip bag to steam a little.  You really want to blacken the skins here, it makes a big difference.
  • Remove when cool, and gently scrape the skin off.  It should peel off quite easily.
  • While they’re cooling, think about a stuffing.  It’s a great use of leftover rice, or you can simply use some mild cheese.  The key is not to overpower the flavour of the chilli.  It’s a delicate dish.  Gently stuff your chilli’s with your stuffing, and set aside.
  • Separate a few eggs, about 1 for every two small to medium chillies, and beat the yolks with a generous pinch of salt until light.  You can add some corn flour or rice flour to the yolks too, it will help with the final batter, but just a tablespoon or two.  Now beat the whites, with a splash of white vinegar, until peaks form.  Stir in half the whites into the yolk mixture to combine.  Gently fold the yolk mixture back into the remaining whites.  You want to maintain as much volume as you can.
  • Put a frying pan on the stove, medium heat, with about a 1cm layer of neutral oil.
  • Dollop some of the batter into the pan into a shape and size that matches your chilli.  Now put your chilli to bed on this batter.  The batter will keep it off of the bottom of the pan.  Cover with another dollop of the batter and shape (or add more) until the chilli is completely covered.
  • Cook until the bottom is browned, and turn over, cooking until the flip side is brown.
This method is a revelation.  Master this and you'll be egg battering everything.  It's is fool proof.

This method is a revelation. Master this and you’ll be egg battering everything. It’s is fool proof.

 

 

 

 

When done, serve with a nice salsa and a dollop of sour cream.

When done, serve with a nice salsa and a dollop of sour cream.

Some other tips for authentic Mexican?

  • Slow cook your meat for your tacos and burritos, and try chicken (pollo) or pork (carnitas).  I cannot say this enough.  Ditch the mince!
  • Look for Corn Tortilla’s, not flour.  Maize is Mexican…wheat not so much (it’s also gluten free folks).
  • Play with chilli’s…even mild ones have amazing flavour.
  • Use shredded cabbage on your taco’s, not lettuce.
  • Try fish or prawns on your Taco’s…in fact, prawn tacos (or tacos de camarones) are by far the best tacos you can eat.
  • Make your own salsa!  Don’t buy the stuff in jars…it’s just rubbish  Use google for some ideas if you need, the results are amazing.

Remember, you don’t have to eat expensive to eat well.  Enjoy a Mexican feast today, and maybe even throw a Mexican themed party and try some authentic South of the Border cuisine.

Fusion Cuisine

Some days I can wander the aisles of a grocery store for ages, trying to get inspiration for the meal ahead, whilst other days I wake up with a meal plan already formed.

Today was the latter, and all day I could not think for the Mexican feast that I had planned for that evenings meal.

Taco’s are a perennial favourite in our household, and tonight would not disappoint.  In addition to the taco’s however, I was fixated on making some enchilada’s.  Whilst the Taco’s were going to be made from minced beef, which is what the kids love most, the enchilada’s were going to be chicken.

With that in mind, I popped into my local butcher to pick up a brace of chicken thighs and minced beef, and while I was there I purchased a couple of legs of lamb for the weekend.  To furnish the rest of the meal, I visited the local mega-mart and tried to get in and out in as little time as possible.

Of course, Coles chose to be less than cooperative.  When making enchilada’s, only corn tortillas hit the spot, and they had none.  There is little more frustrating than being let down by the grocery store when it comes to the sole reason you were visiting in the first place.  Funnily enough, yesterday the item out of stock was milk…of all things.

Steaming, and wanting to dump my groceries and head to the local competitor, I walked past the tortilla’s one more time when the rows of “mountain bread” caught my eye.  Thin square flat breads, made to use as a wrap for all manner of “sandwich” options, I quickly realized the potential when I spotted the corn version.

Enchilasagne was born.

Think lasagne, with alternating layers of chicken with enchilada sauce, and cheese with sour cream.  Each layer separated by a thin square piece of corn flat bread instead of the traditional pasta sheet.

What is your favourite mashup of foods to come up with something unique?

Budget Brilliance – Part 1 “Steak on a shoestring”

When it comes to meat, and particularly beef, there are a few truisms that everyone should know.

  • The more a muscle works, the tougher it is to eat, BUT the more flavour it has.
  • The closer to the horn and the hoof, the more work the muscle does.
  • Tough cuts of meat should be tenderised before eating.  This can be done mechanically (mincing, chopping, perforating), chemically (acids: marinades, or enzymes: kiwi, papaya), or by cooking for extended periods of time.
  • Tender cuts of meat are expensive, whilst tough cuts tend to be cheaper.
  • Restaurants buy the best of the tender cuts, leaving the public to fight over the second grade leavings…whilst quality tough cuts can be found for a fraction of the cost.

So, knowing the best way to tenderise a tough cut of meat will mean you can not only save plenty of dollars from your beef budget, but you can get the best of the the most flavourful options available.  It’s a win-win situation for us all.

Let me introduce you to what is arguably (though almost certainly dollar for dollar) the finest steak that you can buy.  When the purse strings tighten, and I have the kind of hunger that only a steak can satisfy, there is only one cut of meat that I turn to.

Skirt Steak.

Skirt Steak comes from the cows diaphragm, so it is a muscle that is used every second the beast is alive.  The unique qualities that make skirt steak so attractive is that the muscle fibres are uniform in direction, and long in design.  This means that whilst the steak is tough as old boots, thanks to it’s constant use, it is also very easy to mechanically tenderise…and it has flavour in spades.

  • You can see there is a little surface fat, which can be easily trimmed, but very little marbling. Skirt Steak is very lean, and great for heart health.
  • The fibres (running the length of the steak, and vertically, are very distinct and easily recognised. This is important later.

Step 1, and possibly the hardest step, is to find your Skirt Steak.  Granted, it’s not the most popular of steaks on the market (despite my loud, but singular efforts), so don’t count on your local box grocery store to have any.  Hit up a local butcher instead.  If quality meat is what you want, you should be building a healthy relationship with your butcher anyway, and buying your meat from a source that knows it’s stuff.

Step 2, bring the meat to room temperature, and fire up your bbq.  You want a heat source that is as hot as you can get it.  You can cook this indoors, but I’d recommend a cast iron pan, 20 minutes preheat on a max burner setting, and several gas masks for the smoke you are about to produce.  For me, it’s a flat out BBQ preheated to pizza oven or tandoor proportions.

Step 3, trim and season the meat.  There can be an opaque membrane left on the muscle, and you should do your best to remove this.  Trim the fat off as well, if you so desire.  As for seasoning: I use cooking (or Kosher) salt, and little else.  The salt will help draw a little protein ladened moisture to the surface and assist in the creation of that tasty crust.  Note, this DOES NOT SEAL IN THE JUICES.  That is a cooking myth.  It does, however, taste delicious 🙂

Step 4, prepare a place to rest the meat after it’s cooked.  And by prepare, I mean chop up some fresh herbs with a little garlic, oil, and salt/pepper.  By laying the freshly cooked meat on this when resting, you will do more to add the fresh herbal goodness to your steak(s) than by trying to add them prior to cooking.  Also have a sheet of aluminium foil ready.

Step 5, cook the meat.  Medium rare is best (in my opinion), and it is not the thickest piece of meat on the market, so it wont take long.  My preference is to cook for a couple of minutes on one side, then rotate the steak 90 degrees to allow the criss-cross pattern to form.  After another minute, turn the meat over and repeat.

Step 6, rest the meat.  This is probably the most important step in affecting the final result of the meat.  Rest it for at least 10 minutes, and even 15 if you can.  Use this time to make a salad, or prepare your other dinner elements.

Step 7, the slicing.  This is the critical stage that will turn your shoe leather into butter tender slices of steak.

  • Look at the steak, and note the direction of the grain.
Well rested, you can see the juices that have reabsorbed into the meat.  It makes me hungry EVERY time I look at it.

Well rested, you can see the juices that have reabsorbed into the meat. It makes me hungry EVERY time I look at it.

  • Using a large sharp knife, slice thinly (5mm slices) ACROSS the grain.  Lay the beef on a cutting board in front of you, with the grain running left to right, and slice vertically (at 90 degrees) to the fibres.

There is nothing left to do but enjoy the steak.  I promise you that this is a dish to try at home.  Whether you cook it for yourself, your family, or a crowd of friends, you will be seen as a food hero when you lay this platter out.  And just what is the best way to enjoy the results?

Watching your weight?  As healthy as it is delicious.  Unless you include the baked potato...in which case it's a little more delicious than healthy!

Watching your weight? As healthy as it is delicious. Unless you include the baked potato…in which case it’s a little more delicious than healthy!

A classic use for skirt steak, and delicious in  anyone's language.  Just add guacamole, sour cream, and saute'd onions and capsicums.

A classic use for skirt steak, and delicious in anyone’s language. Just add guacamole, sour cream, and saute’d onions and capsicums for world class Fajitas.

There is a bun under there somewhere.  A steak sandwich is about as Aussie as it gets.

There is a bun under there somewhere. A steak sandwich is about as Aussie as it gets.

Eastern Port Yum Cha

One thing Mackay doesn’t lack is Asian Restaurants.  Unfortunately, they mostly cater to the quick lunch trade, and are focused on pushing out a fast meal, rather than a good meal.  Sure, there are a few exceptions to this, but for the most part I have been disappointed in the quality of Chinese (and other SE Asian influenced dishes) that I have found so far.

Just looking at this makes me hungry

A new restaurant set on the perimeter of a Shopping Centre, and within a stones throw of a Sizzler, did not raise my hopes of Eastern Port being any different.

Walking into the restaurant, it ticks off most of the prerequisites for a typical Chinese restaurant.  There’s the ornamental fish tank behind the maitre ‘d stand, there’s a row of fish tanks vigorously bubbling away while lobsters, fish, and large crab peer out at diners, and there’s a rack of glossy tanned ducks hanging behind glass, just inside the kitchen.  Coupled with the rest of the modern decor, with Chinese art and cultural hints, Eastern Port actually pulls of a neat trick of providing a pleasant dining atmosphere whilst food service staff scurry busily pushing yum-cha carts around tables of hurried diners surrounded by prams, shopping carts, and plastic store bags full of groceries and department store essentials.

It’s not a real Chinese Restaurant unless it has one of these

Eastern Port also has a small curb-side dining area, as well as the tables inside the restaurant itself, which is consistent with the other cafe’s and eateries in the area.  It also makes a great place to people watch on a sunny afternoon, as you are enjoying a prolonged yum-cha session.

Jeri and I are quickly led to our seats (inside), and it is seconds before the yum-cha cart arrives, offering it’s wares for the luncheon rush.  We both decide that we want to look at the menu before deciding on what we will select.  Immediately my eyes are drawn to the laksa.  Now, there aren’t many things that I would prefer to eat than yum-cha.  I love Chinese dumplings like fat kids love chocolate.  But Curry laksa is one of those dishes.

It also shows both the good and bad in Australian Asian restaurants.  There are not too many places where you will find yum-cha sharing menu space with laksa, and your trip across Asia doesn’t end with China and Malaysia.  The menu also includes Thai tom yum , Singapore noodles, mee and nasi Goreng from Indonesia.  The menu is, however, predominantly Chinese and Malay, so I decide to give the laksa a chance.  In a shock, Jeri also orders a soup.  Wonton soup is her choice, which surprises me as she is a self proclaimed soup disliker (ok, hater would have been too strong a word, so I chose to make one up instead).

Just after the waiter scurries off to bark the order at the kitchen staff, the yum-cha chart stops at our table and we are encouraged to choose from the dozen or so offerings.  Not today, we explain…we’ve ordered from the menu.  Confused, the cart operator races off to the next table.  It seems they really want to sell yum-cha.

A good looking Laksa right there

Less than 10 minutes later, our soups arrive with a flourish of fragrant steam, and the moment of truth is upon us.

Now, as a lover of laksa I have eaten it hundreds of times, and I have had the pleasure of eating some of the best, and the misfortune of being disppointed by some of the worst, including an insipid version last week from another local noodle bar, but this laksa was actually quite good.

The good:

Well balanced, and reasonably flavourful, I would have to concede that it was the best laksa I have had in Mackay.

As a seafood laksa, the prawns were generous, and the vegetables were fresh and vibrant.

The bad:

I thought the broth could have had more flavour.  It’s really the key part of a good laksa, and it just let it down a little.

The squid and the mussels were also over cooked, which is a really difficult ask for a laksa, but I have had perfectly cooked and tender squid in a laksa in the past.  Also, the tofu was a non event, as was the fish cake (too bland and thin).

I also felt that there should have been more condiments on the side to customize the flavour.  The sambal that was included had no kick at all, and the soup really needed it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely going back to the Eastern Port, and I’m also going to recommend the laksa as a good option.  The issues I have are purely a question of degrees of flavour…the flavour was there, and the soup was good, it just lacked some key elements that could have made it great.

Crayfish, Crab, and Dumpling Steamers…maybe next time

I’m also looking forward to trying their yum-cha some day, and even exploring a little deeper into their menu of South East Asian standards.  For this visit, however, I am going to give it 3.5 little piggies.

Chicken Lasagne – No boundaries, no borders

There are two schools of thought when it comes to regionalized food.

One school of thought is that you should preserve the recipes and techniques that are synonymous with all of the various regions and cultures found around the world.  That the dish “Spaghetti Bolognese” or “Pot au feu” should be recreated faithfully to the time honoured practices that have made the dish the signature dish of the area in which it was created.  These traditionalists argue that preserving the dish in it’s original form is preserving culture, and that changing it whilst maintaining the name is perpetuating a lie that will ultimately dilute the truth bring about it’s eventual demise.

Pot au feu - photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The other school of thought is that food culture evolves, and through exposure to new ingredients and techniques, tastes and recipes develop to maximize the environment of the day.  Culinary preservation is important to document, as history teaches us a lot about why we are what we are today, but preserving recipes for preservation’s sake is to risk losing potentially new and great dishes solely for stubbornness.

I actually take a very uncontroversial view, and believe that there is room for both.  I think that we should preserve dishes exactly as they have been created for centuries, and the food world should work together to ensure that proprietors and restauranteurs worldwide who carry out these traditions are supported and encouraged to continue through future generations…almost as living museums.  Whilst others use these creations as inspiration to take the dish elsewhere, in new and exciting directions.  All dishes, even the classics above, owe their creation to a single departure from some other dish, so you never know when the new gun Chef is actually creating the classic dish of tomorrow.  Even Lasagne, a dish that can evoke many arguments about how to create the best version, is an evolution of French and Greek recipes, with the catalyst change being the hottest new ingredient in the market place, the tomato (courtesy of Christopher Columbus).

A traditional Lasagne - Photo courtesy of Dee Catering & Logistic Services (Western Australia)

This version of Lasagne was inspired by a meal I had in a Restaurant that actually disappointed me.  I saw “Chicken Lasagne” on the menu, and ordered it, but felt the intensity of the tomato based sauce totally killed the chicken in the dish.  Two days later I created this recipe, or something very much like it (as I did not write the original recipe down, it was more the concept that I am replicating here).  In essence, it’s a blending of a creamy chicken Alfredo or Carbonara, using Lasagne techniques and pasta.  It’s one of those dishes that I make that seems to be an instant hit, yet no one seems to have joined the dots and made a version commercially yet…at least I have never seen one in any Restaurant or cookbook.

Chicken Lasagne with cream, bacon & mushrooms.

I hope you get inspired by it and give it a try.  Again, don’t pay too much attention to the recipe itself, just the idea…and make it your own.  Let me know what you do, and how it turns out.

The ingredients to make the magic happen...

Ingredients

  • 1kg Chicken Thighs (boneless & skinless)
  • 200g Mushrooms (Sliced)
  • 200g Rindless Bacon (Julienned)
  • 1 1/2 Red Onions (finely diced)
  • 2 Tbsp Garlic
  • 1 Tablespoons Olive oil
  • 3/4 Cup White Wine (good enough to drink)
  • Zest from 1/2 Lemon
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 2 Tablespoons Butter (3 Tbsp if using fresh or pre-cooked pasta)
  • 2 Tablespoons Flour (3 Tbsp if using fresh or pre-cooked pasta)
  • 1 1/2 Cups Milk or Cream (or blend)
  • 1 1/2 Cups Chicken Stock
  • 1 Cup Sour Cream
  • 1/2 Cup fresh Parsley (finely chopped)
  • 150g Grated Parmesan Cheese
  • 2 Cups grated Mozzarella Cheese
  • Salt/Pepper (freshly ground) to taste
  • Lasagne Sheets (fresh or dried)

Cut the chicken thighs into large cubes and add half to a food processor.  Pulse for 10 x 1-second pulses, then 1 x 4-second pulse (full seconds…one-one thousand, two-one thousand, etc).  Turn out into a bowl, and repeat with the other half.  You can use chicken mince instead, if you want, the result will be more consistent.  You can also use breasts, which will actually whiten up the dish a lot, as thighs tend to be a bit grey.  I like the flavour of thighs though, so I tend to use them a lot.

Add oil to a large frying pan and add the bacon.  Cook until almost crispy over a medium heat, stirring often.  Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon to a bowl, and reserve.

Delicious rendered bacon

Add a quarter of the chicken to the bacon grease, and cook until almost done, trying not to brown the chicken at all.  Clear the centre of the pan by moving the cooked chicken to the sides, and add the next quarter.  Repeat until all of the chicken is cooked.  Using the slotted spoon, remove the cooked chicken to the bacon bowl, and reserve.

Move the cooked chicken to the edge, and add the next batch in the centre.

Add the onions and mushrooms and garlic, with a pinch of salt, and cook slowly until the onions are just translucent.  You don’t want any browning as it will colour the dish.

De-glaze the pan with the white wine and lemon juice, and cook until almost evaporated.

Notice the base of the pan where I moved a spoon through the mix. When the liquid takes a while to fill the path made by the spoon, you've reduced enough.

Add the chicken and bacon mix, and stir to combine, then set aside.

Combine the chicken stock and milk in a microwave proof container, and cook on high for 3 minutes.  If it is not yet steaming, cook for 1 minute bursts until it is.  Careful not to boil the liquid, however.  Add the butter to a sauce-pan and cook until fragrant.

Liquid gold

Add the flour to the butter, and stir until all lumps are gone.  Cook for 1 minute and then add the hot milk/stock mix, stirring constantly until thickened (about the consistency of cream).  Remove from heat and add the Parmesan cheese.  Stir until all of the cheese is melted, the add the sour cream and stir until is well combined.

Added the Parmesan Cheese to the sauce...

Add the cream sauce to the chicken mix, and stir to combine.  Taste, and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Stir in the chopped parsley, and set aside.

Everyone in the pool! Now just the layers...

In a bowl, mix the Mozzarella cheese with the lemon zest.

Preheat the oven to 180C (350f).

At this point, we consider the pasta.  I just use bought dry pasta sheets, and place layer them as is.  I do not pre-cook them, and I try not to buy “Instant” either, as they are usually thinner.  If you are using fresh, or precooked, get them ready now, and hopefully you used the higher quantity of flour and butter (for a thicker sauce).

In a high sided baking dish, spread a thin layer of the chicken mixture, just enough so that you cant see the bottom of the baking dish.  Top with a sprinkling of the Mozzarella.  Layer the pasta sheets on top, without overlapping them.  Repeat this layering until you reach the top of the pan, at which point you do not add a layer of pasta on top of the cheese.

Just to show the layering of the sauce and cheese with the pasta.

Cover the lasagne with foil, and bake for 45 minutes (30 minutes for fresh or pre-cooked pasta sheets).  Then uncover, and bake for 15 minutes more.

Just out of the oven...now the wait.

It is important that you let the Lasagne cool before you cut into it.  You really want to let it sit, covered loosely with foil, for 90 minutes before serving…if you can.  Good luck with that.

Serve with a side of steamed broccoli, and maybe a nice bruschetta. Oh, and a glass of the white wine you used in the dish.

Again, let me know if this dish inspires you, and share with us all where you take it in your kitchen.

Enjoy the meal!

Bacon Wrapped Meatloaf – Version 1

As a kid my favourite meal was Meatloaf and BBQ sauce.  The thick sweet glaze surrounding a rough log of savory beef, and served with a steaming pile of mashed potatoes…It was what MY birthday meal was, year in, year out.

Behold the lovely Loaf

As I’ve grown, my sweet tooth has somewhat disappeared, but my love for the loaf remains unabated.  Over the years I’ve also learned that a great meatloaf comes in many guises. The meatloaf of my childhood was a beef meatloaf, as is the recipe on this post, but I’ve learned that the humble loaf is more versatile than just a log of ground steak baked in the oven.

I’ve developed recipes for beef versions , chicken meatloaf, pork,  game, exotic meats (kangaroo, as an example), and sometimes combinations of these beasts (often you HAVE to combine them, to get a great result).  In fact, the only thing I’ve not made is a vegetarian or seafood meatloaf, and mostly because I’ve never thought of it…until now!

So, this may be my first recipe and post for meatloaf, but it almost certainly won’t be my last.  Please feel free to change the ingredient list as you way see fit, you may have a great recipe for your meatloaf already at hand.  But take note of a few tricks and techniques that I use, and think about adapting them to your own recipe.

Ingredients:

The Meat

  • 500g Chuck Steak
  • 500g lean Minced Beef
  • 14 Strips Bacon (Streaky)

A carnivores dream

The Mix

  • 1 egg
  • 3 Carrots
  • 1 Medium Onion
  • 2 Sliced Bread (any)
  • 1/4 Cup Red Wine
  • 1/4 Cup Tomato Paste
  • 1 Tbsp mustard
  • 1 Tbsp Garlic

Most of the mix...minus onions, carrots, and an egg

The Herbs & Spices

  • 2 Tbsp Dried Sage
  • 1 Tbsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Ground Pepper
  • 1/4 tsp Oregano
  • 1/4 tsp Thyme
  • 1/2 tsp Cumin
  • Red Pepper Flakes to Taste

Spices for the Meatloaf

I make no apologies for the 18 ingredient list, for what is a simple comfort meal.  Nothing is complicated here, but every flavour is a note to this symphony.

Step 1, the meat.

Like my burgers, previous post here, I like my meatloaf to carry some texture.  I am not after a consistent grind in the beef, because I like the additional interest that a surprise chunk of beef makes in the meatloaf as a meal, but I also want to reduce the fat in the end product and this still needs to be a loaf…so I blend my self chopped chuck steak with some low fat mince.

Cube up the chuck steak into medium cubes, and chop them in a food processor in 2 equal batches.  Pulse for 10 x 1 second pulses (full second pulses…one thousand one, one thousand two…etc) and then for 1 x 4 second burst.

Dump the chopped chuck into a bowl, along with the mince.

Step 2, the mix.

Using the food processor (again), chop the bread slices until they become bread crumbs.  Tip the contents onto the meat.

Put the onion in the food processor and puree it.  Tip it onto the meat and breadcrumbs.

Everyone into the Pool!

Grate the carrots, and add to the meat mix, along with the rest of the mix ingredients.  Add all of the herbs and spices, and mix using your hands until well combined.

OK, so maybe I'm getting carried away with the photo's...
All mixed together...check out the texture...hmmmm

Step 3, Construction:

Preheat the oven to 180C (350F)

Lay out a large square of plastic wrap or baking paper.  Construct your bacon weave on the plastic film, one strip high by one strip wide.

Here begins the weave...just like a reed basket, only porkier

Baby blankets should be this awesome

And the plastic magically appears. Don't forget it on the first loaf, like I did.

Shaping the mix into a log, place it on the bacon weave, ensuring that it comes to the end of the weave, but not beyond.  Then lift the plastic wrap and use it to roll the bacon up and over the log.  Keep rolling until the entire loaf is covered, then remove the wrap.

Dressed for the ball. Prom King, no doubt

Step 4, Cooking

Place the meatloaf on a wire rack that fits in a backing tray.  Slide it into the hot oven.  Place a loose piece of foil over the meat loaf, so as not to overcook the bacon.

After 40 minutes, remove the foil and drop the temperature to 160C (320F)

Continue to bake until the internal temperature hits 66C (150F).  Remove from the oven, and cover again with foil, letting it rest for 20 minutes.

If only you could smell this...OH MY GOD! Look at the pink ring just under the bacon.

Slice and serve with some of your favourite BBQ Sauce, and a couple of sides.  Mashed potatoes is a match made in heaven.  As for another side, well, I’ve gone for some fried cabbage this time, but a nice salad would work just as well.

The moment of truth...enjoyed with a lovely Cab Sav.

The magic of Meatloaf is the leftovers.  It’s almost as easy to make 2, as to make 1, so double the mix and make 2 loaves (as I have).  Think of all the meatloaf sandwiches…nom nom nom

Enjoy the meal!

Stew Weather – Winter with 26C (79F) temperatures

It’s funny how climate affects food.  Summer time meals are lighter, and usually involve the BBQ and a few cleansing ales.  Winter meals tend to be more slow cooked braises and stews, and the soul warming soup.  But what happens when you live in place that is warm all year round?

Good weather for Stew

Being a fairly recent transplant to Tropical Australia, one of the things we found that we missed from the colder climates were the stews and braised roasts.  It just never sounded like a good idea while the sun was shining outside, and the temps were hovering in the high 20’s (low 80’s Fahrenheit).  The last thing you wanted to do was heat up the house more by cooking something for 4 hours.

Not so good weather for a stew...
The boys enjoying a nice winters day in Tropical Queensland

This year seems different, however, and I think it’s because we have acclimated.  I used to laugh at all the “Queenslanders” because they were so damned temperature sensitive.  27C was great, 26C a bit nippy, whilst 28C was a heat wave…but now I am not far off the same punchline.  It’s been 10 days since we have seen temperatures over 26 (79F) and I feel like a stew! Admittedly none of those 10 days were below 26 except 1…which was 25.1.

So, bargain shopping again, the wife found some lovely lamb leg chops…just the ticket for a warming stew.  The key to any stew is to chose a nice tough cut, with plenty of connective tissue.  As my post “Take back the Burger” tries to explain, the tough cuts closer to the hoof and the horn usually reward you with the richest flavour, and hours of cooking in a liquid require a robust flavoured cut to stand up to the punishment.  Jut like a good stock, however, bones are also critical.  You need the gelatin to form from the bones so that you get the nice unctuous mouth-feel that a good stew gives.  Bone in leg chops tick the boxes, almost as well as a nice ox-tail.

Now, I love stews…I mean really love them.  And everyone knows that a stew is good day 1, but great day 2 (and beyond), but do we know why?  Well, let’s see if I can explain it.

Gelatin is a substance that is formed when you cook collagen, which is found inside the bones and skin of animals.  It’s a building block.  Long cooking methods hydrolise the collagen, turning into something amazing…Gelatin.

Gelatin has a viscous mouthfeel that is not dissimilar to fat, and we are programmed genetically to like it…and we do.

The interesting thing about Gelatin, is that once it cools and shifts into it’s solid state (relatively solid, given it’s jiggliness) it’s melting point raises.  So when reheated the meat which has the gelatin throughout will be less stringy and more solid.  This translates to a better food experience, and a better dish after the meal has cooled.

So, the secret to making your stews great day 1 is quite simple.  Serve them on Day 2 for the first time.  That’s right, cook them the day before and reheat them!

The only problem with that thinking, is you end up with horribly over-cooked vegetables.  I still want some bite in my veg, and whilst the stew is delicious on subsequent days, the carrots and potatoes (etc) are not.

Well, here is my solution:

  • Day 1, cook the meat (lamb in this case) and build the flavour base
  • Day 2, reheat the meat with a new batch of veg

Day 1:

Lamb Stew Ingredients

Ingredients:

  • 1.8kg Bone-in Lamb Leg Chops (about 7 or 8)
  • 1/4 cup light olive oil

Dredge:

  • 1 Cup Flour
  • 2 Tbsp Salt

Flavour Base:

  • 250g Diced Carrots (about 4 medium)
  • 250g Diced Celery (about 4 ribs)
  • 150g Diced Onion (about 2 smallish)
  • 1 Tbsp Salt (Kosher or Cooking)
  • 4 Anchovies
  • 2 Tbsp Crushed Garlic
  • 1/2 Cup Tomato Paste
  • 1 Cup Red Wine
  • 1 385ml Bottle Dark Ale
  • 1 Cup Chicken Stock
  • 1 Tbsp Peppercorns
  • Bay leaves (4 small, 2 large)

Mix the dredge ingredients, and…well…dredge the lamb.  Leave it whole, no point wasting time and cutting up meat that’s just going to fall apart itself later.

In a heavy ovenproof pot (one which has a heavy tight fitting lid), add the oil and begin to fry the dredged lamb.  Do not crowd the pot.  Just cook as much as the pot can hold whilst keeping a good gap between the pieces, and to the edge.  I do 2 at a time, no more.  Remember our culinary friend, the Maillard reaction?  Once browned on both sides, evacuate the pot and put the lamb chops on a plate.  Repeat with all of the lamb.

Nice crusty exterior thanks to our friend the Maillard reaction

Add the anchovies, and stir quickly to melt them.  Add the garlic and the mirepoix (carrots, celery, and onion), and sprinkle the salt over the top.  Cook until just starting to become tender, then add the tomato paste and pepper corns.  Cook, stirring, for 3 minutes.

Add the wine, ale (I used a nice home brew dark ale), stock, and the bay leaves.  Stir to combine and bring to the boil.

Add the lamb chops back in, including any liquid that has come out of the chops, and make sure the meat is buried by the sauce and veg.  Lid, and place in a low oven (about 130 degrees Celsius or 260f) for 3 hours.  Remove from the heat.

Packed with flavour, here is the heart of the dish.

Once cooled, remove the meat to a dish and break it up a bit.  Cover with foil or wrap and place in the fridge.  Strain the liquid from the pot, and put it into another container (or jug).  Once cooled enough, cover with wrap and put it in the fridge to cool.  Discard the remaining veggies and herbs/spices (or use it, as I did, to make you favourite pooch a very tasty dog food).

Day 2:

Stew Ingredients:

  • Cooked lamb and liquid from previous method
  • 4 Potatoes
  • 6 Carrots
  • 2 Onions
  • Any other vegetables you like (even mushrooms)
  • 1 cup barley
  • 2 cups Chicken stock
  • Sour Cream or Yoghurt

Remove the liquid from the fridge.  The fat will have solidified on top, and should be removed in one big piece.  I love lamb fat to cook with, so I’d tend to keep it.  At the very least, use it to make dog treats.

Quarter the potatoes, chunk up the carrots, and french the onions (ok, cut them up however you’re happy to eat them).

Put half of the “liquid”, which should actually be a jelly, into the pot.  Layer in the lamb and veggies, mixed with the barley.  Top with the rest of the “liquid” and lid.  Put back into the oven, and cook for 2 hours, or until the barley is tender.

Serve in a bowl with a dollop of sour cream or yoghurt on top.  Goes great with a nice crusty loaf of bread, or some Yorkshire pudding.

A lovely lamb stew...but not exactly MY lamb stew

OK, so I have to be totally honest here.  Not everything went as planned…well not with the blog anyway.  The stew was amazing, however the day of final assembly did not happen until a couple days after I expected.  It’s one of the great things about the stew, is that you can hold it in suspended animation for a while, before finishing it.

Anyway, I did not finish it, that pleasure fell to my wife to do.  Unfortunately, I did not get any photo’s of the finished result.  Sometimes the reality of food and meals does not cooperate with the reality of blogging!  So above is a beautiful picture I lifted from a fellow blogger.  Her site can be found by clicking on the photo above.  I encourage you to read her site as well, she writes lovely recipes and the photo’s (as you can see) are just amazing.

Anyway, enjoy the stew, and send me a photo of yours…i’ll replace the one I lifted with yours!

Enjoy the meal.

Why did the pumpkin cross the road?

Because it wanted to play squash!

Ok, so that’s a bad pun joke based on a bit of botanical confusion.  It seems as though the humble pumpkin is leading a double life as a squash…or a winter squash to be more precise.

It's a Butternut...erm...Pumpkin....or Squash...or Gourd!

Throughout the world, regional nomenclature will call this gourd like fruit either name (or gourd too, for that matter), and there really does not seem to be any rules for how the name is used.  So, at the risk of sounding egotistical, I’m going to state the Pumpkin/Squash rules as I see them:

  • If you cannot eat the fruit, but rather use it as a decoration or vessel: it’s a gourd.
  • If you can eat it, and cut it open to reveal a cavity holding the seeds: it’s a pumpkin.
  • If it’s edible, and you cut it open to reveal seeds distributed throughout the flesh, without a cavity, it’s a squash.

Regardless of what you call it, the pumpkin is a delicious and versatile fruit that packs a wallop of vitamins and minerals into a sweet and tasty package.  It can be served roasted, a mouth watering side to a delicious Sunday Roast.  It can be covered in brown sugar and marshmallows, and accompany Turkey on Thanksgiving.  You can even make a heavy custard with the flesh, mixed with eggs and a bit of sugar, and serve it as a deliciously spiced pie, paired with a scoop of ice cream.  Or, as is my personal favourite, you can turn it into a soup which served hot will warm you on the coldest of winter days, or served chilled will satisfy you during the most oppressive of hot summer days.

Ingredients

  • 1 kg (just over 2lbs) of pumpkin; peeled, seeded, and cubed
  • 250g Carrots; peeled and cut into chunks
  • 250g Onions; peeled and diced
  • 3-4 cups Chicken Stock (use Veggie Stock to make this dish vegetarian)
  • 2 Tablespoons Fresh Cracked Pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon Fresh Ginger
  • 1 Tablespoon Fresh Garlic
  • 250ml Sour Cream (or 300ml cream plus 3 Tablespoons Lime Juice)
  • Up to 250ml Milk
  • Up to 1/4 Cup Brown Sugar
  • Extra sour cream (or natural yoghurt) for serving

I almost always use Butternut Pumpkin for this recipe.  Jap pumpkins are also delicious here.  Given the difference in sweetness and water content between different types of pumpkins, and indeed different pumpkins of the same type, I have included milk and sugar as a variable quantity ingredient.

Ok, so I copied this photo from the Internet. I have to get myself a light box.

Add the first 7 ingredients to a soup or stock-pot.  Make sure it’s enough liquid to just cover the fruit/veggies.  If not, add more water, but note that you will need to evaporate some of it out later, or it may be a bit watery.

Simmer for about 2 hours, or until the carrots are very tender.  The pumpkin will be well cooked by then, and even be breaking down a little turning the liquid a light shade of orange.

Using a stick blender (or food processor) blend until it is all smooth.  At this point you can pass it through a sieve, which I would if I were using a more fibrous version of pumpkin, or I was serving it during a particularly swanky dinner party.

Add the sour cream, and blend some more.  Now check the consistency and taste it.  If it is too thick, more like baby food than soup, add the milk.  Season it, if it needs.  Finally, add some brown sugar, if it is not quite sweet enough.

Serve in a nice bowl, with a toasted crouton, and a dollop of sour cream (or yoghurt) in the middle.

Pumpkin soup in all it's glory

Certainly this is not the most complicated pumpkin soup recipe out there, but it will provide you with delicious consistent results every time.  Sure, you can roast the veggies first, before turning them into a soup…the result will be richer and probably sweeter…or you can add other spices to jazz up the flavour profile, but there is only one “variation” that I might truly recommend.

Boil some ravioli until al dente (large fresh or frozen ones are best).  Toss the pumpkin soup with the cooked cheese ravioli .  Fry up some prosciutto or chorizo sausage in olive oil and garlic, until nice and crispy.  Scoop out the prosciutto or chorizo and scatter around the top of the dressed ravioli.  Drizzle the pan oil over it all, and enjoy.

So I haven't made the ravioli...YET...but here is a photo of something very similar. Ditch the nuts, and add the pork product, and...well, you get the idea.