Archive for June, 2011

Fried rice with ginger, tofu and spring onion kimchi

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Oh man, I feel like hell. I’ve got some revolting laryngitis/bronchitis combination and I haven’t been able to speak properly for a couple of days. I’m the hoarse whisperer, ha ha. I think I have produced my own body weight in phlegm in the last week. How delightful and charming I am!

Anyway, in an attempt to unblock a sinus or two, I made this excellent, ginger- and chili-heavy lunch while home sick from work yesterday. It was delicious enough to cut through my virus-induced anhedonia as soon as I took the first bite. I was asleep on the couch again 20 minutes later, but the brief interlude of enjoyment was nice.

100 g tofu, cut into 1 cm-thick slices
peanut oil
fish sauce
3 large golden shallots, peeled, halved and finely sliced
1 x 2 x 2 cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into fine slivers
1 large hot red chili, chopped (including seeds)
1/2 cup left-over cooked brown rice
2/3 cup spring onion kimchi, roughly chopped (it will cook down)
toasted sesame oil

In a frypan, heat a scant splash of peanut oil over moderate heat, then add the tofu slices. Cook on one side until starting to turn golden, then flip and repeat on the other side. Close to the end of cooking, splash in a little soy sauce and fish sauce, and turn the tofu once more to coat. Remove from the pan and set aside. Cut the tofu into batons.

Wipe out the pan, add a dash more oil, and cook the shallots until they are golden and softened. Add the ginger and chili and cook a further three minutes. Add the rice, kimchi, tofu batons, a few drops of tamari and a good drizzle of sesame oil. Keep cooking, stirring all together, for another couple of minutes until everything is warm and toasted. Eat at once.

Quince science

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Cooking quinces is culinary magic. You start out with fruits that are yellow, hard and astringent. Three or four (or five) hours of gentle poaching later, they are fragrant, grainily soft, sweet and – most impressively – deep pink. Unless, that is, they have been cooked by me in the last year or so. I used to have the knack: see these beautiful specimens I cooked when I lived in the UK (and I made many similar-looking in Ireland, too, and I think I used to in Australia). But the last few times I’ve cooked them, they have refused to change colour, and after three or four hours of poaching I’ve been left with quinces the colour of bandaids. Not very appetizing! The liquid always goes at least a little pink, but not the jewel-pink it does when the fruit themselves also change colour.

Each time I’ve been confronted with beige quinces, I’ve scoured the internet looking for information on what could be going wrong. I haven’t found anything conclusive, but did see brief suggestions on a couple of cooking forums that absence of colour change could be due to one of two faults with the poaching liquid: (a) low sugar concentration, or (b) not adding lemon juice. Now, although I did make one beige batch with a lighter sugar syrup than usual, I’ve also had non-colour changing quinces when using the same sugar concentration that I’ve always used. So I thought it probably wasn’t the sugar. The lemon suggestion struck a chord, though.

When I was first cooking quinces, and for many years thereafter, I was a good, dutiful woman and followed Stephanie Alexander’s poached quince recipe to the dot. This included dropping the peeled and cored quinces into acidulated water (water with a good squeeze of lemon juice), before adding them to a light sugar syrup (1 part sugar to 2 parts water). A couple of years ago, though, I got uppity and started to think there was no point in the acidulated water, the stated purpose of which was to stop the quinces discolouring. What did I care if they discoloured a little? Once they turned dark pink you wouldn’t be able to see any discolouration, anyway. So I stopped doing that step, and began just tossing the quince quarters directly into the sugar syrup once I’d finished trimming them. Although I can’t pin it down precisely, in retrospect I do believe that it was around the same time I started doing this that my quinces stopped turning colour so successfully.

Last time I was faced with beige quinces, I found the lemon suggestion online, and, three hours into the cooking time, squeezed the juice of half a lemon into the poaching liquid. When I looked again, an hour later, the quinces were a lovely, reasonably deep pink. Ah ha!! But, being a scientist and generally sceptical, I wondered whether perhaps it was just the extra hour of cooking that had wrought the change, and the lemon had had nothing to do with it. So I decided to do….. Quince Science.

First, I obtained some experimental subjects.

Next, I thought about my experimental design. I wanted to test two hypotheses: (a) that low sugar concentration in the poaching liquid reduces quince colour change, and (b) that lack of lemon juice in the poaching liquid reduces quince colour change. I was also curious about whether sugar and lemon interacted somehow – for example, sugar and lemon might each boost colour a little bit, but both of them together would be required for full colour change. So I decided to set up four treatments:
– low sugar/no lemon
– low sugar/with lemon
– high sugar/no lemon
– high sugar/with lemon
This would let me separate out the effects of each of the variables, while also checking for an interaction.

I also thought about other sources of potential variation that might affect my results. The main ones I could think of were (a) random variation between quinces and (b) consistent variation between quince varieties. I could deal with the first fairly easily. Instead of cooking one quince in high sugar/no lemon, a second quince in high sugar/with lemon, etc, I decided to cut each quince into quarters, and cook each quarter in a different treatment. That way if one of my quinces was a weird one that would never change colour under any circumstances, I wouldn’t be misled into thinking that it was the treatment that was at fault for causing no colour change. The second source of variation was a bit more tricky. I know that there are about a dozen different quince varieties grown in Australia alone, and more overseas. But they’re never labelled, and I’m not sure which ones I’ve used for any particular batch of quinces. I know the last batch I cooked had waxy, fuzz-free skin and were and pear-shaped, while the ones I bought at the farmers’ market for this experiment were fuzzy, and two were pear-shaped and one more spherical. I wasn’t actually prepared to spend days driving all over Brisbane to source a wider variety of quince types for this experiment, so decided to just press ahead with what I had.

So I set up my laboratory. I usually poach quinces in the Le Creuset in the oven, but have occasionally done it on the stovetop. I don’t own four Le Creusets (or equivalents), unfortunately, so had to do this on the stove.

Here’s another potential confounding factor: different pot volumes and burner strengths. I tried to deal with this by making sure that all the treatments had ample liquid, and tweaking the burners throughout the experiment to make sure that all the pots were simmering very, very gently. And after all, I am not going to be publishing this in Nature.

The setup:
1. Rear left: high sugar/no lemon: A 1:2 sugar syrup, 2 cups sugar: 4 cups water.
2. Front left: low sugar/no lemon: A 1:4 sugar syrup, 2 cups sugar: 8 cups water.
3. Front right: high sugar/lemon: A 1:2 sugar syrup, 3 cups sugar: 6 cups water, plus the juice of half a lemon.
4. Rear right: low sugar/lemon: A 1:4 sugar syrup, 2 cups sugar: 8 cups water, plus the juice of half a lemon.

In go the quinces, to simmer gently for 3 hours.

After three hours, the differences were clear:

Fortunately this is science rather than art, so ugly flash photography is A-OK.

The bowls are in the same arrangement as the saucepans were on the stove. The two treatments with lemon are on the right, and are clearly a lot pinker than the treatments without lemon. There’s no obvious difference between the high and low sugar treatments with lemon. There’s a colour difference between the two non-lemon treatments, but I think that’s because the low-sugar treatment was on the front, wok burner, and so simmered a little harder than the back saucepan despite my trying to even them out.

Conclusion: Lemon is required for quinces to turn properly pink! Sugar concentration has no noticeable effect at the levels tested here.

I then went on to try a couple of further experiments.

First, I wanted to see whether I could get the lemon quinces to turn even darker pink, and whether this could be achieved simply by longer cooking, or if it required (or could be facilitated by) more lemon juice. I combined the two lemon treatments then split them back into two saucepans, to even out the different sugar levels, since I no longer believed this to be an interesting variable. I then added the juice of another half a lemon to one saucepan, left the other as it was, and simmered them both for a further hour.

There was no visible difference between the quinces with extra lemon and the ones without. Both sets, however, were noticeably darker and glossier after the extra hour of cooking. The syrup was also much thicker and darker. (I think the apparent glossiness of the fruits is just due to being coated in the beautifully cooked-down syrup.) You can’t really see an enormous amount of difference in the photos above, but trust me, there was a very clear change! I should have kept back some of the 3-hour quinces to use as a comparison in the photo, but I was too keen and rushed on without thinking my experimental design through, tch tch.

Finally, I wanted to confirm that a pot of beige-y quinces could be rescued at the last minute by the addition of lemon, for the benefit of anyone reading this after searching for answers to their quince troubles. So I combined then split the non-lemon quinces into two pans, added the juice of half a lemon to one of them, and simmered for a further hour. After that hour, the quinces cooked without lemon were pale pink (so at least no longer beige). But the quinces with the late-added lemon were utterly indistinguishable from the ones that had been cooked with lemon from the start. Both sets were equally dark pink and glossy. There was a difference, however, in flavour. The quinces that had been cooked with lemon from the start seemed to have a stronger flavour, that was more consistent all the way through. The ones that had had lemon added at the end were entirely fine, but less flavourful in the middle of each piece of fruit. I think the lemon may heighten flavour, and cooking with lemon for 4 hours rather than just 1 gives it a chance to penetrate all the way in.

Final conclusions: Long-cooking (at least 4 hours) contributes strongly to quince pinkness, as we all knew. For maximum colour change, add lemon juice during cooking. For the best flavour and earliest colour change, add the lemon at the start of cooking, rather than towards the end.

Future research directions: While waiting for these quinces to poach, I browsed the internet for more quince information, and came across this incredibly useful site from NSW DPI: Quince Growing. Table 1 lists 15 varieties of quinces grown in NSW, and includes information on what colour they are when cooked. This ranges from ‘yellowish’ to ‘deep pink’. I wonder whether some varieties really can’t be turned pink with cooking, even with lemon, or whether other varieties turn pink without lemon. Clearly an area that needs further research! I will just have to scour farmers’ markets for further specimens from a wider variety of cultivars. Maybe I can get ARC funding for it.


Miso soup with soba, tofu and vegetables

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

I’m writing this up not because I think it is anything novel or authentic (it’s not), but for two other quite different reasons. First, I want to remind myself how easy this kind of soup is, given the usual contents of my pantry and fridge. The only things here that I don’t always have on hand are the steamed butternut and the silken tofu, both left over from the laksa we made last night.

Secondly, I was struck by how thoroughly this soup held my attention while I was eating it. Many of the soups I eat are pureed or at least relatively homogeneous. This one is very different. It’s full of bits and pieces of things of varied sizes, shapes and textures, that must be handled in different ways – the broth is spooned up, the tofu nudged onto the spoon and brought to the mouth, the noodles fished for with chopsticks and slurped, the pumpkin and mushrooms held between the chopsticks while bites are taken. When I eat this kind of soup, my mind doesn’t drift, but stays focussed on the food and the action and sensations of eating. This is something that I think is worth cultivating.

3 cups water or light stock
2 heaped dessert spoons miso paste, or to taste
a dash of tamari

Things to go in the soup
120 g soba noodles, cooked, drained and rinsed
6 small pieces butternut squash, steamed till tender
10 small cubes silken tofu
6 dried shiitake, rehydrated in hot water
4 pieces dried black fungus, rehydrated in hot water
2 handfuls baby spinach leaves

coriander leaves
sesame oil
chili flakes

First make the broth. Bring the water or stock to a boil, then remove from heat. In a small bowl, mix a little of the hot water with the miso until it thins out, then add this to the rest of the water. Mix, taste, and add more miso if necessary. The broth is often improved by a scant dash of tamari at this point, too.

Into each of two large bowls, put half the cooked noodles, pumpkin, tofu, shiitake, black fungus and spinach leaves. Gently pour the miso broth over, half into each bowl.  Sprinkle with coriander leaves, a few spots of sesame oil, and a pinch of chili flakes. Eat at once.

Serves 2.

Our apparently regular weekend chat

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

I went to the Powerhouse markets with my mum this morning. She likes markets; Ted doesn’t; why didn’t I think of this obvious pairing-up before? Good call mum.

I brought back a lovely wintery haul: cavolo nero, young kale, parsley and dill, a bunch of plumping-up dutch carrots, a potkin pumpkin, Tenterfield apples, a German rye loaf, a boudin noir (plus a couple for Jean and Edwige), and two very large and meaty smoked ham hocks.

I bought the potkin in hopes that it would be something like a kabocha, the pumpkin that stole my heart away from butternut squash when I lived in Dublin. Kabocha (at least in Ireland) have dark green thick but edible skin, and intensely orange flesh that is firm and sweet. The middle-aged couple selling these pumpkins at the Powerhouse markets had two kinds on offer: “These ones are potkins, and these other ones, we don’t know what variety they are so we call them bobkins, after Bob here”. They’d never heard of kabocha but the potkins looked a plausible match so I bought one. (“How much for this little one Bob?” “Oh, about two dollars.”) Once home I checked the interwebs: many sites claim that potkins are a kabocha hybrid. Hurrah, perhaps! But alas, when I split mine, its flesh was much paler than a kabocha’s, and when I quartered, seeded and roasted it the flavour was fine but nothing spectacular. So as you can tell it’s been an emotional whirlwind of a day, pumpkin-wise, and maybe I need to have a sit down and have a glass of wine to settle myself.

Fortunately, lunch gave me something else to think about, which was emptying out various bits and pieces from the fridge so that new bits and pieces could go in. Not that much in the crisper – a few zucchini and some herbs. In the big tupperware that holds the cheese stash, there were several scraps and rinds and forgotten last chunks of various cheeses each wrapped up in paper, one of which was a small piece of Roaring Forties blue cheese that had seen better days. It was very mildly suspicious-looking on one edge, but as regular readers will know, this blog sometimes ought to be subtitled Slightly Dodgy Things I Have Eaten, so after submitting it to the taste-a-tiny-bit-it-won’t-kill-you test, I passed it as edible but for immediate consumption only. Hence this pasta, variants of which we make pretty frequently. I love the way that the zucchini cook down to a sweet, luscious softness, losing about 70% of their original volume. Even after making it a dozen times, I still doubt myself when I see the towering pile of raw zucchini. Don’t – you will regret not having more if you skimp.

Strozzapreti with zucchini, thyme and blue cheese

8 slender zucchini (why bother buying fat, watery zucchini?)
3 large brown shallots
olive oil
sea salt and black pepper
leaves from quite a few sprigs of thyme
a palmful of leaves of flat-leaf parsley
150 g strozzapreti
smallish piece of blue cheese, about 10 x 2 x 2 cm

Slice the zucchini into rounds about 2-3 mm thick. Peel and halve the shallots, and slice very finely. Heat a small glug of olive oil in a non-stick pan over moderate heat, add the zucchini, shallots, thyme, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring more or less frequently, for about 20 minutes. The zucchini will cook down until they are very, very soft. They shouldn’t pick up much, if any, colour though – turn the heat down if they start to brown more than the tiniest bit.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta, then drain it, reserving a cup of the cooking water. Toss the pasta in with the zucchini, loosening the sauce with drizzles of cooking water if needed. Toss through some chopped parsley, then serve with more parsley and crumbled cheese sprinkled on top. Stir through the cheese before eating.

Serves 2.

Lunch and linkitude

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

I just ate an awesome lunch of broccoli rabe and sourdough with grilled goats cheese. Let me tell you about it!

I’ve been going to one or other of the farmers’ markets around town every weekend for the last couple of months, having rediscovered how much happiness they bring me. My instinctive Saturday morning laziness has so far been regularly trumped by getting all enthused about vegetables and getting a bit of fresh air. At the West End markets yesterday I gathered a back-strainingly heavy load of fresh vegetables, including this bunch of I-think-it’s-broccoli-rabe. Not sure of the ID as the seller didn’t have a lot of English, but it looked and tasted like the internet tells me broccoli rabe should.

To cook it, I first cut off the leaves and chopped the stems into 2 cm pieces. I simmered the stems for a couple of minutes, added the leaves and continued cooking for another two minutes, then drained it all and set aside. In a separate pan, I slow-cooked a quartered and finely sliced onion in a dash of olive oil until soft and silky; added 4 jarred anchovies and cooked until they dissolved; then added 5 finely minced cloves of garlic and a teaspoon of chili flakes, gave them a minute, and finally threw in the drained broccoli rabe. I let it cook down on the stove for another five minutes or so, until everything was combined and the stems were tender. While that was happening, I toasted a couple of slices of sourdough, then topped them with thin slices of aged goat cheese (from the Gympie cheese stall at the markets) and toasted under the grill until the cheese was slightly melty and touched with gold. I ate a pile of the broccoli with the cheesy toast on the side.

Oh yeah. Man, what a delicious combination. The slow-cooked onions and anchovies added a sweetness to the very slight remaining bitterness of the leaves, with the goat cheese giving a bit of savoury bite. I’m so glad I stopped and bought the mystery broccoli-like greens even though my bags were already bulging.
And now, a few other fascinating food-related things!

◊  Why were my market bags so heavy? Because I have a stack of recipes lined up to try this week, including savoury pumpkin cakefarro salad with roasted red grapes and greens, and beetroot and lime soup.

◊  I am also planning a scientific assault on the question of why my poached quinces sometimes turn pink and sometimes stay the colour of bandaids. My current theory is that a squeeze of lemon juice is required for the colour change, and I will be testing this (and if necessary other theories) by cooking halves of single quinces in different ways and observing the outcomes. Yeah science.

◊  I have been totally rocking the cooking recently, at least in terms of variety and enjoyment. Check out the Eating notes for details. Recent highlights: Molly Wizenberg’s leek confit, which is spectacularly good when slightly warm and eaten piled onto toasted sourdough spread with soft goat cheese; a parsnip, pear and thyme soup; boudin noir with apples; pear and gruyere toasted sandwiches; lentil, roast tomato and rosemary soup; and smoked salmon with roasted potato, parsnip, shallots and horseradish.

◊  The boudin noir of the previous paragraph came from the Eumundi Smokehouse, which has a stall at the West End market and Powerhouse market. It’s been too long since I ate a proper French boudin to be able to say exactly how authentic it was, but it tasted pretty damn good to me. Air-dried saucisson from there was also good.

◊  We’ve had a couple of great dinners recently with Ian and Lisa at China Kitchen (High St Toowong) – the chili soup, dry-fried intestines, and chili and sour potato have been standouts. Recommended.