Archive for March, 2012

Fritter science, non-best-practice version

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

I like to do my culinary science the right way. Standardisation, controls, a well-thought-out experimental design. This isn’t always possible to achieve on the fly, however, so tonight’s dinner should be considered as exploratory experimental work that will require rigorous follow-up. Fortunately fritters lend themselves to this kind of experimentation, as you can fry a couple, taste, modify the batter, fry another couple, modify again, and so on.

I felt like corn and zucchini fritters for dinner, and wanted to try making them with besan flour. I prepped the vegetables: corn, zucchini, scallions, coriander leaves and chili flakes. I then made up a batter based on this recipe: besan flour, plain flour, salt and water. Mixed the vegetables and the batter, fried the first batch of four, and split one with Ted for a taste test. Not bad! They were particularly good hot off the pan, crispy on the outside and light and toasty inside. I wondered, however, whether they might not be better with a little bit of feta crumbled in. So I added some feta to the mix, and cooked up another four. These were also good straight off the pan, though the feta was a little dominating in flavour. Still, the cheese was in there now, so we pressed on and cooked another four, leaving the rest on a plate underneath a tea-towel to stay warm until we were ready to sit down.

We were pretty peckish at this point, so while cooking we split another one of the first feta fritters once they had cooled down a bit, and actually the flavour was pretty good – more appealing than the no-feta version. Both the feta-free and feta-ful versions, however, were getting slightly lumpen as they cooled. There was enough mixture left for two more fritters, so I added about a quarter of a teaspoon of baking powder to this before frying them off. Ah ha! Now we see a difference – there were a few little bubbles rising to the surface as we cooked the first side, and the fritters were puffier and had straighter sides. Fresh off the pan, the first one of these that we shared was softer and lighter than the previous versions, and tasted great.

We sat down to eat a few more, with some salad and roast tomatoes. After about 5 minutes, when all of the fritters had had a chance to cool down a bit, we did a side-by-side tasting of the three versions. The first version (no feta, no baking powder) was ok, but quite dense. The second (feta, no baking powder) was noticably softer than the first version, and the feta added some more interest to the flavour. The third (feta, baking powder) was quite similar to the second, but still a little lighter.

So, the secret is feta and/or baking powder, right? Perhaps, but I am tormented by the confounding variables. The feta-free fritters were cooked earliest, so were the coldest, and maybe that’s why they seemed less good. What if I cooked the different batches for different times, so that the first set were actually just overcooked? What if the performance of the batter improves with sitting – some fritter recipes do call for a resting period before you start cooking. There’s no way to disentangle these factors! I need to make three batters in parallel, rest them the same amount of time, and then fry a fritter from each batter in the same pan at the same time, using the same amount of batter for each one. Only then will I know the truth. Until then, the recipe below is the one I currently hypothesise to be the best. Further testing required (and I will be happy to oblige – these were damn good fritters).


Corn, zucchini and besan flour fritters

2 medium zucchini, finely julienned on a mandoline
kernels cut from 2 cobs of corn
4 scallions, finely sliced
2 large handfuls of coriander leaves, chopped
2 large pinches of chili flakes, or to taste
150 g besan flour
3 tablespoons plain flour
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
salt and pepper
170-200 ml water
80 g feta, crumbled
olive oil

Sprinkle the julienned zucchini well with salt, and leave to drain in a colander or sieve for 30 minutes. Squeeze out excess water, the spread out over a tea-towel, roll it up lengthwise, and twist to squeeze out all the remaining liquid. Put the zucchini into a bowl with the corn, scallions, coriander leaves and chili flakes, and mix.

In another bowl, sieve together the besan flour, plain flour, baking powder, salt and pepper. Stir in the water, to make a thick batter. Combine this with the vegetables and the feta. The mixture should be thick but not excessively stiff. Add a little extra water to thin if necessary.

Heat a little olive oil in a frypan over moderate heat. Spoon fritter-sized portions of batter into the pan, and flatten them out so they are about 1 cm thick. Allow them to cook until browning on the bottom, then flip and continue to cook until golden on the other side and cooked in the middle. Remove to a plate and keep warm.

Makes about 14 fritters (about 7-8 cm in diameter).

We ate the fritters with some roast cherry tomatoes  and some snow peas and pea shoots (all harvested from our garden! I was overly pessimistic about our chances of getting more ripe tomatoes on the weekend).


Baked eggs with backyard tomatoes

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

This summer was the first time we’ve ever had a garden we could grow things in. We’d previously attempted (and eventually killed) many pots of herbs in many apartments, but nothing more. Despite this not very stellar record, I was smitten with horticultural lust when we moved into a house with a sunny back wall and a fallow garden bed. I went a bit overboard ordering heirloom vegetable seeds from Diggers, then carried through a major operation starting seeds of seven different kinds of tomatoes, two kinds of peas, many different herbs, Italian broccoli varieties, and so on. And then, after preparing the soil (and filling quite a few pots as well) I planted them all out, pruned, staked, weeded, picked caterpillars and treated for whiteflies. It was a joy. It made me happy every morning when I went outside and checked how much things had grown, what varieties were flowering, which was the first to set fruit, which the first to ripen.

Like I say, it was blissfully satisfying. And I will do it all again next summer. But with one difference: I will start about three months earlier. I knew I was getting everything started late. We’d just moved to Melbourne, I was trying to catch up with things in the lab, we worked some weekends, I delayed putting in the seed order because was I really sure that I was going to do this, given my previously black thumb? By the time I committed and put in the order, it was the start of November. The first seedlings came up in late November, and I transplanted them outside in late December. This might have been ok in Brisbane, but Melbourne was not quite so forgiving. Our garden has been a lush, gorgeous, endlessly enjoyable paradise in which I have spent scores of happy hours working or sitting, but our first tomatoes only ripened a couple of weeks ago. About the same time, in fact, that I was writing an entry about how the autumnal weather was making me long for osso buco.

Since then, despite the recent rain and cold nights, a handful of tomatoes have slowly ripened, turning yellow or orange or red one by one, like lights coming on at night. Their texture wasn’t the best, but the flavour was excellent – sweet and sharp, each variety distinct. This morning we harvested all that were ripe, to roast for breakfast. We got one jaune flamme, several brown berries and lemon drops, a couple of black cherries, and about twenty incredibly tiny wild sweeties. The plants are becoming decrepit now, dropping brown leaves and looking exhausted. I’ll leave them in for another week or so to see whether any more fruit ripens, and if not then pull them out for compost. But even if this morning’s small dish of tomatoes is all we eat from this crop, it’s still been absolutely worth it. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve shown myself that my thumb is not entirely black, and I’ve gained hours of relaxation and pleasure. I’m without regret, though I have put a reminder in my diary to start the tomato seeds in August this year.


Baked eggs and tomatoes with sourdough and chevre

This wasn’t the prettiest dish, but it was delicious. I took our bowl of mixed tomatoes (probably the equivalent of about 25 cherry tomatoes), halved all but the smallest, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roasted in a smallish baking dish in a moderate oven (about 160C) until they were softened, about 15-20 minutes. I pushed the tomatoes aside to make a couple of indentations, into which I cracked eggs. Back in the oven for 5 minutes or so, checking frequently towards the end, until the whites were cooked but the yolks were still runny. Meanwhile, I’d toasted a slice of sourdough, and spread with some young chevre. I spooned the egg-and-tomato mixture out of the baking dish over the toast, and ate immediately.

Osso buco not-strictly-milanese

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

After a weekend of 37 degrees C a couple of weeks ago, it has rapidly turned autumnish. The doona is back on the bed. I shivered through a day at work when it hit 15 degrees in the afternoon and I had come in stupidly wearing just a T-shirt. The figs on the huge tree in our backyard have finally ripened, and there are enough of them that I’ve been able to eat at least a couple of fresh figs every day, to give some away to friends, and to make this delicious fig, hazelnut and brandy cake.¬† While I was up the ladder picking figs a couple of evenings ago, I smelled the first wood fire of the season from one of our neighbours’ houses – a little early, perhaps, but I’ll be getting our own chimney swept soon.

When I was at the St Kilda farmers market last weekend, it was chilly, drizzling, almost misty. I had a powerful surge of homesickness for the UK and Ireland! Even though there were stalls there selling the last of the heirloom tomatoes of the summer, in all other ways it felt utterly like autumn was upon us. I stocked up on cold-weather vegetables – cavolo nero, kohlrabi, beetroot – and various bits of meat to go in the freezer for episodes of weekend slow-cooking. One of these purchases was some osso buco from Warialda Beef. The slices were enormous, about 500 g each, dark purple in colour and marbled with fat. Warialda cows are rare breed, grass-fed, and slaughtered at two and a half years, and the meat is then dry aged. And oh my god, it tastes so good. I’ve been more in the habit recently of cooking osso buco in stout, to beef (ha) up the flavour a bit, but since this meat looked so good, I cooked it a bit more traditionally in white wine. It was spectacular. Tender, rich, deeply flavoured – the best osso buco I have ever had.


three large pieces of osso buco, approx 1.4 kg in total
olive oil
2 onions, peeled, quartered, and sliced
2 decent-sized carrots, peeled and cut into 1 cm cubes
2 sticks celery, cut into 1 cm cubes
2 large glasses white wine
1 tin peeled tomatoes
500 ml stock (chicken or veal)
2 fresh bay leaves
1 large sprig rosemary

1 clove garlic, crushed finely
zest of a lemon
a handful or two of parsley leaves, finely chopped

Season the meat with salt and pepper, then dredge in flour. Heat some olive oil in a large oven-proof saucepan, and brown the meat on each side. Do each piece separately if they are large – don’t crowd them. Remove the meat and set aside.

Add the onions, carrots and celery to the oil remaining in the pan, and cook over moderate heat until the onion is softened and translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Add the wine, stock, the tin of tomatoes (roughly chop them with a knife in the can before adding), bay leaves, rosemary, and a teaspoon of rock salt (less if using table salt). Stir, then add the meat. The meat should be mostly covered by the liquid.

Put the lid on the saucepan and cook in the oven at about 150 C for 2.5-3 hours, until the meat is extremely tender and the liquid has substantially reduced. I tend to turn the meat over every hour or so to make sure both sides get a go under the liquid. This does make it more likely that the marrow will fall out of the bone, so if you value eating the marrow with a spoon (delicious), you might not want to turn them. It’s almost certainly not really necessary.

Just before eating, combine garlic, lemon zest and parsley to make gremolata, and sprinkle over the meat.

We served this with tubetti pasta because we were too lazy to make the more traditional risotto. It was so, so fine.