Tuesday, October 30, 2007



Leftovers are a lifesaver for a cook who is short on time. They get you out of a bind in a jiffy, most of the work having already been done. My angelheart Eric and I often cook more than we need so that there is something for lunch or the beginnings of the following night's dinner. I often turn leftover roasted vegetables into soup with the addition of chicken or vegetable stock, but that is as far as I usually go in order to revamp. The Italians, on the other hand, are adept at refining leftovers. They are renowned for their recipes that incorporate leftovers, creating entirely different and delicious dishes out of them. The current infatutuation with la cucina povera is testament to this.

Arancini does not pass for dinner in Sicily, but it suffices as a snack or as part of a lunch. I do not typically have leftover risotto but everyone had already eaten when I cooked up Beetroot Risotto two days ago - and I ate as much as I could! To feed more, of course you would need more than my measly cup of leftovers, but I wasn't going to waste it.

I didn't go whole hog either, for there was not enough leftovers to merit going to the effort of deep-frying, which though faster than what I did, requires waiting around time for a vat of oil to reach the required temperature (around 190 C/375 F). If you want proper arancini, which is to say a "little orange", then deep-frying is the only way to achieve a ball of golden crust that completely encases the balls of risotto and cheese.

The following recipe makes 4 arancini, enough for 2 as a snack or 1 for lunch.


1 cup leftover risotto (I had Beetroot Risotto, the recipe for which is here)
1 egg
3/4 cup breadcrumbs, divided use
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped, divided use
1/4 cup grated cheddar (feel free to be more traditional and cube mozzarella)
Red bran oil (or substitute with your frying fave: canola, olive or vegetable oil)

1) Heat enough oil to come half-way up the balls of risotto, approximately 3cm/1.2".
2) Mix together the risotto, egg, 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs and 1 teaspoon parsley in a bowl.
3) Combine the remaining breadcrumbs and parsley on a flat plat and reserve. The balls will be rolled in this mixture before frying.
4) Use two tablespoons or the risotto mix per ball. Flatten out in the palm of your hand and sprinkle some grated cheese in the centre (or a cube of mozzarella). Close the risotto mix around the cheese.
5) Toss the ball from one hand to the next, gently forming a squat ball - a rounder meat patty.
6) Roll the balls in the breadcrumbs.
7) Fry until browned and heated through, approximately 4 mintues.
8) Drain on a paper towel and sprinkle with salt.
9) Serve after 2 minutes or else they will be too hot to eat.

This is a beautifully simple recipe to follow, and the result is rather incredible! It was good to use a relatively adventurous risotto, which has a bold flavour of sweet and savoury components. This complexity in initial flavour allows for more play with the crispy exterior - and more interesting bites, too! The cheese was gooey in the centre, as it should be. Each bite was sheer perfection. I'm beginning to think it isn't such a bad idea to make risotto for the purpose of making arancini. If that is not a sign of the genius of Italian cookery, turning leftovers into taste sensations, then I don't know what is.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007


Beetroot Risotto

For the longest time I had an aversion to beetroot (beets). My knowledge extended to canned, pickled fuschia slices in vinegar. They are ubiquitous in this form in New Zealand and Australia, where they are put into Summer salads and hamburgers. The stench from the cans still prompt a gagging response that used to urge me towards the nearest chunder vessel. Of course, my parents have always thought they were lovely, as many people do. And why wouldn't they? After all, they are products of housewives cooking post-WWII, which brought the "convenience" of mass preparation and production.

Though wars continue to be fought at different levels of intensity, and some more systemic than others, there is no need in New Zealand to still be paying homage to the canned, pickled beetroot. One can pickle them at home and preserve them in a manner that would not result in a malty waft whenever accessed. In a world that is trying to remember fresh fruit and vegetables, I have been largely re-educated on the beauty of the sweet, earthy beetroot.

One of my favourite applications of beetroot is in salad. It is roasted, peeled and grated, and finally served with grated apple and horseradish. There is an affinity between beetroot and horseradish, for they are both earthy, but the beetroot is sweet and the horseradish is hot/peppery. I first had beetroot risotto at Celestino's, an Italian restaurant in Pasadena, where the food is fresh, including the pasta, and the service is attentive and cheerful. I enjoy the savoury elements of their soffrito, which is given a mild zing with the addition of the beetroot. I have wolfed it down several times, at different restaurants, actually, and none has been better than the one at Celestino's, where the earthiness is never lost.

Because of their longevity when stored correctly, beetroot, like many root vegetables and some fruit (apples, particularly), give the impression of being harvested year-round. Their seasons are typically Autumn-Winter, making them the perfect, bright-coloured foil to dim, grey skies. Beetroot can be kept in the fridge or in a dark space, like a lined drawer designated for fruit and vegetables, as my angelheart Eric and I did when we lived together in Los Angeles. Choose beetroot that is hard and that has bright leaves. Tender, young leaves can be tossed into a salad; large leaves can be sauteed and served as a vegetable side.

Finally I have made beetroot risotto at home. My angelheart Eric is still in Southern California, where it is now Autumn. Missing him and our nights out on the town, I have turned to the beetroot, which, as noted above, I can get year-round. This risotto may not be as perfect as Celestino's, but memories were triggered when I ate it, which is what I needed. More than anything Winter Skies, Kitchen Aglow seeks to comfort.

This recipe serves two for primi. There are two main sets of ingredients and methods: one for pickling the beetroot, and another for the preparation of the risotto. Keep hot water on the side in case you need more liquid for the risotto.

Beetroot Risotto
(Closely following Diane Forley and Catherine Young's The Anatomy of a Dish)

For the pickled beetroot:

2 medium beetroot
1/3 cup dry red wine
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 medium onion, diced
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 clove
1/5 cup water

1) Preheat the oven to 200 C/400 F.
2) Clean the beetroot and lop the tops off. Leave the roots intact, otherwise the beets will bleed.
3) Wrap beetroot individually in foil.
4) Roast for 50 minutes to one hour until beets are easily pierced with a fork.
5) Once cooled, peel, remove the roots, and dice.
6) In a saucepan, place the diced beets and the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir.
7) Reduce to low and cook until beetroot is very tender, approximately 15 minutes.
8) Strain beets. Reserve the liquid and beets separately. Discard the rest.

For the risotto:

1 tablespoon olive oil
2/3 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon thyme
Kosher salt
Black pepper, freshly ground
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup vermouth (or dry white wine)
2/3 cup arborio rice
1 1/3 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon butter, unsalted
1/3 cup of liquid from pickled beets
Beets, as roasted, diced and pickled above

1) Heat olive oil in a large, deep pan/skillet over medium to low heat.
2) Add onion, thyme and season with salt and pepper. Stir occasionally until the vegetables begin to soften.
3) Add lemon juice and vermouth. Cook, stirring occasionally until the pan is almost dry and the vegetables are tender.
4) Add rice, season with more salt and pepper. Stir to coat rice with oil.
5) Add 1/3 cup chicken stock and simmer, stirring often with a wooden spoon.
6) When most of the liquid has been absorbed, add another 1/3 cup chicken stock. Stir until it looks like it is going to stick to the pan. Keen adding chicken stock by 1/3 cup and stir. If you run out of chicken stock and the rice is not yet tender, this is when you need to start using the hot water.
7) Once almost tender, add 1/3 cup of liquid from pickled beets. Stir in and keep stirring until the liquid looks slightly syrupy.
8) Ideally, you want the rice to still have a bite but not hard as a ball in the centre. It should yield easily when you chomp.
9) Stir in the butter and remove from the heat.
10) Gently stir in as many of the diced, pickled beets as you desire and serve immediately.

The colour is a bit of a shock, but it is au naturel and a large part of the charm of beetroot. This intense yet cheerful purply-crimson is enough to brighten any dreary day.

The creaminess of the risotto is not too rich as it is buoyed by the mildly spiced beetroot. The butter adds further richness without being too much. You may want to add a tangy or nutty cheese to add further dimension, but it is perfectly good as it is.

This post is being submitted to the glowing and generous Pille of Nami-Nami, who is hosting the 106th edition of Kalyn's Kitchen Weekend Herb Blogging.

Post script Please visit the round-up for this event, as posted on the glowing and generous Pille's food blog, Nami-Nami.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007


Mesclun and Lamb Salad

Designer leaves - those pre-washed and packaged salad greens - do come in handy. But if you're a committed Green, and occasionally my inner-Clean, Green Kiwi kicks in, those plastic bags are a waste and an unnecessary pollutant, especially since they only contain greens you can obtain yourself. And if you haven't got time to wash salad leaves yourself, then what have you got time for?

Of all the designer leaves, my favourite mix is Mesclun (called Spring Mix in the US), which contains leafy baby greens. There is an amazing range of textures and flavours contained therein, and you can probably find most of them at your local farmers' market.

To create your own Mesclun mix, ensure that the greens are young; this way all the leaves are very tender. In addition to different tastes, each subspecies should have a different character in order to provide textural and visual interest. It is best to get a combination of the bitter with the sour and the buttery to make for a more complex salad.

The following are common in Mesclun mixes:

* Radicchio - Sometimes known as Italian Chicory or Treviso, it has a thick red leaf that is bitter and spicy.
* Rocket - Also known as Arugula, this is a favourite for its pepperiness.
* Mizuna - a mustard green that tastes like dandelion, this leaf has gorgeous jagged edges and is slightly less bitter than radicchio.
* Frisée - From this endive family, this frizzy leaf is the palest of greens and is creamy yet bitter in taste and is slightly crunchy in texture.
* Mâche - Also known as Lamb's Lettuce, this has a long green leaf with a sweet taste (the older the leaf the more intense the bitterness).
* Sorrel - A long wavy leaf with a sour taste.
* Silverbeet - Also known as Swiss Chard, this is a leathery, dark green leaf that has a mild bitter taste.
* Spinach - In its baby form, it is tender but with a slight bite.
* Red Beet - The heart-shaped leaves of the beetroot (or beet) taste like spinach and add a gorgeous deep-red to your salad palate.
* Pea Tendrils - From the snow pea plant, the graceful tendrils add crispness and taste like peas, as you would expect.
* Bibb - Or Boston Lettuce, this baby leaf is spade-shaped and has a buttery texture.

Of course, I cannot leave well alone and just have a salad of leaves, though I do not hold it against those that choose to do so. I love meat in my salads, whether it be duck, beef or lamb. Today I chose lamb chops from the middle loin. The meat is not fatty, which makes it a perfect meat for quick grilling. But I chose a chop because I had something specific in mind for the outer layer of fat.

This salad can serve two or four, depending on the course.

Mesclun and Lamb Salad

For the marinade:
1 tablespoon sumac
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

4 middle loin lamb chops, approximately 1/3kg or 3/4lb total weight

For the salad dressing:
1/2 tablespoon vermouth (or white wine vinegar)
1/2 tablespoon clover honey (or any sweet, runny honey)
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
3/4 tablespoon sumac
1 1/2 - 2 tablespoons olive oil

60g/2oz Mesclun salad mix, your own or store bought

3/4 tablespoon olive oil, plus 1 teaspoon if required
4 slices of ciabatta bread
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped

1) Mix the marinade ingredients together in a shallow bowl.
2) Put the lamb chops into the same bowl. Turn over and rub in the marinade to ensure complete coverage. Leave at room temperature, covered, for at least 30 minutes. If for more than an hour or if it is an especially hot day, leave covered in the refrigerator. Bring meat to room temperature before grilling, though.
3) In a large bowl, mix the salad dressing ingredients together except for the olive oil. Trickle olive oil in last, stirring with a fork or small whisk to emulsify. Taste for additional seasoning or whether you want it more astringent (more vermouth) or sweeter (more honey). If you do not have sumac, substitute with the juice of half a lemon and use less vermouth.
4) Put your Mesclun leaves on top of the dressing, but don't toss them in the dressing until you are ready to serve the salad.
5) Put a heavy-bottomed frying pan/skillet on over high heat. Add 3/4 tablespoon of olive oil.
6) Give the chops a quick shake over the bowl in which they have been marinading to release excess liquid. Put into the frying pan when the oil begins to smoke.
7) Depending on how you prefer your lamb chops done, allow 3-7 minutes per side. Before removing from the pan, roll the in the pan to get it slightly crispy and to render some of the fat. Remove from the pan and allow to rest. Do not freak out if they look burned; it should only be darker than expected on account of the sumac.
8) Turn the heat down to medium-high. Check liquid to see if more is required; if so, add 1 teaspoon of olive oil. Put the slices of ciabatta in the pan to soak up the lamb fat and olive oil. You want a light toasting, so only 1-2 minutes per side should suffice.
9) Toss the salad.
10) To assemble the salad: Place the slices of ciabatta on the plate, add a light layer of mesclun leaves, followed by the lamb chops. Top with a bulkier layer of mesclun leaves and scatter with parsley.

I love the smoky, citrus elements of sumac, which marries so well with lamb, with its gamy intensity. As for the ciabatta, not only does it add a toasty crunch to every bite, but combined with the lamb fat it has absorbed will make your eyes roll with pleasure.

The salad world has come a long way from those consisting solely of the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce. Give Mesclun a shot. It will make any side salad infintely interesting, or it can be incorporated into a more substantial salad, like this one, adding an element of sophistication.

This post is being submitted to the inimitable Susan of The Well-Seasoned Cook, who is hosting the 105th edition of Kalyn's Kitchen Weekend Herb Blogging, a food blog event that has just gone into its third year.

Post script Please take the time to visit the round-up of this event, as poetically compiled by Susan at The Well-Seasoned Cook.
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Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Fragrant Rice

Do you have days when you know exactly what you want to eat but almost scoff at the craving because it is ludicrously simple to access? No? Just me, then. Well, I am going to talk your ears off anyway.

All I have wanted for the past week is spinach quickly sautéed in olive oil with garlic and a rice pilaf cooked in chicken broth. I meant to ask mum to get the ingredients when she did the shopping on Friday (how sad am I to have relegated food shopping to someone else when I am the foodie in this household?!), so there was neither spinach nor organic whole chicken to be found. I didn't have time to go out; lunchtime is a scheduled break from writing my thesis. Rice. I had it. I made do. What you see in the above photo is not just any old bowl of white rice. Noooooo. Innocuous it may seem, but on a typical Spring day in Auckland (read: the lightest of blue skies one minute, adverse conditions the next) this filled a void and brought great comfort.

Rice was not a staple in my household when I grew up, so having it as a component of any dish was always rather exotic. I always knew that it was going to accompany a dish redolent of spice and heat. Appealing to my inner Aladdin or Jules Verne, those nights were always my favourite. Of course, then, I didn't know the creations were Westernised or "quick" versions of murgh makhani, caponata or beef rendang. In any case, rice was never really treated as something to have on its own, but as a neutral carbohydrate background to the spice or heat of the protein.

Living with Eric taught me that rice could be incorporated into a main dish, not just to act as a neutral base. I was introduced to aromatic rices like basmati and jasmine. It was with him, too, that we would get a craving for rice only, which we would cook, lazily, with only chicken stock. Today I was not feeling so lazy, but I couldn't go the whole hog.

Nevertheless, I found inspiration in one of my favourite preparations of rice, which comes in the form of a pilau or pilaf. With its roots in Persian cuisine, a pilau is sometimes cooked with a reduced broth after poaching chicken, and it is often studded with nuts, fruit and/or spices and herbs that have been added to an aromatic, like onions, cooked in a fat, typically oil. Variations of pilau using white rice, aromatic rices and bulgar are found throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey. They are innumerable, but all of the ones I have tried have been delicious and restorative.

A word of note: the amount of liquid to rice often varies. I often find that most plain white rices need 1 1/2 times the amount of liquid per cup of rice. For bulgur, you may need 1 3/4 cup liquid per cup of bulgur wheat. Keep an eye on how the liquid is being absorbed. If the liquid is absorbed before the rice is tender, you will need to add more liquid.

Fragrant Rice
(Inspired by my angelheart Eric and by Nigel Slater's Appetite)

1 scant tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and cut into thin half-moon slices
1 clove garlic, bashed to release oil and to remove papery casing
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
4 cardamom pods, either whole or lightly smashed to release aroma
2 cloves, whole
3/4 cup white rice, or an aromatic rice (basmati or jasmine), if you prefer
2 1/4 cups chicken stock, or other light broth or water

1) Heat olive oil in a wide saucepan.
2) Add onion and cook until soft but not colored.
3) Add garlic, bay leaves and spices. Stir into the onion and oil.
4) Once aromatic, stir the rice into the spiced onion.
5) Add the chicken stock. Bring it to a boil, then simmer, covered, for ten minutes. Halfway through, check for seasoning.
6) Off the heat and keep covered for around eight minutes.
7) Fluff the rice with a fork, then remove the bay leaves and spices, or leave them in if it does not bother you to check for little seeds and what not before each mouthful.
8) Serve with an extra crank of freshly ground black pepper.

Yes, this is enough for a satisfying though not over-whelming lunch for one. If you are using a store-bought stock, check for saltiness and potency. If it is quite strong, you may not want to add the cardomom, which is better suited to and more noticable when cooking the rice in a light broth or water.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007


Cardamom Cream Cake

The first time I ever used cardamom was for Hamam Mahshi bil Burghul, an Egyptian preparation of stuffed small birds that requires marinading in spices (principally, cardamom and cinnamon but also a bit of allspice), onion and a combination of oil and lemon juice. I was first surprised by the inclusion of cinnamon since I had only ever had it in desserts, but I got over that when I first smelled cardamom. I did not know what to expect of it because I had had no known experience with the pods (I say 'known' because it has probably appeared in its ground incarnation in many curries I have eaten in Indian restaurants). I was soon entranced during the process of pulling the seeds from their pods and of grinding them, a process which releases an aromatic transformation at every step.

I am a fan of spices and herbs decidedly and judiciously used to either give flavour to or augment the flavours of protein. However, for the longest time I have wanted to put a niggling question to bed: Why do Scandinavians use cardamom in their breads, cakes and pastries? Understanding that my worldview is affected both by my upbringing and education, I did not ever pass judgment on this baking norm, but I could not but help think it an intriguing thing to do. But the Vikings and the Scandinavians, centuries on, could not be wrong. Clearly, there was something in this application to be learned.

When buying cardamom pods, look for tight ones with papery husks the lightest of olive greens (though in Europe and the North America they are sometimes bleached). You may want to bear in mind the green cardamom is more commonly used for Scandinavian baking, as opposed to black cardamom, which is closely related and is used in African cookery. Once removed from their husky capsules, the dark pellets immediately smell of ginger, which is no surprise given they are from the same family. Once ground, the specklings are redolent of Eucalyptus. And while this might not sound appetising, another transformation occurs once heated.

The usage of freshly ground cardamom is imperative in order to get the lingering lemon flavours of the cardamom that imbue baked goods upon the introduction of heat. Pre-ground cardamom will leave too little trace, potentially nullifying its addition in the first place. And since it is one of the most expensive spices in the world (third to saffron and vanilla), it is not something you should want to waste.

A pretty tube pan is suggested for this cake, ostensibly to give it some presence, for this is, at the end of the day, a plain cake - at least only in terms of appearance. I used a bundt pan, not having a tube pan on hand. If you do not have a cake pan with a hole in the middle, do not lose sleep over it. I would use a loaf pan instead, which is what I did for Toasted Ginger Cake.

Cardamom Cream Cake
(from Beatrice Ojakangas' Scandinavian Feasts)

2 cups flour, sifted
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cardamom, freshly ground
1 pinch salt
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups/12 fl. oz heavy/double cream
icing sugar, optional

1) Preheat oven to 180 C/350 F.
2) Butter and flour a 24cm/9" cake pan.
3) Combine flour, sugar, baking power and cardamom in a bowl.
4) Using an electric mixer, blend in the eggs on low speed.
5) Add cream and beat on high speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl to ensure the mixture is incorporated. Look for the texture of softly whipped cream.
6) Turn the batter into the prepared pan.
7) Bake until done, approximately 50-60 minutes. A toothpick/skewer test is a good way to assess this.
8) Cool in the pan for 5 minutes before inverting onto a rack.
9) To dress up the cake, lightly dust with icing sugar before serving.

The cake has a dense centre, which I suppose is attributed to the fact that there is no creaming required to make it. The crumb is quite closed, dense, as opposed to the open crumb of sponges and some pound cakes. The texture is yielding in the mouth on account of using so much cream.

It occurred to me while eating this cake that citrus fruit is not widely grown in Scandinavia, so including cardamom as an ingredient allows one to get a mild yet uplifting citrus hit, which is what some of us crave for from time to time.

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