Friday, November 27, 2009

Very Vietnamese

Michael and I are in the midst of planning a trip to Vietnam (and Cambodia) in February 2010 and I must admit that the last few days of reading about the place, talking about it and looking at pictures of it has inspired me to post today's recipe. I am fortunate enough to live in a place that has a large Vietnamese population, which means I am very spoilt for Vietnamese restaurants, butchers, fishmongers, coffee houses and markets. Ingredients are very cheap and accessable and I eat Vietnamese food regularly. It is by far my favourite Asian cuisine- light, full of flavour and beautiful textures. I'm very excited about the prospect of eating Vietnamese food in Vietnam and seeing how different (or not) it is from what is made here by the Vietnamese in my own neighbourhood.

In warm weather, there is nothing nicer than a fresh Vietnamese salad, full of fresh herbs, chilli and the tang of lime and fish sauce (Nam Pla) My recipe today also includes prawns, baby calamari and lean pork with lightly pickled vegetables. The dressing is based on Nuoc Cham, which is a common Vietnamese dipping sauce served with a whole range of dishes, spring rolls, fried chicken and salads. Today's dish would make a lovely addition to a BBQ, plated individually as an entree or even as something different for your Christmas lunch table. You can prepare all of the components a few hours ahead and then cook the pork and seafood at the last minute and just assemble and dress the dish at the last minute. As always, go as light or as heavy on the chilli as you wish. I love this salad - hope you do too.

Vietnamese pork and seafood salad

You will need: (For the salad) 2 pork chops trimmed and boned, 6 raw king prawns peeled and cleaned,1 medium or 2 small Calamari cleaned and cut into rings, 20cm piece lemongrass cut into thin slices, 3 chopped cloves garlic, 2 teaspoons vegetable/peanut oil, 1 teaspoon chilli oil, salt, pepper, A handful each of fresh coriander, mint, snowpea/bean sprouts, 1 small cucumber, 1 small carrot, 1 tablespoon rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon roasted unsalted peanuts, lime wedges to serve.

(For the dressing) 2 tablespoons each of fish sauce (Nam Pla), rice vinegar and palm or coconut sugar. 1 - 2 redchillies finely chopped, juice of 1 lime.

Method: In a food processor or mortar and pestle (I use the latter - less hassle) combine the lemongrass and garlic with a generous pinch of salt. The mixture does not have to be fine - this is a rustic dish, so it can be quite coarse. Add the vegetable and chilli oil. Divide the mixture in half and combine with the pork and the seafood in seperate bowls. Cover and allow to marinate for at least half an hour (or overnight)

Whisk together the dressing ingredients until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside.

De-seed the cucumber and chop into juliennes along with the carrot. Combine with the rice vinegar and a pinch of salt. Set aside to pickle for half an hour.

When you are ready to serve, pan fry or BBQ the pork and allow it to rest for 5 minutes before slicing into thin strips. In a very hot pan, hotplate or wok, cook the seafood - this will only take a couple of minutes. Be careful not to overcook it.

Drain the excess rice vinegar from the vegetables. Combine all of the ingredients together, add the dressing and serve immediately with wedges of lime, peanuts and extra chilli.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Spring Zing

I was craving something fresh tasting and easy for dinner this week and nothing says fresh to me like lime. Limes are lovely at the moment and are so packed full of delicious flavour so I decided to put together a dish with the new season's limes as a centerpiece. My local Greek deli had some pretty gorgeous looking Haloumi cheese in stock on the day, so I thought I would include that too. I am a total salt junkie and I find the briny tang of Haloumi cheese delightful. If you are unfamiliar with Haloumi, it is a mild, salty cheese from Cyprus, traditionally made with a mixture of goat and cow's milk. (I have also seen Haloumi made with just cow's milk in Australia) It frequently contains a touch of mint which just adds to the great flavour. Because Haloumi has a high melting point, it is ideal for grilling or pan frying.

This dish is really fast to throw together and is ridiculously easy to make. The key to the dish though is to cook the skewers almost completely before basting it with the marinade. The maple syrup in the basting sauce will caramelise really quickly due to the sugar content in it, so if you baste too soon you are going to end up with horrible burnt skewers that will probably still be raw in the middle. Not good.

Feel free to play around with the marinade - you could add chilli or ginger, or even five spice or ground coriander for a more Asian vibe. My version below is a simple one because I was starving and didn't want to mess around too much! These would make a lovely finger food or just something tasty for the BBQ. Prawns or fish would also taste great. And if you are vegetarian, just omit the chicken and use chunks of Haloumi and zucchini instead. Delicious.

Chicken and Haloumi Skewers with caramelised lime

You will need (For 6 Skewers) 6 wooden skewers soaked in water for 30mins, 2 boneless chicken thighs cut into chunks, 1 piece haloumi cheese about 5x10cm long, 2 limes, 3 cloves garlic chopped finely, 1 tablespoon olive oil (plus 1 teaspoon extra), 1 tablespoon maple syrup, 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika, generous pinch cayenne pepper or chilli, generous pinch salt.

Method: Combine a third of the garlic with the teaspoon of olive oil and combine with the chopped chicken. Season well and allow to marinate for about 10mins.

Juice one of the limes and mix together with the remaining olive oil, maple syrup, paprika, garlic, cayenne, salt and pepper. Whisk together well and set aside. This will be your basting sauce.

Slice the remaining lime into 6 wedges. Cut the Haloumi into cubes around the same size as the chicken. Gently thread the chicken and haloumi onto the skewers, alternating ingredients and ending with a wedge of lime.

Cook the skewers on a hot BBQ, grill or frypan until almost cooked through. Be careful when you turn them so that you do not break up the Haloumi. When the chicken is almost cooked through, baste the skewers with the lime and maple basting sauce, turning often. The maple will begin to caramelise and turn brown at this stage. Watch that the heat is not too over the top - the sugar in the maple syrup will burn easily so keep an eye on it.

Let the skewers rest for 5 minutes before serving. See, wasn't that easy??? Now sit and have yourself a nice gin and tonic. Just to use up any lime of course :)


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Wedding? Wonderful!

It has been just over a week since Chris and Michela's wedding and at last I have gotten around to posting about it! Thank you to everyone who sent me encouraging messages in the lead up to the big day - as I have mentioned to a number of you, it was like having my own cheer squad and even though I was in the kitchen by myself, it was kind of like having company.

First of all, I can say without any reservation whatsoever, that it was the best wedding I have ever attended. It was truly a magical  day - a combination of celebration, creativity, warmth and fun. Everything just came together beautifully - even the weather. There had been a forecast for rain, but it stayed sunny and gorgeous as Chris and Michela took their vows under a huge purple jacaranda tree. During the ceremony, purple blossoms floated from the branches over the bride and groom like confetti. Just beautiful. And speaking of beautiful, check out the gorgeous bride and groom :)

Chris & Michela

After the ceremony concluded, guests toasted the bride and groom with glasses of delicious sparkling Italian Prosecco and the celebrations began. Tables were set out on the lawns under the trees, which were covered in lanterns that shone in white, pink and purple as the sun set. A fabulous jazz band played as corks were popped and the first of the food was served. As I mentioned in my previous post, our theme for the food was rustic Italian, with large tasting platters for people to share. There were no designated place settings, so people were free to wander and to eat and chat wherever they fancied. It was a great idea, that gave the whole event a very comfortable, relaxed feel.

Now to the menu - firstly, big apologies that I hardly got a single shot of the food. I was so flat out on the day and by the time I was free to take photos the dishes were pretty much eaten up! I have however decided to cook them again and to feature some of them in the coming weeks, as they would be great for the upcoming Christmas/entertaining season.

I have listed the menu below so you can at least get an idea of what the wedding guests feasted on. We outsourced the meat through an outside company (we thought, leave it to the experts!) and we also enjoyed beautiful poached salmon supplied by a friend of Michela's family. Carnivores and fish eaters catered for. The vegetarian main course included two kinds of frittata - everything on the menu with the exception of the meat and fish was vegetarian. I had comments from a few very happy vegos who said that they had never seen such a delicious vego selection at a wedding before (the pumpkin salad seemed to be the big vego crowd pleaser) Proof that vegetarian food need not be pedestrian and boring!

So here is what the 190 guests feasted on......

The Menu
Antpasto sharing platters (these were comprised of assorted continental meats, semi dried tomatoes, grilled asparagus, pickled vegetables, olives, marinated eggplant, dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), polpetini (small italian meatballs made from a mixture of beef and pork, flavoured with capers, lemon rind, anchovies and spices - served with a spicy tomato dipping sauce), assorted cheeses (including blue cheese and aged epicure) The platters were served with an assortment of breads and crackers. Here are some photos I managed to get before all of the entree dishes were decimated completely (these are only partly decimated)

Antipasto Sharing Platter

Dolmades & Polpetini with Spicy Sauce

Slow roasted lamb
Roasted loin of pork with crackling
Roasted beef with horseradish
Whole roasted potatoes
4 x Whole poached and dressed salmon (served chilled) with cucumber and dill, french lentils & potato salad
Spring frittata with fennel, peas and mint
Porcini frittata with caramelised onion and porcini mushroom
Roasted pumpkin salad with hand spiced almonds and smoky maple/paprika dressing
Grilled mediterranean vegetable and parmesan salad (including wild rocket eggplant, red onion and zucchini) served with a roasted garlic and lemon chive dressing.
Tomato and bocconcini salad with salsa verde (using 4 kinds of fresh herbs)
Seasonal salad (mixed salad leaves,grilled aparagus, cucumber, spring onions, olives, fetta) served with a creamy mustard and white balsamic dressing
Crusty continental rolls/salted butter

Wedding cake

It was so lovely to be asked to play a part in what was such a magical event. All the work involved was worth every second, just to see how happy Chris & Michela were and to see the guests enjoying the food and having a ball. Nobody could wipe the smiles off their faces :)

As the evening began to wind down and guests began to head home, Michael and I confiscated a couple of bottles of wine from the bar staff and found a table under a big Moreton Bay fig tree to put our feet up and enjoy the rest of the evening. It had been a long day, but a very lovely one. Despite both being exhausted, we ended up sitting at that table under the tree until 2am.

But, Gourmet Goddess readers, we were not alone - as we sat in our idyllic locale under the stars, an inhabitant of the tree decided to climb down and pay us a visit. A large native brushtail possum climbed down from the branches to see who was invading his house. At one point he jumped up onto the table and let us pat him. Very cute! They do however have sizeable claws and sharp little teeth, as Michael found out when the possum got a little enthusiastic with his forefinger!

It had been a long time since I had cooked for such a large number of people and yes, it is a huge undertaking by yourself,  but it was a great way to keep my skills honed (particularly planning - cooking for a wedding is like a large military operation that relies on the logistics as much as the materials) I have to say I wasn't working alone the whole time - Michael was brilliant on the day, acting as my right hand man, sous-chef and saucier as well as providing moral support and the odd bottle of Peroni when the cook was getting thirsty. He even wore my green apron with the chickens on it (made by my Nan) and still managed to be his usual manly self ! Thanks lovely :)

Well, I guess the next big cooking event on the calendar is Christmas (which I am hosting at home this year) After cooking for 190 guests, cooking for 8 is going to be a breeze! Or maybe I should cater for 9 in case the possum drops in......

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Matrimonial Matters

Apologies to my regular readers that I have been a little quiet this week. I have been busy in preparation mode for the catering of my friends, Chris and Michela's wedding. This week has been the business end of the preparations. Shopping to be done, lists to be checked and rechecked, work plans to be reviewed. The wedding is today and I'm up bright and early to complete the last few tasks before the celebrations begin. Yesterday was a big day - 9 hours straight of prep work, which among other things involved making hundreds of Polpettini (small Italian meatballs), litres of rich, spicy tomato passata, cutting and peeling over 12kg of pumpkin, making 2 varieties of frittata (almost 200 pieces), grilling about 350 asparagus spears, slicing and roasting kilos of eggplant and zucchini. I have even developed a blister on my hand from all that chopping!

You will gather from the ingredients that the food we will be serving has a rustic Italian theme. We wanted to take advantage of the beautiful fresh spring produce (which not only means the quality will be great but that the costs stay down too) The food will be served on large sharing platters, where everyone can help themselves and pick and choose whatever they fancy. Think abundant, sociable, relaxed and fun. There will not be assigned seating (just tables and chairs laid out under the trees, which will be full of glowing lanterns when the sun goes down) so people can roam around when they feel like it, socialising and grazing as they go. This is not going to be one of those stuffy, sit down affairs, that's for sure!

I have attended lots of weddings and I must admit that with very, very few exceptions they have been extremely dull, with not a lot of real creativity going on. They are usually so similar it is like a matrimonial groundhog day! It also seems to me that the more money is spent, the more stereotypic and pedestrian the event. Good taste becomes obliterated by monogrammed gilt champagne flutes, cliched menus and enough nasty nylon tulle to swathe the Sydney Harbour Bridge. And why is it that normally smart and "right on" women suddenly think that wearing a $6,000 dresses that makes you look like a giant meringue is the way to go??  Nup. I dunno either....

I think that perhaps people get led astray by bridal mags, wedding planners and businesses, spruiking their products and telling them what they "have" to have. It is a HUGE business after all. The weddings that have been special to me and that I remember, are those where the people involved have marched to their own tune and created something that is uniquely them. Chris and Michela have certainly done that and I think that their personalities are going to shine through all aspects of the wedding and the reception. Above all, I think we are all going to have a ball :)

I will be posting later in the weekend, with photos, a menu rundown and a full report from the event so you can see how it all came together, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I plan to be the queen of multitasking, as I attempt to make 4 kinds of salad dressings whilst dying my hair and also deciding what to wear......


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Quote of the day.....

Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized.

- Andre Simon