Sunday, April 29, 2012

Creamy Mushroom Ragout with Polenta

The weather has been cooling down here in Sydney and on Saturday I was really in the mood for some Autumn comfort food. Looking in the fridge I had a whole pile of gorgeous seasonal mushrooms and thought I would create a dish around them. At first I thought maybe a soup or pasta, but then remembered that I also had a packet of organic polenta in the cupboard, and for me, nothing says comfort like that delicious northern Italian staple. If you have never used it, polenta is a basically pure dried corn meal used in cuisines all around the world from Italy to Mexico.

I decided on a mushroom ragout to serve with my polenta, using 6 kinds of fresh mushrooms, as well as a handful of dried porcini mushrooms to ramp up the flavour. Using dried mushrooms is a great way to boost the richness of the dish but they are also a great ingredient to have in your cupboard for use in stocks and sauces too. They keep pretty much forever in an airtight jar. I used porcini mushrooms in this dish, but I always have dried shitake and forest mushrooms in the pantry as well.


The variety of mushrooms work really well with the creamy golden polenta, both in flavour and texture contrast. As well as tasting fabulous, polenta is also very good for you, being packed with complex carbohydrates (so it has a very low GI) lots of fibre, a great source of vitamin A and C, iron, thiamin and zinc. It is also low in fat. Traditionally it is served with lots of grated parmesan and butter, however I have omitted this in my recipe as I wanted the dish dish to be the healthier version. Feel free to add some butter and grated parmesan though if the mood takes you - it really is delicious. I do find though, that if you are serving it with a very flavoursome accompaniment, then the cheese and butter aren't really necessary.

Polenta is a great alternative to pasta for those people who need to avoid wheat in their diet and is very versatile. See my hints at the bottom of the recipe for ideas about what to do with your leftovers if you have any. It may even be worth making extra so that you can make another dish the next day.

This ragout and polenta is a great vegetarian dish, but you can also serve it as a side dish with roasted red meat, pork, poultry - or game such as rabbit, venison or quail. It looks beautiful served on a large platter, but if you want to go really traditional, serve it poured onto a big chopping board in the middle of the table, for the ultimate rustic effect.

Creamy Mushroom Ragout with Polenta

You will need:
For the polenta - 1 cup polenta (cornmeal),3 cups water or stock,salt, pepper.

For the ragout - around 500g fresh sliced mushrooms - choose as many varieties as you can get your hands on - shitake, swiss brown, pine, field, button, oyster, enoki, porcini. 1/2 cup dried mushrooms (I used porcini) 1 large finely sliced onion, 2 cloves finely chopped garlic, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, 1 tablespoon soft cream cheese (I use the low fat Philadelphia brand one in the tub), 1/2 cup stock (vegetable, beef or chicken) 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs - I use parsley, chives, thyme.

Method: First, place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to soften while you make the polenta.

To cook the polenta, bring the water or stock to the boil in a heavy-based saucepan. Gradually add the polenta in a slow, thin, steady stream, whisking constantly until all the polenta is incorporated into the water. Whisking ensures that the polenta is dispersed through the liquid as quickly as possible and doesn't clump.

Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for 10 - 15 minutes or until the mixture thickens and the polenta is soft. To test whether the polenta is cooked, spoon a little of the mixture onto a small plate and set aside to cool slightly. Rub a little of the polenta between 2 fingers to see if the grains have softened. If the grains are still firm,cook the polenta for a little longer. Whisk through the butter and parmesan and season with salt and pepper. Adjust seasonings as required. Cover and set aside.

Now to the mushrooms. Drain the dried mushrooms well and chop them finely. Heat a pan and add the olive oil. Add the onions and garlic and cook gently until the onions are transparent and soft. Add the dried and fresh mushrooms (except the enoki mushrooms if you are using them - these cook very fast so don't add them until the last moment) Cook the mushrooms for a minute or so until they start to soften. Add the stock, balsamic and a little salt and pepper. Simmer until the stock starts to reduce - a couple of minutes.

Stir through the cream cheese until it is well incorporated. If the mixture is a bit too thick, add a small amount of water or stock. Add the enoki mushrooms if you are using them and stir through until just softened. Taste the ragout for seasoning and adjust accordingly.

Give the polenta one last whisk to ensure it is smooth and serve with the mushroom ragout. Top with fresh herbs and serve.

Note: If you have leftover polenta, turn it out on a plate and put it in the fridge for the next day. Cut it into slices, pan fry and serve with grilled veges, nepolitana sauce and parmesan - or cut it into batons and fry it in hot oil to make polenta chips. When it is set, it can easily be cut into whatever shape you like. I have used it to make into little bite sized discs as a base for Italian inspired canapes, or little cubes to dip in gorgonzola sauce. Pretty much anything you can think of - it is super versatile.

Serves 2 as a main meal or 4 as a side dish.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Autumnal Inspiration

I just love this time of the year when you feel everything changing, as we  transition into winter. I am a cold weather person and I thrive in Autumn and Winter. The colder weather seems to spark my creativity a lot more and it is always a very productive time for me. This is particularly true of what I choose to cook and eat. With all of the summer produce disappearing and the cold weather ingredients beginning to be available, I am inspired with new possibilities when I visit the greengrocer.

This week I decided to roast some beef for our Saturday night dinner, but thought I would forget about the basic roasted vegetables and look at some seasonal flavours and accompaniments for it. To start with, I flavoured the beef with celery, paprika and juniper, giving the beef a lovely aroma and a delicious flavour and warmth. As always, I cooked the meat on the Weber, over the coals, but you can of course use a conventional oven if you want to.

We received a bunch of beetroot, organic carrots and some gorgeous kipfler potatoes in our fruit and vegetable box this week, so I used those as side dishes, along with some baked seasonal witlof. Witlof is also known as Belgian endive or chicory. Admittedly it is not going to be to everyone's taste, with it's bitter character, but I found that it worked really well with the sweetness of the beetroot that I baked with plenty of red onions, garlic, honey and balsamic.

The result was a delicious succulent roast with a real Autumn flavour. I made a jug of gravy with the resting juices from the beef and served this along with some horseradish on the side.

A note about the beef - as with all meat, you need to give it sufficient resting time to ensure maximum flavour and tenderness. I have found this to be particularly true of topside beef, which was what I used for this recipe. Don't be tempted to rush this step. There are two different schools of thought when it comes to whether or not you cover the meat with foil while it is resting. I have been reading a very funny Twitter exchange online recently between Anthony Bourdain and others about this subject - I strongly stand in Bourdain's camp and believe in not covering the meat. It continues to cook after you remove it from the heat anyway, so covering it with foil will just keep more heat in and therefore extend the cooking process even further. This means that meat that was cooked to perfection when you pulled it out of the oven can end up badly overcooked and as tough as old boots when you come to serve it. Those worried about the meat getting cold as it is resting need not be - as long as you put it somewhere relatively warm, it will be fine.

So everyone, check out your greengrocer or farmer's market, see what is coming in to season and give your cooking a transitional seasonal makeover. Also check out my continuously updated list of what is in season on the right hand side of this web page. Our Saturday night roast certainly took on an Autumnal twist as a result of some seasonal inspiration - what seasonal ingredients will you explore this week?

Juniper Roasted Beef
with Autumn vegetables
and caramelised balsamic beetroot

You will need: 1kg piece roasting beef (I used topside), 10 juniper berries, 2 teaspoons celery salt, 2 teaspoons sweet paprika, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 2 large carrots, 2 whole witlof, 6-8 kipfler potatoes, 4 whole beetroot, 1 large red onion, 3 cloves garlic, salt and pepper, 1 tablespoon grated mozzarella cheese, 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, 1 tablespoon honey, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, a little extra olive oil.

Method: Preheat the oven to 220C. Place the whole beetroot in boiling water and allow to simmer for about 10 minutes. Drain and run them under cold water. Now remove the skins - they should come right off easily with your hands. Cut the beetroot into quarters. Slice the red onion into thick pieces and place in a small ovenproof dish with the beetroot. Roughly chop the garlic and add to the dish, along with the honey, balsamic, 1 tablespoon olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Bake the beetroot, turning a few times for around 30 minutes.

While the beetroot is cooking, prepare the meat. Crush the juniper berries and combine with the celery salt, paprika, pepper and a tablespoon of olive oil. Mix well and rub into the meat. Allow to infuse for at least 15 minutes. Bring the meat to room temperature before cooking it. Taking it right out of the fridge and straight into the oven/BBQ will result in tough, dry meat.

Place the meat into the preheated oven (or use the Weber like I did) and bake with the potatoes for 20-25 minutes (rare) 30 mins (medium) 40 minutes (Well done) Allow the meat to rest uncovered for 20 minutes before slicing and serving.

While the meat is cooking, cut the witlof into quarters and the carrots into long thick batons. Place in a shallow baking dish with salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, sprinkle the cheese over the witlof and return to the oven until the cheese is just melted.

Slice the beef into thick slices, assemble the dish and top with a little fresh parsley to serve.

Serves 2-4


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Review - Momofuku Seiobo

When David Chang opened his first restaurant outside the U.S.A in 2011, I was pretty damned excited that he chose Sydney to do it in. The maverick Korean-American chef has gained an almost cult like status over the past few years, for his free spirited way of creating food and his willingness to throw out the rule book when it comes to restaurant dining. He is the chef that other chefs talk about.

Momofuku Sieobo (Lucky Peach) opened in Sydney late last year but it has taken me a few months to finally get around to paying it a visit. Getting a reservation can be a bit of a hassle, given that the whole restaurant seats less than 30 people, you can only book 10 days ahead and that reservations are secured only online (which involves setting up a log in on their website to access the reservation area) Was it worth the palaver? Well, in a word - yes.

David Chang

When you arrive, you are seated up a long counter that surrounds the central kitchen area which gives you an up close and personal view of the action in the kitchen. Dishes are created before your eyes. It makes for great entertainment but also creates such a sense of expectation about what you are about to eat. The atmosphere is not like any restaurant I have ever been to. The beat of rock and roll music pumps out and the rhythm of the kitchen creates a buzz that feels like a party to me.

There is one menu - and no a la carte. The meal is comprised of 15 dishes, chosen by the chef on the night from seasonal produce. I love it - no menu choices to agonise over, just delicious morsels arriving one after the other. The dishes range from casual to formal, simple to complex, with influences from everywhere. And yet somehow it all works together.

Momofuku has become well known for it's super soft pork belly buns, which kicked off our meal. I can see why - I would have happily munched through a tray of them and left happy! Beautiful textures and such succulent pork, served with your own bottle of chilli, for that warm chilli buzz. 

Steamed Pork Belly Bun

A dish of Trumpeter sashimi followed, served with parrot green pistachios and the citrus tang of pomelo. The dish tasted clean and fresh after the voluptuousness of the pork belly buns. Next on the menu was an amazing dish of marron and rhubarb - one of the dishes of the night for me. Teamed with an ultra smoky emulsion of "burnt" eggplant, it was sweet and luscious. The marron was cooked perfectly and the pairing of flavours was pure inspiration.

Marron, Burnt Eggplant & Rhubarb

A beautiful dish of tiny cubes of Wagyu beef, fermented black bean and almost translucent radishes that looked like cherry blossoms on the plate followed. Then a beautiful dish of buttery smoked eel, caramelised artichoke and a wonderful eel broth that warmed the cockles of my heart.

Smoked Eel, Eggplant, Jerusalem Artichoke
Eel Broth

A beautiful pairing of crisp on the outside, fluffy in the middle Yorkshire pudding  and crab was next, served with a zingy bay and chilli sauce that had me wanting to lick the plate. Then, on to a sublime slow cooked egg dish, teamed with toasted rice, brown butter and the beautiful savoury character of Sencha tea leaves. The textures were just amazing and the egg "shivered" on the spoon. Swoon.

Slow Cooked Egg, Toasted Rice, Green Tea
Brown Butter

Next came hand made pea and ham agnolotti, creamy and smoky and full of flavour - made with the silkiest of pasta and served with a delicious buttery sauce and parmesan foam.Then came a dish of succulent pork neck served with baby turnips and stormshells, drizzled in a salty, flavour packed broth.

 The Kitchen

The following dish - Mulloway with smoked roe and grilled lettuce was the standout dish of the evening for me. I love the French style of cooking lettuce - it is so delicious and works beautifully with the Mulloway. The smoked roe added a whole other layer of flavour to the perfectly cooked fish. Simply stunning.

Mulloway, Smoked Roe, Lettuce

Before we knew it, we were on to the cheese course - clouds of impossibly finely grated C2 (raw milk, hard, cooked curd made from cow's milk) teamed with a fine glassy shard of honeycomb licorice, bee pollen and a cider jelly. Perfection.

The first dessert of pear with yoghurt, sultana miso and whey arrived - and although I'm not a big fan of cooked pear, it was beautiful. The slight saltiness of the miso worked a treat with the sweetness of the fruit. Dessert number two reminded me of the malty old fashioned milkshakes of my childhood - except this took things up a notch with the best tasting salted butter caramel I have ever eaten, pooled at the bottom of the dish. **Sigh**

Malt Icecream, Brown Sugar, Coffee
Smoked Butter Caramel

Now the next dessert and final dish of the evening proved to be rather controversial for one of our neighbouring diners - a "suit" who took exception to the fact that a) it was served without cutlery so you had to eat it with your fingers and b) it was meat. He kicked up a bit of a fuss about this but soon shut up once he saw his dining companions demolishing the dish and licking their fingers with euphoric expressions on their faces! He soon got the hang of it.

Now I know we don't usually expect pork as a dessert, but after eating this sticky, unctuous brown sugar glazed pork, I actually don't care what is expected. As we watched it being prepared , Andrew turned to me agog -  "Ummm..... are they cutting that pork with a spoon??" Why yes they were. Because it was that tender and that succulent. So dark with caramel flavour. And sweet. So, so sweet. Brilliant.

Dessert Pork with Brown Sugar

So,is Momfuku worth the cash and the David Chang hype? I would say, absolutely. Although Momofuku is an eating experience that isn't going to suit everyone, if you are willing to go with an open mind then I think it is a trip well worth taking. And believe me, I plan on taking it again.


For Reservations go to:

You will find Momofuku Seiobo at The Star
80 Pyrmont Street, level G | Sydney, NSW

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Little Bites of Goodness

We have been making a conscious effort in our household to eat a lot more healthily lately - which means cutting down on meat, fat and sugar and upping the vegetable content of everything. Today I am heading off to meet with our book club group (today's book for discussion - Joseph Conrad's tale of colonialism and man's dark nature -  "Heart of Darkness") Just because the subject we are discussing this afternoon is uber heavy, doesn't mean that the snacks for the afternoon have to be - so I made a batch of these delicious savoury muffin bites to take for the refreshment table.

These little muffin bites are full of vegetables, as well as gorgeous sorrel from my garden (you can substitute baby spinach if you can't find sorrel) and very low fat cheese, so they are good for you, as well as being delicious. They are also quick and easy to throw together. They have a very moist, soft texture due to the vegetables and the cheese and do not resemble the more "cakey" style muffins.

These muffins are also my first attempt to include Chia seeds in my cooking. Chia seeds contain an insane amount of anti-oxidants, fibre, protein and omega 3 oils -  as well as having lots of other health benefits - balancing blood sugar levels,helping to regulate blood pressure, having anti aging and anti inflammatory properties and providing a boost of energy without caffeine or drugs.

So, these little bites of healthy goodness will provide a dose of good stuff, whilst not being bad for the waistline or the tastebuds either. They would be great in lunchboxes or as a healthy snack. You can of course bake large ones if you want to - the recipe below will make 6 muffins if you decide to do that. Otherwise, the amount below will bake 12 mini muffins.

Vegetable and Chia Seed Muffin Bites

You will need: 2 cups self raising flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1/3 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 egg, 1 cup low fat milk, 1/2 cup reduced fat grated cheese, 1 cup low fat cottage cheese, 1/2 cup chia seeds, 1 cup grated carrot, 1 cup grated zucchini, 1 leek sliced finely, 1 cup finely chopped sorrel or baby spinach, olive oil spray.

Method: Preheat the oven to 200C. Spray a pan with a little oil and cook the leeks until soft. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cayenne pepper, salt, chia seed, grated cheese. Mix well.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, milk and cottage cheese.

Add the grated carrot, zucchini, leek and sorrel/spinach to the dry mixture and combine gently. Now add the wet mixture and fold through with a spatula until just mixed.

Spray a mini muffin tin with oil and spoon the mixture into the pan.

Bake for 15-20 minutes until they start to turn golden on top. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before removing them from the pan.

Makes about 12 small muffin bites.