Category Archives: My chef friends

Perfection

Perfection
is not
– straight edges
– symmetrical circles
– right angles
– sparkling silver

Though there is a time and place for them, too

Perfection
is when
you don’t notice
– how straight a line is
– how round a circle is
– how eight minutes pass in 480 seconds
– green bits in your teeth till later
– that you haven’t slept since 4 in the morning

Because you are too busy being happy

The sort of happy that stays with you for hours, not minutes
and is not tied to things or places

Maybe just to people, the way they laugh, the way their eyes are kind and deep

Maybe just to the memory of that meal – the way the food made its way past your senses and into your soul, and made you feel

Alive

Maybe just to the crazy feeling that your toes are giggling, laughing to themselves under the table

Perfection
cannot
be adequately spun into words
or learned
or taught
or practised

Only recognised.

Pictured: salmon, ricotta and spinach ravioli with tomatoes; pork saltimbocca with roasted vegetables; tiramisu – thank you Ms Gudrun for cooking such a beautiful meal for us and for hosting a perfect evening!

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Better late than never, so some say

It’s not quite Christmas anymore, but my dinner party co-host/fudge champion friend Kath and I just wanted to say (a now belated) Merry Christmas… click here or on the image below!

Made possible by JibJab

Thanksgiving, bright and beautiful

I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.*
~ Jon Stewart

In the way that nice ideas sometimes drop in without an invitation, the idea of having a Thanksgiving dinner sailed through the door of my mind one evening a few weeks ago. And so it is that around 15 of us celebrated Thanksgiving last Saturday (yes – on Election Day, but I won’t elaborate on that right now) at my place, many of us for the first time. Aside from the lack of football, family members and sweet potato/marshmallow pie, I think we did pretty well ;-)

Friday turned out to be a long day at work, and I only got to hang out with my turkey after 10.30pm. Thank you Nigella Lawson, because without your fabulous-smelling turkey brine, I’m not sure I would have felt like taking taking out giblets**, neck and liver from the turkey instead of going to bed…

And yes, I had to place him*** and Nigella’s brine in a (very clean) bucket because he was way too large for my largest pot. The bucket then sat in the fridge for a night, so Steven-Thomas** could soak in all the goodness.

Of course, we had the all-important pumpkin pie – prepared by an honest-to-goodness American, no less. Also of note: this was made with hand-smashed pumpkin, in the absence of canned pumpkin purée in NZ! A most admirable and delicious effort (thanks Brad!).

I don’t think I’ve ever tried pumpkin pie, and I was pleasantly surprised by the taste of pumpkin in a sweet dish! It made an excellent addition to my mental taste library.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will know that I have been charmed by Ottolenghi’s recipes more than once. So of course I turned to them for help this Thanksgiving! This recipe for sweet potato wedges with lemongrass crème fraîche (crème fraîche not pictured) comes from their book “Plenty”. Unfortunately, the man at the farmers’ market didn’t have lemongrass – so I added more lime and ginger to the crème fraîche. I also used a giant farmers’ market pepper in place of a chile. Loved the way the zest and zing in the crème fraîche combined with the coriander and salt-flavoured baked sweet potato wedges, and the Christmassy colours of the pepper and parsley.

Here is one of the fastest “dishes” ever to assemble – a few sliced juicy tomatoes, a heavenly ball of Clevedon Valley buffalo mozzarella, some torn basil, salt, pepper and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar – a 30-second plate to put together, so handy for gatherings!

I have no idea how this tasted, but I poached a few stalks of white and green asparagus with a bay leaf in white wine, then added some feta and lemon zest on top. Hopefully it sort of worked…

Here is an impromptu watercress and tangelo salad, served with a (not pictured) balsamic, olive oil and orange blossom water dressing on the side. Thanks to the wonderful Ian for making this look so pretty, and while I am doing the thanking thing – I was pretty grateful for the takeaway coffee he presented me with while I was cooking!

G brought these crazy delicious roasted pears with red onions… mmmmm! Sweet, soft, smile-inducing… yum yum yum. I had a few servings of these!

She also brought a most charming gift – a bunch of herbs from her garden with a note! Love it. Thank you, Miss G!

A second round of thanks to Brad for doing a marvellous job with carving the turkey! It is definitely not as easy as he made it look. Not all of us have that level of competence with knives…

My vivacious friend Emily brought this sweet pumpkin pie cheesecake – on a gingersnap crust, sweet and very nice, though I wish we could have let it sit in the fridge for a tiny bit longer to set properly!

Dinner was a real team effort, and everyone pitched in so cheerfully and kindly. Fiona got super strong plastic cutlery that didn’t even flinch when used to cut turkey slices. Anna brought juice and yummy savoury pumpkin. Ian chopped vegetables with precision and without complaint. Kath brought wine and a vase for my flowers. Jacq brought carrots and capsicum – a pretty medley of red and orange candy cane shapes! Stacey bought a generous tray of potatoes. Emily brought (in addition to the cheesecake above) some very good Swedish meatballs which we devoured with cranberry sauce. R and K brought more wine. I nearly had to physically kick a few people out of my kitchen (when they insisted on doing the dishes) – I really could not have asked for better guests!

Oh yes, and – this cheesecake! My family couldn’t make it to dinner, so Dad baked a cake and my brother dropped it off at my place! Way sweet, and I’m not just talking about the cake, which was fluffy, designed to melt in the mouth and just rather madly good.

So it was lovely to have friends meet other friends, and share conversations and food and flowers and laughs… though I certainly missed a few friends who could not make it that evening! We shared what we were thankful for (some more seriously than others). We had a Thanksgiving toast. People washed plates when we ran out, and took photos for me when my hands were too greasy to touch a camera. The night flowed smoothly like a glass of red… and I was a little sad that the night seemed to end so quickly… but then the smiley MANDY arrived (visiting from Singapore!) and we went out for a late night of bubble tea and cards and got stitches from laughing. Always the case when she’s around!

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers who celebrate it!

* Only points #1 and #2 of Jon Stewart’s quote above happened in my home on Saturday – my guests are still alive. To the best of my knowledge.

** Does anyone have a good recipe for giblet sauce? I was going to try making it but couldn’t find a recipe that sounded realistic and good.

*** The turkey was christened “Steven-Thomas” at an informal ceremony in my kitchen.

I felt like Winnie the Pooh

“Sometimes,” said Pooh, “the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”
~ A.A. Milne

Tasting this, I was Winnie the Pooh in Wonderland.

I am sure I am not the only J. Friend and Co. honey consumer who has thought about sticking a human paw into one of their jars…

Before we moved to New Zealand, I was a stranger to the wide honey world. If anyone said “honey”, I’d think of couples or of a sticky bright yellow substance glooping down Pooh Bear’s rotund tummy. Over the last few years, I have really loved getting acquainted with the beautiful honey made right here in this country – especially the unique manuka honey which NZ is so rightfully well known for.

While I like honey, though, I have seldom enjoyed it neat. I can be persuaded to try raw cookie dough, or lick my butter knife after using it to spread PB on toast, and once or twice I have even been seen to lick a plate (ungraceful, I know)… but I am mostly NOT a honey-spoon-licker. I’ll drizzle honey on my crumpets or stir honey into warm water, then toss the honey-coated spoon straight into the sink.

So yesterday, while trying to choose a honey (of my three jars*, of which I had only tried one) for R’s salmon, I took a TINY sample of each one… before Winnie the Pooh unexpectedly whooshed into my brain. He nearly took over. Instead, I took out teaspoons and insisted that everyone try some honey. I think I may have looked frighteningly excited, because they all looked a little shocked and just obeyed silently.

;-)

I am happy to say that after everyone had a taste of some honey, no one questioned my sanity. It spoke for itself…

We used a few spoonfuls of the Beechwood Honeydew honey to make a honey-balsamic glaze which greatly enhanced our main course of seared salmon fillet; baby spinach and blanched asparagus tossed with lemon zest; portobello mushrooms baked with halloumi; and couscous with parsley.

This honey tasted of forests and fairies… it was a total surprise, and it was wonderful to place a full teaspoon of this into my mouth and shut my eyes for a minute… I thought of Enid Blyton’s “The Wishing Chair” (still so fun to think about, years later). What can I say? If you were to use a liquid to describe imagination and abundance, this honey would come pretty close.

We ate very well last night. R and K thoroughly spoiled us with this dinner, and their company! (Thank you R and K!)

In addition to that crazily delicious salmon dish above (which the photo does not do justice to), we also had prosciutto draped over cantaloupe… a combination I have often heard great things about but never ventured to try. I was certainly not disappointed!

For dessert, I just assembled two platters:

Havarti with grapes and crackers, and fresh strawberries with crème fraîche and brown sugar. Not that we really fit much dessert in after the preceding courses!

* Thank you so much, kind Sharyn, for sending me two jars of your precious honey to try! I can’t wait to try the Viper’s Bugloss honey in a dish. :-)

On sharing

My idea of heaven is a great big baked potato and someone to share it with.
~ Oprah Winfrey

Dishes in the middle for everyone, that was what I knew growing up. My grandma and mom both often cooked this way (unless we were having pasta or similar). We’d all have our own plates of rice and bowls of soup, but everything else – meat, vegetables, fish, etc – would be placed on large plates in the centre of the dining table so we could help ourselves.

For some reason, I possess none of my Gran’s gift for cooking family meals – but what I do hope to learn from her are things like these: cooking with love; feeding friends/family good food; prioritising eating and talking together. Sharing.

Sharing is pretty cool. You know, the kind of uncalculative, spontaneous sharing that we probably used to excel at in kindergarten. It seems that the true, honest art of sharing is slowly being lost in this individualistic, “I need me-time I need space” kinda world we live in. I get like that too, but recent days have been so full of generosity and great times and I am reminded of how good it is to do it together, you know? I really want sharing to become written into my blood.

On that note, are you ready to read a long post? I’ve been writing mini posts in my head for a few days now so this is an ambitious attempt at posting them ALL in one post…

Last week, R and I went to the bubbly Liz’s place for dinner – we used to work together and it was great to catch up again! Liz whipped up this YUMMY bacon, mushroom and spinach Donna Hay-inspired risotto in the oven (up till that evening, I had never known you could make risotto in the oven) – so warm and savoury and filling. We ate this with glasses of singing Gerwutztraminer while their lively cat darted around the room (jealous, I bet) – and had bowls of gourmet ice cream afterwards.

Friday: R taught me how to whip up Spring in a bowlspirals with prosciutto, asparagus and baby spinach leaves with red pesto and parmesan. I learned a few things that evening:

1. To bend the asparagus till it reaches its natural breaking point, then snap it and discard the bottom part.
2. To use baby spinach leaves (I always thought people always used cooking spinach for warm dishes – but he popped these fresh leaves into a bowl with steaming hot pasta which then wilted the baby spinach beautifully).
3. To use red pesto. How is it that I have not previously spotted this jar of goodness in the supermarket?
To recap: cook pasta in salted boiling water. Snap asparagus. Blanch or pan-fry asparagus. Tear prosciutto with your fingers, add this and raw baby spinach leaves into a bowl. Drain cooked pasta and asparagus when they are ready, pour them into the bowl – stir and let the heat wilt the leaves. Stir in red pesto. Serve with parmesan.

I think I’ll be making this again – so easy and so good!

On the subject of thoughtful and talented friends, K gave me kiwifruit and white chocolate muffins, and G gave me cheesecake today… (which served as a most decadent lunch!) So spoiled am I.

Ottolenghi’s Cookbook is bursting with food for sharing. A few weeks ago, G shared her lunch with me at work, so I thought it’d be fun to pack lunch for three of us – and of course Ottolenghi’s book sprung to mind. My eyes fell on a recipe for roast chicken with saffron, hazelnuts and honey (recipe re-posted here). I made a few adjustments (chicken thighs as opposed to a whole chicken, orange blossom water as opposed to rosewater, etc) – it was sweet, gently spiced and reminded me of Morocco… I served it with some green beans with tomato and feta (fried them this time).

I was very careful with the orange blossom water and I am now no longer (as) afraid of it. ;-)

Saturday was a Brazilian day – complete with “Reflections of a Blender” (think: a taxidermist who is also a murderess; a talking blender; philosophy; craziness + general fantastic-ness in Portuguese), a loud Brazilian festa; and this gem of a place… Casa da Sogra (which translates as house of the mother-in-law, I think).

When we walked in, I felt like I’d chanced upon a grand secret that everyone else already knew. Small this place may be, but it lacks nothing else. It was 2.30pm, and the place was packed – I tuned in and realised there was almost as much Portuguese being spoken as there was English (so cool)! We joined two friendly Brazilian ladies, started chatting and I couldn’t help ordering what Priscilla was eating – pastel.

According to her, these are as good as the ones in Brazil. I haven’t been to Brazil yet, but I can believe it. For $3 each, these golden pillows are crispy deep fried pastries filled with yummy things. I can’t do it justice with my words, but suffice to say – if you’re in Auckland, you need to go here… even if there’s no seating room when you get there – stand and eat, it’ll all make good sense once you do it.

This is the pizza flavoured one…

We also ordered a few acai berry shakes (rather potent, in a good way) and a spicy lamb pita. Tasty and generous, and better with friends to share everything with. Eating food native to a different culture and chatting with people from different countries while sitting right at home is probably the closest one can get to teleportation (which I would love to do if I could)!

I’m sleepy, so I’m going to start wrapping up my blog post now.

I end with two other places I wanted to share, which I unfortunately did not take photographs at but are worth writing about, photos or not:

Faro – I went here with Brad who was up for a visit and learned a magical combination from the smiling waitress that attended us – leaf + radish + pickled onion + kimchi + a soy bean paste which I cannot remember the name of + perfectly grilled beef. Ask their staff how to eat your food – it could make your eating experience even better. I love that they serve delicious food, don’t close so early, and have a clean and lovely place with thoughtful staff and extraction fans at each table to ensure you don’t smell like food when you leave.

And lucky last – we had the pleasure of meeting the man behind Giapo a few days ago. With its catchy branding, huge array of fantastic flavours, friendly staff and grinning customers – Giapo is hard to miss if you are in Auckland. What’s even harder to miss, if you get to meet Gianpaolo Grazioli yourself, is his insatiable passion for life, honesty that made me smile, creative nature, wealth of knowledge and unmistakeable courage. Hearing him talk was inspirational… as was the ice cream.

The ice cream is all made from excellent ingredients – and there are all sorts of crazy and scrumptious flavours – ALL sorts. Even whisky and blue cheese (this admittedly took my breath away, and I haven’t decided whether in a good way or not). Pumpkin, riesling, amaretti, organic fruit… it is all there.

My favourites were their: (1) antipasti (sounds strange, but it’s crazy delicious); (2) dark chocolate and smoked salmon (base note similarities make for compatibility; who would have thought?); (3) lemon sorbet (think: sweet little girl kissing your cheek), (4) green tea (flecked with chocolate bits, the best word I can use to describe it is a Mandarin word which I don’t know how to put into English right now… but it’s deep, and calm, and sweet in a true, non-sugary way).

It’s so different when people do what they love. Their faces light up and they have this energy and joy about them that is unmistakeable and so super.

Time for bed. All the best to my brave friends who have embarked on the mammoth adventure known as NanoWrimo! Good night!

Casa da Sogra – 12 Remuera Road, Newmarket, Auckland – Phone: 09 520 0250

Faro – 5 Lorne Street, Auckland – Phone: 09 379 4040

Giapo – 279 Queen Street, Auckland

Royal food for lazy folk #2

Cheese – milk’s leap toward immortality.
~ Clifton Fadiman

It resembled a generous slice of magic swirling dessert set to gather smiles from the Tooth Fairy…

It brought to mind a curious word I seldom think about…

It was better than dessert and the consideration of calories…

It was a jolly good Sunday lunch.

What you do – you slice some of your favourite bread (I used sourdough), lay it flat and add the layers:

    cheese*
    +
    honey**

…and if you are lucky like me and have a beautiful friend who makes you fig and walnut salami, you can add a little of that on too.

Sweet like a cherry on a cupcake.

* This triple brie with black truffle sandwiched in the middle is made by Over the Moon Dairy Company and is as amazing as it sounds :-) I picked up my wedge from a nice gentleman Roland at Grey Lynn Farmers’ Market on Sunday.

** I received a goodie bag on Sunday which included this jar of Northern Rata honey from J. Friend and Co… I very much enjoyed its delicate/earthy flavour and elegant texture, and look forward to experimenting more with it!

Dinner for seven

Precisely the least, the softest, lightest, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a flash, a moment – a little makes the way of the best happiness.
~ Frederich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

In pursuit of succulent prawns for our dinner party, Kath and I visited Auckland Fish Market on Saturday morning. Mmmmm seafood… there was a generous selection. Big and little fish. Spiky kina. Creepy lobsters, looking quite far removed from the beautiful, creamy white flesh encased in orange shells that I much prefer ;-) Looking at the lobsters, I thought of Julia Child clutching them and dropping them into scalding water… and my body itched with discomfort. :-o

We didn’t buy prawns here in the end, because the prices were a little higher than we wanted to pay – but we had a good time wandering around the shops in any case. The kind man at the smoked food section gave us samples of orange roughy roe… the wedge I put in my mouth morphed into a rich bittersweet bouquet, lots of depth, wonderful! (Though I am not sure Kath enjoyed it as much as I did). I also picked up some smoked broadbill steak which looked too enticing in its golden/orange glory to pass up.

Second stop: Sabato. When you first walk in, it doesn’t appear to be a dangerous place. Don’t be fooled – only ignorance and a very blocked nose could save you. This place forces you to smile, grin even. For the first few seconds as your eyes scan its interior, the words ‘gourmet’, ‘ridiculous’ and ‘food for rich people’ may float into your head and do a little dance. You’ll think you’re safe. But then you venture to one of their taste stations, carelessly take a bite – and suddenly the mist clears, and you realise you won’t be escaping for a while!

It’s not just ‘cos their offering sounds fancy (though incidentally, they do the fancy thing well. Truffle oil, aged balsamic, porcini crema, anchovies, orange blossom water – you name it!)… It’s the fact that (based on what I tried in their store) whatever they possess in ‘gourmet-ness’, they actually match in deliciousness too.

And if that ain’t convincing enough, they also have drool-inducing recipe cards scattered in various nooks and crannies, friendly staff who offer you a complimentary coffee while you browse, oh… and might I just casually mention that they have a tall shelf stocked with Valrhona (only the best chocolate ever?!) goodness! Eventually, I exercised some restraint and walked out with just a bottle of orange blossom water and a jar of sweet, sexy anchovies (the latter were at one of those tasting stations). Kath got a bottle of rose water.

We then stopped at a friendly vege shop which had very attractive-looking produce – see golden tamarillos above! Picked up fruit, herbs, miso paste.

Finally, we went to the supermarket to pick up everything else that we needed.

Back at Kath’s apartment, we put away the food that needed refrigeration before sitting down for a quick lunch: impromptu platters of smoked broadbill salmon from the Fish Market, avocado, tomato, black pepper and bread.

At some point, we rose from the dining table and got to work. I dawdled for ages, wanting to take photos of everything and talk and all; luckily, Kath is WAY more organised than I am and so our guests got to eat dinner before 8pm ;-)

Everything really smelled so good as we pounded, blended, fried – my nose was pretty happy while we cooked. Sizzling garlic. Sweet gingersnaps. Toasted seeds and spices. Chilli and chocolate. Ginger and miso. Etc.

Here is our mole in its infant state – containing onion, garlic, toasted seeds, cumin, fennel and more… believe you me, it was potent!

This is Kath, blissfully unaware of me snapping a photo of her whipping up a storm!

This is Kath again, aware that she wasn’t going to escape my camera and making the wise decision to smile.

Mmmm… it was all going along nicely and I was still thinking “yay we have plenty of time”, when all of a sudden I realised we did not afterall have much time left! Somewhere in the middle of the time speeeeeeeeding by and the stove on full throttle I stopped taking pictures of the food.

Sure, we had a few mini disasters along the way… this cracked egg being the least of those mistakes…

AND, at dessert time, we had a case of “our tart runneth over” (aka liquid mascarpone) and Ben was assigned the guest duty of being Tart-cutter:

But we managed to serve dinner, and eat with a bunch of fantastic people (including the very cool Kimberley, whose presence is every bit as delightful, interesting and thoughtful as her writing). It was great! And everyone was still smiling and talking at the end, so I think we can call everything an overall success! Our menu was as follows:

    Prawns with lemon, chilli and feta – served with crusty baguette
    Baked baby carrots with orange, ginger, miso and tamari – recipe here
    Chicken mole (our sauce comprised garlic, seeds, spices, tomato, chilli and chocolate)
    Wild rice with sliced almonds and raisins
    Berry and mascarpone tart

Thank you Kath, Ben, Komal, Quinn, Kimberley and Kirsty for a very full and fun Saturday evening (we missed the few people who couldn’t come along this time, and look forward to having you come next time)!