Tag Archives: cooking

Embracing the spirit of French cooking

I had my first French meal and I never got over it.
~ Julia Child

I remember only a few things about my first trip to France. Being fascinated and enamoured by the French dish and its name – soupe de poisson (fish soup). Discovering the folly of eating at McDonalds in France (never to be repeated). Trying to enjoy the view from the Eiffel tower while the cold wind whipped my hair into a formidable tangle.

Then, I was a child too young to grasp the notion of romance, or the charm of the French spirit and culture. I was cold, and unaccustomed to eating so much dairy, or indeed, what seemed to be very rich food no matter where we went. I focused on the wrong things, like trying to spot signs in English, or getting my parents to buy me a miniature Eiffel Tower to take home. I ate escargot In Lyon without fuss – thanks to my food-loving family – but without the appreciation for the novelty of eating escargot in France which I would now have.

Years later, the magic of France would once again beckon, this time through a friend asking me to join her at the Alliance Française for evening classes. She had recently fallen for a French man. I rolled my eyes but oui, I went along. And twice, after class, we took the train down to a little French restaurant nestled in Little India in Singapore where we ate – I forget what now, except that our meals were unbelievably delicious. As life will have it, mere weeks later, I encountered a French man who – despite my inhibitions – managed to make me lose my head briefly. Alas! My friend had told me it would happen. She had warned me that I would find a French man “irresistible”. No, that will never happen to me, I had said to her, I will vomit if someone is too romantic. Also, it would be such a cliché.

Never be proud. Never say never. Or you’ll have to eat your words one heavy morsel at a time … c’est la vie

I went back to Paris in 2010 with my friend Annisha, after I spent a few days visiting her in London. We were there for a day. Our brief visit was nice but a little less than what we had hoped it would be. Annisha was feeling quite ill, we were so cold we could hardly think, and we were not successful in getting to the places we had hoped to see. The main redeeming moment for me was us, lost and hungry, stumbling upon a small humble hole-in-the-wall shop that turned out to have the most stunning slice of Tarte Aux Pommes.


From my visit in 2010

Here we are in 2017 and my heart aches for some of the things that have taken place and are taking place in beautiful France (not to mention the rest of the world). Yet as I pen this post I know that there are some things which will endure for as long as the French spirit endures. Her timeless beauty, her rich history, her elegance, her decadence, her soul, her charm, her deep connection with the seasons, her rituals, her ability to celebrate the everyday, to name a few …

For some reason France has been on my mind a lot of late, and yesterday, looking at some leftover wine from our dinner party last week, I decided to try making a version of coq au vin. I can hardly describe how good it smells frying sliced white onions and diced carrots in a pan just recently used to fry tiny strips of bacon and brown a few wine-stained chicken pieces. Sadly the finished dish did not turn out as I had hoped, despite the good smells and presence of good wine and a pretty bouquet garni. I had not followed any one recipe for it in particular, but I have definitely learned now that it is not a dish that deals well with indecision or an attempt to shortcut the process. It is a simple dish, but it is not easy … it is not a dish you can make without presence of mind and attention to detail. I have no doubt a well-made coq au vin would make a memorable meal … some time I will try again.

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After spending the afternoon in the kitchen, I asked my husband if he would come with me to visit the Green Bay Street Food market. We went along, it was delightful, and – still in French mode – I could not resist a crêpe with Nutella from the friendly couple running The Fab Truck. Verdict: C’est délicieux!

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This morning I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, having had a series of unsettling dreams. For some reason or other I found myself looking up Julia Child’s recipe for scrambled eggs online. I then went into the kitchen, placed a saucepan on medium-low heat, and slid a generous chunk of butter into the saucepan. While it melted with a pleasing aroma, I beat two eggs quickly in a bowl with a dash of salt and pepper and slid a slice of frozen bread into the toaster. Swirling the butter in the saucepan until it evenly coated the bottom, I poured the eggs in, and cut up some leftover chives I had in the fridge. I stirred the mix with a wooden spoon, watching as the bottom started to cook – at which I added in a dribble of milk and gave it a slow stir again. The slice of toast popped out nicely brown. I put it on a plate with a sprinkle of grated cheese, and stirred the soft egg mixture again till it looked almost done. I took the saucepan off the heat, ladled the egg on to the toast, added the chopped chives over the lot … and found The Cure for Unsatisfactory Sleep.

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… And perhaps gained a little more practical understanding of the spirit of French cooking: taking care and effort, being unafraid, allowing elegance and simplicity to meet in a dish as simple as scrambled eggs.

Bonne journée.

Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.
~ Julia Child

Caramelised onions, rapid ragù and a diary you should buy

Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.
~ Anne Lamott

Today has been one fantastic day.

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For a while now, I have felt a soul and body sensation somewhat akin to constant choking. There have been many moments where my mind kept saying “dooooon’t wooooorrryyy” or “sloooooow down!” while my body and heart fluttered with anxiety and insomnia.

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I really, really don’t want to see another night-to-day transition happen outside the window while the rest of New Zealand (except fellow insomniacs or night-shift workers) get to play in Dreamland.

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I guess the year’s been a little crazy. It’s been unspeakably wonderful in a thousand different ways, and it’s also driven me completely out of my comfort zone. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for seven months, and I’ve been in 12 cities in three countries this year. That’s not much for people on an OE or for people who love ongoing plan-less spontaneity, but I’m not either of those things.

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Right, first world problems.

Got it.

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They’re still a little tough :-o

(The First World Problem Lady Whines)

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Recently, in the midst of a dark passage of stress and insomnia, I came to a very important realisation. That now is the BEST time to learn contentment, resilience, calm and all those quality things.

Today, I woke up, peered into the mirror and said, “I like your life. I don’t want ANY OTHER.” After I said it, I was surprised to realise that I really meant it. I really wouldn’t want to be anyone else. I’m really happy being me, with my personality, strengths, flaws, relationships, circumstances and all.

And then a few really, really good things happened. I’m still smiling as I type this.

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One of those things is that I *finally* got my hands on a Kiwi Diary! My friend Cathy told me about them a few years ago, and for some reason they stayed elusive… until today! At Commonsense Organics they sat on the counter like they had been waiting for me all along (okay, slight exaggeration, but only a slight one)!

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It’s every bit as beautiful, compact and spacious as I wanted my 2013 diary to be. Don’t you want one too?

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Another good thing that happened today was that I felt in the mood to Cook Properly. Dinner was started and finished in an hour and turned out nicely, and my lovely flatmate Jono helped me to eat it AND booted me out of the kitchen afterwards to tackle the dishes :-)

Here’s the approximate recipe, if you’d like it. As always, I recommend cooking by sight, smell, taste and instinct.

    Pappardelle with rapid ragù and caramelised onions
    Ingredients:
    Caramelised onions:
    Olive oil
    2 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
    pinch of cinnamon
    1 tbsp demerara sugar (or use normal)
    1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
    The rest of the dish:
    225g dried pappardelle (packet said 2 servings)
    1 tbsp butter
    3 cloves garlic
    450g mince
    1 sprig rosemary*
    1 sprig thyme*
    1 carrot, peeled and diced
    1 zucchini, diced
    400g canned diced tomatoes
    3 tbsp tomato paste or passata
    1/2 cup red wine
    Salt
    Black pepper
    3/4 tbsp demerara sugar (or use normal)
    Method:
    Over medium-high heat, glaze the bottom of a skillet with approximately 3 tbsp of olive oil. Once it’s warm, fling open the windows and throw in the onions. Cook for 15-20 minutes, adjusting the heat as required and stirring occasionally to avoid it burning. It should be smelling pretty great and turning slowly golden-brown. Add in a pinch of cinnamon, breathe in deeply. Stir well. After 5 minutes, add in the sugar and balsamic vinegar and cook for a further 5 minutes till it’s all rich, brown and soft. Pour them into a bowl.
    Turn the heat up again. Reusing the skillet, melt the butter, then add in the garlic and mince. Stir well, and add in the herbs. When the mince is partially cooked, add in the carrot and zucchini, and cook till the mince is just cooked. Then pour in the wine, tomatoes and tomato paste, lower the heat and let it all simmer for around 20-30 minutes. More time won’t kill it – just make sure it’s simmering and not splattering. At some point, stir in half of the caramelised onions (refrigerate the rest for another meal!), sugar and salt and pepper to taste.
    10 minutes before the sauce is due to be ready, bring water in a deep saucepan to a rolling boil. Throw in some salt, then add in the pappardelle and cook according to packet instructions or till al dente.
    Dish it up – pappardelle on plate. Ragù on top. Serve immediately.
    Yields 3 servings.

* I just used these because they were leftovers I had in the freezer – feel free to substitute with fresh / dried herbs you have on hand.

Lamb and coffee

I’ve got nothing to do today but smile.
~ Simon and Garfunkel

Glory of the humble steak.

For all its fuss-free ease (under eight minutes from pan to plate), it is one of my favourite experiences. Whisking clean laundry away into the bedroom (to avoid catching smells). Watching tiny showers of oil blitz with the sound of microscopic rockets onto the surface of the gas stove. Feeling fresh Wellington wind whip against my cheek as I stand at the hot stove with the kitchen window wide open. Seeing the meat lose its healthy blush and take on a golden, plate-ready glow. Slicing it, noting its soft seared / brown / pink layers… and just a trickle of juice flowing on to the plate.

Yesterday’s dinner: lamb steak, seared with ground chilli and a flick of oregano – and a fresh cup of black coffee on the side. I don’t want to say it was “magnificent”, since that seems too grand a word to bestow on a rapid dinner that took less than 20 minutes to prepare and eat… but to be honest, that is the word that flashed through my mind as I ate ;-)

And that is all I wanted to write about today. Good morning!

A shiny new header – and a kitchen experiment

The trees are God’s great alphabet:
With them He writes in shining green
Across the world His thoughts serene.
~ Leonora Speyer

I’m not sure there is an adequate way to describe art which makes your heart twinkle… alright, see the new header graphic above? How can one not smile at it? Do you like it? I think it’s more delicious than a generous slice of moist banana-chocolate cake… it makes me wish I was sitting up on that tree branch asking you to come up and join me for a cup of tea. It’s a dream, is it not? I hope you like it too, especially if you visit my blog often… thank you Mr Piper for designing it! :-)

Tonight was the first night in awhile of cooking for all my flatmates again, and I couldn’t decide what to make. Steak? Pasta? Something crazy? In the end, I decided to make do with whatever I could find…

So. Four potatoes. One pack of chicken thighs. Leftover salad. An orange. A lonely nashi pear. A small handful of hazelnuts. An even smaller handful of dried apricots. Hmm…

I like mentally choosing a dish, and going to the supermarket to buy what I need. I like walking around the market, thinking about what to make and buying what I need for it there. I like having a lot of ingredients to choose from and work with. Spontaneous as I am, I usually like feeling prepared ingredients-wise when I’m cooking for others… tonight, though, I decided to relax and try cooking something out of nothing, so to speak.

It was good fun.

Of course, our cupboards and fridge were not too desolate, which made things a little easier. I sliced the chicken thighs into mini strips, washed and cut the potatoes, set some rice to cook in a bubbling saucepan of water.

I fried the chicken strips in warm, shimmering olive oil with garlic, mustard, paprika and chilli, adding the apricots, hazelnuts and a sprinkle of dried basil and mint in later. Boiled the potatoes. Zested an orange, cut most of the orange into cubes, tossed it all in with the leftover salad and left a wedge of orange out to make a simple orange juice salad dressing. I dusted the nashi pear pieces with some salt and added them in to the salad (sweet and crunchy, so good!).

And there we have it… a random dinner. Ate with my flatmates, and it was great. As a bonus, Matt was so good as to wash the dishes too. :-)

Goodnight!

Oven-baked French Toast (or pudding?)

I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.
~ Eartha Kitt

Someone I know through work recently emailed me this: “I have just recently come to understand the journey is just as important as the destination.” How I love that. We were discussing the mysteries of life, but I am so reminded of his wise words as I write this post now!

I decided to invite a few friends around for brunch in the weekend – so on Friday, I went to buy ingredients for Oven-Baked French Toast and spent a glorious half hour preparing it.

It was the most beautiful night. Honestly. Listening to the pitter-patter of rain falling outside while slicing bread, zesting an orange, sprinkling raisins and almonds, whisking milk with eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg and a tiny amount of Baileys… It felt like a dream, and I was so looking forward to sharing perfect French Toast with my friends the next morning.

I arranged everything in the baking dish, glad-wrapped it and left the bread to soak in custard heaven while I slept…

Nothing could go wrong, right? Nothing. I awoke on Saturday morning with a smile on my face, and the French Toast still looked good as I slipped it into the oven. I even had time to toss 4 plates in the oven to warm them while the French Toast was baking. I had juice and coffee prepared. My friends arrived on time. Cutlery was on the table.

Within minutes, I smelled the awful smell none of us like at all – the odour of something burning. Gah, stupid raisins!! I really should’ve made a double-layered French Toast after all.

Worse still, in my haste to save the raisins, I put a layer of foil on the whole thing and baked it some more.

For Saturday brunch, we had soggy pudding with scorched raisins. My friends finished everything on their plates. A firm reminder of them being WONDERFUL people – and friends.

Well. This wasn’t so fun to eat, but it was a very fun journey (part of it anyway!) and the road to perfecting a delicious brunch continues…!

Things I can think of to make a more pleasurable oven-baked French Toast in future: try a different bread (a soft loaf, perhaps?) and form two layers of it with the raisins hidden in the middle. Aluminium foil should not be allowed to interfere with the cooking process either.

Does anyone have oven-baked French Toast tips to share? ;-)

Pork with celery in egg & lemon sauce

It is a solemn thought: Dead, the noblest man’s meat is inferior to pork.
~ Mark Twain

Over the weekend, we went walking along the waterfront… we still needed our coats, but the sun made its welcome presence felt nevertheless!

(There is something marvellous about eating pizza on a wooden bench by the waterfront too)

Last night, dinner was from Tessa Kiros’ “Falling Cloudberries”:
#58 Pork with Celery in Egg & Lemon Sauce – Page 112

This was a dish that smelled wonderful from the beginning – even when it was just sauteed onions and pork chunks in the pan. With the addition of garlic and some frothy sauvignon blanc it took on extra character – by the time my fingers smelled of celery & fennel, it felt so good just to stand and breathe. This dish took some time (almost 2 hours) to cook – a perfect way to get some reading done in between!

Alas, the eggs scrambled a little in the pan – it’s so important to mix the eggs in well before squeezing in the lemon, I learned! We ate the lot with slices of Vienna bread. Jono liked it, I liked the soft pork and the sauce, but not the abundance of cooked celery – as for Matt and John, I am not sure! :-/

PS. Thanks everyone who has commented and/or entered the giveaway draw so far – there are still 11 hours to go before the draw, so join in if you haven’t!

Thank goodness for hungry boys

A full belly makes a dull brain.
~ Benjamin Franklin

I met Annisha in my first few weeks at university, and somehow we stayed friends despite our awkward first conversation in class (I was shy and not so good at reading faces; she was having a “don’t talk to me!” day). 6 years later, I am sooooo glad we can roll off the couch in laughter, cook together in the kitchen, attempt singing French songs while in our pyjamas… you know those people with whom you can sit at a bus stop waiting for a late bus, and have fun the whole time? She is like that for me.

Wellington was blessed with warm sunny skies today and we made the most of it! We had coffee with Haidee at Espressoholic, then spent the afternoon strolling past the buskers on colourful Cuba Street, eating a late lunch, traipsing in and out of shops…… ahh, perfect! No urge to buy much however, except a very CUTE secondhand book “Accommodating Brocolli in the Cemetery – or why can’t anybody spell?” by Vivian Cook :-) On the back of this book is printed: “It is a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.” (US President Andrew Jackson). Ahhhh, language, words, English, I love you, even though you are one of the craziest languages in the world.

Passed this cute wall and window by Swonderful (a funky Wellington shop) and couldn’t resist snapping a photo of it:

Nish and I made dinner tonight for 3 boys (2 of them my flatties) and ourselves.

The cookbook project continues… from Tessa Kiros’ “Falling Cloudberries”:
#26 Greek-Cypriot Salad – Page 188
#27 Moist Chocolate Cake – Page 374

From the talented cook Nish:
Baked chicken with lemon, chilli and herbs
Potatoes

Salad: ‘generous’ is the way I would describe it – feta, tomatoes, cucumber, celery, oregano, onion, garlic, red wine and vinegar (the recipe had called for red wine vinegar which I didn’t have… oops)… for some reason I could imagine a large Greek family huddled around a table eating this.

Chicken: wonderful, fresh and flavourful with the lemon and chilli, browned and just yummy.

Potatoes: always the perfect complement to food, spuds. These were salted and herbed… heartiness.

Cake: butter, sugar, eggs, chocolate, flour, rum (used in place of brandy, which the recipe called for)… and a thickened sugar syrup poured on the top of it when it was cooled, to moisten it. I found this ok, but certainly not the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had ;-)

Sure glad the boys were here to help eat everything. Nish and I were way full from our 3pm lunch and could hardly stomach our food – and the glorious 3 boys sat eating, even saying the food was delicious, while it all disappeared into their skinny selves.