Thai Food Made Easy: the food

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This book was sent to me by the publisher at no cost.

In the last post I discussed the appearance of the book (overall, very easy to use). This post is about the food. I’ve only cooked a few dishes so far, but each one has worked as advertised. The short version is that everything has had an interesting balance of flavours, and most of them I would happily cook again.

Sesame chicken salad: blanched celery, poached chicken, a dressing of chilli and garlic and ginger and spring onion and fish sauce and vinegar. So easy, so fresh, so lovely.

Pork and pickled cucumber salad: well, the cucumber doesn’t pickle that much, but look: I’m trying pork! This was delicious, with peanuts and coriander and mint and chilli and lime.

Prawn noodle salad (it hasn’t even been that warm here but I’m on salads anyway): more ginger! and coriander and peanuts. Again, so tasty. Would make a good starter at a fancy-pants dinner party.

Barbecued pork and herb salad: more pork! This marinade was ace: coriander seed, fennel seed, garlic, ginger, turmeric, five-spice, chilli, pepper… nom.

Massaman curry: look, I cheated and bought massaman paste. Whatever. This was fantastic. Slow cook the beef and THEN turn it into a curry with coconut cream and potato… definitely making this again.

Braised chicken with rice, turmeric and spices: like the label says. Easy and tasty.

… these are just a small example of what the book has to offer. I am dead keen to try the variation of chicken satay with lemongrass, turmeric and ginger, and the Thai fish cakes; pork belly may be in my future, and I may yet make a curry paste from scratch (again, I did do it a million years ago).

The one sad thing is that, as with Indian Made Easy, there have been a couple of instances where instructions did not entirely make sense: not making it clear how long to cook something (fortunately, that was common sense) or instructions to add a dressing at step 3… and then again at step 6. None of these are make or break, but they do surprise me in a book that should be more closely edited.

Thai Food Made Easy

51zOv8lLFgLThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Murdoch Books, at no cost. It’s available now: RRP $39.99.

As with my other book reviews, this will be in two parts. This post is about the book itself; the other will be about the cooking.

This book is in the same series as Indian Made Easy. The cover isn’t quite as pretty but as you can see it’s still very attractive. This is a fairly hefty book, at roughly A4 and about 250 pages. It’s presented with a recipe per page spread, with a colourful picture opposite. Most of these pictures aren’t too intimidating. Sometimes they are suggestions for how to present the food; other times they’re just of ingredients, or steps along the way of preparation. The recipes themselves are easy to follow, although as with Indian it still throws me to have the ingredients put into fresh/pantry/spices categories. It makes it easier when planning a shopping list, but not when I’m trying to find the quantity of something while cooking.

The book opens with an introduction claiming Thai food is “electrifying and invigorating” which can be true of course but I get eye-roll-y when these sorts of claims are made for a cuisine, as if to the exclusion of others. What I do like is the emphasis on the “rot chart” – proper/unified/balanced taste: hot and sweet, sour and salt. Thinking back on the recipes I’ve cooked from the book so far, that sounds right.

Next up is a “Top 12 star Experiences in Thailand”. I am not a huge fan, to be honest; it’s all a bit too tourist-y squirmy. No, I don’t know what the alternatives are for UK and Australian readers either.

What I do like is the section outlining what the different ingredients are that are essential to Thai cuisine, from lemongrass to tamarind pulp. This is a very useful little section to get your head around the different flavours. I also like the “15 must-have herbs and spices”, mostly because it lists some of the prime recipes that use each one, so if you buy a good knob of ginger you know there’s at least five recipes you could use it in (there’s way more).

The recipe sections themselves are divided into snacks and finger food (several spring rolls); salads; slow roast, smoking grill and hot wok; fish and seafood; curries and soups; rice, noodles and sides; desserts and drinks. I like the way that this suggests the range of recipes and types of food that Thai offers, and makes it easier to pick what sort of food you’re wanting to make. And then I really, really like the ‘menu planner’ section at the end. It has seven suggestions for what sort of meal components to put together, and although I m dubious of their ‘midweek dinners’ with five courses (some courses not a lot of effort, but still!) I deeply appreciate examples of how to balance different flavours and components across a whole meal and will probably get terribly ambitious some time and actually follow one of the suggestions.

Overall this book is pleasant to look at and easy to use. I anticipate using it a lot in the future.

The art of French cooking

As many of you will be aware, I am currently travelling. We had a few weeks of camping, and we’re now coming to the end of our month in Europe.

A fortnight before we were due to be in Paris, my darling suggested, out of nowhere, that we look into a French cooking class. Clearly, this was an inspired idea. After a bit of googling we found Le Foodist, which had exceptional online reviews and which had spots available for our last night in the city. We decided not to book for the market bit at the start, because we figured there wasn’t much point when we were leaving 12 hours later, and becuase we thought we might want more time doing museum-y sorts of things.

The food

Our menu consisted of cauliflower soup, coq au vin, and peach Melba (which as an Australian I found hilarious). Our class of  twelve was divided into different working groups at different times to do a range of prep. While doing so we tried different French white wine and two different Bries. We ate everything that we prepared. 

Cauliflower soup doesn’t sound all that exciting. This cauliflower soup, though, was topped with roasted cauliflower florets that had been brushed with curry powder; with boiled mussels – whose broth was added to the soup; and with dots of truffle oil. (I have to get me some truffle oil.) It was exquisite. 

Coq au vin is something I have heard of, and may have eaten once or twice, but I haven’t made it. Making the sauce was a fascinating exercise: using a vegetable base and a large quantity of red wine which reduced to nothing, and then adding stock to turn it back into a sauce. Cooking the chicken was the most interesting part: salt and pepper on the chicken breast then rolling it up with plastic film into a sausage, and then boiling it for five minutes and resting for another five. It was delicious and succulent and this method is going straight to my must-repeat list. For the vegetables, we were introduced to not-melon-ballers: small spoon-like instruments with rounded ends that have a fancy name in French and come in a variety of sizes. These are used to carve balls from things like carrot and turnip. We were introduced to the sensible way to finely chop thinks like shallots. And we were shown how to make the best potato mash ever, which involved a fine sieve and a very large amount of butter.

For dessert, we made raspberry cousli and creme anglais, which then became ice cream, served with delightfully fresh peaches. It was a very simple dessert which was a good accompaniment to the fairly rich main meal.

The course

Our teacher, Fred, was excellent. He was good at dividing us into groups and showing us a variety of cooking techniques. He is passionate about food and French culture (the tag line of Le Foodist is “discovering culture through food”), and sharing his knowledge about food, the regionality of food, about Paris, and tricks for making food work. The premises aren’t huge, but there was enough space for the dozen of us to cut and stir without chopping anyone’s fingers off.  

Highly recommended. I absolutely intend to make chicken in this way when I am home; at some stage I would like to recreate the “au vin” part of the recipe too. I’m inspired to make cauliflower soup that really works – it gives me a reason to plant them again, too. 

Luke Mangan’s Sharing Plates: the food

Unknown.jpegWhen you have friends coming over for dinner, it makes sense to experiment on them with recipes from a book called Sharing Plates (sent to me by the publisher, Murdoch Books, at no cost; discussion of the book itself).

Rosemary popovers: these are in the Bread section of the book. You make a batter of flour, eggs, milk and rosemary, and then pour it into a muffin pan to bake. These were ok; they popped right out of the muffin holes (maybe mine were deeper than the 60mL specified in the recipe), which was amusing. I found them a bit too eggy to really enjoy like a bread roll, which is what I was assuming they would be like. The recipe calls for it to be served with seaweed butter (adding dried seaweed); I neither have easy access to an Asian grocery nor the inclination to try seaweed this way at home. I put thyme into some butter instead, which is still in keeping with the book as it does say you’re allowed to experiment with other herbs. I made 8, so they certainly count as ‘sharing’ food.

Salad of roasted pumpkin, chorizo, chickpeas, quinoa and blue cheese: from the Snacks and Salads section. I’ll be upfront and say I am made a few alterations to this. I don’t like blue cheese so I used a very good Persian feta instead; I left out the roast capsicum because I couldn’t be bothered; and I didn’t make/use the cabernet sauvignon dressing because I thought the chorizo left enough oil to dress the quinoa, and the chorizo and seasoned pumpkin and feta together all seemed to add enough zing. I did like the combination here of using quinoa and a few chickpeas with the chorizo and roasted pumpkin; the walnuts on top added a good crunch, and the preserved lemon a piquant tang. In the past I have made similar salads with couscous; I think quinoa is a bit lighter, and I’ll tend towards it from now on (remembering to not let it burn in the pot…). I guess salad counts as a sharing food?

Chermoula lamb: I wanted to use the salad, above, so I mixed n matched with the Chermoula lamb with pumpkin couscous, from the Meat section. Perhaps you can buy chermoula somewhere in Australia as a marinade, but I’ve not noticed it. I assume this because the ingredients list says “30g chermoula; 6x80g lamb loins…”. I’ve used chermoula before so I was happy to go make it, but I was really surprised to see if referenced here as something you would just buy. The chermoula/lamb combo was fine. To be honest I don’t really see how this counts as a ‘sharing plate’ since there’s nothing more ‘sharing’ about this than with any other recipe that serves 4-6 people.

Bounty bars: from the Sweets section. I was pretty excited about making these – the ingredients are straightforward (butter, sugar, condensed milk (!!), coconut, chocolate) and I love a Bounty. And yes, they were very tasty, and of course licking the bowls was lovely. However the instruction that “Using two forks, dip a bar into the melted chocolate and roll to coat all sides. Use one fork to remove the bar from the chocolate and the other to wipe off the excess chocolate” (p213) is deceptive. That process was far more difficult than implied: the bars had been in the freezer, to solidify, so the chocolate just stuck to them really quickly – removing excess was hard. And just getting them into and out of the chocolate was a process. Perhaps I need to use a wider-mouthed bowl, but that’s not specified in the instructions. In the end, because of how annoying the process was and because of just how much chocolate was ending up on each bar, I gave up on covering the whole thing and went with fairly serious drizzling instead. This was far easier and still, I think, deposited a good amount of chocolate on the bar. Having learnt this trick I would be happy to make these again. I did indeed make the 15 suggested by the recipe… they do count as a ‘sharing’ plate in that respect, although given that they are meant to last for a week in an airtight container, you could just as easily not share them…

At other times

Sumac-spiced pork and vela meatballs with fontina mash: the meatballs were great, although I couldn’t pick up the sumac, which was sad and perhaps not surprising since you put in the same amount of ground coriander, and then some allspice, paprika, and pepper as well. The recipe calls for you to have bacon in the mix, which I think is intriguing, as well as pork back fat… which I couldn’t find, so I just left it out. Not sure what difference it would have made, of course; perhaps smoother texture? I thought they were fine, anyway. The tomato sauce had anchovy in it, which I like for the salt and umami flavour. The potato mash was intriguing – milk, cream, butter, parmesan, and fontina. I did not add cream, because I don’t tend to have it just sitting around, but I did go out and buy some fontina specifically. Fontina is not a cheese I would willingly eat, being much stinkier than I enjoy… but I was intrigued by its addition to the mash, and I quite liked it. Having said that, I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to source fontina for future mash: it’s not that easy to find, and it’s not particularly cheap, either. I’d be happy with either more buttery mash, or adding parmesan. The meatballs and the tomato sauce were very nice. Once again, unconvinced that this really deserves the moniker ‘sharing plate’; yes you can share it, yes it would be a nice cosy dinner party meal, but… it’s not something other than that.

Lamb empanadas: certainly count as sharing plates, and these were delightful. However, the info bar at the top said it made 10 empanadas; the ingredients list specifies 4 sheets of puff pastry; and the instructions say to use a coffee mug or glass to cut “10 rounds from each sheet”…

Things I haven’t cooked but give a sense of what the book is like: the first recipe is Quail eggs benedict with chilli kale on mini muffins; the final recipe is Soft Swiss meringue with berries and almond anglaise (actually the very last recipe, in the Basics section, is Wasabi Dressing).

Julie Goodwin’s Essential Cookbook: the food

Julie Goodwin's Essential CookbookThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now; RRP $39.99.

Yesterday I talked about the book as an object; today I will discuss some of the recipes I’ve followed.

Because this is aiming to be an ‘essential’ for the Australian family, I thought I should make some things that I was already pretty familiar with, to be able to see how these compare with things I’ve already made.

Savouries

Osso bucco. I don’t always – in fact, never – brown the meat before throwing in the slow-cooker, but I did this time. The recipe isn’t specifically for a slow cooker but it is suggested as an option at the top of the recipe.

Cheesy meatballs: stuff a piece of mozzarella inside straightforward meatballs (3/4 pork, 1/4 beef) that already have parmesan in them too? Oh heck yes I am there for that. These were great, and easy.

Chicken and chorizo paella: very tasty, very easy. Not Goodwin’s fault that I kept itching to stir it because I have way more experience with cooking risotto.

Cannelloni: stuffed with ricotta and peas and pine nuts, wrapped in fresh lasagne, baked with a tomato sauce. These were fantastic; I’ve not used fresh lasagne sheets before and it’s a great idea (cut in three, width-ways).

Sweet

IMG_1431.JPGScones! I have made scones before, and have recently discovered that the point is to mix them very lightly. Goodwin makes this point strongly. They weren’t perfect but that’s my fault: I didn’t turn the oven on early enough so it wasn’t as hot as it should have been, and my guest was arriving soon… so I had to cook them for longer than prescribed. Nonetheless they were quite tasty, and as light in texture as I had hoped. I am intrigued by the notion of adding lemon zest; I didn’t add as much zest as suggested (three lemons’ worth) partly because I wasn’t going to make the curd (next time, Gadget) and partly because I didn’t want the lemon to overwhelm the jam I was going to use (it was Kate’s jam, so you know… gotta let stars have their moments). The zest was definitely an excellent addition and I’ll be adding it from now on.

Apple crumble slice: I had to leave out the almonds because I was taking them to a nut-free venue, but nonetheless this was very tasty and successful. They kinda tasted like blondies, so I’m tempted to add white chocolate next time; I would also add more apple, as “three Granny Smiths” is not specific enough.

Overview

The recipes are easy to follow and those I’ve tried are great. This falls under what I guess would be “modern Australian” cooking: Beef Wellington, apple crumble, Victoria sponge and lamb sausage rolls; Greek chicken tray bake, coq au vin, Vietnamese fish curry, and Lebanese chicken… I have no hesitation in recommending this to someone just starting out in cooking, or someone who wants a good all-round home cooking book because they have plenty of speciality books already.

25 years of Nebbiolo

IMG_1436 copyI enjoy wine, but I am by no means a connoisseur. For me, going to an event like this (with friends Gillian and Andrew), is an interesting exercise – doing a vertical tasting of the same variety of wine to see if I can actually taste a difference in them. It’s also usually more about the food and company though.

Organised as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, this was a celebration of Pizzini Wines having made wine, and especially nebbiolo, for a quarter of a century. We didn’t get to drink any of that first vintage because they drank it all…

IMG_1437.JPGIn the first bracket, I was a bit embarrassed to admit that I really didn’t enjoy the 1993, although it did actually improve with some air (I’ve always been a bit sceptical of this claim). The 1995 was definitely my favourite of this trio, although the 1997 was also fine. The 21st century wines, however, were far more to my liking. The 2004 in particular was very drinkable… we later discovered that this vintage was stored in new oak, which basically equates to sugar in wine-making terms; thus, no surprises. The 2006 was fine – I would drink it although it wouldn’t be my choice; I found it too dry – and and 2011 was a bit meh, although it too improved with some air; it didn’t have quite the flavour of the 2004. The last pair were intended to be a bit special, and they certainly were. Sometimes I have tasted wine that’s meant to be all ‘this is the reason we have a top shelf’ and I’m all ”I’d pay $25 a bottle”. The 1998 magnum was quite tasty. The 2004 Coronamento, though, was definitely the best wine of the evening. I don’t have the training to use all the proper wine-snob words, so all I can say is: it was very, very tasty.

The vertical tasting was definitely worth it in that sense – the same grape tasting different based on growing conditions and time in bottle and all those sorts of things. It was a good education in that.

…well, the Coronamento was the best nebbiolo, anyway. Because not listed here was the final wine we tried: we tried it out of a cask, because it hasn’t actually been bottled yet. I don’t know if it has a name but it’s made from trebbiano grapes, is a dessert wine, and whooooaa. A. Maze.

The food was provided by Project 49, in the restaurant which isn’t officially open yet. The first course was a wee plate of four types of mushrooms, accompanied by a white bean puree and truffle paste with dehydrated/rehydrated mushrooms and was spectacular. Next was a risotto of pine nut, pear, pear, ash… and rabbit. And it was also amazing. Then main was two thick slices of a pan-fried sausage, which was a bit like chorizo and all caramelly from the frying and delicious, with lentil and pickled radish. So good. Dessert was fig-leaf pan cotta and rhubarb, with a hazelnut shortbread. Overall, I enjoyed the food more than the wine (except for the trebbiano); this is no reflection on Pizzini and absolutely a reflection on me!

The event was well-organised, with quite a small number of people and tables fairly well spaced – it was still a pretty loud environment, thank you concrete floors, but it was bearable. There were four members of the Pizzini family present (it’s family owned and run), with one at each table, and they were pleasant and generous with their time and knowledge. Papa Pizzini should have been made to use notes, though, when he spoke… The Project 49 staff were delightful, and the food as noted was excellent.