Sunday, August 28, 2011

Soak it and see.

Lately my food nerd tendencies have been running hot and I’ve had salt on my mind - specifically the effect of salt on particular foods. In his TV series “Search for Perfection” Heston Blumenthal explored the effect of salt on meat, doing his own culinary “Mythbuster” style experiments and proving among other things that the old cook’s myth of – “don’t salt meat before cooking it or it will draw all the moisture out” was utter bollocks. In fact, the opposite was true.

Brining - the practice of soaking food in salted water - is an age old technique that was originally done in order to preserve meat. In ye olde brining times, the mixture would have been very salty – and the resulting effect was very salty meat. In more recent times, brining is used less for preservation purposes and more for the effect that it has on the texture and taste of the meat. Modern brining liquids are not as salty, allowing the natural flavour of the meat to shine through.

Ok, I’m not a food scientist, but from my research here is what I’ve discovered - by soaking meat before cooking in a brine mixture of salt, sugar and water, the cells of the meat are hydrated via osmosis. During the cooking process, the brine causes the protein in the meat to coagulate, which in turn traps water molecules within the cells. This stops the meat from dehydrating – the cause of dry, stringly meat. After brining, the result is moist, tender, juicy flesh. Sounds awesome.

In the interests of my own culinary education, I decided to experiment with brining a whole duck on the weekend. The process I used was to brine it prior to cooking and then roast it over coals on the BBQ. A lot of the material I read about brining mentioned that one of the effects of the process is to make it harder to achieve a crisp skin on meat such as chicken, turkey or duck. It was suggested that after the brining is completed, the poultry should be placed in the fridge uncovered for a few hours, to allow the outer skin to dry a little so that it will crisp up properly later. That seemed to make sense to me, so I followed this advice. A big part of the joy of well cooked poultry is a crispy skin and I wasn’t going to forego that.

I chose to add some extra flavours to my brine mixture - juniper and fennel seed. After the brining process, the duck was cooked over coals for just over an hour and a half. I filled the cavity of the bird with about 15 cloves of garlic and bay leaves before cooking. Here is how the duck looked as it was resting, waiting to be carved -

One brined and roasted duck

The result was really beautiful. The flesh was moist and had a lovely soft texture - duck can sometimes be a little stringy if not cooked well or allowed to dry out. I definitely think that the brining had the desired effect. The flesh was succulent and had great flavour. The fennel and juniper were very subtle, and the meat was not in the least salty. Lots of the formulas I researched for the salt/water ratio in the brining mixture were very different and I erred on the side of caution. Next time I will use slightly more salt to see if the effect is different. So here is the finished product, served as a Sunday night roast with baked potatoes, pumpkin and zucchini, peas and a cauliflower and fennel gratin. I made a gravy from the juices of the duck (poured off after resting). Gorgeous.

Sunday Roast - with brined duck

So, the great brining experiment was a great success. I will be trying it with chicken and red meat very soon. So, how did I do it? Here is my brining recipe for duck -

To brine a chicken or duck you will need: (For the basic brine) 1/4 cup Maldon Sea Salt, 1 tablespoon white sugar, 10 cups water.

To this, I also added 1 tablespoon roughly crushed juniper berries and 1 desssert spoon of fennel seeds (optional)

Method: First, dissolve the sugar and salt in 1 cup of warm water. Once dissolved, add the rest of the water and the juniper and fennel.

Place your meat in a bowl and then tip the mixture over the top. If it does not completely cover the meat, top up with a little more water.

Put the bowl in the fridge and allow the meat to soak for about 24hrs, or overnight.

Drain the meat and pat it dry before cooking it. After patting the inside and the outside of the bird dry, truss it ready for cooking (tuck the wings under and tie up the legs) and put it uncovered in the fridge for at least a couple of hours so that the skin can dry out further. This will ensure a nice crisp skin once it has cooked.

I cooked the duck for 1 1/2 hours, basting it from time to time. I rested the duck, covered in foil for about 25 minutes before carving.

The best way to carve a duck is to remove the breasts whole and then cut them into reasonably thick slices. Then cut the legs and the thighs of the bird from the carcass. Pick off any meat that is left from this process.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Happy Birthday - A Celebration Menu

On the weekend we headed up to the Central Coast to visit my inlaws Kate and Peter, who happen to both have birthdays in August. After thinking of and subsequently discarding numerous completely underwhelming birthday gift ideas, I decided that I would treat them to a nice birthday dinner instead. I decided on a classic menu, based around seasonal ingredients - starting with an amuse bouche of vivid green fresh pea soup - given a luxurious touch with the addition of black truffle, brought back from our honeymoon in France.

Amuse Bouche
Fresh pea soup with black truffle

My original plan was a fish entree, however on visiting the fishmonger I could not resist the lure of gorgeous W.A lobster tails, so I built the entree around them, combining them with a crisp potato rosti, creamy horseradish and lashings of delicious salmon roe. The lobster was tossed in a touch of sea salt, paprika and pepper - then lightly sauteed in french butter (a recent purchase from the Sydney Good Food and Wine Show)

Pan fried lobster tail with potato rosti,
horseradish creme fraiche and salmon roe

The main course used lovely plump Game Farm duck breasts, rubbed with L'herbes de province, and pan fried to crisp the skin, followed by a brief stint in the oven, then rested and carved. I served the duck with sugar snap peas, maple roasted Dutch carrots and delicious caramelised eschallots. A duck jus accompanied the dish. An old fashioned favourite, but a lovely end of winter dish.

Main Course
Roasted Duck breast with winter vegetables,
caramelised eschallots and duck jus

I decided against a super heavy dessert, given the richness of the lobster and the duck. A handmade coffee icecream completed the meal, served with a delicious almond praline. Icecream and praline are both great options for a dinner party - you can make them a day or two ahead and they lend themselves to all sorts of presentation ideas. You can serve the icecream in slices, or as a base for posh icecream sandwiches, or go for sundaes or cones. I served our icecream and praline in lovely little paper patisserie cups I found in a homewares store last weekend, keeping it simple.

Handmade coffee icecream with almond praline

The birthday dinner was a great success (I have decided to make it a yearly event) and Kate and Peter enjoyed having their dining room turned in to a restaurant for the night. Andrew provided his services as Sous Chef, waiter and dishwasher, which made everything go very smoothly, so I could just concentrate on the food. Special mention should also be made of the beautiful French champagne and wine that we enjoyed, courtesy of Peter's fabulous (and seemingly bottomless!) cellar.

One of the greatest joys of cooking for me is creating dishes for the people I care about, and Saturday night was no exception. I'm so glad that we ditched the dodgy birthday gift ideas and went with something personal and more meaningful. Happy Birthday Kate and Peter! Now.... to start musing on what to cook for you next year...........


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How now luscious cow!

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a butchery class run by artisan butchers Victor Churchill, as part of the Sydney Good Food and Wine Show. As well as learning to break down a lamb (yep, I’m now a whizz with a boning knife!) I was fascinated to learn about the different techniques for raising cattle, the importance of knowing where your meat comes from, sustainable farming, the processing and ageing of meat and the difference between a good quality product and a bad one. I walked away knowing a whole lot more than when I walked in and with a burning desire to build on that knowledge. I am planning to attend a more detailed butchery course in the near future – I fear I may have missed my calling!

After benefiting from the incredible wealth of knowledge from the Victor Churchill butchers, on the weekend we decided to pay the shop a visit and to treat ourselves to the crème de la crème of beef – premium Wagyu. From the minute you step into the shop you know you are in for something special. Here are people who care passionately about what they sell and who present it with the upmost respect and so much style. The shop and everything in it is a beauty to behold. Visit the shop at 132 Queen Street Woollahra, NSW or have a virtual visit online at

Australia has gone Wagyu crazy in the last few years and the market is flooded with all sorts of product claiming to be Wagyu. If you intend to purchase Wagyu, you want to ensure that you are getting the real deal. In Australia, beef can be sold as Wagyu with only 50% Wagyu genetics – and unfortunately most of what you will see labeled as Wagyu at the local butcher will fall into this inferior catergory. Good quality premium Wagyu must actually contain 100% full blood Wagyu genetics. The breed originates from Japan and is highly prized for the intense marbling of fat, making it melt in the mouth tender and giving it a sublime flavour. Wagyu actually means "Japanese Beef".

Wherever you purchase your Wagyu, ask the seller about the origin of the meat and ensure that what you are buying is actually proper Wagyu. Expect to pay in the vicinity of $185 a kilo for the authentic premium article. If your butcher can’t verify that it is 100% full blood, or can’t tell you where it’s come from, my advice is to forget it and cook something else for dinner!

Wagyu is graded according to the amount of marbling in the meat. Here in Australia, it is rated on a scale of 1-10 (in Japan the scale goes from 1-12) We chose 600 day dry aged, grain fed, scotch fillet cuts with a rating of 9+, so we are talking premium product here.

Blackmore's Wagyu 
600 Day Grain Fed, Dry aged Scotch Fillets

The Wagyu we chose came from the Victorian farm of the Blackmore family – at the forefront of Australia’s leading premium quality beef. The Blackmores have been farming award winning purebred Wagyu for over 20 years. Their Wagyu boasts 100% full blood Wagyu genetics and are not diluted with any other breed, making it a very high quality product. We were blown away by the standard of the meat - it was, quite simply, the best beef I have ever eaten. If I could hug the whole Blackmore family and their entire herd, I would!

For more information on Blackmore's Wagyu, their history and sustainably grown beef, check out their website.

What 9+ grade marbling looks like

So, how did I cook our precious Wagyu? Originally we had planned to cook it over coals on the BBQ, however we were advised against this due to the very high grade of the meat and the 9+ rating of the marbling. The concern was that as the fat throughout the meat melted, it would drip onto the coals and cause the flames to flare up too much, burning the meat.

For this reason I cooked it on a grill pan on the stove, sprinkling a little sea salt into the dry pan and then cooking the meat for 3 minutes each side. I then transferred the meat to a 200C oven for a few minutes and then rested the meat for 5 minutes before serving. Because of the superb quality of the meat, I did not add a jus or sauce, preferring to enjoy the Wagyu unadulterated. On the side, we had simply steamed fresh beans and creamy mash – made super special by the addition of beautiful French butter and Tetsuya’s Truffle Salt. To - die - for. (You can buy Tetsuya's Truffle Salt at some gourmet stores or on Tetsuya's website)

Cooked to perfection
with creamy mashed truffle potatoes and green beans

Good quality Wagyu is extremely rich, so it is recommended that you serve about 250 -300g per person maximum. Although we purchased two steaks, we cooked one large scotch fillet between us and then cut it in half at serving time – it was more than enough for two. The flavour is very sweet and buttery, so I would avoid any kind of buttery sauce with it. If you must serve a sauce with it, lean towards something with a touch of acid (lemon, vinegar) to balance out the richness. Me? I think that the meat speaks for itself.

There is no doubt that good Wagyu is expensive, but I would rather savour one sublime serving of this every month or so, that eat any meat at all for the rest of the time. It's really that good.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ruby Pudding

I love all things red. I love red cars, red sunsets and red flowers. My house (and my kitchen) is full of red things. I wear red lipstick and shoes, I drink my tea from a red cup and wear red scarves to protect me from the cold. Hell, I even got married in red!! My love of red definitely extends to food of the same hue - cranberries, chillies, capsicums, tomatoes, beetroot - all gorgeous. Well today's recipe is inspired by three of my favourite red fruits - rhubarb, raspberries and strawberries. I wanted to create an easy pudding based on what I had in the fridge and the pantry, using those beautiful red fruits as the stars of the dish.

The result was my own version of what is pretty much a bread and butter style pudding - but made special by the beautiful red fruit, a handful of macadamias left over from making something or other and a touch of my Nanna Ethel's sublime homemade apricot jam. If you don't have jam lovingly made by your Nan, then use a supermarket brand if you need to. I think you could easily adapt this recipe to use not just bread, but leftover croissants or brioche, as well as using other fruit or nuts.

Anyway, here is what I came up with - a dessert I have named  Ruby Pudding. I also took the opportunity to serve the pudding on my lovely vintage green patterned plates that I found in a flea market in Paris, while I was on my honeymoon recently. As well as enjoying the delicious pudding, I was reminded of a gorgeous day spent  with Andrew, fossicking through the french market looking for treasures, stopping for cafe au lait and trying out my dodgy french on the antique dealers. I came home with those green  plates, some old silver, an antique pastry cutter and beautiful tapestry fabric. A beautiful day. Enough memories - dessert time!

Ruby Pudding - straight out of the oven

Served on my French flea market plates
- with lashings of fresh cream.

You will need: 300ml cream, 1 cup milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla essence, 2 cups sugar, yolk of 5 eggs, 1 whole egg, 2 tablespoons apricot jam, about 10 slices white bread (a day or two old is fine), 1 cup raspberries (I used frozen ones), 4 or 5 stalks of rhubarb, 2 punnets strawberries chopped into pieces, about 150g butter, 1 tablespoon chopped macadamia nuts.

Method: Preheat the oven to 200C. Trim all of the leaves off the rhubarb and cut into 5cm pieces. Place on a tray lined with baking paper and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from the over and sprinkle over ¼ cup sugar. Return to then oven for 5 minutes. Take the rhubarb out again and add the chopped strawberries and sprinkle with another ¼ cup sugar. Return the tray to the oven and cook for another 5-10 minutes, or until the rhubarb is just soft. Try not to mush up the fruit too much – you want it to stay in quite chunky pieces.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cream, milk, vanilla, 1 cup sugar, egg yolks and whole egg. Whisk together until well combined. Set aside.

Butter the slices of bread on both sides. Line a deep dish with one layer of bread. Add some of the rhubarb/strawberry mixture and a few raspberries. Sprinkle with some of the remaining sugar. Repeat until you have used all of the ingredients, ending with a layer of bread on the top.

Heat the apricot jam and brush this over the top of the bread. Sprinkle over the macadamia nuts. Bake at 200C for about 45-50mins until golden. Allow the pudding to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Serve with freshly whipped cream.

Friday, August 5, 2011

70's Restaurant Revisited - Salmon En Croute

Ahhhhhh.... pastry!!! Is there nothing that can't be enhanced by being enveloped in a golden, puffy shell of buttery goodness? I will happily knock up a batch of shortcrust pastry, however I think I join most people in being a bit daunted by making my own puff pastry and opt for buying those super convenient sheets that can be pulled out of the freezer on a whim.

Recently at the Good Food and Wine Show in Sydney I was lucky enough to come across a producer of beautiful pre made pastry called Careme. Based in the Barossa Valley, they produce a variety of gorgeous hand made pastry varieties, rolled and ready to use. The quality will knock your socks off - like nothing you will find on the supermarket shelf. I am a complete convert to their gorgeous products and although they cost more and may be a bit harder to find, they are definitely worth it for the top notch results they give. To find out how to get your hands on beautiful Careme pastry, check out their website for more information:

Today's recipe used a sheet of Careme puff pastry and is actually what I would classify as a super retro and frankly out of fashion pastry dish - up there with Vol au Vents! But let's be honest here, who doesn't still love a Vol au Vent? I decided to totally embrace the 70's trend for wrapping things in pastry and thought I would resurrect an old 70's restaurant/dinner party favourite - Salmon En Croute. Salmon, pastry.... what's not to like? I have taken this dish and added a delicious creamy cauliflower puree to the mix and also included some lovely fresh herbs. The result is a delicious, easy dish that looks a bit more posh and technically difficult than it actually is. So, pretend it's 1975 and get your Salmon En Croute on!

Layering the ingredients.........

Wrapping, glazing and finishing with poppy seeds........

Fresh from the oven, ready to be plated up.......

Salmon En Croute
with sugar snap peas and asparagus

You will need: 1 large fillet of salmon (about 500g), 1 sheet puff pastry about 30cm x 30cm. (I use Careme brand but any kind will work) 1 egg, 1 teaspoon water, 1/2 whole Cauliflower, 3 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons cream, 3 tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese, 2 tablespoons chopped continental parsley, 1 tablespoon chopped dill, 2 tablespoons chopped chives, 1 teaspoon finely chopped thyme or lemon thyme, 1 tablespoon poppy seeds, salt and pepper.

Method: First, make the cauliflower puree. Cut the cauliflower into florets and boil in salted water until soft. Drain well and puree. Add 2 tablespoons of the butter, cream, parmesan and season very generously with salt and pepper. Mix well and set aside to cool.

Carefully remove any bones from the salmon using a pair of tweezers. Now remove the skin and season the salmon with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 220C. Mix all of the herbs together in a small bowl.

Line a tray with baking paper and place the sheet of puff pastry on the tray. Spoon the cooled cauliflower puree on to the pastry and sprinkle half of the herbs over the top. Now place the salmon on top of the puree and sprinkle the rest of the herbs over the fish. Put the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in small bits over the fish. Season again with salt and pepper.

Whisk the egg in a bowl with 1 teaspoon of water. Fold the pastry until it meets in the middle and pinch the edges together well (you don’t want it to pop open during cooking) Do the same with the ends. Brush the parcel with the egg mixture and sprinkle the poppy seeds over the top. Put a few holes in the pastry with a knife to let any steam escape while the parcel cooks.

Bake at 220C for about 20-25 minutes until the pastry is puffed and golden. Allow to rest for 5 minutes before cutting into slices and serving.

Serves 2-4 people