Monday, November 29, 2010

Dinners with Fish

I've been fairly time-poor over the last couple of weeks.  Hell, let's even say the last couple of years.  Between my full(+) time career and my husband's new business, selling a house, being involved in several weddings, babies born of friends and family, too many funerals and throw into the mix a few unexpected personal crises as well - it's been an intense time to say the least.  I started blogging almost a year ago, to get some balance back in my life; something just for me, combining my indulgences in good food, literature and self reflection.

So being a busy gal, I'm constantly on the look out for simple dishes that I can throw together on a moment's notice with little preparation involved (and photograph and blog about).  I love good fresh flavours and it just feels so damn good to eat well.  Certain cuisines tend to lend themselves to easy and healthy eating, such as your Mediterranean staples - such as pastas with three-ingredient sauces; or lightly cooked, in season vegetables.  There's also a lot to be said for seafood - especially because it's summer, and it's so easy and quick to cook. Usually the only hurdle is actually sourcing good quality and fresh seafood - once you've found it, you're about 90% of the way there.

I'm a fan of salad too - again, for it's simplicity and healthiness - and it matches wonderfully with seafood and fish.

A couple of examples you might feel inclined to try:

Green baby spinach and rocket salad with toasted pine nuts, shaved parmesan, marinated zucchini and aged balsamic, served with dukkah-crusted bbq'd rainbow trout.

Pan fried swordfish in garlic butter, topped with ruby red grapefruit and mint salsa, served with stir fried asparagus and lime.

Ruby Red Grapefruit and Mint Salsa topping for fish:

One ruby red grapefruit, peeled and segmented
lime juice
olive oil
mint, torn roughly
half a red onion, finely sliced
garlic clove, crushed
fish sauce

Put grapefruit segments in a bowl (keep juice), add juice of one lime.  The trick now is to add the remaining ingredients and taste along the way, adjusting flavours as you go.  Add about 2 tbs olive oil, 2 tbs mint, onion, garlic, and then shake in a very small amount of fish sauce and taste.  Season with salt and pepper, if you think it needs a little extra zing, add some vinegar or more citrus juice - lemon, lime or more grapefruit works well.  Leave it for about half an hour before coating the fish, the flavours tend to develop better.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Going to the "chapel" ...

On Friday I was honoured to be part of my little sister's marriage to a wonderful man, someone she's lived with for many years and who has already become very much a part of our family.  The whole shebang was very unique in some ways; but also with a large number of guests and quite traditional in others.  Overall though it was a great reflection of the kind of people my sister J and her new husband T are: fun and sociable, with great taste and a sense of child-like appreciation for the good things in life.  Lots of great music, food and dancing - which I suspect is really the true reason weddings were invented in the first place.

As usually happens, the heart-felt speeches and declarations of devotion and love got me reflecting on my own marriage, and the contrast in how my husband and I chose to tie the knot compared with so many of our friends and family.  Ours was a small ceremony (an overstatement) held in a small courthouse in a country where we did not speak the language, with less than half a dozen family members in attendance.  There was no white dress, no cake, no reception, or honeymoon; and the photos were taken by my new brother in law (and beautifully & simply done).  Fresh and lovely flowers were hastily bought as an afterthought on the way to the ceremony; and afterwards we stepped into a dimly lit, warm pub and shared a chilled Scandinavian beer, before enjoying a lovely dinner for four at a tiny restaurant nearby.  In a sense, the whole thing was unplanned and, some might (and did) argue, unfair to our parents and loved ones back home who would have no doubt loved to witness our "official" union as husband and wife.

But - romance and selfish needs aside -  there were other considerations.  Before T, I had already been engaged.  Twice.  And not overly keen on repeating the dramas, logistical difficulties and financial pain (not to mention politics) involved in organising a wedding.  We had both been involved in other people's weddings over the years, all too aware of the stress involved and wanting to keep things low key.  We'd dated for a year and had discussed our feelings for one another, knowing we shared the same important values and wanting to share our lives - but at the same time we knew we wanted to do something honest and true to ourselves.  Meaningful.  Quiet.  No-fuss and non-conventional.  We concluded that a marriage is far more important than a wedding.  We're very practical; but it doesn't make us monsters.

I'm by no means anti-wedding or a marriage naysayer (I believe in the power of love .. yeah!); but I am cynical about the wedding industry.  Which I'm sure anyone who's got half a brain - married or not - would agree with.  Even my well educated and normally very sensible and level-headed sister, on the eve of her wedding last week exclaimed (over a very strong cocktail on Chapel St) "I swore I wouldn't, but I've turned into a bride-zilla.  This is fucking BULLshit!"  Plus, marriage itself can still be deemed a status of sorts and tends to draw out all sorts of judgements from the very people who often have no business casting it.  I drew the conclusion a long time ago that marriage - while I still believe is a fundamentally good and wholesome place to be in any romantic relationship - doesn't always equate to a healthy and lasting union, and that some absolute gold medal partnerships are actually (gasp) "living in sin" or some other equally insulting reference to not having their relationship recognised in the legal or financial sense.

All that said, I'm glad my Dad got to walk at least one of his daughters down the aisle.  The look on his face and his glorious speech made me glad my sister had a "proper" wedding with all the trimmings; not to mention the wonderful opportunity to catch up with loads of relatives and friends in one fun filled evening.  It nearly made all of the cost, organisation, drama and tears worthwhile.  But most importantly, it was about two people declaring their love and devotion to one another, deciding to continue sharing their lives and loved ones by maintaining their creative, fun and whole selves.  I look forward to being part of it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Japanese" panko chicken salad

It's thanks to Masterchef Australia season two - and namely, one of its finalists Alvin - that I am now familiar with the wonders of a very special version of bread crumbs.  I remember well his double crusted fish and chips, made all the more crispy by using Japanese panko flakes.

So I went and bought some.  And then they sat in the pantry for a while until I stumbled across them this week.  I was inspired by watching Nigella recently.  She explained that her creative inspiration often comes from random ingredients or objects from different countries.  She then tries to do something easy with everyday "English" ingredients but reminiscent of the traditions of that culture.

I had the idea of a crispy chicken panko salad because it's nice to have a crunch contrasting with salad - sort of like croutons.  I chose a soft buttery lettuce and coated it lightly with some lime juice and good quality olive oil, salt and a little white pepper.

Put enough oil in a deep frying pan to shallow fry the chicken, and heat.  In the meantime, get three bowls: one with plain flour (seasoned with salt and pepper, and whatever else you feel like - dried herbs, chilli flakes - up to you!), one with two lightly whisked eggs, and one with half a pack of panko.

I use chicken tenders because they cook quickly and crisp up nicely, but you could use larger chicken pieces if you like.  First toss them in the flour, then shake off the excess and dip in egg.  Then transfer to the panko and coat well, gently pressing the flakes into the chicken.  Once the oil starts to shimmer in the pan, fry the chicken in batches until golden brown (turn to fry each side) and drain on paper towel.

Arrange them on top of the lettuce so they retain their crunch.  It's always nice to have some sort of dressing - keeping to the Japanese theme, I put small dishes of "kewpie" mayonnaise, mixed with a little wasabi paste on the side.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When life hands you lemons...

The last time I visited my mother in law she gave me bags and bags of lemons from her trees.  I use lemons frequently but even for me it was a lot!

Today I baked up a batch of friands, using one of the lemons and also a small amount of lonely looking raspberries that were sitting in my freezer.  I just have to share this recipe with you as it's super simple, and friands kick butt over muffins any day.  And the great thing about this recipe is that you don't have to fiddle around with half a dozen egg whites either.

Raspberry and lemon friands (makes 12)


-  Juice and finely grated rind of one lemon
-  100g unsalted butter, melted & cooled
-  1/3 cup plain flour
-  180g icing sugar
-  3 eggs, lightly whisked with a fork
-  100g almond meal
-  frozen raspberries, approx 36

Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees, and line a 12 hole muffin pan with patty cases.

Sift icing sugar and flour into a large bowl, mix in almond meal.  Add lemon juice, rind, melted butter, and eggs - stir until combined.

Spoon mixture into cases (they should be about half full), then top each one with a few frozen raspberries.  Put into oven and bake for 20-25 minutes or until risen and slightly golden on top.  

Best eaten warm with a big strong cup of tea.

Friday, November 12, 2010

That's one big chocolate bar

Happy birthday to my wonderful husband T - who turns 34 today.

T is a massive chocolate lover so it was fitting that I gave him a massive chocolate present...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Summer and Salad

I had hoped that over the last couple of weeks - given I've been on leave - I would have had plenty of opportunities to hang about at home perusing lovely new cookbooks relaxing, baking and blogging; but it was not to be.  As is often the case, the moment I have some time off from work, the rest of my life quickly melts in until all the days are full; family from country Vic and interstate who haven't been seen for months, bridesmaid duties (three times in the last three years, I think this is my life's quota!), and taking the first tentative steps towards IVF that I'd hoped I'd never need to, along with several medical appointments.  Then, in true fashion, on my second last day of leave, I came down with a cold.

I used to always look forward to summer; not just the warmer weather but also the extended daylight hours.  Last minute trips to the beach or lake, enjoying a wine and conversation with a friend on a weeknight, BBQs and picnics.  I've decided that this year, I'm going to look forward to summer with the same enthusiasm I did before working in fire and emergency management.  Bring it on; and I'm sure I could use the Vitamin D.

Last weekend bought with it a magnificent day of sunshine, coinciding with my sister's hen's day, held at a huge beachside holiday house with a bunch of excited girlfriends.  It was BYO booze and salad; and the girls enthusiastically bought their favourites to comprise a magnificent buffet of summer food.  It got me thinking about my own salad favourites, and last night hubby T and I created an interesting combo of bbq'd chicken and haloumi, baby spinach, beetroot greens, mint and a creamy japanese mayo & garlic dressing.

One of the reasons I love salads so much is that there are no rules about what goes into them.  The possibilities are endless!  Think about the creation of a salad as putting artwork onto a canvas.  I often like to start with a base of salad greens which could include rocket, any variety of lettuce or other green things - use your imagination.  Then, put in some colour - such as roasted sweet potato, or bbq/grill some capsicum, chicken/lamb/beef, red onion, whatever takes your fancy.  Next, think about putting in some "zing" to lift the salad and complement the main flavour.  For example, if you've used grilled lamb, crumble over some feta.  Haloumi and fresh mint leaves go fantastically well together, as do toasted pine nuts with pumpkin or sweet potato.  And finally, dress it.  Balsamic glaze (available in most supermarkets) is an easy way to marry sweet and salty flavours.  Or use a base of mayonnaise (I love the japanese "kewpie" mayo, again, available in most supermarkets), mixed with crushed garlic, lemon juice, pepper and a little olive oil.  Just remember: you need some acidity to "lift" the salad from bland to special - a good dressing can also tie flavours together and turn your humble salad from a side dish to the star of the show.  Also consider combining different textures - think chunky crunchy sourdough croutons, toasted nuts, seeds, or creamy or crumbly cheese.  Go crazy!