Monday, January 25, 2010

A Middle Eastern Feast

In the last couple of years Rob and I have become increasingly fond of Middle Eastern food, particularly Lebanese. We visited Abla Amad’s little restaurant in Carlton a couple of years ago and were thoroughly inspired to try cooking the food ourselves. I found her book ‘The Lebanese Kitchen’ and we were off. Claudia Roden’s books ‘Arabesque’ and ‘A New Book of Middle Eastern Food’ also quickly became our food bibles. I love the freshness of the cuisine, with the lemon juice, fresh mint, parsley and coriander. The spice mixes such as Ras el hanout , Baharat and Za’atar are so fragrant, and have become a favourite way of adding flavour to lamb and chicken. The food culture of sitting down to a table of many small dishes, mezze, creating an array of flavours, colours, and aromas is so appealing. We had developed a repertoire of favourite dips, salads, kebabs and desserts to feed our friends. We have become so obsessed that a BBQ to us is always a Lebanese one!

So as I approached a particular milestone last year it came as no surprise (to Rob) that I decided upon a Middle Eastern Feast for 30 of my friends and family to celebrate. Half of the fun of this sort of entertaining for me is to pore over the recipe books, selecting and writing lists of ingredients and a plan of attack leading up to the day. The day dawned, and we found ourselves at the venue with all of our cooking gear, buckets of fresh herbs from the Hmong people, fillets of Ocean Trout, a couple of legs of lamb, chicken, a large mound of fresh flatbreads, yoghurt, lemons, sparkling wine and an array of desserts that I’d been preparing the whole week. Luckily one of my friends is far more artistic than me, so I gave her 100 candles, 30m of silky pink fabric, a couple of Moroccan lanterns, fresh lilies, rose petals and a staple gun, and let her loose to transform the room.

The feast consisted of:
Hummous – it’s compulsory!
Baba Ghannooj – I love the smoky eggplant flavour.
Muhammara – a roasted red pepper & walnut dip, seasoned with lemon juice, pomegranate molasses and cumin, with flat breads to scoop.

Tabbouleh- again another classic mezze dish.
Fattoush- a salad of mint, parsley and lettuce, with radishes, tomatoes, cucumber, a sprinkling of sumac and some crisp toasted flatbreads.
Cacik- a cucumber, mint and yoghurt salad, a favourite with lamb.
Salatat al Bataata- a minty potato salad.
Loubyeh bi Zayt- green beans cooked with tomatoes, olive oil and allspice, it is delicious warm or cold.

Ouzi- middle eastern roast lamb.
Djaj Mishwee bi Za’atar- chicken kebabs marinated in lemon juice and za’atar then grilled on a BBQ.
Samak Tarator- the Greg Malouf salmon dish I described recently.

Lokum- I made a mountain of Turkish Delight.
Baklawa-bright green with pistachios and dripping with the sugar syrup.
Nummoora – a semolina cake that is also bathed in sugar syrup.
Ma’amoul- date filled pastries.
Barrosi-crispy sesame seed biscuits.
Damascene Shortbread – a short and rich biscuit topped with a pistachio.
Muhallabeya- a milk pudding to eat with the
Middle Eastern Fruit Salad- made of poached dried fruit with spices and honey, sprinkled with slivered almonds.
Persian Love Cake- the recipe for this came from Gourmet Traveller, a very moist cake made with yoghurt, almond meal and nutmeg.
My friend had also made me an appropriately decorated birthday cake.

The evening went well, my fondest memory was looking down the candle lit table at my guests tucking into the food in front of them, and all of the preparation was worth it!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hay harvest at the block

It’s been a busy week for us at the block. First of all we finished our front gate. We think it’s an appropriate entrance for our little hut one day.

Nigella is doing her best to look like a guard dog. She may look tough but we know it’s not convincing; she loves to meet new people, and seems quite offended when people don’t want to pat her or let her lick their ears!

Then it was the big hay cutting weekend. A few nervous days when we hope that it won’t rain, particularly on the baling day. Baling day is Rob’s favourite day of the year. We cart 150 bales of the hay. He likes packing the bales onto the ute & trailer, tying it down. Driving the ute. Stacking it neatly in the shed. Whereas it’s probably my least favourite day. It’s usually hot, lifting the bales above my head is hard work, not to mention the bits of hay that seem to find their way into all of your clothes, shoes, eyes (not great for someone who wears contact lenses) and lungs. We’re not usually done until 8.30pm. That’s when I feel happy; seeing the bales all stacked safely away. I guess Rob’s right, there is a certain honesty in the muscle soreness, the calluses on your hands from the bale twine, working for hours in the sun, the general griminess.

My favourite day of the year is the day after the hay is done. We can go down to the block and it’s all neat again, the cropped grass already bleached. Nigella knows she’s free to run around without me stressing about snakes, and Rob & I can enjoy a glass of home brew at the block.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Memorable Holiday Food

There have been a few, but here are my favourites from the last couple of weeks, in no particular order!

Mango Sorbet- a David Lebovitz recipe (from his book The Perfect Scoop) and it couldn’t be easier. Blitz the flesh of two lusciously ripe mangoes, with the juice of a lime, 2/3 cup of water, 2/3 cup sugar, and a little rum (Malibu works fine), chill in the fridge, then churn. A perfect finish to a summer’s day.

Pork Cotelleta- We headed down to Red Velvet Lounge for a celebratory meal for two. We ate pork terrine on slices of sourdough, a lovely quail entree, real fish & chips, but I have to say our favourite was the pork cotelleta. Although we ate it last time as soon as we saw it on the menu there was no other choice. It was served with an aioli, red cabbage, mint and peas. The crisp crumb coating slices to reveal juicy and tender pork, and the marriage with the lemon, cabbage and mint was perfect. It even looked seasonally appropriate with the vibrant colours of the cabbage and the peas. As Rob finished, he did admit that he probably wouldn’t be able to resist ordering it every time it was on the menu!

Coconut Pavlova topped with softly whipped cream, mangoes, raspberries and coconut flakes- It breaks my heart when I see people buying those horrid boxed pavs from the supermarket, I can’t understand it, a pav is so easy to make! Nigella’s tip is to add a little Malibu to the mix. Pavlova is one of my favourite summer desserts, the combination of fresh fruit with cream, and the crunchy carapace of meringue revealing the snow white marshmallow centre. I know it’s an Australian cliché, but I find it a completely seductive one. I’m sure this won’t be the last one I make this season.

Roquefort- we found a creamy wedge of this mould speckled cheese for nibbling on before Christmas lunch, I had to keep reminding myself that the actual meal was yet to come.

Ocean Trout Tarator- a favourite mass catering option for us, a Greg Malouf recipe we saw on Food Safari. It can be prepared hours in advance, and I think it actually is better when it’s cold. We wrapped and baked the ocean trout (could have been salmon) fillet in the oven for about half an hour until it was just cooked. Whilst that was happening we combined Greek yoghurt with tahini, garlic, salt and lemon juice. Once the fish is cooked, and cooled this mixture is spread on top. The final stage is to chop roasted walnuts, fresh coriander, mint, chillies, and red onions and combine them with olive oil, lemon juice and sumac. This is then spread over the top of the yoghurt. It is quite a beautiful dish, and the combination of flavours is balanced, so no one flavour overpowers another. This was our contribution to the family Christmas lunch, certainly a low stress one!

Roast Rib of beef- our butcher never disappoints, this year he presented us with an aged rib of beef. This we shared with friends on Boxing Day. Rob roasted it with rosemary and onions gently for a bit over an hour then a quick blast to finish it off. You know it’s perfect when the blood oozes out as it’s sliced. Carnivore-like, the four of us squabbled over the bones- where the best bit of meat is- whilst the true carnivores, Nigella and her boyfriend Genghis, had to settle for our chewed bones. For dessert, of course…

Christmas pudding- we tried a new recipe this year from the December issue of Gourmet Traveller. The fruit, a mix of prunes, dates, cranberries, currants and raisins, was soaked overnight in warmed muscat, brandy, quince jelly and cumquat marmalade (our tweak cause we don’t like mixed peel). A lighter pudding than our normal recipe, we thought the cranberries and prunes were a successful addition, so it may just be our new pudding recipe. We have a spare that we will mature over the next few months, and we’re already looking forward to a mid-winter taste test.

Duck stuffed with veal, pork, pistachios & apricots- a boned duck with a stuffing of onions, veal and pork mince, pistachios, apricots and herbs, cooked and then eaten cold the next day. How the house of duck received its name, and why Nigella (the dog) loves to stay at Rob’s parents place in Launceston.

Chocolate Guinness Cupcakes- I was dobbed in for dessert duty at the work Christmas bbq, so we cooked 60 of these babies. Nigella’s recipe is a winner, but what’s not to love about a cake that combines Guinness and chocolate with a cream cheese frosting? The cake is surprisingly light (when you know how much sugar, butter and sour cream goes into it) and the stout adds a spicy flavour, almost like gingerbread. We topped each of the cupcakes with a single jaffa and a couple of green fondant icing holly leaves. The BBQ went strangely quiet when dessert was consumed.

Cherries from our tree- I think this may be my favourite. Our precocious Stella cherry tree in the orchard at the block produced a respectable crop of cherries this year. We netted it before Christmas but they weren’t ripe until the 31st, when we made a flying visit to the block before the heat (38deg!) forced us inside. We plucked the deep red fruits from our little tree, juicily munching before spitting out the pips- then stood in a moment of quiet pride looking at our orchard with cherry stained lips and fingers.

Nigella in the orchard with our Mulberry Tree

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