food for thought

by michelle

hot and sour duck

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This recipe, from FIRE ISLANDS: Recipes from Indonesia by Eleanor Ford, is a deeply flavoursome and complex dish. Hot with chillies and sour with tamarind, the rich and smooth sauce still allows the duck to shine.

To make the bumbu, or spice mix, roughly chop 6 large red chillies, 6 red shallots, 2 cloves of garlic and a similar amount of fresh ginger. Place them in a small food processor with 5 candlenuts (or 10 blanched almonds), 4 tablespoons of tamarind paste (or less if it’s a concentrate), 1 teaspoon of ground coriander and a chopped 3cm (1″) piece of turmeric (or 1 teaspoon of ground turmeric). Blitz to a fine paste, adding a little water if necessary. Score the skin of 4 duck breasts and season them with salt. Lay them in a cold pan, skin side down, and turn the heat to medium. Allow the breasts to cook for 10-15 minutes until the fat has rendered and the skin is crisp. Turn them over and cook for another few minutes until the duck is to your liking. Remove to a plate and allow them to rest. The duck fat which remains in the pan will be used for the next stage so if there’s too much, remove some now. Return the pan to medium heat and when the fat is hot add the spice mix. Cook until it is a shade darker and the fat is separating out of the sauce. Add the duck (I cut mine first) along with any cooking juices and 2 tablespoons of water. Combine and heat through. Adjust the seasoning to taste with tamarind, chilli powder or salt. Serve garnished with fresh mint and accompanied by rice.

Written by michelle picker

March 3, 2021 at 12:20 am

marmalade gingerbread

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In my pantry I found a jar of marmalade that was past it’s use-by date. A little darker but still OK, so I decided to try this Bon Appétit recipe, slightly adapted. It’s not too sweet with a bitter orange flavour, moist raisins and satisfying chunks of ginger.

Preheat your oven to 160ºC (320°F). grease a square cake tin and line the bottom with baking paper. In a stand mixer or with an electric mixer, beat ½ a cup of softened butter until creamy then beat in ¾ of a cup of molasses. Sift together 1⅔ cups of self-raising flour and 1½ teaspoons of powdered ginger. Add the flour to the butter in 3 additions, each time with 1 large egg. Mix through 1 cup of orange marmalade then fold in ½ a cup of chopped crystallised ginger and ½ a cup of raisins. Transfer the mix to the cake tin, smoothing out the top. Bake for 40 – 50 minutes until a toothpick or skewer inserted into centre comes out clean. Cool the cake in the tin. Cut into squares or rectangles to serve.

Written by michelle picker

February 24, 2021 at 12:17 am

fish with green sichuan peppercorns

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After seeing this Chengdu recipe in Fuchsia Dunlop’s The Food of Sichuan, I bought green Sichuan peppercorns. This unripened version of the red Sichuan peppercorn has become popular in Sichuan cuisine over the last century. The flavour is brighter and fruitier than the red peppercorns. Altogether delicious.

First cut 325g (11½ oz) of fish fillets (I used ling but any firm white fish will work) diagonally into even pieces. In a bowl combine 1 tablespoon of Chinese cooking wine, 1 tablespoons of egg white, ½ a teaspoon of salt and 1½ tablespoons of potato or corn starch. Add the fish and allow it to marinate while you prepare the rest of the dish. Separate the white and green parts of 2 spring onions, slicing thinly. Thinly slice 60g (2.1 oz) each of fresh red and green chillies and place them in a small saucepan with 2 tablespoons of dried green Sichuan peppercorns and the spring onion whites and set aside. Heat some oil in a wok and quickly stir-fry 200g of beansprouts. Season them with salt to taste and when they’re hot remove them to a serving bowl. Prepare the white of another spring onion by smacking it with a heavy knife or cleaver to loosen the fibres and slice thinly. Mince 3 cloves of garlic and an equivalent amount of fresh ginger. Heat some oil in the wok and fry the spring onion white, garlic and ginger until fragrant then add 2 cups of hot stock. Season with 2 teaspoons of light soy sauce and salt and ground white pepper to taste. When simmering, add the pieces of fish, making sure to separate them, and cook for approximately 2 minutes or until just cooked. Remove the fish with a slotted spoon and pile the pieces on top of the bean sprouts. Pour the hot broth over the fish. Wipe out the wok and heat 100ml (3⅓ fl oz) of chilli oil until hot then carefully pour it into the small saucepan of spring onions and peppercorns, allowing them to sizzle, then pour them over the fish. Garnish with the spring onion greens and serve with steamed rice.

Written by michelle picker

February 17, 2021 at 12:14 am

cured pork belly

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This is a type of salumi which is generally thinly sliced and eaten as is. The method is the same as for lardo (cured pork fat) which has been made in Italy since Roman times. Traditionally, lardo was cured in Carrara marble boxes for six months. The method I used comes from CHARCUTERIE: THE CRAFT OF SALTING, SMOKING & CURING by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. Like all salumi, unless you have the luxury of a cool store, this is best made in winter when the meat can be hung at under 15ºC (59ºF).

First make a dry rub. Combine 225g (½lb) of fine sea salt, 115g (4 oz) of sugar and 28g (4 teaspoons) of curing salt – curing salt goes by different names so make sure you have one with 6.25% sodium nitrite. To this add 6 bay leaves, 2 bunches of fresh thyme and ¼ of a cup of black peppercorns. Sprinkle ¼ of this dry rub into a non-reactive baking pan and place the 1½kg (3½ lb) pork belly on top. Distribute the rest of the dry rub evenly over the pork. Cover the pork with plastic wrap as well as foil to keep the light out. Weigh the pork down with 5kg (10lbs) of weight and refrigerate for 10-12 days, redistributing the dry rub twice during this process. When the pork feels uniformly firm it is cured and needs to be hung to dry. Rinse the pork and pat it dry. Wrap it in cheesecloth and hang it in a cool, dark and humid (preferably 60 – 70%) place. The meat will shrink and harden as it dries. The book suggested 18-24 days but I hung mine for 2 months until I was happy with the feel of it. Serve it finely sliced as part of a charcuterie platter or try some great suggestions from the spruce eats – paper thin slices served with roasted almonds, olives, smoked salt and olive oil; draped over stuffed dates; or cooked with potatoes.

Written by michelle picker

February 10, 2021 at 12:18 am

Posted in pork & ham & bacon

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chicken with sumac, lemon and za’atar

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This super flavoursome recipe for tray-baked chicken is easy to prepare any night of the week. From Yotam Ottolenghi’s first cookbook The Ottolenghi Cookbook, it was also published in The Guardian.

The original recipe uses a whole chicken cut into pieces. I used bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs. In a large bowl, combine 2 thinly sliced red onions, 2 crushed cloves of garlic, 60ml (2 fl oz) of olive oil, 1½ teaspoons of  ground allspice (pimento), 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon, 1 tablespoon of sumac, 1 thinly sliced lemon, 200ml (6¾ fl oz) of chicken stock, 1½ teaspoons of salt and a generous amount of freshly ground pepper. Add the chicken pieces and allow them to marinate for a few hours or even overnight. When you’re ready to cook heat your oven to 220ºC (430ºF). Place the chicken pieces in a large oven tray skin side up and pour in the marinade. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of za’atar and roast for 30-40 minutes until the chicken is just cooked through. Meanwhile, melt 20g (¾ oz) of butter in a small pan and add 50g (1¾ oz) of pine nuts and a pinch of salt (if your butter is unsalted). Fry over moderate heat until golden, then drain and set aside. To serve, scatter with the pine nuts and some chopped fresh parsley.

Written by michelle picker

February 3, 2021 at 12:13 am

Posted in poultry & game

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saffron and honey ice cream

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Saffron is the dried stigma of crocus flowers and has been used and traded for thousands of years. At US$5K per kilo it’s the world’s most expensive spice. It’s thought to have originated in Iran and is widely used throughout the Middle East as well as Europe and South East Asia in both savoury and sweet dishes. It imparts a yellow colour to food and has a hay-like flavour. A strong-tasting honey pairs perfectly in this ice cream.

I’ve been experimenting with a new method involving a fast blender, the addition of xanthan and guar gums and overnight refrigeration. The gums are optional but help to stabilise the mix (guar gum gives it some chewiness) and overnight refrigeration helps prevent the formation of ice crystals. The result is smoother ice cream. Measure 2 cups of milk and remove 2 tablespoons of the milk to make a slurry with 4 – 5 teaspoons of cornflour (cornstarch). In a saucepan bring to boil the remainder of the milk, 1¼ cups of double cream, 100g (3½ oz) of sugar, 85g (3 oz) of honey, 2 tablespoons of corn syrup and ¼ teaspoon of saffron threads. Allow to simmer for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cornflour slurry then return to the heat and allow the mixture to thicken. Let the mixture steep for at least an hour while it cools in an ice bath. At this stage you can strain the mixture if you prefer but I chose to leave the saffron strands in. Pour the mixture into your blender and add 3 tablespoons of softened cream cheese, ¼ of a teaspoon of fine sea salt and ⅛ of a teaspoon each of guar and xanthan gum. Blend until very smooth and refrigerate, preferably overnight, before churning.

Written by michelle picker

January 27, 2021 at 12:23 am

Posted in cakes & desserts

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ricotta gnocchi

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Light and fluffy, these ricotta gnocchi are served in a rich tomato sauce.

To make the gnocchi, combine 340g (12 oz) of fresh full-fat ricotta with 2 whole eggs, ¾ of a cup of plain flour and ⅓ of a cup of finely grated parmesan. I find a pastry cutter works well, otherwise use a fork. When the mixture is well combined, flour a work surface and roll the mixture into sausage shapes before cutting into shorter lengths to make the gnocchi. Lay the gnocchi out on a plate and keep them in the fridge until ready to cook. For the sauce (sugo), empty 1 large or 2 regular cans of chopped tomatoes into a saucepan and add a generous pour of olive oil and 2-3 minced cloves of garlic. If the tomatoes look a little watery you can also add a tablespoon of tomato paste. Bring to a simmer and cook for at least 20 minutes. Season to taste and if the tomatoes are not sweet enough add a little sugar. To serve, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. When it’s boiling, carefully drop the gnocchi in. They will be cooked when they float to the top. Drain the gnocchi then mix through the sauce. Serve garnished with chopped fresh parsley and grated parmesan.

Print the recipe here

Written by michelle picker

January 20, 2021 at 12:12 am

whole grain bread

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I decided to revisit my childhood with a German-style bread. It’s a heavy, satisfying and tasty bread full of grains and seeds.

In a small bowl combine 2 teaspoons of dry active yeast, 6 teaspoons of sugar and 2 cups of warm water and let it sit for 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a stand mixer or large bowl, combine 4 cups buckwheat (Buchweizen) flour, ½ a cup of rye flour, ½ a cup of whole buckwheat grains, 1¾ cups of cracked buckwheat grains (you can do this in a mortar and pestle or with a rolling pin and it doesn’t have to be perfect), 1 cup of whole flax seeds (linseeds), 1½ cups of sunflower seeds, ¼ of a cup of sesame seeds and 3 teaspoons of salt. Add the yeast mixture as well as 2 cups of buttermilk (not cold) and 1 cup of mild beer (also not cold). Use the dough hook to mix and knead the dough. Cover the tin and allow the bread to rise in a warm place for between 8 and 24 hours – the whole grains will soften more the longer you leave it. When you’re ready to bake, preheat your oven to 180ºC (350ºF) and grease your bread tin well. Transfer the dough into the tin and flatten the top. Spray with a little water and sprinkle with rolled oats. Bake for between 90 and 120 minutes until the centre is cooked. If you have an instant-read thermometer the inside temperature should be around 95ºC (200ºF). Remove the bread from the tin and place on a rack, covered with a tea towel, to cool.

*Adapted from this recipe. 

Written by michelle picker

January 13, 2021 at 12:15 am


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The Greek version of Moussaka was created by Nikolaos Tselementes, a French-trained chef, in the 1920s. Somehow I’ve managed to post two vegetarian versions without ever posting the classic one that David loves to cook. Here is his adaptation of a recipe from The Complete Middle Eastern Cookbook by Tess Mallos.

Preheat your oven to 180ºC (350ºF). Cut 1kg (2 lbs) of eggplants (aubergine) into 5mm (¼”) slices lengthwise. Sprinkle with a little salt and leave for 1 hour. Pat dry with paper towels. Brush an oven tray or two with oil, lay the slices out in one layer and brush the tops with oil. Cook under a grill or in a hot oven until a little browned and softened. Heat a heavy pot and fry 1kg (2 lbs) of minced lamb until all the liquid has been released and has evaporated and the meat is frying. Add one large chopped onion and 2 minced cloves of garlic and cook gently until the onion is translucent. Add 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and cook a little before adding ½ a cup of white wine and allowing it to evaporate. Add a can of chopped tomatoes, ¼ teaspoon of ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of sugar and salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Cover and simmer gently for 20 – 30 minutes. Meanwhile make the bechamel sauce. Melt ¼ of a cup of butter in a saucepan and add ⅓ of a cup of flour. Cook for 2 minutes or so then slowly add 2 cups of milk, stirring constantly to avoid any lumps. Allow the sauce to bubble for 1 minute then remove it from the heat and add ⅛ of a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg, 1 tablespoon of grated parmesan and salt and pepper to taste. Grease a rectangular lasagna dish and place a layer of eggplant on the bottom. Cover with half of the meat sauce and repeat. Finish with one more layer of eggplant. Stir a beaten egg into the sauce and spread it over the top. Sprinkle with another 2 tablespoons of grated parmesan and bake for 1 hour or until golden brown. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before cutting into squares to serve.

Serve it with a fresh salad like this one of finely shaved zucchini (courgette) strips dressed in a lemony vinaigrette and sprinkled with sumac, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Written by michelle picker

January 6, 2021 at 12:17 am

burnt cheesecake

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From San Sebastien, in Basque Country northern Spain, comes a cheesecake like no other. Invented three decades ago by Santiago Rivera, the owner of the pintxos bar and restaurant La Viña, the cake is so popular that La Viña makes 20 a day and the cake has become famous globally. It’s a deliciously creamy baked cheesecake with a dark and bittersweet exterior caused by baking at a high temperature. A crust would probably really burn so this cake doesn’t have one. I made it recently on the occasion of a double birthday celebration and served it with a delicious Spanish Pedro Ximenez sherry.

Preheat your oven to 200º C (400º F). Prepare a 22cm (9″) springform cake tin by greasing and lining with baking paper, making the paper taller at the sides. Combine 680g (24 oz) of softened cream cheese, 1 cup of sugar, ½ a teaspoon of fine salt, and 45g (1½ oz) of flour in a bowl. Mix together until very smooth and creamy. Whisk in ½ a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract and 1 large egg. When thoroughly combined, whisk in 3 more eggs, one at a time. Add 1¼ cups of heavy cream and mix until smooth. Pour into the prepared pan and tap to minimise trapped air bubbles (I should have tapped more). Bake for approximately 40-45 minutes then raise the temperature to 220C (425ºF) and bake for another 10 minutes or until the cake is very well browned and nearly burnt on the edges. Allow the cake to cool in the tin and when it reaches room temperature carefully remove from the tin and peel away the paper. Chill for at least 4 hours before serving.

*recipe by Chef John from All Recipes

Written by michelle picker

December 30, 2020 at 12:19 am