Friday, February 18, 2011

Last night's Monkfish with a Capsicum jam

Yesterday’s Monkfish

 Don't know about you, but I  often get to the end of the day with a longer list of things to do then when I began. So the hour (or three) after I’ve shut the doors are gorgeous and quiet - no traffic noise for starters - and often the most productive of all.
If you’re lucky I’ll even let you in, which sometimes makes me lucky too – I love after hours sales. Perhaps I should just open when I’m supposed to be closed (and close when I’m supposed to be open.)  Especially since I’ve always thought that working during the day is a bit of a bore – all those marvellous, sunshiny daylight hours going to waste, all that time we could be chit chatting away, tinkering about the place, frolicking on the beach…... See it’s 9.15 and I’m only just getting going. Everyone’s watching the telly and I’ve got hours left in me.
Which is just as well because I want to write up yesterday’s supper and do my art history homework and answer my emails and even procrastinate on Facebook for a bit. 
So going back to dinner, it’s late enough for me to have to use the back door entrance into the officially shut fish shop, the tiled floor of which is being washed with buckets of hot soapy water.
I walk in gingerly, hoisting up my too long white trousers. I’m looking for Mahi Mahi because I ate it deliciously at a friend’s house last week – none left. I am not going to buy salmon, not this time anyway. The tuna is eye wateringly expensive and there’s every argument why I shouldn’t buy that either. To cut a long moment of prevarication short, I settle for New Zealand Monkfish. It looks plump and pink and fresh (though how fresh is a little debatable –  it wasn’t caught this morning,  that’s for sure, which seems a little ironic, seeing as I’m buying this not ten metres away from the Brunswick Heads Marina, but such is the weird (I’m being polite) state of our food production and food buying habits these days.
Anyway, within minutes, I’m home, “hello darling” (and a kiss and a hug – first things first after all) and I’ve got my little pinnie on and without thinking I gather ingredients for a meal. It’s completely unplanned and I hardly know where it’s going till I’m right into it.
I’ve taken out my beautiful old sauteuse pan – it does me for absolutely everything - seriously get one of these and you can get rid of a whole battery of kitchen utensils – it’s the best thing.
So here I go. 
In no particular order, I add a tablespoon of  Tamari, a tablespoon of maple syrup, a tablespoon of water, a tablespoon of  Brandy (or rather that's what I'd have used if I'd had it. I didn’t, so I used Vodka instead, at a pinch white wine would do, but not red) and a tablespoon of olive oil to the pan. I throw in a fat clove of garlic or two, very finely minced, a chunk of chilli, very finely chopped. I happen to have some Kaffir lime leaves lying around that were beautifully, proudly fresh when I bought them but it’s taken me over a month to get round to using them, ergo they are shrivelled up and dried. No matter, I pound them to a powder and chuck ‘em in.
It’s looking good, it’s smelling good. I put the two pieces of fish in there and tilt the pan at an angle, so the fish is sitting in the marinade and getting all soaked up in it.
Then I go to the fridge. Oh yes, I’ve still got some of those baby peppers(capsicum) from Friday, two little red ones, two little orange ones and lots of red onions, unusually small, more the size of ping - pong balls than tennis balls. I grab one of those too, peel and slice it thin, clean up the peppers, which also means removing the white pith – I have an abhorrence for it - and cut up the bright flesh, all nice and neat.

I heat a tablespoon of olive oil, maybe a little more, in a small pan, throw in the onion and when it’s just beginning to soften, chuck in the peppers – the sunshine brightness of it all.
And then I fry it all to high heaven - literally - adjusting the heat just so, up a bit, down a bit, so it goes all soft and jammy and the red onion starts to brown and to caramelise and you can practically see the sugars coming out of the onion and the peppers and when you taste it (which you must), it’s sweet, sweet, sweet, even though you havn’t added a grain of sugar to the pan (whether your boyfriend believes you or not).
And then when it’s been going for about 10 minutes, you put your pan with the fish in it on top of a high heat, till it’s come to the boil and then turn it down a bit.
So now you’ve got the fish on and the peppers are turning to jam (you might want to fish out the little filaments of skin that are peeling off by now – I do. I’m a perfectionist like that) and you put another little pan of water on the stove, drop a fat pinch of salt into it and bring it to the boil. You quickly wash (goes without saying) a good fat handful of green beans, top and tail them and cook them till they’re tender. I won’t hear about them being al dente, or worse crunchy. Load of BS. Sorry but I really believe that. I know we’ve all been brainwashed, but honest to God, green beans are better TENDER. I don’t know whether to shout it, or to whisper it. They are better tender.
Anyway, I’m just telling you what’s in my fridge and there’s also some spinach I picked up from the little supermarket on my way home. Today must be delivery day because it’s super fresh. Praise be.
And we’re nearly there. The beans are done. Drain ‘em. Add the spinach in and spoon in a bit of sauce from the fish pan, so it’s all wilted and soft. Won’t take a minute, so switch off the heat – you’ll be plating up in a tick.
The fish is done - I’ve been turning it over carefully a couple of times, so it’s nice and brown on top, but it’s soft as soft can be inside and all those yummy things in the pan are coming together just so, into a rich, sticky, caramelised (that’s one of my favourite words in the kitchen – you’ll see) sauce in the pan. It’s helped that I’ve kept adding spoonfuls of the boiling water, both to the pan with the fish in it and to the pan with the peppers in it. I tell you what, since I thought I might end up writing this one up, I counted: 6 tablespoons of water in with the peppers, and about the same with the fish, added one at a time mind and only when the one before is all nicely evaporated and you can see everything getting richer and rounder by the second. You see when you add that water in, not only do you loosen the whole thing up and keep it moving, you create a whole load of steam and that means extra heat, which raises the temperature and makes everything come all together into this lovely, rich, unctuous concoction and you know without even tasting it, how good it’s going to be because it smells so damn wonderful. Especially after you’ve squeezed in that half a lime that’s been sitting on a saucer in the fridge since yesterday and thrown in a small handful of coriander.
Well then, now you can plate it all up. First a little pile of the greens, then a piece of fish, then half  the “jam” on each, then the sauce poured all around, then a sprig of coriander if you’ve got some to spare. And to wash it down, a glass of  Cape Mentelle, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, which is clean and crisp and palate cleansing.
(except that’s me being poetic, because I can’t handle more than a sip out of his glass, or I’m done for).
And I should say that it helps if you throw in a little bit of a dance, a little bit of a kiss, a little bit of a giggle. Always does.
And then we eat it and it’s so good that by the first mouthful, we’ve both burst out laughing and he says he can’t imagine how it could be any better and neither can I.
So I tell him that there’s only one word for those people who call monkfish “the poor man’s lobster” and that’s spoilt, because I’m feeling like a queen.

PS You may have noticed that there’s no carb with this meal. That’s because I’ve had chocolate for lunch, so enough’s enough.
But if I’d been a sensible soul and eaten salad instead, then I’d choose the smallest, newest potatoes I could find which isn’t an easy ask around these sub tropical parts. People will argue with me about this one, but that’s because they just don’t know. I wish I could show them some of the marble size French potatoes, yellow and waxy as a candle.
Anyway, I’d peel them and slice them to the thickness of a two dollar coin and I’d braise them with some thinly sliced garlic in a little olive oil and a stock made with boiling water and saffron, till they’d turned pale amber and gold and soft to the edge of collapse and I’d spike them with a little very finely chopped parsley or small chives, chopped to a confetti.
Or else I’d have served some warmed bread to mop up the sauce.

And now it’s past midnight, and my eyes are streaming, so goodnight.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Monstrous and Delicious

Picture 1. The Gherkin – London (otherwise known as “The Erotic Gherkin” – I am not making this up).
Picture 2. Monstera Deliciosa – Mullumbimby Market

Whoever decided to dub the Swiss built skyscraper in London’s Financial district “The Gherkin” has never come across one of these (Picture 2, above), picked up at Mullumbimby Market last Friday. Or perhaps it was just too much of a mouthful….

The first time I happen upon The Gherkin (Picture 1 above) – if you can at all be said “to happen upon” a building of such monolithic and awe inspiring proportions, I just about jump out of my skin. Together with my recalcitrant neo – pubescent boy, we are by some irony, not lost on either of us, on our way to the glorious Borough Market, when I take a wrong turn (a very wrong turn) and end up in a time warp of sci - fi alienation and - devoid of commuters - a Saturday afternoon eeriness, bleak skied and filthy cold, the “gherkin” towering above us like a sleek and sinister up - ended zeppelin.

Only a few hooded youths doing impressive leaps on (I mean off) their skateboards, add any sign of human life. I pinch myself hard on my left wrist, something I do when I’m scared, to stave off panic, to remind myself to breathe. It’s a feeling I’ve had whenever I’ve driven through grimly industrial areas, not a blade of grass, not a flower to be seen. Even my son, mutters “let’s get out of here mum’. We agree that it is indeed awesome, incredible, overwhelming and brilliant. Magnificent and terrible, it makes me want to run and cry.

So when we do make it to the cornucopia of colour and noise that is Borough Market, to the roasting meats, the split open fruit, the huge wheels of pungent cheese with their grey blue skins and even more importantly to the good natured cockney banter “mind yerself luv” because I’m still in a daze from my encounter with “the other side”, I am so relieved that I actually do cry. “You all right luv, you look like you seen a ghost” And I have, a monstrous great hulk of a ghost from time future and I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.
“Ere, ‘aver a bih of this” and he skewers a slice of  Packham Pear and hands it over to me. “You goh a smile to ligh’ up a man’s ‘eart luv.”
That’s better. That’s much better. “It’s alright mummy – let’s have lunch”
Well, the point of all this was to take me (you) back to Mullumbimby  Market, last Friday. It’s only a quick visit this time – I’m not going to linger, keep my greetings brief, despite the warm hugs and many “Happy Birthdays”(had to slip that one in) and am stopped in my tracks by these formidable Monstera Deliciosa(don’t worry, it took me about 6 goes to get it right too), somewhat incredulously otherwise known as “Fruit Salad” fruit. (Someone needs to get onto the name - giving guy I think, what with buildings called gherkins and Fibonacci – perfect appendages called fruit salad, I’m getting myself into a bit of a pickle.)

Anyway, anyway, the man behind the stall explains that if I put this extraordinary, sculptural piece of “fruit” in a paper bag for a few days, it will ripen and all the little hexagonal bits will go brown and scale off and reveal a sweet soft fruit, I can scoop out with a spoon. Well, I wasn’t born yesterday but being of a trusting disposition, I enter into a commercial exchange and take one home.

This is it on Day One (Picture 2, above). Today is Day 3, but since I’ve only just found a brown paper bag, I’ll give it another couple of days, give the man the benefit of the doubt and report back to you shortly.

Now you might think that this is as good a place as any to sign off but actually I had an ulterior motive for taking you to Borough Market, via The Gherkin and back to Mullumbimby and Monstera Deliciosa, and that is to talk about “Bio – Mimicry”, the marvellous concept that scientists have been exploring since the 70s and which in gaining ground, offers new hope and vision for our beleaguered planet, rather than doom and gloom. The idea is that by observing and understanding the ways that nature works – think a spider’s web as both wondrously simple and still unfathomably complex example – we will soon (in the big scheme of things) be able to “grow” rather than build things. It’s a mind - blowing idea and I love it (notwithstanding man’s ability to fuck everything up that is). So anyway, the point is that the building blocks of our dwellings, our furnishings, our clothes, instead of deriving out of man made, energy expensive, carbon based materials, will instead have their genesis in the petrii dish.
Instead of all that smelting and smashing and grinding and crashing and drilling and hoeing into things, we’re going to be dripping and dribbling ingredients into petrii dishes and stirring them up a bit and watching them transform and grow into, into – well - pretty much anything we like really. For someone who likes to concoct, to mingle and to merge, to watch the sometimes-phantasmagorical transformation of ingredients in the kitchen, this makes me want to have my time again. I’d study biology (always a favourite subject) with renewed verve. 
More on this to come.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Visit to my Favourite Farmer's Market

Hello Everyone

After what must by now be hundreds of requests, I am going to take a deep breath and I am finally going to do this. So thankyou to all of you who have been badgering me to start a blog for the last I don’t know how many years - I think I’ve been suffering from stage fright.
I'll start small and simple with this morning's visit to the New Brighton Farmer's Market. Of all the markets that grace our little piece of paradise, this is by far my favourite. 
Behind the football oval, two minutes from the beach and a skip away from the little corner shop, are a dozen or so stalls. Each is a delight. There is home made bread - every grain you can imagine - soft brioche - plain, chocolate or lemon - and just for today, delicious olive oil rolls with caramelised onion and kalamata olives. 
I wonder over to the breakfast stall and buy slices of fried Tweed Valley Haloumi(I think the best I have ever had) from Nadina and Louise. Under a dark blue tarpaulin, cooking away like real little cheffettes, this talented ceramicist and ex model, all decked out in their black jackets and neat little cheffy hats - so sweet - boil the Haloumi first to soften it, cleanse it of its excess salt, so it is a lighter, fluffier thing than usual. Stuffed inside my oniony roll, it makes an impromptu and delicious breakfast, eaten under shelter of a battered umbrella to fend off the advancing rain.  
There is the pasta man with his trays of home made pumpkin ravioli - "one tray please" and the mushroom lady with trays of delicate oyster mushrooms, the underbelly of them like the fine filaments of some shy sea creature, dove grey and bone white and feather light.
Then I buy a tub of that haloumi I was telling you about and a thick slab of “Fresian Fog”, which turns out to be this lovely, chalky cheese with a layer of ash in the middle and a meaty, downy, skin. It’s mild and sharp and sweet and salty at the same time. I know exactly what I’m going to do with this but you’ll have to read all the way down to the end to find out.
The rain eases off as suddenly as it came, a streak of blue slices through the grey, the sun immediately strong on the back of my neck.
And then a few pleasantries in French with David, who knows a thing or two about vegetables. His aubergines are so small, you understand how they came to be called eggplants, firm and weighty, glossy as glass. A small child could wrap his whole hand around one of his diminutive capsicum and have room to spare.
I wipe one on my dress, pull off the stem, brush away the seeds and eat it in one. Sweet. Crunchy. Juicy. Wonderful.
The courgettes, I’m allowed – he’s French, so am I (sort of), but you can call them zucchini if you like - are small enough for me to know they will be sweet and buttery.  What a sumptuous Ratatouille this is going to make. I add a bunch of tomatoes “Bonne Journee” (which sounds better than “have a nice day”) and go find the garlic lady.  In goes a handful of papery skinned bulbs, streaked purple and pink, just like garlic is supposed to be and just when my basket looks like it can’t take anymore, I reach the salad and herb stand. So in goes a bunch of basil, big as a small bush, a big, beautiful bunch of watercress, a big bag of mixed leaves – there’s nothing mean or mangy about this lot. (Which is more than I can say about the pathetic little shriveled bunches of yellowed, half rotten leaves I saw in a supermarket I had no business being in, the other day, but that’s another story).
And so off I trot back to the car, somehow managing a too full basket in one hand and a small pumpkin in the other.

And miracles of miracles, it’s still only 8.30 in the morning and I have oodles of time before I have to be at the gallery and this morning I’m in the mood for a little domestic bliss – must be those Chinese herbs I’m taking, making me cheery and content (a word I’m beginning to get the hang of in my old age).

By the time I do leave there is a jar each of watercress and of basil pesto, as well as a jar of blueberry jam, made with three punnets of blueberries picked up cheaply on my way back from Lismore yesterday.

 For fun, I tear little strips of paper from my new notepad and write
“The Perfect Pesto Company” at the top of each. Then “Wondrous Watercress Pesto” on one and “ Beautiful Basil Pesto” on the other. And then I stand there and look at all three jars and I feel – well you know – content.

 One more little thing before I go onto the recipes, or cut to the chase, scroll down a bit and you’ll find them there.

So, it’s been one of those almost laughably hot days – well it’s that or you’d just weep. Sticky as.
But it’s been 10 hours since that olive roll and I’m gettin’ hungry.
So I jump right into it.

Pumpkin Ravioli with Sauteed Pumpkin, Watercress pesto and Fresian Fog

Amply Serves 2

400g or 24 pumpkin ravioli
400g pumpkin, skin removed and chopped into centimetre dice
2 tbs olive oil for roasting
4 tbs watercress pesto(see below)
4 thin slices Fresian Fog9or an ashed goat’s cheese)
Tabasco – a dash
Sea Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the olive oil in a roasting dish and place in a hot oven – about 200C, so the oil heats right through.
Season the pumpkin dice with a little scrunched up sea salt and a dash of Tabasco and toss in the hot olive oil, so it sizzles on contact.
Roast for 15 – 20 minutes till mottled brown and tender.

Meanwhile bring a large pan (I use an old pressure cooker pan) of salted water to a big, roiling, boil and lower the ravioli into it, stirring a couple of times to make sure they’re not sticking together.

I should day that my ravioli had been frozen first, so they took a full 12 – 14 minutes to come to a place of perfect tenderness.  In fact, I even set the lid on top, just long enough to bring the water back up to boiling as quickly as possible. If your ravioli are fresh, they won’t take as long so you may need to start the pumpkin a bit sooner, and everything will all come together at the same time.
It’s up to you, but I like my pasta a tad – just a tad – on the supposed wrong side of al dente. I simply don’t like that thread of white running through – it gives me indigestion – and so I drain the pasta, the moment I think it’s gone.

I quickly but carefully fold the watercress pesto through, taking care not to break up the ravioli and a quick drizzle of olive oil, just to loosen it all up, to add slink and shine.

By this time, the pumpkin is ready, so I toss that through too, reserving some for the top of each plate.

I divide the pasta between between the two of us in some lovely deep plates, I also bought at one of the local markets, garnish with the diced pumpkin and the thinly sliced “Fresian Fog”, take a quick shot with my iphone, take to the table, feeling hot but pleased at the prettiness of it all and eat. Slowly.

I can tell you that this filled us up, right royally; we could even have added a third person to our table without feeling hard done by.

Especially since I’d also made a watercress salad, tossed through with a little olive oil, a little balsamic, and a little salt which is all it needed.

To make the watercress pesto, I simply picked a big bunch of watercress off its toughest stalks and chopped the whole lot roughly with a very sharp knife. You can of course food process this but you will bruise the leaves and hasten their oxidization.
Then I added ½ cup ground almonds and ½ cup shredded parmesan, 3 cloves garlic, chopped very, very finely(I can’t emphasise this enough), sea salt and a soupcon of freshly ground black pepper(this last optional, due to the sharp pepperiness of the watercress). Onto this I poured two thirds of a cup of extra virgin olive oil and stirred it all in.

I’d also brought a kettle to the boil and rinsed out some glass jars.
(I’m addicted to Meredith Goat’s Cheese, so I’ve always got a stash of their jars, a perfect size for the sauces and preserves I love to make and all the better now, that they come with peel off labels on the plain lids. They are used and re - used, over and over.