Sunday, May 31, 2009

Speedy baking

Following on from my recent post about easy-to-prepare meals that will feed you quickly and healthily without the need to resort to takeaway, I've discovered some speedy baking recipes that will give you a delicious bite of sweetness in the same time it would take you to get in the car and drive to the supermarket to pick up a packet of tasteless mass-produced biscuits.

Although baking (and here I'm referring to baking cakes and biscuits, rather than meals) tends to be a reasonably quick preparation process - it doesn't take long to beat up some eggs, butter, flour and sugar - it can take some time in the oven. Some cakes will be done in 30 to 45 minutes, but most require about an hour, meaning that they can't always satisfy you, or unexpected guests, as quickly as you would like.

Biscuits, on the other hand, usually can. A short mixing process and about 10 minutes in the oven will see your first batch ready and cooling on a wire rack while the next batch bakes.

In the past week, I've twice found myself in a situation where I've needed some sweet nibbles at very short notice. It might sound crazy but, if I'm short of time, I find it more convenient to quickly bake something than I do to buy something from the supermarket. By the time I load up the car and then negotiate supermarket aisles with a wonky trolley and a baby and a toddler, it really is much easier to cream butter and sugar and add some flavourings such as chocolate chips!

So, in the past week, two new super-quick and easy recipes came to my rescue. In about 15 to 20 minutes (the same time it would have taken me to buy a packet from the supermarket), I had some fresh honey biscuits ready to eat. These biscuits, made up of only four ingredients (honey, butter, flour and ground ginger), were from a recipe by Matthew Evans, published in the Good Weekend magazine of the Saturday Age. I've collected Matthew's recipes for years but unfortunately don't try as many of them as I should. This one was a winner and filled the kitchen with a sweet perfume that lingered long after the biscuits were devoured.

The second recipe, for nuvoletti (little clouds) came from Rosa Mitchell's new cookbook My Cousin Rosa. I've eaten several times at Journal Canteen, where Rosa is behind the stoves, and the food has always been excellent (especially the divine mulberry tart I had there one day, made with mulberries freshly picked from Rosa's tree). This is a delightful cookbook, with old family recipes interspersed with Rosa's childhood memories of Sicily. Nuvoletti are made with eggs, caster sugar and flour but the end result is so much more than these simple ingredients: moist, slightly chewy biscuits that have a fluffy, airy texture. Perhaps this is what a little cloud would taste like if you were able to nibble at its edges. These biscuits symbolise something that I love most about baking: that you can take simple, everyday ingredients and transform them into something else with a minimum of effort. Eggs, flour and sugar don't sound like much on their own, but they are basic ingredients found in most pantries. Combine a few simple ingredients with some imagination and you have a snack without a preservative or artificial flavouring in sight!

Honey biscuits
From "The weekend cook" column by Matthew Evans in Good Weekend

100g butter
100g honey (a good floral version is best)
135g plain flour
1/4 tsp ground ginger, or use a generous pinch of mixed spice

Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter with the honey over low heat until just dissolved. Don't let it get too hot. Tip in the flour and ground ginger and stir well until the mixture is smooth.

Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper and dot dessertspoon-sized bits of biscuit mix in rows, leaving room for them to spread and not touch.

Bake for 5-10 minutes (it will depend on the thickness of your dough) or until well-tanned but not dark. Cool on the tray for a couple of minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling. Store in an airtight container.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why would anyone bother with takeaway?

Take-away foods are marketed to us as convenient time-savers. Come home from work, worn-out after a long day of meetings, pick up some pizza or Thai food, and plonk yourself on the couch to eat dinner out of a box. No preparation, no serving, no dishes. Sound enticing?

Well, actually, no it doesn't. The hidden costs of take-away food include fat and sodium, not to mention all sorts of additives that aren't found in fresh ingredients. I may be a purist and a food snob but, to me, take-away food is no more fast and convenient than home-cooked food and nowhere near as tasty.

A new survey by CHOICE concurs with this view. Surveying the nutritional value of take-aways, CHOICE found that these meals were generally high in saturated fat, sodium and kilojoules. Thai food was found to be the unhealthiest choice overall because of its high levels of saturated fat, salt and kilojoules. Pizza, especially those with stuffed crusts and extra toppings, is high in sodium, fat and kilojoules. While CHOICE found that Chinese and Italian take-away food (excluding pizza) were generally better for your waistline in terms of kilojoules, they were still high in saturated fat and sodium.

"On average, most of us spend 10 per cent of our weekly food budget on takeaway food and the percentage is on the rise. But with the convenience comes a cost in terms of nutrition," said CHOICE spokesman Christopher Zinn.

I know we don't all have hours to spend in a kitchen, making a slow-cooked casserole or soup (and nor do some of us have the inclination), but there are many dishes that you can make just as quickly as if you ordered in take-away. The key is preparation. By that, I mean you need to have a pantry stocked with some key ingredients. These ingredients can form a meal on their own, or they can be supplemented with some fresh vegetables you pick up on the way home.

Many may groan at the thought of planning and preparing for meals, particularly if you don't enjoy cooking. But we plan for many other things, so why not food? You wouldn't let your car run out of petrol just because you couldn't be bothered to go to the petrol station that week. You wouldn't forget to book plane tickets to get to your holiday destination. So why should your meals be any different? Food is an integral part of life, even if you don't enjoy cooking and regard food only as fuel. What you put in your body, though, will have an impact in every other area of your life, so why would you choose to fill it up with fat and salt when there's so many healthy, tasty options instead?

Top of my list for a quick, standby meal is tuna tortellini with peas. Cook a packet of Barilla cheese tortellini, adding a cup or two of frozen peas about four minutes before the pasta finishes cooking. Heat a large tin of Sirena tuna in a frypan (I usually saute some chopped garlic, anchovies and capers in some of the tuna oil before I add the tuna). Mix all together, add a little of the pasta cooking water if extra moisture is needed, and serve (adding some chopped parsley if you're feeling fancy). Dinner is on the table in about 15 minutes, with enough leftovers for lunch the next day.

Other fast options include:
  • Pizza. You can make your own dough if you have the time and the inclination. Otherwise, use low-fat pita breads as the base - you can keep these in the freezer and pull out for last-minute meals. The other bonus is that you get to decide exactly what goes on your pizza and can make it as healthy or unhealthy as you like!
  • Stirfrys. Keep some noodles in the pantry and all you have to do is pick up some chicken or beef and some vegetables on the way home. An even better idea is to shop on the weekend and have these ingredients already in the fridge and freezer. Chopping up the vegetables for stirfry does take some time but, once it's done, dinner is cooked in a flash.
  • If I cook rice to accompany a stirfry or similar, I always cook extra. That rice can then be used to make a quick fried rice for lunch or dinner the next day.
  • You can do worse than have a meal of meat and three veg - after all, it fortified a generation of Australia's farmers! It's also surprisingly quick. While some steak, sausages or lamb chops cook, boil some potatoes for mash and cook some carrots and peas in the microwave.
  • Even soups can be quite quick to make. Last night, I sauteed some onions and garlic in some olive oil, added three diced parsnip and two diced potatoes, poured in 2 cups of vegetable stock and simmered for about 20 minutes, until the parsnip and potatoes were soft. A quick whizz with the Bamix, a sprinkling of salt and pepper and the soup was ready to eat.
  • You can always plan ahead and make a batch of soup or some bolognaise sauce on the weekend and freeze to have on standby during the week.
  • Invest in a Donna Hay cookbook. Most of her meals are quick, tasty and use readily available ingredients.
I can't vouch for the calories in these meals above, as I'm not a calorie counter. I simply believe in keeping food as fresh and unprocessed as possible and having control over what you put in your mouth.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Inaugural Daring Cooks challenge - ricotta gnocchi

The Daring Bakers group, which has been running strong for nearly three years, now has a new component - the Daring Cooks. I'm not technically sure of the difference but I think the bakers concentrate on baking (eg cakes, pastries etc) while the cooks tend to focus more on, well, cooking things.

The inaugural Daring Cooks challenge was Ricotta Gnocchi, using the recipe from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rogers. Our hosts this month were the wonderful DB and DC founders, Lis and Ivonne.

Ricotta gnocchi was a nice, easy challenge for us to ease our way into this new endeavour. I find ricotta gnocchi fractionally easier and less time-consuming to make than potato gnocchi. It's a simple concoction of ricotta, eggs, melted butter and finely grated cheese. The only fiddly bit is that it's best to drain the ricotta for at least eight hours, and up to 24 hours, before you make it, as wet ricotta will mean the gnocchi won't form properly. But this is only a slight hitch; it just requires you to plan ahead.

Ricotta gnocchi has a lovely silky texture and I find it more forgiving of a less-than-perfect technique than potato gnocchi. If the potato mash is not pushed through a food mill or potato ricer (or sieve if you're desperate), or if too much flour is added, or the temperature of the cooking water is too hot or too cold, potato gnocchi tends to be claggy, stodgy or fall to bits, thus ruining your dish. I also find ricotta gnocchi has a light, airy texture and taste, and it is a good partner for a buttery sage sauce, which I find too rich with potato gnocchi.

Not having any sage in my herb garden at the moment, I served my gnocchi with a simple butter and leek sauce, made by sauteeing finely sliced leek in a large hunk of melted butter until it was soft and melting. I mixed the cooked gnocchi in this sauce and served it topped with shaved parmesan. I was worried that this dish might taste too buttery and rich, so I served it with a very untraditional side dish of broccoli and peas, as I thought some greens would help alleviate any richness.

Thank you to Lis and Ivonne for adding a cook's challenge to The Daring Kitchen and for choosing a delicious recipe to kick things off.

Ricotta gnocchi (from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rogers)

For the gnocchi:
500g fresh ricotta
2 large cold eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 or 3 fresh sage leaves, or a few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg, or a few pinches of chopped lemon zest (all optional)
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 teaspoon salt
plain flour, for forming the gnocchi

You need to prepare your ricotta the day before you plan to make the gnocchi. The gnocchi will not form properly if the ricotta is too wet. Place the ricotta in a sieve lined with paper towel, cover and stand over a bowl so it can drain. Refrigerate for at least eight hours, and up to 24 hours.

The next day, place the drained ricotta in a large bowl and mash as best you can with a rubber spatula or large spoon. Add the lightly beaten eggs and mix in. Melt the tablespoon of butter (add in the sage here if you're using it) and add to the ricotta and egg mixture. Add in any other flavourings you're using (eg nutmeg or lemon zest), then the Parmigiano-Reggiano and the salt. Beat all the ingredients together very well. You should end up with a soft and fluffy batter with no streaks.

Fill a small saucepan with water and bring to the boil. When it boils, salt the water generously and keep it at a simmer. You will use this water to test the first gnocchi that you make to ensure that it holds together and that your gnocchi batter isn’t too damp.

Fill a large, shallow baking dish with a bed of plain flour. With a spatula, scrape the ricotta mixture away from the sides of the bowl and form a large mass in the centre of your bowl.
Using a tablespoon, scoop up about 2 to 3 teaspoons of batter and then, holding the spoon at an angle, use your finger tip to gently push the ball of dough from the spoon into the bed of flour.
At this point you can either shake the dish or pan gently to ensure that the flour covers the gnocchi or use your fingers to very gently dust the gnocchi with flour. Gently pick up the gnocchi and cradle it in your hand rolling it to form it in an oval as best as you can; at no point should you squeeze it. What you’re looking for is an oval lump of sorts that’s dusted in flour and plump.
Gently place your gnocchi in the simmering water. It will sink and then bob to the top. From the time that it bobs to the surface, you want to cook the gnocchi until it’s just firm. This could take 3 to 5 minutes.

If your gnocchi begins to fall apart, this means that the ricotta cheese was probably still too wet. You can remedy this by beating a teaspoon of egg white into your gnocchi batter. If your gnocchi batter was fluffy but the sample comes out heavy, add a teaspoon of beaten egg to the batter and beat that in. Test a second gnocchi to ensure success.

Form the rest of your gnocchi. You can put 4 to 6 gnocchi in the bed of flour at a time. But don’t overcrowd your bed of flour or you may damage your gnocchi as you coat them.

Rest the formed gnocchi on a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper and dusted with flour.

You can cook the gnocchi right away; however, Judy Rodgers recommends storing them in the refrigerator for an hour prior to cooking to allow them to firm up. (Note: I rested half my gnocchi for an hour or so and these held their shape much better than those that I cooked straight away).

Fill a large, wide saucepan with water and bring to the boil. Salt generously and then drop the gnocchi into the water one by one. Once they float to the top, cook them for 3 to 5 minutes (as in the case with the test gnocchi).

When the gnocchi float to the top, you can start your sauce while you wait for them to finish cooking.

With a slotted spoon, remove the gnocchi from the boiling water and gently drop into the butter sauce. Carefully roll in the sauce until coated. Serve immediately.

To make my butter and leek sauce: melt a large hunk of butter (the amount is really up to you and how rich you want the sauce - I probably used about 100g) in a fry-pan. Finely slice a leek and saute until soft and caramelised. Mix in the cooked gnocchi, pile onto plates and top with shaved parmesan.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A heated debate

A big glass of milk, fresh from the cow and with a thick layer of cream on top, was not a treat but an everyday occurrence when I was a child.

It's only now that I look back on my childhood days on a farm and realise how blessed we were: eggs laid by our own chooks, fresh milk from our dairy-farming neighbours, fruit and vegetables from our orchard and garden, meat from the livestock - I would be in heaven now if I still had access to this bounty (sadly, I don't, as the family farm was sold a decade ago).

When I was growing up, I didn't realise that drinking a glass of fresh milk, unhomogenised and unpasteurised, would become a heinous crime, according to the food police. The germs! The danger!

The vexed topic of milk was the subject of this week's cover story in Epicure, specifically why we seem to have lost the taste for real milk. I find it bizarre that a product as simple as milk has so many weird connotations, myths and beliefs surrounding it.

As author Richard Cornish explained, milk has been marketed over the past 20 years as "both healthy, because it is calcium rich, and harmful, because it is fatty". "Our relationship with the white stuff has now been reduced to grasping a colourful carton from a supermarket fridge where hundreds sit side by side. There is low-fat, lactose-free, milk with plant sterols, high calcium, high protein and milk with an added dollop of cream."

Aside from all our hang-ups about whether milk is healthy or fatty, the most contentious aspect is around raw milk, which is not homogenised or pasteurised. This is seen as evil and it is actually against the law to sell this milk. Richard explained in his article that raw milk is sold in some shops as "bath milk" and labelled not for human consumption.

This, to me, is an example of the weird and tangled relationship we have with food. At a farmers' market that Richard attended, he was warned "You can't drink it [raw milk] because Dairy Food Safety Victoria says that because it is not pasteurised it may contain listeria, E.coli, salmonella or staph."

Now, I'm not a scientist and perhaps things have changed over the past 20 years, but I drank fresh milk, now known by the unappealing moniker as "raw milk", every day for 18 years and never once was I sick from it, nor were any of our friends. Milk was milk and that was it. The one thing I hated when visiting my grandfather's house during school holidays (he lived five hours' drive from us) was that I had to drink milk from a carton, or what I called "shop milk". The homogenised, pasteurised milk had no flavour for me and I didn't like it at all. I much preferred our big billy at home, where the top half would often be cream, and we drove two kilometres up the road every couple of days to visit our neighbours and buy six litres for about $2. Life seemed much simpler then. When - and why - did food become so complicated?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Is cooking just about following a recipe?

"If you can read, you can cook."

I smiled when I heard this comment on talkback radio last week. At its most basic, this is a true statement. If you can read, you can follow a recipe. "Heat oil in a heavy-based saucepan, then add onion and garlic..." might be the start of a soup recipe and surely any literate person would understand those instructions?

But there is so much more to cooking than just following a recipe. There is jargon in cooking, or at least terms that are taken to be commonly understood and not require explanation (particularly in old-fashioned cookbooks, where recipes are rarely more than two or three sentences long). Terms such as "saute", "sweat", "al dente" and "cream" have a specific meaning that novices may not understand. I find that most cake recipes now ask the cook to beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, whereas all my old recipes simply state to "cream butter and sugar " before moving onto the next step.

In terms of cookware, sandwich tins, lamington tins and slice tins have special, standard measurements that also don't need explanation.. I was reminded of this when I posted a recipe for a slice that stated that the mixture should be cooked in a slice tin and a friend asked me what exactly was a slice tin. Sandwich tins are commonly referred to in old-fashioned recipes; do most modern cooks know that they are used, not to make or carry sandwiches, but to bake sponges?

But more than specialist terms and jargon, cooking is about passion and the soul. Yes, anyone who can read should be able to cook but will they enjoy it? Will they be inspired to seek out new ingredients? Will they enjoy spending hours to concoct a dish that may be polished off in minutes? If you don't enjoy cooking, or see it as a boring chore to be completed as quickly as possible, then you can make meals as fuel but you are not a true cook.

Dishes cooked with love, whether it's for family, friends, neighbours or a new lover, no matter how plain or simple, taste better because they have that secret ingredient of love mixed in. I think that's why sometimes old family recipes don't taste the same, regardless of how faithfully the recipe is followed, because they are missing that ingredient. Mum's roast chook or hedgehog slice doesn't taste the same if mum doesn't cook it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Cafe review: Mart 130

Commuting is a necessary but unfortunate aspect of urban life, made especially frustrating if public transport is unreliable, as is often the case in Melbourne with our privatised public transport system. Train commuters regularly arrive at stations to find trains running late, while tram commuters adopt a particular stance that involves peering hopefully up the line to see if a tram is in sight.

If more tram stops and train stations had a cafe like Mart 130 available, commuters might be a happier bunch. Mart 130 is a bright, busy cafe located in the old stationmaster’s office at the Middle Park light-rail stop (it’s stop number 130 and “mart” is “tram” spelt backwards – cute). You can tuck yourself away in the warm interior that overlooks Carmelite tennis club and Albert Park, and imagine that you’re at any normal cafe, or sit outside above the platform and watch the trams glide past.

At 10.30 on a wintry Friday morning, Mart 130 is packed, so I take a table outside on the platform. As an icy wind drifts along the tracks, I feel a familiar, jaded commuter expression settle on my face and I can’t help myself peering up the line to see if anything’s coming. But, happily, I have a long black on the way and an interesting breakfast menu to peruse, which puts me in a much better frame of mind than a commuter running late for work who can’t even stop to grab a take-away.

The staff are friendly and efficient and, before my long black arrives, a waitress tells me a spot has become free inside at the window bench, so I quickly move, grateful to be under a heater. Why does the temperature at tram stops and train stations always seem to be a few degrees cooler than elsewhere?

Aside from the usual cafe breakfast standards such as porridge, granola muesli and Bircher muesli, there are some imaginative takes on other dishes on the menu. A triple stack of pancakes comes with either a berry compote or bacon and maple syrup. The French toast, made with brioche, may have a Middle Eastern influence of pistachio mascarpone and orange syrup, or be served with the more conventional grilled bacon. The menu sternly notes that “no alterations” are allowed to the four egg dishes, but this should not present a problem, as the options will tick most people’s boxes. Scrambled eggs come with chives, shaved parmesan, truffle oil, mushrooms and spinach. Large free-range poached eggs, with intense yellow and runny yolks, are served on a thick slice of sourdough bread, perhaps smeared with avocado and folds of smoked salmon.

Oven-roasted corn fritters, plump with juicy corn kernels, are stacked in a tower with alternating layers of grilled bacon and accompanied by sweet tomato relish and a scoop of sour cream (the coriander noted as part of the dish on the menu turns out to be a sad, solitary stalk). The bacon is full of intense, smoky flavours, and the fritters are pleasantly robust, although some spices in the fritters, or a more spicy tomato relish, would have lifted this dish to near-perfection.

There are large muffins or some cakes for the sweet tooths, while toasted pides and salads are on offer for lunch. Genovese is the brand of coffee served here and the coffee machine whirrs constantly in the background. Life as a commuter is infinitely sweeter with a cafe such as this at your tram stop but you’ll enjoy this place even more if you’re in no rush to head off somewhere else.

Mart 130, 107a Canterbury Rd (light-rail station), Middle Park
Open daily, 7.30am to 5pm

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A food quest

One of the lovely things about being passionate about food is the little adventures and knowledge quests this passion takes me on. Sometimes just a word, a phrase, or an image is enough to spark interest and further research.

The Age's restaurant critic, Larissa Dubecki, recently reviewed Embrasse in Carlton and this sentence caught my eye: "... a truly memorable side dish called aligot, a cheesy potato mash from the south of France so voluptuously gooey that it needs to undergo a double-spooned twirly ritual at the table to transport it from the copper pot to the plate. It's the comfort food that dreams are made of."

I've never tasted aligot before but the thought of a rich, cheesy potato mash was irresistible. I immediately started searching the Internet for recipes. Coincidentally, I'm going through a French cooking phase at the moment (as I have finally, after many years of wanting to, started French classes, so I'm immersing myself in all things French) and had several French cookery books from the library in the house. Voila! Here, in The Food of France, was a recipe for aligot. It is an unbelievably easy dish but oh, so decadent! It has been so hard to return to plain mashed potatoes after this feast for the palate.


This cheesy, potato puree is a specialty of the Auvergne region.

800g floury potatoes, cut into even-sized pieces
70g butter
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3 tablespoons milk
300g Cantal (or substitute mild Cheddar cheese), grated

Cook the potatoes in boiling, salted water until tender. Meanwhile, melt the butter over low heat in a small saucepan and add the garlic. Mash the potatoes and use a food ricer, potato mill or push through a sieve to give a really smooth puree.

Return the potato puree to the saucepan and set over a gentle heat. Add the garlic butter and milk. Mix together well and add the cheese in handfuls, beating to mix in the cheese, which will melt and make the mixture stretchy. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Recipe from The Food of France: a journey for food lovers, Murdoch Books, 2000.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Happy birthday!

Today my little boy Daniel turned three. I can't believe how quickly the months have flown since he was born. Everyone warns you to treasure every moment because it goes so quickly but it's hard to believe this until it's happening to you.

We had a family party to celebrate and once again the trusty Australian Women's Weekly birthday cake cookbook provided the inspiration for the cake. The cakes look impressive but are surprisingly easy to put together: a butter cake, some butter cream tinted with bright colours and some lollies for strategic decoration and you have a masterpiece! As tigers are one of Daniel's favourite animals, it was a given that I would make the tiger cake for him.

In the months leading up to his birthday, Daniel enjoyed flicking through the book and looking at all the cakes. The only problem was that, each time he looked, he chose a different cake that he wanted! I decided to ignore his whims and stick with the tiger but I was a little worried that when I brought out the cake, he might wail "But I didn't want that one!"

In the end, we had the opposite problem: Daniel loved the tiger cake so much that he was distraught when I produced a knife to cut the cake. In fact, he burst into tears and I had to give him a cuddle while Nanna quickly patched the cake back together!

Luckily, fellow playmates, lollies and balloons distracted him and we were able to serve the cake with no more tears; he happily ate two pieces and told everyone how much he loved the tiger and that tomorrow he was going to have a lion cake. Guess that's next year's cake sorted then ....

Friday, May 1, 2009

Which cookbook did I exploit?

April was "cookbook exploitation month", as explained by Dan from Casual Kitchen. His theory is that we cook 80 per cent of the time from 20 per cent of our cookbook collection, so he nominated April as the month to dig out an old cookbook and exploit it by cooking recipes from it.

After perusing my many cookbooks, and sadly concluding that Dan's 80:20 rule was correct, I chose to exploit The Food I Love by Neil Perry. This was a wedding present from a good friend and I remember excitedly flicking through the pages and planning all the meals I was going to make. But after I marked it up with post-it notes, back it went, unused, on the shelf.

Neil Perry is one of Australia's best-known chefs. He has three restaurants in Sydney, Rockpool Bar & Grill at Crown Casino in Melbourne, appears on the food channel on Foxtel and coordinates the in-flight catering for Qantas. I've been lucky enough to dine several times at Rockpool in Melbourne, including one magical meal in the private dining room. Everything I've eaten at Rockpool has been sublime but it was the side dishes, normally an afterthought to the star of the meal, that blew me away. Velvety creamed corn, sexy broccoli (yes, it can be done), decadent macaroni cheese - each of these dishes was a gem and a highlight in its own right. I thought no more of these dishes until I opened The Food I Love - and there were the recipes for these very dishes! Tres excitement! Of course, my heart nearly stopped at the amount of cream in the macaroni cheese dish, and I need to get a juicer in order to make the creamed corn as velvety as Neil's, but no matter - now I know how to do it!

As I flicked through the book, my list of dishes to try grew longer. There were breakfast recipes, pasta dishes, seafood main courses, plenty of steak and chicken options and a few desserts. I found the dessert chapter disappointing; although the classic dishes featured, such as creme caramel, bread and butter pudding, summer pudding and hot chocolate souffle, were all beautifully executed, there was no sexy new dish that took my fancy or inspired me to rush into the kitchen. However, there was plenty of inspiration in the savoury chapters, so this is only a
minor quibble.

Despite my long list, I made only a handful of dishes from the book and, unfortunately, I don't think I exploited it enough. However, several of the dishes I made were so good that they've entered my "repeat repertoire" and I'll definitely be making them again. The Spanish-style chicken casserole, with a rich tomatoey paprika-scented braise sauce, was full of flavour and a great dish on a cool night. It takes an hour to cook with chicken legs, but the time can be considerably cut down by using chicken breasts.

The gnocchi with braised veal shanks and parmesan was also a winner, although I substituted lamb shanks for the veal. This was ridiculously easy to put together and it was then left to simmer for a few hours on the stove, reducing to a rich, thick braise with meltingly tender lamb shank meat flaked through it. I even made my own gnocchi, as per Neil's recipe, to accompany the lamb braise, and this is another dish I'll be making again.

Barbecued chicken, its smoky flavours beautifully offset by a sauce of velvety pureed zucchini and garlic, will also go into my repertoire. It's amazing how something so easy to cook can look and taste so impressive once plated. I loved learning Neil's cheffy tricks to help impress the family.

Other dishes we enjoyed this month were zucchini and parmesan soup, pea and pumpkin risotto, braised lamb shoulder with gremolata, cauliflower with saffron, pine nuts and raisins (a good match with the Spanish-style chicken casserole) and parsnip puree. Those at the top of the list to try soon include the Moroccan eggplant salad, flathead with beer batter, the many different BBQ beef dishes with different sauces, the Persian-style lamb stew and more of the magical side dishes. It's great to see vegetable accompaniments treated with the same respect and imagination as main courses.

I won't be leaving this cookbook to languish unloved on my bookshelf again but will be referring to it much more often. Now I just need to rescue some more of my cookbooks from the same dusty fate. Thanks to Dan for coming up with such a great concept - look forward to participating again!