Monday, August 24, 2009

Baking with toddlers

Being surrounded by fresh food and a busy kitchen from a young age is surely one of the key ingredients to becoming a cook. If you see cooking being done on a regular basis, see how easy it can be to transform simple ingredients into delicious meals, and learn that food comes from pots and pans rather than cardboard boxes or tin foil containers, that will surely teach you more about how to eat well (in season, in moderation etc) than heavy-handed nanny state messages about X food bad, Y food good.

I come from a family of excellent home cooks but I don't remember the message ever being rammed down my throat that I must learn to cook and like it. Cooking was a life skill that you acquired, along with other skills necessary to function in life, and it was a bonus that I enjoyed it. Cookbooks were in the house, recipes were clipped from magazines and we were encouraged to try our hand in the kitchen, no matter how much of a mess we made or how many mistakes happened. There's nothing wrong with making mistakes in the kitchen, as long as you learn from them. You'll only forget to grease a cake tin once; the resulting mess, and disappointment, as you try to scrape out a cake glued to the tin will stay with you and ensure you don't forget again.

My son Daniel is almost three-and-a-half and he loves helping in the kitchen. Measuring, mixing and scraping (and, of course, tasting!) are all things he can easily do to help and he gets a real buzz out of seeing how a runny mixture can be transformed into a delicious cake or biscuits (although he's not so keen on the wait involved!)

This week we decided to make "gingie men" (gingerbread biscuits). I've got dozens of recipes but this dough is easy to mix up and there's no need for it to relax in the fridge, so this is a simple recipe for rainy days or when the demand for biscuits needs to be met quickly! It's based on a recipe from Notebook magazine. You can ice your biscuits or decorate them with currants to make them fancy, but I don't usually bother.

"Gingie men"

125g butter, softened
100g brown sugar
125ml golden syrup
1 egg yolk
375g plain flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 ground cloves

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Line two oven trays with baking paper. Use an electric mixer to beat the butter, sugar and golden syrup together until pale and creamy. Add the egg yolk and beat until just combined. Add the sifted flour and spices and use a wooden spoon to stir the mixture until it's just combined. Tip out onto a lightly floured bench and use your hands to knead the dough until smooth.

Divide the dough into two portions. Put one portion aside and roll out the other portion to about 5mm thick. Cut into shapes using biscuit cutters and bake for 10-12 minutes or until lightly golden. Transfer from trays to a wire rack and cool.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On the cusp

The season is starting to turn. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the days are lengthening. Work days don't start and end in inky blackness, with daylight glimpsed through office windows but gone before you get home to enjoy it.

There is a hint of warmth in the breeze and the sun is starting to get some spirit into its rays. Bulbs are popping up in the garden, with splashes of purple and yellow enlivening the grey winter soil. Soon my kitchen will be full of spring greens and lighter, simpler meals will be on the menu. I'm especially looking forward to the arrival of asparagus.

In the meantime, the nights are still cold. The unpredictable Melbourne weather means that a warm spring-like day will be followed by one of rain and biting wind, so warming, soothing soups and stews are still welcome at this time of year. While they are a heavy meal, stews are simple to make and most require only copious amounts of time, bubbling away on the stove, or cooking gently in the oven, to turn them into a meal to warm you up from the inside.

So there's still time to make some stews before putting away the stockpot. I have quite a collection of favourites but I'm always finding new recipes to add to my repertoire.

One of my favourite non-food magazines is Notebook magazine. It has an excellent food section each month but it also has very interesting, thought-provoking articles that go beyond the usual fluff about celebrities, make-overs or diets, and give you pause to reflect on relevant issues affecting us, whether it's the environment, managing finances or reading about strong, intelligent women.

The June issue featured a delicious-looking French lamb and cannelini bean casserole with rosemary dumplings. Just the title was enough to catch my interest and it was certainly worth making. The dumplings are cooked at the end, without a lid, and get a pleasant crispy crunch to them. I've adjusted the liquids from the original recipe, as I prefer my stews quite thick, and this one had a thin sauce. If you make only one more stew this winter, make this one.

French lamb and cannelini bean casserole with rosemary dumplings
Adapted from a recipe in Notebook magazine, June 2009 issue

1 tablespoon olive oil
500g lamb shoulder, cut into 3cm pieces
12 baby pickling onions, peeled
2 carrots, peeled, thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, sliced
1/2 cup (125ml) white wine
1 cup (250ml) beef stock
1 bouquet garni
1 rosemary stalk
400g can cannelini beans, rinsed and drained
1 1/2 cups self-raising flour
30g butter
2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary
3/4 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees. Heat half the oil in a large, flameproof casserole pan over high heat. Cook the lamb in batches until brown all over, then transfer to a bowl.

Add the remaining oil to the pan over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until the onions are golden brown. Add the lamb, wine, beef stock, bouquet garni and rosemary. Remove from heat and bake in preheated oven, covered, for 1 1/2 hours, or until lamb is tender. Add the cannelini beans and stir to combine. Increase the oven temperature to 200 degrees.

Meanwhile, to make the dumplings, place the flour in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Use your fingertips to run the butter into the flour. Add the rosemary and stir to combine. Add the milk and use a round-bladed knife to stir until mixture just comes together.

Remove the casserole from the oven. Spoon tablespoons of dumpling mixture over the top. Bake in oven, uncovered, for 15 minutes or until dumplings are golden brown and cooked through. Serve with steamed green beans.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Magazine month

I eagerly anticipate the publication of new food magazines each month. Our small market in Australia is quite spoiled for choice, with several excellent local food magazines to choose from, with a wide range of recipes and wonderful photography. The Internet has also made it easy to access recipes from food magazines and writers around the world and my bulging shoebox file is testament to the fact that you can never have too many recipes!

Too often, though, I find myself eagerly marking up a new issue with recipes to try and then never finding the time to make my choices before the next issue arrives. So I recently made a concerted effort with Gourmet Traveller's June issue, which featured a decadent triple chocolate praline tart on the front cover (sadly, one recipe I haven't yet made from the list).

Flicking through, I found myself marking recipe after recipe to try: white bean veloute, chocolate sour cherry cake, braised lamb neck moussaka and tarka dal, from the "Fare Exchange" section (which features readers' requests for recipes from restaurants around the country). The "quick meals" section yielded scotch fillet with mash and rosemary butter, prawns with tomato, preserved lemon and couscous, char-grilled chicken with warm cabbage and celeriac salad (tick, tick and tick - all to be made again). There was a whole feature on pumpkin dishes (the pumpkin with speck and apple was particularly delicious with smoky cheese kranskys) and the "Nice as Pie" article featured both sweet and savoury pies. The brisket and Cheddar pie with sour cream pastry might have taken nearly a whole day to make but it was the best damn pie I've ever eaten in my life and worth every second of the preparation time. To top it all off, there were seven of the richest, decadent chocolate recipes I've ever seen and all will be made in the next few months.

Not only were all the dishes that I made from this issue worthy of a repeat, there was also a satisfying feeling to finally making good use of an issue, rather than just reading it and filing it away for future drooling sessions.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Nibbles: Carman's Muesli Bites

Hot on the heels of the recently released Carman's Rounds, Carman's has now released Muesli Bites, snack-sized little muesli bars that contain less than 100 calories per serve.

Available in fruit muesli or apricot muesli, the bites are GM-free and contain no preservatives. Unlike the Rounds, which had a biscuit-like texture and are marketed as a breakfast replacement, these Bites taste just like Carman's muesli. They are not too sweet and are a reasonably filling snack. The small size makes them easy to tuck into handbags or backpacks.

Carman's is an Australian-owned company, with the factory based in Melbourne, and no preservatives, genetically modified ingredients or artificial colours or flavours are used in their products.

Carman's Muesli Bites are available from all major supermarkets.