dinner


So I have finally decided to do something about my irksome suspicions that some unpleasant allergy-like reactions I’ve been having may be, sadly, related to food.  I took myself to see a dietician who is helping me to investigate just what the culprits might be.  Unfortunately, there appears to be no getting around the fact that the only way to do this properly is to start with an elimination diet (skin prick tests and the like are not sensitive enough to indicate food intolerances).

The version of the diet I’m doing is not super strict, as it allows me to eat foods that have a low-to-moderate amount of the relevant food-chemicals that we’re testing (salicylates, amines and glutamates, if you’re asking).  However, it does cut a huge swathe in the variety of foods that I’m used to eating and cooking with.    For example: onion, corn, zucchini, capsicum, tomato, cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, spinach and tomato are out!  (My dietician had to laugh when at this point of the session I confessed that our household eats mostly vegetarian!)  Also out are most fruits (except pear and banana), cheeses (except fresh ones like ricotta or cottage cheese), and, most tragically, chocolate.  Lucky this diet thing is just for three weeks, voluntary and for a good cause!

So I decided to approach the whole thing as a new culinary challenge: and with some useful tips from friends, and a new cookbook under wing, I set about making a detailed food plan for Week 1 and its accompanying shopping list.  I’m happy to say that, almost at the that week, it hasn’t been all so bad.  Apart from chocolate, I mostly miss eating mandarines and my regular night-time peppermint tea, and I miss cooking with lemon, pepper, and tasty cheeses like parmesan.  Here’s a wrap-up of the week’s vegetarian/pescetarian highlights (I’ll skip our non-vegetarian lapses):

– caramelised tofu with crispy brussels sprouts (from 101 cookbooks)
– sweet potato tortilla with caramelised leeks and asparagus
– homemade crunchy fish with garlic mash (homemade fresh breadcrumbs are the way to go here)
– panfried chickpeas with green beans and pasta ribbons
– and a giant batch of maple rhubarb for dessert.

I was pleasantly surprised by how the chickpeas turned out, and I think I might even make them again post-diet.  It’s a snap to make and uses few ingredients.  The chickpeas turn out to be incredibly tasty and a little bit crunchy, which provides a great foil for the silky pasta ribbons.  See what you think!

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Pan-fried chickpeas with green beans and pasta ribbons
Adapted from 101 cookbooks’ chickpea salad

2 tbsp butter
1 leek, trimmed and sliced thinly into half-moons
1 400g tin chickpeas, drained
1 large clove garlic, sliced
large handful green beans, sliced on the diagonal
2 large fresh lasagna sheets, cut into thick ribbons
greek yoghurt, to serve

In a frying pan, melt the butter and toss in the leek and chickpeas.  Cook over medium-high heat until the leek starts to soften.  Add the garlic, and cook until the leek and chickpeas take on some colour (may take 10-15 minutes all up).

While this is happening, put on a separate saucepan of water to boil for the pasta.  Cook the pasta ribbons according to the packet (mine took only a few minutes to cook), and 2 minutes before they are done, toss in the beans.  When the beans are bright green, drain the pasta and beans.

When both the chickpea mixture and the pasta are done, tip the pasta and beans into the frying pan. Toss gently over low heat to incorporate it all together, and season with salt.  Serve up in bowls with a generous dollop of yoghurt on top.

Post-diet variations: some lemon zest added to the chickpea mixture at the end could be good; also I’d like to try some parmesan with this to serve as well.

Yield: serves 2 as a main

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I don’t usually have the budget or the time to look over all the lovely foodie books and magazines I would like to, so I really enjoyed having the chance to leaf through a whole stack of glossy food magazines while travelling a few months ago – for me, definitely one of the perks of not-so-frequent air travel!

This recipe caught my eye as it featured Indian flavours (a cuisine I’m trying to learn more about, and trying to cook from spices rather than bought bases), vegetarian, quick to cook (curry in spirit but cooks with the speed of a stir-fry), and used items that were all currently ready to spring to action in my kitchen (eg the usually forlorn fenugreek).  Hooray!  On the night I ended up cooking it, my fridge/pantry line-up was a bit different from what the original recipe called for – hence the inauthentic addition of tofu – but gosh can I recommend this for a speedy and tasty weeknight meal.  Even in the mixing bowl I was excited by the colours and freshness of the ingredients:

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One note of warning: the chilli flavours here aren’t too hot, but add a lovely rounded warmth and is aa key part of the dish in my view.  Best not for a family meal with kiddies (unless yours are braver than mine is).

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Quick and perky green bean curry
Adapted from Australian Gourmet Traveller

400g green beans, topped and tailed
150g firm tofu, cubed
1 small red onion, sliced into half moons
10 curry leaves
2 small green chilli, seeded and finely chopped
1 tsp each chilli flakes and ground cumin
1/2 tsp each fenugreek seeds and fennel seeds
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 coconut milk

In a large bowl, mix together all the ingredients except for the oil and coconut milk.

Heat the oil in a wok, and then tip in the green bean mixture.  Cook for about 5 minutes on high until the onion has softened and the beans look bright green.

Tip in the coconut milk, and continue to stir-fry on high until most of the milk has evaporated and the bean mixture is almost glazed with it.  Season with some salt to taste, and serve with rice.

Yield: 2-3 serves.  I would definitely double this next time, as leftovers the next day were still yummy.

While I take a lot of inspiration from Jamie Oliver’s enthusiasm for all things natural, cooking and keeping it real on the whole, I must say even he can’t inspire me to get fresh peas in a pod and pod them.  I simply don’t have the kind of day where podding peas gets any time priority right now.  In his original recipe for this, he calls for fresh peas and broad beans, which apparently have far superior flavour.  So if any of you want to try with the fresh stuff – let me know how you go.

But the idea of tasty peas, smushed on garlic toast, and topped with a poached egg?  That’s a winner in my book, as it can really serve at any time of the day for a healthy dose of greens, protein and flavour.  Warning for all those against peas – mushy or otherwise – this recipe is built on them.  I, as a pea lover, am happy to find another way to work them into my meals.

[And as you can see from the looming shadows in this less than stellar photo, we had this as a quick weeknight dinner; I imagine it would make a lovely bright brekky, and look much more radiant in a photo taken then too.]

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Smashed peas on toast
Adapted from a Jamie Oliver recipe

We had these with a poached egg on top, but you could also go with the original recipe’s suggestion of plopping a torn-up ball of buffalo mozzarella over the peas.

1 1/2 cups frozen peas, thawed to room temperature
about 12 leaves fresh mint
1/2 cup grated parmesan, plus extra to top
juice of 1 lemon
4 slices sourdough, toasted
olive oil
1 clove of garlic, halved
poached eggs (see note above)

To make the smashed peas, put the peas and mint in a mortar and pestle and smash until you have a rough paste.  (It is fine to do this in stages if they don’t all fit at once.)

Stir in enough olive oil to make the paste barely spreadable (about 2 tablespoons should do it), then stir in the cheese.

Stir in about half of the lemon juice, then taste, adding salt and pepper as needed.  Add more lemon juice to taste if needed as well.  The idea is not to smash the peas so much that you have a puree consistency, but something short of that.  I liked my smashed peas to still have some identifiable pieces of peas and cheese in it.

(Get your eggs going at this point if you are having them.)  Toast the sourdough slices.  When done, drizzle with some olive oil and rub with the cut side of a garlic half.

Pile some peas on the garlic toast, top with an egg (or mozzarella), and scatter with some extra parmesan.

Yield: enough smashed peas for 2-3 serves.

Just a very quick post to report on an improbably tasty discovery: pan-fried gnocchi.  I have long been wary of supermarket gnocchi, and have never made it with any success from scratch at home, so when I chanced on a few internet recipes that descibed a method of cooking them straight from frozen, I was intrigued.   I’m sure you could transform this many different ways with whatever vegetables you have on hand, so let me know how you go.  I’m totally back into gnocchi with this cooking technique.  And even though you could make it into a truly decadent dish by upping the butter quantity to make something more like a burnt-butter sauce, for a weeknight meal that can be on the table in 20 minutes and that uses just one pan and just one big spoon of butter, I’m sold.

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Pan-fried gnocchi with spinach and mushrooms
Adapted from Vegetarian Times

375g ready-made gnocchi (from the fridge, or I used frozen)
150g mushrooms, sliced
150g baby spinach
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 generous tablespoon butter

Melt the butter in a large frying pan, and heat on medium-high until the butter is sizzling.  Tip in the gnocchi all at once and fry, stirring well to coat in the butter.  When bronzed on all sides, remove from the heat and set aside.

Return the pan to the medium heat, and add in the mushrooms.  Fry till just softening, then add the garlic and spinach.  Turn the vegetables over well to wilt the spinach.  When all the spinach is just wilted, return the gnocchi to the pan to heat through.  Season with salt and pepper.

Yield: serves 2-3 for a main

For his birthday dinner this week, my cream-and-dairy-loving husband requested creamy spinach pasta.  I was happy to oblige with this old favourite, and when trying to think about what might go best for a simple but celebratory dessert, a chocolate fudge sauce I’d seen in Nigella Express came to mind as an ideal vehicle for the remaining double cream.

Now, this isn’t a meal for everyday, and isn’t a meal for when you’re counting calories.  But, in its defence, the pasta sauce does use a vast amount of English spinach leaves (2 bunches!), and does feed 4 ravenous people.  It really is a very simple idea, and the spinach puree-sauce provides a wonderfully tasty coating for the pasta.  If you’re pressed for time, I would say that semi-dried tomatoes could substitute really well for these oven roasted ones.

There’s really no way to think of any healthful defence of this chocolate fudge sauce (which I think is like a sublime version of the trashy thrill of Reece’s peanut butter cups), unless you count the fact that it is so rich and delicious you won’t need more than a couple of spoonfuls of it over your favourite icecream.  (I don’t know what Nigella was thinking in saying that this recipe serves 4:  I would say this quantity of fudge would top 10-12 regular-sized sundaes generously.)

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Creamy Spinach Pasta
Adapted from Vegie Food

Note:  the original recipe calls for fresh spinach fettucine.  I couldn’t find that this time, and instead used this pretty (dried) egg fettucine with a single ruffled edge.  Up to you.

6 roma tomatoes, cut into wedges
40g butter
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 onion, chopped
500g English spinach leaves (about 2 bunches worth)
250mL vegetable stock
1/2 cup double cream
400g pasta (see note above)
shaved parmesan, to top

Roast the tomato wedges tossed in a bit of olive oil at 220C for about 30 minutes, until softened.

Put the pasta on to cook.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large pan, and good the garlic and onion over medium heat until the onion is soft.  Then add the spinach, stock and cream, and push down the spinach to wilt.  Bring to a boil and simmer rapidly for 5 minutes.  Allow to cool slightly, then puree with a hand blender or in a food processor.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Set aside until the pasta and tomatoes are ready.

When everything is cooked, tip the creamy spinach sauce into the drained pasta and toss well to coat the pasta.  Serve into bowls, and top with the roasted tomato and parmesan shavings.

Yield: 4 generous servings.

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Chocolate peanut butter fudge sauce
Minor adaptations from Nigella Express

175mL double cream
100g milk chocolate, chopped
100g smooth peanut butter, chopped
2 tbsp golden syrup

Place all the ingredients into a saucepan and stir over low heat to melt and to combine all the ingredients.  In 2-3 minutes the sauce will be ready.

We had this with vanilla and caramel icecream, with some chopped salted peanuts on top.  Delicious.  Go crazy with it and let me know what you suggest.

Yield: enough for 10-12 sundaes.  Keeps in a jar in the fridge, and reheats just fine with a gentle burst in the microwave.

We had a run of oddly cool days last week and somehow this made sense of cooking up some eggplant parmigiana in a season that’s nowhere near winter.  It also helped that I had an afternoon that I’d put aside to do some quiet work at home, which turned out to be an ideal time to keep an eye on some slow-baking eggplant slices and a pot of tomato sauce.

For a comforting eggplant bake, with some (apparently) Sicilian touches according to Stephanie Alexander, give this one a go.  I think for authenticity the appropriate cheese would likely be some fresh mozzarella or provolone: I’d certainly use them if I had some around, but if you only have bog-standard cheddar in the fridge like I did, it will still make a pretty tasty dinner.

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Eggplant Parmigiana
Inspired by Stephanie Alexander

2 medium eggplant, cut into 1cm round slices
2 tbsp olive oil
400g tin chopped tomatoes
2 extra roma tomatoes, chopped roughly
1 clove garlic, crushed
salt, pepper, 1/2 tsp sugar
2 tbsp each of pinenuts and currants
2/3 cup grated cheese of choice (I used mostly cheddar and a bit of parmesan)

Lay out the eggplant slices on baking paper, on a large oven tray.  Brush well with the olive oil on both sides, and bake for 45-60 minutes at 180C, turning once.  If the eggplant looks a bit dry when you turn them, brush with a little extra oil.  It just doesn’t pay to skimp too much here when you’re dealing with oil-thirsty eggplant – just think, the oven-bake method is still healthier than the traditional pan-frying method.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan put in the can of tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, garlic, sugar and salt and pepper to taste.  Bring to simmering point, and simmer away for about 20-30 minutes, until the sauce is thickened slightly.  Taste for seasoning.

When the eggplant and tomato sauce is ready, you can assemble the final dish.   In a baking dish, spread out a couple of spoonfuls of tomato sauce, then put down about half the eggplant slices into a nice even layer.  Scatter over 1 tbsp each of pinenuts and currants, then 1/3 cup of the cheese, then half of the remaining sauce.  Repeat with a layer of eggplant, pinenuts and currants and the rest of the tomato sauce, and finally top with the rest of the cheese.

Bake for about 30 minues at 180C until bubbling and golden.

Yield: serves 2-3

We’ve been patiently watching a pot of baby beetroots grow on our balcony over the past couple of months.  On the weekend, when thinking of something interesting to try out for a brunch with friends, we wondered whether our home-grown baby beets might fit the bill nicely.  Cute though they were, when we pulled some up they were truly miniature – each the size of a plump blueberry!  We would have needed dozens and dozens to make the equivalent of 2 medium sized red beetroot!  So we supplemented the meagre handful of miniature beets with regular sized ones, and when I sliced one of the big ones open, I was just stunned that a root vegetable could be so gorgeously coloured, psychedelic-patterned, and slightly scary-looking at the same time:

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It was a good omen.  The beetroot roasted up beautifully sweet and tender, and were a perfect filling in this beetroot and feta tart.  As a special treat, I decided to make the pastry from scratch as well.  I hadn’t attempted it for years and years, but remembered that frozen shortcrust can often be just a little bit disappointing.  While it is a great convenience and time-saver, there’s always just something a bit inadequate about it: the shape isn’t right, you can’t get it the right thickness, it is too sticky or too dry.  Don’t get me wrong – there’s definitely a place in my kitchen for convenience foods – but I do want to recommend this basic shortcrust recipe if you want to make an outstanding pie crust.  The effect is amazing: crisp, a bit flaky, tasty and hardy.

I largely followed an old recipe from the archives at Orangette (a place well worth digging through for pie and tart ideas, I might add).  We found this tart to be an ideal balance of filling and pastry, and also great for a light meal as the egg and feta mixture isn’t too heavy as there’s only just enough to bind and flavour.  And while there are just a few simple ingredients, there are lots of steps for the recipe, so be patient as you read on (of course, you can make the pastry and roast the beetroot ahead of time, and just assemble on the day).  So when you have dear friends coming over, or when you just feeling like treating yourself, go the whole hog and make pastry, roast beets and glory in a triumphant pink pie.

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Beetroot and feta tart
Adapted from Orangette

For the pastry
2 1/2 cups plain flour
1 tsp salt
250g unsalted butter
1/4 – 1/2 cup iced water

For the beetroot filling
2 medium sized beetroot
2 large eggs
3/4 cup milk
125g creamy feta, crunbled
pinch salt

To make the pastry: Process the flour, salt and butter in a food processer for 8-10 seconds until it resembles coarse meal.  With the motor running, add 1/4 cup iced water in a steady stream.  Pulse until the dough just holds together without being wet or sticky.  Do not process at this stage for more than 30 seconds.  Test if it’s done by squeezing a small amount between your fingers.  If it is still crumbly, add more iced water 1 tsp at a time.

Remove the pastry and divide in half.  Shape into two rough discs and wrap in plastic wrap.  Chill until you need to use it.  [Note you will only need one of the discs for this tart. Stash the other one in the freezer till next time; it should keep for a month.  To thaw it, put it in the fridge the day before you want to use it.  The dough should be cool (ie just cooler than room temperature) when you want to work with it.]

To make the filling: First, cook the beetroot.  Scrub the trimmed beetroot well and cut in half.  Seal in a couple of foil parcels, and roast at 200C for 45 minutes to an hour, until tender.  Cool slightly, then cut into 5mm slices.  (Some people peel the beetroot too, but I’ve never found it necessary after a good scrub and roasting.)

Next, prepare the pastry case.  Turn down the oven to 190C.  When your pastry disc is just cool to touch, roll it out on a floured surface and fit it to a nice fluted dish (mine was about 25cm).  Don’t worry about the edges looking messy (if you want to you can trim it after cooking, though I never bother).  At this point, if you have time you can put the pastry in the freezer for 10 minutes or so to really firm up.  I did, as my beets were still going in the oven.  Apparently it is supposed to contribute to a crisper crust: but the freezing stage isn’t essential, so if you are pressed for time just move on to the blind baking stage.

To blind bake the pastry case, put down a sheet of foil over the pastry tart bottom and weigh down with some rice or dried beans, and bake in the hot oven for 15 minutes, until the edges look set and barely golden.  Remove the foil and pie weights, and bake the case again for another 6-8 minutes, until the whole case is lightly golden.  Remove from the oven, and cool slightly.  Turn down the oven to 180C.

In a jug mix together the milk, eggs, feta and salt.  Arrange the beetroot slices nicely in one even layer on the cooled pastry tart base, trying to fill in any gaps.  Pour over the milk and feta mixture.  Bake for 40 minutes to an hour, until everything is set and golden in spots.  Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

We ate this with a green bean, baby spinach and pistachio salad, and scrumptious pumpkin and chive bread brought by our visitors.  Yum!

Yield: one 25cm tart (plus, you will have enough pastry to make another 25cm tart, plus perhaps bonus scraps from each to refashion into a wicked dessert mini-tart – more on this later!)

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