how to cook

Undercover Chef Tip – Having your cake and cutting it too

Undercover chef tip - Cut the cake

 

Ever starting cutting up a beautiful birthday cake and found by the third slice it looks a little less than beautiful? So what to do? 

An easy solution is to warm up the knife in hot water to allow it to cut through the icing cleanly. 

So how do you warm up the knife easily? Just place some hot water in a measuring jug, dip the knife in for a few seconds, slice through with ease, wipe off the knife with paper towel, re-dip and continue to cut, repeating the dip and wipe with each slice. 

The result? Lovely clean slices that do justice to the cake. Woohoo. 

 

Cooking for a fussy crowd – dinner made easy

Cooking for a crowd can be a little overwhelming when you need to consider different dietary needs, possible allergies and personal preferences. It’s enough to make anyone just order takeaway and not bother!

Seriously though. how do you cook for friends, your family and everyone in between and ensure that all tastes can be met?

1. Ask some questions – if it is a dinner party and there are guests coming you don’t know very well (extended family perhaps or new partners, friends of friends) don’t be afraid to ask if there are any intolerance or allergies. Sometimes people don’t eat seafood but aren’t necessarily allergic so a little investigation can ensure a lot less embarrassment when the meal is served.

2. Do some research – with the rise in preferences for low sugar and gluten free intolerance’s there are many meals and combinations that can cater to these needs without excluding these guests from the main meal everyone else is having. Gluten free pastas, breads and dessert ingredients are now readily available, the nutritional content of many recipes are also easy to find and even vegan recipes can be a great change from the meat eating norm for a dinner party. Have a browse through recipe books in a library, check out dishes online or ask friends their favourite techniques for inspiration.

3. Have fun making variations – what if you didn’t need to make a whole new meal, what if you just changed one thing for one person? Now I know not everyone is keen on catering to meal time whimsy’s and who won’t eat what and how but you can allow personal choices with minimal effort with a little planning. How on earth I hear you say? Well here’s the clincher of this blog – how to cook pasta for two who love fettucine cabonara and two that really don’t like cream pasta. Read on and learn.

Cooking for one of my couple friends each week (we take turns doing dinner or dessert – kinda neat) has brought about some great creativity – they have different tastes, dishes, personal favourites to me and my partner. So what do you do when one of the asks for fettucine cabonara which my partner loves and myself and her partner really don’t like? You diversify – I like pasta and so does he – so solution? Just different sauces. Dinner is at their place to allow their child to have his usual bedtime which means I have the opportunity to explore my planning skills.

Cabonara in advance? Pasta in advance? How? I hear you ask. Well you can cut the onion, bacon and in our case mushroom (they like it that way) and have it ready to pan fry and add the cream too, almost like a cooking show where the bowls are convinelty at arms reach! Even better, if you want to do dinner in a hurry, you can panfry the ingredients and have them ready along with the pasta pre-cooked and cooled so if it is for a dinner party you just need to warm the mix in a pan, add the cream, dunk the pasta in boiling water and they will all come together ready in 2-3 minutes. Easy! So what are myself and her partner having? Fettucine as well but our sauce is just a simple combination of the same onion base with the addition of cherry tomatoes, spinach and olives. Cutting the tomatoes and squishing them a little in the pan with some olive oil creates a light sauce together with the salty yum of the olives and spinach creates a simple and tasty dish without a lot of effort so everyone can eat well but eat what they want.

Of course, this sort of effort is completely up to you. For me I was chopping up the onion, bacon and mushrooms anyway so a little slice of tomatoes and shred of spinach wasn’t anymore effort really. When the pasta is cooked I just divided it in two and one went in with the cream, the other the tomato and dinner was served. Easy peasy 🙂

So what other variations can you make:

1. No seafood –  divide sauces (pasta or curry) in two and one half can have prawns for seafood lovers and the other chicken. Same sauce, different protein. Same with salads or sides. Same same but different protein.

2. Crumbles/tarts/pies – make individual ones so gf can have their variation without fuss

3. Vegetarian/vegan – have a meat protein on the side to add to the dishes for the hardcore meat eaters i.e grilled chicken, fish or a steak can be added to a salad, pasta or casserole

4. Sugar free or low sugar – check what they can have and create accordingly either for them or for all i.e sweet potato mash instead of plain potato, wholemeal flour for pasta etc etc

It does take a little planning but that planning means a lot less frustration and effort later and then you will create you own repertoire to have on hand when the moment arises if you least expect it. Let me know what variations you have discovered and how you cater for different tastes or food requirements in you household. Happy cooking!

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Undercover Chef – Top and Tails

The last thing you want to do sometimes after a busy day is to prepare your vegetables for dinner – so how do you get your greens without having to stand in the kitchen for even longer? When you get them home from the market or shops top and tail them so they are ready to go. That way you can grab them for a snack, chop them roughly for a salad or steam them up for a side dish. Easy!

Shepard’s Pie the chef way

Sous vide. Two simple words that either have you drooling at the thought of luscious proteins or have you going sous what?? Sous vide cooking for clarification is: sous vide

suː ˈviːd/
adjective & adverb
 
  1. 1.
    involving or denoting a method of preserving food by partial cooking followed by vacuum-sealing and chilling.
    “a convection oven can be used in sous vide operations”

Thanks wikipedia! Now we have that clarified (sort of) it essentially entails the slow cooking of proteins in a sealed bag in a water bath of a  maintained temperature not usually exceeding 65 degrees Celsius. Sounds complicated right? it is actually so much simpler than it sounds. I have also heard good things about slow cooking in general and this is sort of another notch up from that. The idea is the low temperature slowly coagulates the proteins and create a soft, unctuous mouth feel as opposed to the quick heat of pan frying or grilling which can toughen proteins if overcooked. My foray into the sous vide method came from Aldi (gotta love it) have a slow cooked/sous vide on sale with a vacuum sealer. Lucky me snatched the last one up on a Wednesday afternoon but I had to order my vac sealer online as these were all gone. Being winter casseroles and stews are always a winner but I have to admit I sometimes feel the meat just kind of cooks and goes a bit, well you know…nothingy. The sauces are always amazing but I just felt the meat could be a bit tastier. So here we were. Me, some diced lamb, a vac sealer and a sous vide. I admit, I had a complete brain fart when sealing the bag…I forgot the whole vacuum part vacuums the contents…including moisture…so a little hint when sealing a bag for any purpose – vacuum when it is just a fillet or protein on it’s own fine – vacuum when you have put a little stock and butter in..not so fine. Just seal. Don’t vacuum. Messy lesson learnt! So now to the fun part. I used diced lamb from a butcher, added some beef stock (not homemade but I have found a range of free range stocks called Momo’s Meal’s which are as true to home made as I have ever seeen), butter, rosemary and garlic and set my temp at 60 degrees for about three hours. The result? Deliciously cooked, soft buttery lamb pieces. Amazing. So how did I turn this into a Shepards pie? Keep reading dear followers and I will reveal how to make Shepard’s Pie the chef way! 😉   IMOK_lamb with blackboard   Shepards Pie (serves four with vegetables on the side or two very hungry people)

Shepard’s Pie the chef way
Recipe Type: Dinner
Prep time: 30 mins
Cook time: 3 hours
Total time: 3 hours 30 mins
Serves: 4
Ingredients
  • 500g diced lamb
  • 6 cloves garlic (reserve four for roast garlic – see notes)
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 750ml beef stock
  • 2 stalks of rosemary
  • 100ml milk
  • 2 tbsp plain flour
  • 4 potatoes
Instructions
  1. In a vacuum bag place 2 cloves of garlic, lamb, 250ml of beef stock, 2 tbsp butter, salt and pepper
  2. Seal and set at 60 degrees on sous vide for about 3 hours
  3. Remove lamb from bag, strain and keep liquid from bag
  4. In saucepan bring remaining stock to a boil, take out about 3 tbsp and mix into flour to form a paste
  5. Stir paste back into hot liquid and whisk to remove any lumps and thicken
  6. Add juices from bag
  7. Reduce heat and allow sauce to simmer and thicken. Adjust seasoning to taste and cook for about ten minutes over low heat
  8. Whilst sauce is cooking, peel and chop potatoes into cubes. Place in a saucepan and just over with water, salt water
  9. Allow potatoes to come to a simmer and cook until a fork can be pushed through easily
  10. Strain and place in a saucepan with milk and remaining butter. Mash with fork or masher until smooth and hot, add roast garlic
  11. Add lamb pieces back to sauce and allow to simmer for a minute or two
  12. Spoon lamb mix into either individual ramekins or large bowl and top with mashed potato
  13. Cover with foil and grill for two minutes then remove foil to allow to golden under grill
  14. Serve with your favourite green vegetables and enjoy!
Notes
To make roast garlic without having to have the oven on, slice the garlic and simmer in water until just soft. Drain water and add vegetable oil to pan. Cook over gentle heat until golden. A low heat is essential to avoid burning the garlic. The pre-boil allows the garlic to cook before gaining the colour
 

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Undercover Chef Tip – You say potato, i say keep it fresh

Do you ever wonder how restaurants have the time to make mashed potatoes, fries, wedges, frittata’s and all forms of potatoey goodness in one day? Well here’s a little secret. We get the potatoes ready ahead of time. Peeling and cutting them and storing them in water allows potatoes to retain their clean white colour. This time saving tip means you can have your potatoes peeled and cut in the quiet times so all you need do is grab them from the bucket and them chop or slice them for a recipe in the busy times. The same idea can be applied to a dinner party. Guests coming over on Sunday? Peel and cut up your potatoes on Friday or Saturday so come Sunday all you need do is drain them, cut them how you like and cook away. Simple!

Baked apple goodness for a winter night

I love vintage tea towels. Especially when they have old school recipes on them that remind you of foods you used to eat when you were young. This was the case with one of my favourites, a cooking with apples tea towel. Bright friendly colours keep you company as you wipe up your dishes but also gave me inspiration for dessert at my friends this week.

As a child dessert wasn’t a bit thing at the end of a meal. Sure there was coffee and biscuits but actual desserts weren’t a big feature so when my mum made her fabulous baked apples everyone was always around the dinner table, the oft used excuses to disappear into teenage bedrooms forgotten. Well for my siblings anyways. Being eight year younger I was always happy to hang around the dinner table with Mum, not having reached the joy of teens years just yet. But I digress. My Dad wasn’t too much of a sweet tooth preferring a slice of cheese and fresh apples after dinner but loved Mum’s baked apples,  so we knew that Dad was in Mum’s good books when they appeared after dinner.  Such a simple dessert but coupled with ice-cream it was such an easy after dinner treat.

Lo and behold my fabulous vintage tea towel featured a similar recipe transporting me back to my childhood. Their recipe also featured glace cherries and brandy made into a sauce with the buttery goodness left behind, a step which I left out because a) I don’t really like glace cherries and b) I thought the caramelised buttery sauce was nice enough without a splash of brandy which I don’t actually have on hand anyways!

So I know I haven’t really revealed the full temptation of a baked apple as yet. Just the title doesn’t really give away the treat it is, so I will explain the very simple method and try and entice you even more. Quite simply, you just core out the apple’s whole, score the skin so it doesn’t burst open and make a mess and then stuff the cavity of the apple with a combination of softened butter, brown sugar and cinnamon. Imagine then baking these stuffed apples for about half an hour in which time the butter and sugar caramelise to a butterscotch sauce at the bottom of the pan and the apple flesh cooks down to a soft, sweet filling. No we are talking hey? Now put that delicious apple into a bowl, top with vanilla ice-cream and enjoy! You can thank me later, don’t worry.

Ingredients (serves four)

4 granny smith apples (these bake really well but if you have a favourite apple by all means use them!)

3 tbsp softened butter

2 tbsp brown sugar

pinch cinnamon

Method

  1. Core out the apples and score the skin
  2. Mix the butter, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl until combined and softened
  3. Spoon and push the butter mix into the cored cavity of the apples
  4. Either place the apples in individual ramekins and on a tray to bake or onto a paper lined tray with the edges folded up to catch the butter sauce
  5. Bake at 180 degrees for about 30 min or until the apples have softened
  6. Remove from oven and serve with vanilla ice-cream. If you have baked them on a tray, put into serving dishes and carefully pour over the remaining sauce sauce from the oven tray.

Undercover Chef Tip – Keeping it warm

Nothing is worse than creating a nice meal and have it go cold because the weather outside is a bit chilly. So how do you keep your food as warm whilst you eat? Warming plates under a low grill before you put your food on allows the food to stay warm whilst you eat without having to microwave it again whilst you are plating up the food for everyone. Just make sure you check your plates are safe to be heated and make sure you don’t blast it under a high grill, just allow them to warm gently under a low grill and take care to handle with them with a cloth. Plate up your food and relax because it will stay warm and taste delicious!

If you like pina-coladas and getting caught in the rain…

Don’t worry, this isn’t a personals ad or even a rendition of that song, it’s my tongue in cheek intro to the very in vogue fruit of the moment, the Pineapple. From kitchen to decor, this versatile fruit has a lot going for it.

The cool chill in the air doesn’t exactly conjure images of tropical paradises but there is one fruit that can give you a little slice of beach life and that is our spiky friend the pineapple. Pineapples are a great dessert treat but many are put off my having to tackle the less than appealing hard spiky skin. My advice is to clean up the pineapple as soon as it comes home in your market bags to ensure that when you are after a quick snack it is ready to go and doesn’t become neglected.

Pineapples are also able to be dried easy and their sweetness is intensified for a surprisingly different garnish and dried fruit snack.

My favourite way to enjoy pineapple in winter is to pan roast them with a little butter and sugar as a compliment to ice-cream or even as the offsider to a panna cotta. Of course, a little blended into a pina-colada cocktail never hurts either! The combination of coconut and pineapple is a tropical party combo just waiting to cheer up your winter blues. I have two recipes below, one for a really easy egg free pina-colada ice-cream and the second with a coconut panna cotta and roast pineapple. Take your pick and enjoy them whilst dreaming of sunnier days with your toes in the sand. Enjoy!

Pina-Colada Ice-Cream

Ingredients

700g sour cream

250g icing sugar

440g crushed pineapple (drained)

250ml coconut cream

100ml coconut liquor or essence

150g shredded coconut toasted

Method

  1. Whisk sour cream, coconut cream and icing sugar until well combined
  2. Fold through pineapple and essence/liquor
  3. Lightly fold through 100g of the toasted coconut
  4. Place in bowl and freeze, taking out every hour or two and giving a stir to aerate
  5. After stirring twice, place in loaf tin lined with glad wrap or a brownie tray and freeze until firm
  6. To serve, cut into slices and roll edges in remaining coconut and plate with some fresh diced pineapple and mint or fruit of your choice

NB: If you have an ice-cream churner, follow method as above but fold through the pineapple and shredded coconut at the end before freezing to avoid damage to churning arm

Coconut Panna-cotta with Roasted Pineapple

Now, I have to admit, I went a little retro on this one with my choice of moulds. I have some old school jelly moulds rolling around in the cupboard but they work a treat. They have a seal to stop them from leaking when putting them in the fridge to set and a removable bottom to help poke them out if they are a little shy. As is often said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! and these little babies certainly do the trick to behold my slightly retro version of the panna cotta.

Ingredients

Pannacotta

300ml coconut cream

200ml cream

1 cup icing sugar

5 gold gelatine leaves (see packet for quantities if not sure) soaked in ice water to soften

 Roast pineapple

1 pineapple cut into rounds

20g butter

1 tbsp sugar

Method

For pannacotta

  1. Place cream and coconut cream in a saucepan with sugar. Bring to a gentle simmer
  2. Remove from heat and add soaked gelatine, whisk well
  3. Pour into moulds and allow to cool slightly before refrigerating for at least four hours or overnight
  4. For pineapple, warm a frying pan on a gentle heat, add butter and sugar and allow to caramelise, add pineapple to pan and colour on both sides, leave in pan and remove from heat and allow to cool
  5. Serve cooled pineapple under pannacotta and top with dried pineapple and mint leaves

NB: I used a sunbeam food dryer for my pineapple. I just sliced in finely and dried over night. You can use an oven but it needs to be a very low heat and overnight.

An easy way to prepare the pineapple is to cut into the rounds and use an apple corer to remove the hard centre whilst keeping the circular shape

In a pickle!

Two of my favourite vegetables to buy and forget about are fennel and radishes. I see them in bunches at markets and cant but grab them for a mid week salad. Except I forget about them or couldn’t be bothered slicing them up so they inevitably wilt and become sad specimens in my crisper. So my solution? Pickle them! I adore pickled vegetables and when done at home they can be a great addition to a quick salad and can be complimented easily with many other ingredients.

So how do you pickle at home? It’s as simple as creating a pickle brine, bringing it to the boil and immersing the cut vegetables into it, placing them in a jar and a day or two later you are good to go! When it is this easy it is definitely a great solution to throwing out your produce. Of course, fresh produce is always lovely but a bit of a pickle never hurt now and again!

Another great pickled veg mix is the Italian Giardiniera mix. Carrots, capsicum, cauliflower and zucchini are all floreted and sliced to create a colourful combination great as an anti-pasto compliment or just on the table before a meal. Buono!  The old school mix sometimes slices the carrots with a serrated slicer or includes beans but I like to julienne them on a mandolin just for presentation on the other side of the jar. But do what takes your fancy and enjoy!

What do you eat your pickled vegetables with?

Pickled fennel loves: orange segments, fresh grated beetroot and apple, green beans and prosciutto

Pickled radish loves: lettuce and tomato in a salad, a peppery touch to salad sandwhiches or with ham

Giardiniera mix loves: salamis and prosciutto, grilled vegetables or just tossed through a lettuce salad

These are just my favourites, by all means experiment and enjoy! Just try and make them last once they are in the fridge. I can often be found with a fork in hand eating them from the jar standing in front of the open fridge door. But shhh….don’t tell anyone!

Basic Pickle Mix (makes approx 2 litres, enough to pickle all the vegetable mixes)

1l white wine

1l white vinegar (you can use apple cider or brown malt vinegar if it takes your taste buds fancy)

1 cup of white sugar

1 tbsp salt

1-2 bay leaves

2-3 dried chillis (optional if you like a little spice – I didn’t have them in the mixes below)

Method

Place all ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil until sugar dissolves

Remove from heat and pour over vegetables

Allow the vegetables to steep and add to jars, these will keep in fridge for about 2 weeks if you use utensils to remove from jars, avoid the temptation of wandering fingers!

NB: Sterilise jars in boiling water to ensure freshness and to keep the pickles for longer

Pickled Fennel

1-2 Large fennel bulbs sliced finely on a mandolin and steeped in mix above

Giardiniera Mix

3 Carrots

1 capsicum

3 small zucchini

½ cauliflower

Julienne all vegetables, keeping zucchini to the side, cut cauliflower into small florets

Steep in hot liquid, add the zucchini when cooled to keep the green colour

Pickled Radish

Remove green from whole radishes, cut in half for small and quarters for large, steep in mix above

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Chicken stock to beat the winter blues

You can certainly feel the chill coming into the air here in Brisbane. With the chill has come the winter cold into our household. With two residents coughing, sniffling and generally feeling sorry for ourselves it was time to bring out the old cure all, chicken soup. One of the hardest working kitchen staples would have to be stock.

Chicken, vegetable, beef or fish, these are the staples of many sauces, soups and dishes of any chef’s repertoire. So why make one from scratch in your own home? A home made stock can yield much more than a flavourful broth. When I make my chicken stock I use either a whole chicken or chicken legs. Why? I hear you ask. To have the delicious yield of the meat and to further flavour the stock. By making your stock at home you can also add more vegetable and serve them with the meat and you know exactly what’s in the stock.

There are a few guidelines though that will help create a successful stock each time:

– Cleaver the whole chicken or legs through the meat just to the bone to allow the lovely bone marrow to release and flavour the stock. If just using chicken frames gently whack the frames with the back of a knife to achieve the same effect

-Cut your vegetables to serving size so you can spoon these out with the broth and flesh at the end    –

-Use a pressure cooker if you can – the quick cooking method keeps the flavour in and reduces stove time

– Add garlic for cold busting properties

– Parsley is added to stocks for a burst of flavour, if you are cooking a stock for two to three hours add the parsley towards the end to keep the freshness in

– Don’t boil your stock just simmer it – boiling clouds the stocks ad produces a scum which can be skimmed off but a gentle simmer allows the flavours to develop

– With a pressure cooker the stock will only take about half an hour, without one gently simmer your stock for about three to four hours

– The stripped chicken meat can be used in the stock, tossed into a salad or in a roll. It is cooked ready to go so enjoy!

Chicken stock and soup is just the basic starting point for meals. You can use it to create pureed soups such as pumpkin or corn or as a base for casseroles instead of water. In my next blog I will show you how to make no fuss pumpkin soup from left over roast pumpkins. Yum!

For a bit of a spicy kick you can also turn your stock into a Chinese master stock. Sounds impressive but it really is quite simple. The use of fragrant spices turns a simple stock into a complex broth just begging for silky noodles and shredded chicken. The best part of master stock is it can be kept for months in the fridge with a quick boil each week to ensure it doesn’t go off. I use my master stock as a quick meal as well by throwing a few dumplings in and slurping it down. Delicious!

So what’s the recipe? This one uses chicken drumsticks as a) they were on sale and b) if you’re not after a big yield of simmered chicken this is just right. The master stock follows below

 Simple Chicken Stock

Ingredients

6 chicken legs cleavered into bone

3 carrots peeled and cut into 3 cm circles 3 sticks of celery cut into small sections

4 garlic cloves

1 cup parsley stalks and leaves 1

onion cut into quarters  

Method

Place all the ingredients except the parsely into a stock pot

Top with water until covered with about 10cm of water

Bring to a simmer and leave for about an hour before adding parsely

Keep simmering for another two hours Remove chicken from pot, strip from bone

Keep vegetables (celery and carrot) and cut smaller if you like or keep chunky and rustic

Strain stock and cool in fridge if not eating straight away

If using for chicken soup, bring to simmer, add chicken meat and vegetables

Remove from heat, ladle into bowls and enjoy with generous chunks of fresh bread. Winter cold be gone!  

My version of Chinese master stock

NB  I use chicken as the base for this as I eat it with the broth and it gives it some depth. The addition of onion and carrot is also my variation as I like to eat the carrot as well and I feel onion is just delicious in any broth too. Not traditional ingredients but then it’s my version of the recipe so enjoy!

Ingredients

3 litres water

1 Whole chicken or 6 chicken drumsticks

1 brown onion

2 carrots cut into small pieces

½ cup light soy sauce

½ cup chinese cooking wine

¼ cup brown sugar or chinese rock sugar

50g fresh ginger (I sometimes put mine under the oven grill to bring out the flavour)  

Spice Bag – These spices are used to flavour the broth – for easy removal place in a muslin square and secure with string before adding to stock. If I am grilling my onion and ginger first I add the spices for a minute to bring out their flavour

5 garlic cloves

3 cardamom pods

2 cinnamon sticks

10 g (2 tsp) dried mandarin peel (available at most Asian grocers)

4 whole cloves

4 star anise

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp fennel seeds

1 large red chilli  

Method

Place all ingredients into a large pot and cover with water If using pressure cooker, allow to come to steam and drop to simmer for about half an hour

If using stock pot, bring to gentle simmer and allow to cook for 2-3 hours

Remove from stove, discard spice bag, keep chicken meat and carrots, discard remaining ingredient and strain stock

If using as a base for marinades etc, bring to boil before storing in fridge in sealed container

Will keep for a long time (months) if boiled weekly If using as soup, bring to simmer with shredded chicken, carrots, cooked rice noodles and broccoli.Serve with a squeeze of lime juice and a dash of fish stock to taste.