October 28, 2008

Dinner with friends

On Saturday night my whole family was gearing up for a food adventure. We had been invited to our friends house for dinner and not just any dinner. Aaron, our host has a passion and talent for New Orleans food. His dad is from there and has passed down the love of fantastic seafood and the great New Orleans flare in the kitchen. I had heard about Aaron's chicken and dumplings and wanted to get in on the deal. I promised to watch, chop and help in any way. The fact they have a divine kitchen also makes cooking and hanging out a pure delight (a long way from my slap dash apartment kitchen- this is one I one day dream of owning).
 I left my family a few hours before we were asked to dinner so I could help out in anyway. When I arrive Aaron had stocks boiling, black beans simmering and a list of recipes to choose from. I couldn't help myself and recommended we cook the lot! ( I also thought I'd be able to have a bit of a play if we did a few extra) Aaron was up for the challenge.
Our chosen menu consisted of a 'Summer crab salad with basil and lime'- a great zesty punch to the meal. Aaron has all the seafood flowing in from New Orleans, the crab was a delectable sweet meat, drenched in a lime vinaigrette and finished with the smoothness of avocado- a fantastic way to begin the meal.
After the salad we had 'Grilled shrimp with black bean cakes and coriander butter sauce' This was a wonderful play with flavor and texture. The bean cakes were soft with a little kick from a jalapeno then tempered with the coriander butter sauce and grilled shrimp, you just can't go wrong!
After licking our lips Aaron then placed a divine, creamy 'Creole corn and Crab bisque' in front of us which was pure heaven. So creamy with a hint of cayenne for an added punch -that was Aaron going out on a limb and very well done I might add.
Just when we thought it was all over we were tantalized with 'Pre cooked shrimp, boiled in New Orleans which are just a luxury on their own and served with mini risotto cakes- I think I sucked on the shell for a good 15 minutes! 
Now it wouldn't be complete without a bisque of the tomato variety and that is exactly what Aaron finished with "Herbsaint Shrimp and tomato bisque'- I just loved this, the full body flavor of the shrimp stock coming through. The tomato rounding it off and finished with freshly poached shrimp just before served. I have to say I was in heaven. Aaron and I had high hopes for dessert but I am sad to say we didn't quite make it- however- Aaron didn't disappoint and whipped up 'Bananas Foster' but that needs it's own page.

In case you are wondering if we shared this with all the kids.......I have to tell you they were to busy getting down with Aaron's chicken dumplings (flavored with a ham hock) and marinated drumettes to notice the seafood and I can tell you none of us were giving up our serves!
Thanks for a fantastic evening Aaron and Susan- next time I'll cook for you on your trip to Sydney, and of course Roisin and Phil will be there...right guys?

October 24, 2008

Dumplings, dumplings, dumplings

We were all sitting around the table the other night tucking into dinner and I was distracted by a recipe I was thinking about for the up and coming book. I was wondering what would be a great meal for the family that would be healthy, yummy for all ages and realistic for someone who doesn't have a lot of time to waste. I'm looking around at my own family and what we were eating and then thought to myself- hang on a minute, this meal took me 20 minutes to whip up and we all love it.
  Nic, Max and I all dive into our respective chili sauces for our individual flavor hit while Alex is happily munching away dipping into the soy sauce- DUMPLINGS!
Granted I did buy the ones we were eating from the frozen foods section of the Asian market but I thought it would be ten times yummier if I whipped them up myself, and as I realized after I made them the following week they are really cost effective and I could load them up with lots more veggies than you get from the packet ones. They freeze really well, so I took an hour out of one of my mornings, bought the ingredients and spent the hour making 100's of (well at least 40) pork dumplings. We now have two or three meals in the freezer that will only take 20 minutes to put on the table and I can change it up with noodles, rice or salad. Serve the Hot, hot chili sauce for me, the sweet chili for Max and Nic and Alex can dip away in soy sauce. 
They do take a little extra time to make as appose to buying them but the benefits out weigh the 'fast approach' hands down in my book.

For the dumpling mixture you can do what you like. I find if you use vegetables you can grate like carrot and zucchini then you can chop them a little more and they blend in beautifully with the meat, just as if you slice a green onion finely, grate a bit of ginger and garlic, chop some basil or cilantro- the list is endless. You will find a lot of ingredients go a long way. For half a pound of (ground) pork mince I used 1 carrot and 1 zucchini and I had a lot of mix. I wouldn't recommend salting your mixture- instead use fish sauce, that way you give the mix a deeper flavor. Wonton or Goyza wrappers both work really well, you just need to wet on side with a little water to get them to stick together.
When cooking them, for the healthy option, layer a steam tray with lettuce or cabbage leaves and put the dumplings on top. Place the lid to cover and begin to cook your noodles or rice. As you can see above I also fried a couple. They are delicious either way. Frying you cook them in a wok with vegetable oil until they are brown, put in a little water to steam them with a lid on and then turn the heat down until they are ready. This was a little more work but very enjoyable.
The night I served the ones above I used noodles with veggies. The boys thought they were getting off lightly with the vegetable department and that was just fine- nothing is what it seems!

October 21, 2008

Chicken in pajamas

It was Nic's night to cook and sadly I missed out due to a private party I was catering the night the Baker boys ate 'chicken in pajamas'. I think it would have to be one of Nic's favorite chicken meals. I to love chicken P.j's (or the more common name chicken parmigiana) though I have to say I have not even thought about eating one in years due to the fact I use to make about 30-40 a day when I was working at a resort in Australia. I swear it was the most popular meal with kids and adults. The fact that you have to build the dish works in really well with family life. If you have someone who  doesn't like food touching then just serve the chicken separately, if they don't like tomato serve it without (As most of you know Alex HATES tomato, BUT if you make a sauce and put it together with cheese on top- he is all over it!)

Nic said the boys were asking what was for dinner, he told them 'chicken in pajamas' and they were curious, when he put the meal in front of them they of course said 'Oh, I don't know' but then Max asked if the cheese and tomato were the 'pajamas'. That got them engaged and they started to eat. Of course they loved it, a crisp chicken fillet flattened and breaded with fresh bread crumbs, layered with a piece of ham, rich tomato sauce and finished with mozzarella cheese and grilled- what is there not to like about that? Due to putting the kids to bed by himself, getting homework done and everything else that happens in the evening, Nic ate his when the boys were tucked into bed (which also gave him time to read Charlie and the Chocolate factory to them while they ate, one of their favorite times). The meal took 5 minutes to put together because he 'cooked' it all when making the boys- this way he got to eat with peace and quiet in front of the telly no doubt watching some sort of football game with a cold beer- now that is what I call relaxed eating!

October 20, 2008

Chickpea and harissa salad

Chick peas are my best friend when I am all out of ideas for dinner. I'd thawed out some pork loins the previous day and hadn't thought about anything else until it came time to make dinner. Vince (head chef from Union) and I were playing around with different versions of harissa last week and I had some leftover in the fridge, so I pulled it out with the idea of putting it on the side when serving the pork. I knew I wanted to use up the broad beans in the fridge but I need a 'vehicle' to carry them otherwise the boys would of be up in arms with a pile of foreign green on their plate. The can of chickpeas was my 'vehicle'. 
I'm not sure how it all came about but the colors of the yellow and bright green together clicked and then I thought about other foods that the boys would like to see as to disguise the fact I was offering up a new green veggie- feta cheese, an all time favorite! All of a sudden the penny dropped and I thought why not use the harissa as a dressing on our chickpea salad and make a quick red wine vinaigrette for the boys. Just before I put the harissa on I took out the boys portion, mixed theirs with 1 Tablespoon of red wine vinegar and 3 Tablespoons of Extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper (added tomatoes to Max's- Alex got olives instead), poured the harissa over the remaining salad for Nic and I. The pork loins were seasoned with salt and pepper then grilled, rested and sliced and the salad served on top. 
We ALL loved this family meal. Boys are happy because they have the sharp soft textures and flavors of the feta and vinegar while Nic and I were enjoying the diverse flavors of the really HOT and garlicky harissa with the creamy Greek feta. Chick peas were perfect to match all these big flavors with the right textures for all age groups. The other good thing about harissa- it lasts for a long time in the fridge, so if you make it once you can use it through out the month in a number of ways.
 There is always a tin of chickpeas in the cupboard- you never know when they will come in handy, be it for a salad dip or burger.

October 16, 2008

Semolina gnocchi

I can't believe it has taken me sooooo long to make semolina gnocchi for the family!
We have a version at work for Wednesday's 'dinner plate'. I love eating the left overs but I totally forgot about a recipe I had hidden away in one of my hand written cook books from 6-7 years ago- along with squid ink dressing which I am not yet convinced the boys will like (funnily enough!).
 Nic and I are BIG fans of gnocchi but not all the work involved on a week night. This semolina recipe is a little gem- a little gem I had lost! You are going to hate me but I only have the measurements in grams not cup measurements so I do apologise. However if you have a set of scales in the kitchen you are balancing fruit on, clear them off and give this a go. Seriously I made it in ten minutes, set it in the fridge for ten (while I heated up the duck) and then warmed it in the oven for 5 minutes. 

I forgot how soft and smooth the texture was, yet a lovely rich cheese flavor. Max was very dubious of course (he thought it was potato) I swear I must of done a number on him with the mashed baby food because anything with similar texture, he is in his own personal hell if I want him to eat it- HOWEVER, I decided to go the 'cheesy' route telling him about all the yummy parmesan I put in it- it worked! For Max it helped having the duck ragu to blend with the other textures and flavors, however Alex was a fan from the beginning, it was almost like candy for him. The duck ragu wasn't as popular a little to rich for Alex's pallet- he did pick out and eat all the carrot and broccoli so I am fine with that.
I am coming back to this one for sure. The fact that it was so fast, flavorful and divine makes it a perfect starch for the cold winter months ahead what ever topping I put with it, be it duck ragu, vegetable stew or braised chicken.

Semolina Gnocchi

125 grams semolina flour
625 ml milk
2 eggs
100 grams parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 stick (75g) butter, diced

Heat milk in saucepan until just boiling.
Whisk in semolina flour until it thickens, 2-3 minutes
Once thick like mash potato, cut the heat and add remaining ingredients beating to combine.
Place mix into a 4 x 10 inch dish with 1 inch side and let cool in the fridge until set.
Once set, cut out into small circles (if you have ring cutters) or cubes, place on a tray lined with parchment and bake in a 400 oven until warm (about 5-10 minutes)
Remove and serve with desired sauce.

October 13, 2008

Zucchini Bread

I have been on the hunt for 'food fillers'. Max never seems to be satisfied with the food I give him (it's not that he doesn't like it, it is just never enough!). I have put off snacks so they won't ruin their appetites for dinner but now it is getting out of hand and I don't want them filling up on heavily processed snacks- however I also don't want to be or have the time to bake something every day for the little princes.
Nic suggested some bread ( I already feel like we should be buying shares in a bakery!) but then I thought about zucchini bread and thus began my search for a good recipe. The internet is very useful for a quick search as I am sure you all know. After looking at about 5 different recipes I decided on one- due to the fact it made two loaves! It is very quick and easy and I thought it was a winner, however when I ate some it was really sweet and not a good choice for an everyday snack so I have decided to cut the sugar back and add whole wheat flour. The results were great. Boys shovel it down and don't bother me until dinner and I feel better knowing they are eating a little vegetable before dinner- so be it it's mixed with sugar but that is OK with me. I think the breakfast cereal has more sugar than the bread!

Zucchini Bread (my version)
2 cups All purpose flour (plain flour)
1 cup Whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon- ground
1 tsp all spice
3 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
1 & 3/4 cups sugar (other recipe 2 & 1/4 cups)
3 tsp vanilla essence
2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup nuts (walnuts or almonds)

Preheat oven to 325 (165) and grease two 8x4 inch pans or there about.
Sift flours, salt, baking soda, baking powder and spices into a medium bowl- set aside.
In a large size bowl- beat eggs, oil, sugar and vanilla until well combined and thick.
Add dry ingredients to wet and beat until well combined.
Stir in zucchini and nuts then pour into pre-greased pans.
Bake for approx 1 hour or until the skewer comes out clean. One of my dishes took an additional 20 minutes so it does vary.
Cool for 5 minutes before taking out of pan and then leave until cold. I put one in the freezer and it freezes really well.

October 10, 2008

Pork for dinner

My youngest Alex has had a sluggish appetite this past week and I am at the point where I don't even feel like cooking for him due to 95% of his meal being left on the plate. I know this is apart of being 3, maybe he is going through a growth spurt or just not interested in food right now. None of this helps however when the dinner hour is upon me and I have Max on the opposite end of the scale- I never seem able to fill his skinny little legs! 
I suggested he finish off his brothers dinner the other night after he cleaned his plate in 30 seconds- I was quickly told that was 'disgusting' and 'just give me extra yogurt' (I am still confused and wondering which part was disgusting?)

Anyhow I had some pork loins in the fridge and suggested sweet and sour for dinner- no interest. I thought about a nice lemon butter sauce but then decided against it due to Alex's mood. Then I remembered one of my favorite ways to eat meat when I was a kid. Cover it in bread crumbs or a batter. I wasn't about to deep fry the pork loin but I did make some fresh bread crumbs (I always have a heap of bread ends in the freezer for crumbs), beat out the loins until they were very thin (the best way to do this at home is place the loin on a big piece of cling film/glad wrap, fold it over the loin loosely- grab a rolling pin and begin to bash until very thin) and then dip them in a crumbing mix of flour, egg and then bread crumbs.
When you are about to cook the schnitzels heat a large fry pan with a combination of olive oil and butter on medium heat and begin to brown both sides. Once crisp, lay on some paper towel and continue until all are done. It is best to do the kids first so they cool down.
Because it does take a little extra time to crumb the meat I made a quick salad with black eyes peas, carrot sticks, cucumber, green beans (cooked) and Greek feta. Dressed it in a red wine vinaigrette and served it on the side.
The salad was a great compliment to the crisp pork schnitzel and we were all very happy with the end result. I can't tell you Alex ate all of his up and asked for more, but he did eat at least 70% and then take himself off to the bath where his Elmo bath bubbles were waiting for him.

October 7, 2008

Pumpkin Soup

The weather is turning here in Chicago and Fall is upon us. I for one am happy as a clam- I love pulling on a sweater (jumper) and cooking to keep warm. On Saturday I stayed in the kitchen all morning pottering away and not even breaking into a sweat (we always seem to live in apartments with hot little kitchens). The pumpkins and winter squash are out and it is time to get the soups on the stove and stews in the oven. The other night Nic made a delicious pumpkin and potato curry, however I am banned from blogging his meals due to the fact I don't cook them!

Pumpkin soup would have to be one of my all time favorites. You can make it as simple as possible with onions, garlic, stock and pumpkin (butternut, acorn, Jap, Queensland blue etc), blend it all up and you have a delightful, smooth and satisfying meal or you can jazz it up a bit with cilantro (coriander) and coconut milk, curry powder or as I did on Saturday- lime leaves, turmeric and coriander seeds.
At first I was going to make a basic thick soup but once I melted the butter, threw in the onion and the sweet smell hit my nose I was drawn to my herb and spice draw and the next thing I knew it was a wonderful yellow color and the coriander seeds were permeating the air. The lime leaves were an after thought but assumed they would work seeing as they work so well in curries and sauces.
When the boys wonder into the kitchen asking what the yummy smell is, I know I have made the right choice. Both boys have been bought up on pumpkin soup. By the time Alex was onto solids I got a bit lazy with the puree this and puree that- he was eating the soups either watered down with a bit of milk or natural yogurt (always success in his case). The yogurt hides the curry flavor quite well!
To make a good soup my mum taught me to have more veggies than liquid- that way you could increase volume when necessary and not skimp on flavor. When I first started cooking I was terrible at making soup and I use to sweat bullets when the head chef asked me to make the soup of the day. I always managed to make it smell delicious but the end result was always a let down- until that is mum came to my rescue. Now when ever I make any soup I always fill the pot to barely cover the veggies. Even if I don't puree the soup I find this method works really well. 
If you do try the lime leaves, just pull them out before you puree the soup. Pumpkin soup also tastes yummy if you serve it up into bowls, squeeze half a lemon on top, sprinkle with chili flakes and finish with a dollop of natural yogurt. Who would think the yellow gourd would give you so much pleasure....don't even get me started on pumpkin pie!

October 3, 2008

Mini Pizza

I wasn't sure if I should write about this post. I was thinking everyone surly knows about the 'mini pizza' or 'pizza in a flash' as I sometimes call it. Then I thought what the hell, if there is one person out there who doesn't know about pita breads and  pizza then this is for YOU.
Usually when I have pita breads, I will make them fresh. They are really tasty and you can make a lot out of a small amount of dough. However, I was out shopping the other day trying to think of some ideas for dinner when I was standing at the deli counter of the local Greek/Polish/Asian Market and noticed the array of pita breads they had on sale. Some were still warm and felt fresh and inviting. I decided I'd buy a packet and give the boys mini pizzas for dinner when I needed dinner in a flash!
I freeze the pitas so they last longer and taste fresh every time I use them. You can thaw them out on the counter top or pop them in the oven to defrost (this method makes them taste the freshest). When making the pizza version on the pita's I get the boys to make their own. The base is pre-cooked so if I am putting sausage or bacon on I pre-cook it to make sure it's thoroughly cooked. The oven temp is around 400 (220) but they are in for a very short period- approx 10 minutes.
Toppings are really what ever I find in the fridge. On the day we made these I had bacon, peppers, olives and by request from Alex- peas! (that came out of left field). A can of whole tomatoes were crushed and blended with diced onion and oregano then the kids go for it with toppings. I find if they make them they eat them all up and I can get more bits and pieces on top than usual (for some reason they think I sneak in a bucket of spinach or liver into the pizza if they aren't watching??)
Anyway it really is a very fast and yummy meal. We will sometimes have these for lunch on the weekend or make breakfast pizzas. Don't get me wrong, I do love making a pizza crust however it is always great to have a quick alternative you can whip up if you feel a melt down coming on- be it you or the kids!

Chicken wings

The other day at work I was boning out some chickens for roasting. We usually make stock from the carcass and throw the wings away, or pop them in the wood oven for a 'kitchen snack'. Right now all the guys are going through a fat stage (??) and are all on diets, so I decided I'd take the wings home for dinner the following evening. The next morning I dropped both boys at school and felt like experimenting so I decide to bone out the wings and stuff them (anything to get out of mopping the floors!). Half an hour went by and I had only boned out 10 wings- it takes longer than I think, knowing I had to pick up Alex in 20 minutes I decide to marinate the rest of the wings and figure out the 'stuffing' later.

OK people, if there is one marinade you try this year let it be this one. I wasn't really thinking about what I was doing, just throwing spices and herbs together when I saw them. I have to say this marinate was -DIVINE!! The kids devoured there's in a matter of seconds (I can't say the same for the broccoli) and asked for seconds- there wasn't any sadly.

Chicken marinade
I am sorry I didn't measure anything this time around but when I make them again I'll pay more attention to measurements. In the mean time if you feel like giving it a go, do as I did:

In a mortar and pestle add about one inch of roughly chopped peeled ginger, two cloves of garlic, about 1 and a bit teaspoons of whole black pepper corns (have to be the whole pepper corn for full flavor) a good splash of fish sauce, 1/4-1/2 teaspoon of turmeric powder, a hand full of cilantro (coriander) leaves and stems chopped up and 1-2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil.
When you have all these ingredients in the mortar begin crushing and pounding them until the pepper corns are all broken up, the leaves and stems of the cilantro (coriander) are bruised and mashed and it all looks to be a rough paste- you can try doing it in a small blender also.
Pour the paste onto the wings and rub with your fingers to get good coverage. Place covered wings back in the fridge for at least 6-8 hours (up to a day) then preheat your oven to 500 (220) and lay them on a tray. Place them in the oven for 6 or so minutes, turn to brown evenly. Once done (approx 10-15 minutes) serve with plain rice and stir-fry veggies- I did broccoli, onion and peppers in oyster sauce.

 For the 'stuffed' wings I grabbed a hand full of pork mince, chopped two little HOT chile's into thin slices, minced one garlic clove, added a whoosh of fish sauce and cut up one green onion (spring onion), finished with seasoning and then stuffed the wings. 
To cook them I had the oven on 500 (to cook the other wings). I heated up some vegetable oil in the wok- about 1/2 an inch. Lightly coated the stuffed wings in corn starch and then quickly fried the skin. Once brown I placed the wings on a tray and finished them in the oven for 5-7 minutes. 
We didn't give these to the kids because they were loaded with chile's and I have to say they were more than happy with the marinated ones. The kick of the chili and texture of the pork made these little beauties finger lickin' good. 
I don't know when I am going to bone out chicken wings again (if ever??) but I do know I will make the marinade over and over...
Let me know if you give it a go, I am still thinking about the flavor this morning!

October 2, 2008

Melting Moments

I could be talking about events that 'melt my heart' or something wonderful the boys had done but that just wouldn't be right. The 'melting moments' I am talking about are the delicious, decadent and down right mouthwatering biscuits (or cookies) we have in Australia. I am sure many of you have heard of them or at least tasted them and will agree with me that they are divine. You bite into one and the biscuit (cookie) melts on your tongue- that is then followed by the smooth butter lemon combo you have stuffed in the center. 
I only make these once in a blue moon as they get gobbled up in a matter of hours in our house. The kids love to help stuff them of course and then get covered in lemon butter ( I still don't understand how that happens- all they have to do is put the tops on?)
You could play around with the flavors in the center doing an orange cream or chocolate but I have never bothered- lemon and butter (again I use kerrygold salted apposed to unsalted for added flavor) are the creme of the crop for me.
These are so delectable you could put them out after dinner and everyone would be thinking them a treat- kids and adults alike!

Melting Moments
2 Sticks butter- softened
1 tsp vanilla essence
1/2 cup powdered sugar- sift
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour- sift
1/2 cup corn starch-sift

Preheat your oven to 325- degree
Place butter, vanilla & powdered sugar into a medium bowl and beat until light in color (approx 3 minutes).
Add sifted flour and corn starch to butter mixture in two turns. Beat with wooden spoon or use on 'slow' in mixer until it forms a soft/solid ball. Dip your hand in flour to coat and begin to roll dough into small balls the size of a heaped teaspoon. You should be able to get 24 in one batch.
When you have all the balls rolled- place on lightly greased cookie sheet and press each ball with a fork making an indent and flattening slightly.
Bake for approx 15-20 minutes or until cookies are pale in color.
Remove and let cool for a few minutes before moving to wire rack.
When cold begin to fill with lemon cream and top with cookie.

Butter cream
3 oz kerrygold salted butter- softened
2/3 cups powdered sugar- sifted
rind of one lemon
juice of half a lemon

Combine the above ingredients, beat until a smooth spreadable mixture forms.
Place heaped cream in the center of cookie and 'jam' together