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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bacon Bolognaise

Just when I think that it's getting all summery, it turns cold again. Luckily, I've got a whole swag of warm winter stewy-type meals sitting here in the drafts folder waiting to tickle your saliva glands, but this one ought to go down just as well for those of you in the Northern Hemisphere who have started to feel autumn biting around your ankles.

This recipe was inspired by my friend Jenni's trip to Rarotonga, where she had a dish that sounded so good I just had to try it out myself.

Fortuitously, the same day I read that post we had somehow ended up with two lots of meat defrosted, which is not like us at all, and both had to be used up or one would have to be thrown out. The Stephano's Spaghetti Bolognaise with Bacon was obviously just meant to be.

Of course, not having been there myself, all I really had to go off was the name, and the rest I just made up. The cherry tomatoes, for example, were only in the fridge because a certain 2-year-old had got hold of the packet in the supermarket and started eating them, forcing Dessert Chef to buy them. As it turns out, they might have been the best bit.

So thanks to Jenni for the inspiration, and to my boy for the odd choice of unsanctioned supermarket snacks.

Bacon Bolognaise

(Serves 4)

Ingredients


300g Beef Mince
Freshly Ground Pepper and Salt
1T Balsamic Vinegar
1T Worcester Sauce
1/2t Freshly Grated Nutmeg
1t Dried Thyme or 1T Fresh Thyme Leaves
4T Tomato Paste
Olive Oil for Frying
1 400g Tin Chopped Tomatoes
4 Rashers Bacon, chopped
4 Garlic Cloves, Minced
150g Mushrooms, peeled and sliced
1 Punnet Cherry Tomatoes
Heat oil in a pan, add the mince and brown. Season with salt and pepper, vinegar, worcester, nutmeg, and thyme. Cook these flavours into the meat, then add the tomato paste and reduce. Cook until the moisture is absorbed, then add the tinned tomatoes. Mix the bacon and garlic, then fry until crispy. Put your pasta in to cook at this point.
Add the mushrooms to the mince to heat through.
Rinse a handful of cherry tomatoes.
Add the cherry tomatoes to the bacon pan for just a couple of minutes at the end, enough time to soften and warm a little. Toss well in the garlicky salty goodness of the bacon.
Mix the bacon and tomatoes into the mince at the end, then dish over long pasta, dressed with freshly grated parmesan cheese, freshly ground black pepper, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Then tell me if it tastes like Rarotonga.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Burgundy Beef Stew (Mine, I tell you)

There's an irony here, and it's not just the cast-iron pan (although in some ways, it is).

Inspired by all the Slow Cooker recipes I've posted here at Freshly Ground, my Mum bought me the Slow Cooker recipe book pictured above. Thanks, Mum.

She also asked me to try a few recipes from it and post them here, so that was, by all means, my intention.

The trouble was that on the day Aunty L came to visit and I was going to do just as Mum had asked, we ran out of hours in the day, and therein lies the irony.

I sort of had to adapt the Slow-cooked Burgundy Beef Stew with Horseradish Dumplings - which I had planned to make - into something that I didn't need to, well, Slow-cook. Also, I just made normal dumplings. Not a big horseradish fan.

So, Mum, here's what might be a version of that recipe, but done in the oven, the old-fashioned way. Anyway, I had to change the recipe somewhat so as not to be in some sort of copyright breach, so I'm going to call this...

Dan's Burgundy Beef Stew

(Serves 6)

Ingredients

750g Stewing Steak, cubed
1t dried thyme or 1T fresh thyme
Whole nutmeg, for grating
1 Onion, sliced
3-4 Cloves Garlic, chopped
2T Flour or Potato Flour
300ml Red Wine
300ml Beef Stock
1T Tomato Puree
2 Bay Leaves
3 Carrots, peeled and sliced
1 Leek, trimmed and sliced into rings
100g Mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Oil for frying
Freshly Ground Pepper and Salt

Season the meat with salt and pepper and a splash of wine. Heat the oil in a pan, then brown the meat in batches. While frying, add thyme and a few grates of nutmeg. Add the onion, stir in and fry for a few minutes. Add the garlic and flour, then mix in the wine and stock.
Add the tomato puree, bay leaves and salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then transfer to an oven dish.
Mix in the mushrooms and leeks, make sure there is enough liquid in the dish to almost cover the stew (add more hot water if necessary), and place in the oven at 180c for 2 hours.

Prepare your dumplings when the stew goes in the oven, and add to the oven dish for the last 20 minutes of cooking.Dish up with rice (boiled in beef stock, of course) and a nice glass of red wine.

The slow-cooker version is to shift the meat from the pan to the slow-cooker on low for 7 hours, then adding the leeks and mushrooms, turning the slow-cooker up to high, and then 45 minutes later adding the dumplings for a further 45 minutes. Certainly not something you can start into at 3pm, but here's the quick version. And as you can see, it turned out pretty well.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Honey Soy Chicken Wraps

There's been a hint of summer in the air these last couple of weeks, even if it just turned cold again a few days ago.

Such warm tidings get me thinking about crisp salads and food I can take out onto the deck to enjoy in the sun. It might not be quite that way yet, but it's not far off. I'll be blogging stews and casseroles for a week or two to come, but this incarnation of classic honey-soy chicken counts as one of my personal successes.

I've tried time and again to make a good honey-soy mix that I can whip up in the frying pan, only to have the honey burn and ruin everything.

Finally, after much banging of my head against the bench, I had the brilliant thought: Add the honey right at the end.

Ping!

The most obvious solutions are often the most easily overlooked.

Since making this for these wraps, this recipe has come out again and again to make stirfries, applying the same technique, and it has worked every time.

Dip your brush and paint me proud.

Honey Soy Chicken (For Wraps, Stir-fries, etc)

(Serves 2)

Ingredients
1 Fresh Chicken Breast, diced into 1cm pcs;
Freshly Ground Pepper and Salt
1T Balsamic Vinegar
1 dsp Potato Flour
2 Garlic Cloves, Minced
Olive Oil or Rice Bran Oil, for frying
1/2 Red Onion, finely chopped
2T Honey
2T Soy

Heat the oil in a pan. Season the chicken with the salt and pepper, and toss in the vinegar and potato flour. (Normal flour probably works fine, too; I've found the lighter texture of potato flour prevents it from clumping and is a bit less thick and gluggy. Using potato flour won't make this recipe Gluten-Free unless you also have Gluten-Free Soy Sauce, which most commercial brands are not.)

Add the chicken to the pan and brown all over. Add the onion and soften.

Place the Soy Sauce and honey in a microwave-proof dish and heat in the microwave for about 45 seconds (1200w microwave). Remove and mix well.

When the chicken is cooked, add the honey-soy mixture to the pan, mix through, bring to a brief simmer and serve.
We spooned ours into tortilla wraps, with grated carrot, salad greens, beetroot, peppers, cheese, sour cream, and fresh sliced tomatoes. We could almost convince ourselves it was summer already by the looks of them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hugh Cook – The Wordsmith and the Warrior

This article was produced as part of New Zealand Speculative Fiction Week. For more information, go to Pterodaustro Dreams.

Hugh Cook might not be a name instantly recognised by readers of the fantasy genre, but to his legion of dedicated fans across the world, mention of the man and his work inspires a sense of reverence.

Cook remains one of New Zealand’s unsung heroes of fantasy literature, despite his achievements outshining those of many of our more well-known authors. Between 1986 and 1992 Cook released his Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series, a ten-book cycle of stand-alone fantasy novels. Set on a world ruled by bloodthirsty emperors, threatened by swarms of monsters, and blessedly devoid of goblins and elves, the Chronicles capture a history of Cook’s lands and their people in a multitude of voices, spanning continents, and all occurring roughly within the same timeframe of a decade or two. Characters recur across the books, making cameo appearances from one story to the next, weaving a complex web of events that draws the reader through the series, however unrelated each volume may seem to be at a glance.

Cook was among a group of authors who eschewed the traditions of Tolkienesque high fantasy, choosing instead to write about the dark, unsavoury aspects of human nature in the grim harshness of a world bent on crushing the meek. In Cook’s world, orcs are hunted for their blubber and sea dragons are vain creatures who pretend to recite poetry in their sleep before sinking into snoring heaps. Empires are driven to war by syphilitic emperors, who are in turn murdered by warring sons. Heroism is a constant theme, usually as a partner to vanity, folly and ultimately death, and can be summed up in the immortal line, “vaunting their boasts with the blood of their lungs on their lips.”

Suffice to say that Cook rebelled, writing unorthodox fantasy in an unorthodox world. He dismantled old tropes and bent the genre like light through a smoked lens. He replaced the tired theme of good versus evil with one which instead pitted brutality against barbarism, and rarely delivered a clear victor. Cook not only rejected the clich├ęs of the fantasy genre; he subverted them with an almost malicious glee.

To judge Cook’s success by book sales alone would be misleading, but the numbers are certainly impressive at first glance. Altogether, the Chronicles sold around 450,000 copies, and that in itself is reason for celebration for any New Zealand author. The Wizards and the Warriors, together with its US incarnation, Wizard War, sold over 160,000 copies, a phenomenal sales record for any fantasy author.
Unfortunately, as the Chronicles became less conventional and more obtuse, sales began to decline. This was compounded by the decision made by bookselling chain W.H. Smith to drop Cook’s books from their shelves when sales slowed, which inevitably led to an even steeper fall. Despite a rebounding of style and content in the last three books of the series towards more action-based storytelling, Cook had largely lost the means to supply to his mainstream audience, with sales for these three books falling to between 7,000 and 10,000 copies each. I bought all my copies of Hugh’s books in my local Whitcoulls here in New Zealand, where his books enjoyed pride of place on their shelves with every release. But if the books were not on the shelves overseas, then Cook’s fans had little chance of finding them.

Cook’s prose drew heavily on the landscape, places and mythology of New Zealand, from the legendary Taniwha of Quilth, to the Ngati Moana, to a prison called Maremoremo (after Paremoremo in Auckland). Our native flora and fauna often made cameo appearances in wild locales, including weka, kauri and rimu, to name but a few – all of this well over a decade before Peter Jackson delivered our country up to the world as Middle Earth. Cook refused to suffer from cultural cringe; he embraced our country’s uniqueness and used it to flavour his own inimitable world and style.

China Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station, sums Cook up nicely; “Hugh Cook was one of the most inventive, witty, unflinching, serious, humane and criminally underrated writers in imaginative fiction. Or anywhere.” It remains a shame that so few New Zealanders know that Cook was a Kiwi writer, but there is a good reason for this: Hugh Cook may have lived in New Zealand and written in New Zealand, but I suspect he saw the same tired faults with our nationalistic model of publishing and author recognition as he saw in the failure of the fantasy genre to redefine itself. Accordingly, after publishing Plague Summer here in 1980, he bypassed the New Zealand publishing model and went instead to the London market, where he secured publishing deals almost simultaneously for both his science fiction novel The Shift (Jonathan Cape, 1986) and the first volume in the Chronicles series, The Wizards and the Warriors (Corgi,1986).
What separated Cook from so many of his contemporaries was his ability to alter his prose style from book to book, while he never lost his unique authorial voice. Two of the Chronicles, The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers and The Wazir and the Witch, take the form of actual recorded histories, thick with the idiosyncrasies of both the imaginary scribe and subsequent editors, and are thus peppered with redactions and long, apparently unrelated diatribes. These books are full of acerbic dark wit and bleak philosophies, and represent, in some ways, Cook’s ultimate success at writing fantasy that transcended the sword and sorcery models of the genre. For all their apparently random digressions beyond the story, these two books might be seen as the pinnacle of Cook’s genius, for there is a depth to these tales that no amount of Feistian swashbuckling or Eddingsesque adventuring could rival. Some readers even suggested that ‘Hugh Cook’ was not one writer but many, a collaboration of individuals writing in isolation with a single grand design in mind. But Hugh Cook was just one man, a prolific author and poet, whose storytelling skills ascended beyond the formulaic norm into something infinitely more enduring.

Ironically it was these two books, with their challenging diversions into philosophy and metaphysics, that seemed to undermine Cook’s mainstream success. Book sales for these two volumes showed a steep slide from his earlier highs, and may have contributed to the W.H. Smith decision and its consequences for Cook’s publishing career. Cook did with fantasy what hard science fiction does to that broader genre, by delving into in-depth ruminations of the unknown and fantastical in the body of his storytelling. Cook teased apart the nature of magic and the supernatural as demi-scientific concepts, as well as exploring the brutal underside of human nature as represented by its practice in politics and warfare – stark metaphors for the real world, despite being dished up in the barbaric soup of a fantasy setting. Apparently, booksellers suspected that works of this complexity and wisdom would not be appreciated by fans of the tales of blood-soaked armies, pirates, and torturers that had preceded them. This was truly a pity.

Cook’s epic plan for a sixty book series was accordingly cut short, and after publishing the brilliant conclusion to the Chronicles, The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster, he went on to champion print-on-demand technology and electronic formats, constantly moving into newer and stranger worlds with his writing. He was among the first authors to publish works through Lulu.com with the Oceans of Light trilogy and later, Cancer Patient. Even so, the Chronicles remain Cook’s legacy, and copies of these volumes continue to fetch outlandish prices in second-hand book markets around the world (my own collection must be worth a small fortune, according to Amazon – but it is most certainly not for sale).

Cook was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2005. He endured months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment in Auckland, which briefly sent the cancer into remission. During this ordeal he wrote Cancer Patient, a collection of musings, poetry and recollections which document his struggle with the disease and what he learned about life and the human condition in the process.This book is available for free as an online e-book or as a download from zenvirus.com, one of Hugh’s many websites. Unfortunately in 2007 the cancer returned, and Cook passed away on November 8th, 2008, after bravely battling the disease for so many years. It is a testament to the scope of his fanbase that the obituary I wrote for him, which was published in the New Zealand Herald and which I posted to my blog in December last year, remains one of my most frequently visited pages.

Ultimately, Cook was both Wordsmith and Warrior. Poems, stories and characters were his tools and his weapons. He wrote with a passion, producing fiction at a prolific rate, and the English language would be greatly enriched if all the words and terms he had coined in his oeuvre were to be introduced into common parlance. He fought to find new ways forward in the publishing world, exploiting technologies that are only now starting to establish their true place in the electronic market. He maintained his integrity as an author to the very end, determined to always share the stories he had to tell, and not those that others wanted him to tell. At the end, he fought an unseen enemy – fought it and beat it, if only for a short time. Even in this, he had a story to tell, one that may not have been able to completely defeat that insidious foe, but which may yet bring comfort to others who face those same demons at some stage.

For those of you interested in reading Hugh Cook’s work, samples and full-length copies of some of his books can be found at zenvirus.com. Also, keep an eye out for a reissue of The Walrus and the Warwolf, due for release in 2010 by Piazo Publishing, with an introduction penned by China Mieville.
Walrus is recognised by Hugh’s fans as his finest hour, and well worth a read by any lover of epic fantasy. To quote Mieville again, “To honour the memory of this wonderful and generous-spirited writer and man, those - too bloody few - of us who know his work should do all we can to bring it to the world's attention.

Hugh Walter Gilbert Cook (1956-2008): Wordsmith; Warrior; New Zealander.

Man’s first death is the random potential
Of aeons before conception,
And the surf, merging life with form,
The surf is creation and rebirth.

(Cicada Sun, Landfall #118, 1976)

I would like to thank Colin Smythe, China Mieville, and the Cook family for their kind assistance in preparing this article.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Secret Family Recipe Barbeque Chicken

There's nothing quite like spilling the beans on a secret family recipe, is there?

This one's been in our family for generations - two, at the very least (including my own progeny).

So not exactly a secret extracted from the depths of time, but pretty good nonetheless. Add to that the fact that I've adapted it to work in our slow-cooker that we've only had for about a year, and the mystique all but dissolves.

Not to worry.

Slow-cooked Barbeque Chicken it is.

I will warn you in advance, however, that my precious notebook full of recipe notes went wandering sometime between cooking and eating dinner, so I'm trusting to the original oven-bake recipe here. Let's hope I didn't get too creative when I modified it.

Crock-pot Barbeque Chicken

(Serves 2)

Ingredients
2 Large Chicken Legs (Thigh and Drumstick, skin on)
1 T Soy Sauce
1/4 Cup Steak Sauce
1 T Honey
1 Dsp Brown Sugar
1 T Cider Vinegar
1/4 t Crushed Ginger
3 Cloves Garlic, minced
1/4 C Hot Water
Combine all the marinade ingredients and mix well.
Pour the sauce over the Chicken and cover well.
Place the Chicken in the crockpot and pour any excess sauce over top. Slow-cook on High for 3-4 hours.
Serve up with oven-baked chips and fresh veges. Pour the excess sauce from the bottom of the crockpot into small cups and place these in the centre of each plate for dipping.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Pudding to End All Puddings

It's been an awfully long time since I wrote about dessert, hasn't it?

OK, maybe not that long. But long enough.

So when Dessert Chef started making noises about cooking up what sounded like the ultimate pudding of all time, I was all for it.
It involved lovely ripe winter pears.
It required stewing those pears down with sugar, and getting some stewed rhubarb out of the freezer.
It involved crumble. Lovely, lovely crumble.
It involved custard.
There was pastry, rolled and pressed into a buttered pan and filled with the stewed fruit.
The custard went on top.
Then came the crumble.
Then the oven.
Lastly, it involved a bowl, a spoon, and a dollop of ice-cream.

There are no words necessary.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Fusion Chicken

"Fusion of what?" you say.

Very hard to know.

But Uncle I and I (by which I mean me and Uncle I, in case that was unclear) went to the store to get more chicken and on the way settled on a bottle of wine that suggested it would go well with "fusion dishes", whatever that means.

Since I had no nuclear reactor on hand with which to fuse my chicken, we settled on a fusion of mustard and mushrooms, because hey, who's ever done mustard and mushrooms before?

Since my last go at mixing up chicken and mustard was such a blinding success, I saw no reason why this shouldn't work for a second effort, but I decided to make this one more of a casserole.

Overall: Well-fused. Fusionality. Fusacious. (by which I mean: it was good, in case that was unclear.)

Mushroom Chicken Fusion Casserole

(Serves 4)

Ingredients

1.5kg Chicken Drumsticks and Nibbles
2T Mustard Powder
Freshly Ground Pepper and Salt
2T Potato Flour
2T Dried Basil
2T Worcester Sauce
Olive Oil for frying
1/2C White Wine
2 Chopped Onions
1C Chicken Stock
200g Sliced Mushrooms
Hot Water
Toss the Chicken Pieces in the mustard powder, salt and pepper, potato flour, basil and Worcester. Coat well and cook in hot olive oil until browned all over.

Add 1/4 Cup of the white wine and reduce, then add the onions.

Allow the onions to soften slightly, then remove the chicken and onion to an oven dish.
Deglaze the pan with the rest of the white wine and the chicken stock. Add the gravy to the oven dish and place the mushrooms over and around the chicken.
Add enough hot water to almost cover the chicken, then cover and place in the oven at 200C for 1 hour.
Serve with piles of fresh veges and mashed potato. (And keep your Geigermeter handy, just in case...)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Steak with Herbed Garlic Butter

I've talked here before about eating less meat but of better quality for the sake of our health, the environment, and so on.

When it comes to eating better meat, you can't go past Eye Fillet Beef Steak.

OK, I see you throwing your hands in the air and declaring (with only the mildest hint of indignation) that who, in the current economic climate, can afford fillet steak? It's not 1986 now, after all.
But here's the thing: Communities can.

Fillet steak follows the same rules in a supply/demand/price-point market as any other product, and suppliers know this. On a per kg basis, no, you can't necessarily afford to buy fillet steak in meal-sized portions off the supermarket shelf. We certainly can't.

But any good butcher or wholesaler (like, say Prestons or Moore Wilsons in NZ) will supply fillet steak in whole lengths, and the price per kg is significantly less than you would pay for cut, trimmed, packaged fillets from the coldshelf.

But still, you argue, the price of a whole fillet ranges into the $40-50 mark, and who can justify that sort of a spend on one piece of meat?

Well, consider this: You're not paying a cent for bone, and virtually nothing for fat. Hunt for a lean cut of fillet steak, and your price per kg is practically 1:1, top-notch meat to dollar. No amount of chops, sausages or stewing steak will give you that degree of economic return.

With a full cut, you can also poke and prod to your heart's content, finding the most tender specimen. Yes, a soft, tender hunk of raw meat will cook up more tender than a tough piece. Amazing, eh?

Sorry, did I say something about community? Why yes, I did. It comes back to that matter of outlay. Who has the outlay to buy these large, if delicious, cuts of meat? Restaurants, for one.

Restaurateurs understand the economy of the whole fillet, and it works even better for small groups of people. Let's say, for example, a 2kg fillet, costing $40, is bought by two couples. That's $20 each.

Now, each of those couples have 1kg of fillet steak. A nice decadent size for a fillet steak if 200g, so that's five steaks, each costing $4.00. That's an $8.00 steak meal for two; I challenge you to find 400g of pre-cut steak on the cold-shelf in NZ for less than $10.00.

And of course, you don't have to be decadent. You can cut that steak into six, or eight, or even ten pieces. You may have a smaller piece of steak, but you still have top quality. And for the sake of our bowels, we shouldn't eat more than 100g of red meat a day anyway.

The only catch is that a 200g steak will cook more nicely than a 100g steak, so to get around this, just cut to 200g, cook as a single steak, then slice and share. Perfect.

It does require someone have a freezer, and that you cut and store the steak in individual portions, but that's not a big deal these days. Freezers are our friends.

This is just one way that reaching out to the people around you can improve not only your budget, but the quality of the food you're eating as well.

Give it a go. You'll thank me for it.

Now, what to do with that delicious, top quality steak? I've already written a detailed post on how best to cook pretty much any steak, but here's another lovely option: Herbed Garlic Butter.
Cook your steak as per that post, but you can flag the garlic at the preparation stage. The Herbed Butter will do all the hard work for you. Eye fillet steak will require less tenderising than other cuts as well, but a little bit of a bash never hurt.

Herbed Garlic Butter

Ingredients:
100g soft, salted butter
2T fresh thyme leaves
4 cloves of garlic, minced
4T freshly grated parmesan cheese

Combine all ingredients in a mortal and pestle, or you can probably use a hand blender.
Scrape the butter onto a dish to pop on the table when the steak is served.
Be sure to fry a few mushrooms and onions around the side of the pan with the steak.
Scoop the butter onto the steak, along with the mushrooms and onions. Serve with oven-baked fries, eggs and a little green salad, just for colour.