Sunday, May 26, 2013

Re-visiting Recipes – Pasta with Tuna, Rosemary and Balsamic Vinegar

Recipes that we know off by heart have a habit of morphing over time. Evolution, perhaps improvement , or just plain forgetting an ingredient and substituting something else. The results may be just as good, but it’s refreshing to go back and re-discover their roots, sometimes finding that the earliest version had a clarity of flavour that has been lost in the passing of time.

This happened to me when I stumbled upon my recipe for pasta with tuna, tomato, rosemary and balsamic vinegar.

Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve been fiddling with my blog. I have been positively prehistoric and still using Blogger’s original html template. Finally the urge to play with all those clever gadgets got to me and so yesterday I summoned up all my courage and started switching it over. Several hours and much cursing and panic later I’d got something that looked as close as possible to before only with fun shiny gadgets in the sidebar, like the Popular posts feature recommended by Blog Hangout.

There was only one problem. Most of my popular posts, it seems, are from way back in 2006 and 2007 believe it or not, before I was routinely posting images with my text. So those thumbnails weren’t picking anything up. It no longer looked shiny and clever but ragged and unprofessional.  I quickly added an image to my rusk post from my files, but the balsamic vinegar pasta post still had nothing. So that’s what we had for supper last night.

Re-reading my recipe I found that I’d changed several things over all the years of this being a staple weekday recipe, and not necessarily for the better. The original kept the tuna separate from the tomato sauce, whereas I’d taken to mixing it into the sauce. There was more balsamic vinegar than I’ve been adding recently and more olive oil. I made it strictly according to my own instructions and was pleasantly surprised; the flavour was at once mellower and  more distinct, the tuna keeping its own identity and less swamped by the tomato. So now I am resolving to go back and cook some more of my staples from the original recipes, just as a reminder.

Here is the recipe from 2006 (photographed in 2013!)

Pasta with Tuna, Tomato, Rosemary and Balsamic Vinegar
For 450g/1lb pasta
8 tablespoons olive oil
3 or 4 cloves garlic
2 sprigs rosemary
450g/1lb tinned tomatoes, drained and chopped
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 tin of tuna drained

Put the olive oil, thinly sliced garlic and rosemary sprigs in a frying pan over a medium heat. When the garlic starts sizzling add the tomatoes, with salt and pepper and cook for 10-12 minutes.
When the pasta is just cooked – really al dente – drain and put back in the pan and toss with the sauce over the heat for 1 minute. Add the tuna, stir, then off the heat stir in the balsamic vinegar and serve immediately.

Oh and all the children liked it back then and still seemed to like it pretty well now, so that's a triumph in itself!

I’m gradually getting used to my new blog look, though not completely past fiddling some more with it. I may even make an even bigger leap one of these days and migrate to Wordpress, but for now let me know what you think? Are there any other features I should add? Is it easy enough to read and easy enough on the eye?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Milk Tart Profiterole Challenge for World Baking Day

I hadn’t even heard of World Baking Day until Colleen shared her stunning milk tart cake in stages on Facebook the other day. The idea is to choose one of a 100 recipes, submitted by foodies all over the world, and bake something just a little way outside your comfort zone on the 19th May.

Never having made choux pastry before, and having  already seen Candice’s scrumptious looking blog post with the recipe, I picked her South African take on profiteroles, with a milk tart custard filling. The recipe was ranked number 79 in the difficulty stakes, but I was up for it!  I mentioned the challenge to a few friends and they responded with  an “Oh yeah, we made profiteroles at school”, which made it sound like it must be a doddle. But as I’d never made them at school or anywhere else, I thought it could still count as a challenge. And I was right!

The first batch of dough in my shiny new Le Creuset pan

This morning I launched confidently into the pastry making and achieved a respectable looking dough, which I proudly piped through a home-made piping bag (a corner cut off a freezer bag) into nice even swirls on the baking tray.

First attempt at piping went well

Into the oven they went, but when I peeped into the oven after 20 minutes my confidence faltered. They hadn’t risen at all, but were already golden brown. Stress! I tweeted frantically and consulted  my Anne Willan Readers Digest cooking bible, to find two things I’d done wrong. The water had boiled before the butter was melted. And the dough hadn’t really been glossy before I piped it. I put the blame squarely on my scales, which are of the approximate ball park persuasion and had obviously delivered too much flour.

Sorry, soggy unrisen profiteroles

Wiser by two mistakes so far, I discarded the first sorry, soggy batch and plunged back into the fray. This time I checked the dough for glossiness and added more egg, the scales still being over-generous with the flour.

Now we have the right gloss on the second batch

And  this time when I peeped in to the oven at the 20 minute mark I was rewarded with nicely rounded puffs of pastry, maybe a little too golden but definitely puffy. Yay!! After 10 more minutes they were done enough to poke holes in their bottoms to release the steam and put them back in to dry.

Not perfect but definitely edible

Relieved that things were looking up, I turned my mind to the milk tart filling. Milk on to heat, eggs beaten with sugar, flour and cornflour added. The milk took advantage of my back being turned for a minute (Tweeting distraction)to froth over, but I caught it just in time and foiled its evil intent. It was poured over the egg mix, whisked to a smooth custard and then put back in the pan to thicken, stirring all the time. Now I stirred constantly, I really did, but the sauce still managed to turn into lumps on me, so I took it off the heat, whisked madly and eventually put it through the sieve to get rid of the worst lumps. Rather than risking it back on the heat again, I reckoned it was thick enough and hoped it would set more as it cooled. Spices and vanilla were added and I left it to cool.

Meanwhile the rest of the meal was to be a braai, conveniently leaving most of the work to my husband, but I still had to spice the chicken wings and boil potatoes. Flurry of spices, potatoes thrown into pot, stove lit. Done.

Now there was just the chocolate ganache to do. Candice had made a white chocolate sauce, but I’m a dark chocolate fiend and reckoned that I could just substitute that. I brought the cream to the boil, poured it over the broken chocolate pieces and stirred madly to be rewarded with  lovely glossy sauce. Perfect first time... or so I thought.

The milk tart custard meanwhile had cooled but was still slightly too runny, so I tried chilling it in the freezer for five minutes and then turned my mind to assembling the profiteroles. Pastry cases, check. Cream filling, check, chocolate ganache at room temperature... errr ... panic, the smooth glossy sauce had gone lumpy and grainy as it cooled.

By now I was past expecting perfection and was going for edible. I tried heating it again over a pot of hot water, but that just added to the disaster as it began to separate. Never mind, it still tasted good and chocolaty. So I got out another freezer bag to pipe the filling into the cases, half-filled them and plonked them firmly onto the plate so the filling wouldn’t dribble out again, squidged a dollop of melted dark chocolate over the top and congratulated myself on a morning well spent. If we learn from our mistakes, it was definitely a steep learning curve.

The verdict of the family: they really liked them and had two each, but reckoned I could have used a cheaper and sweeter dark chocolate or even milk chocolate. Lindt 70% is too good for chocolate sauce it seems!

Disclaimer: All troubles and travails were entirely of my own creation and nothing whatsoever to do with  Candice’s recipe which is just as it should be. I’m going to try it again from scratch another day, now I’ve got over the first few choux pastry hurdles.

Thanks to all on Twitter who came through with helpful suggestions and encouragement!

Milk tart profiteroles served up to family with cream

Lessons I learned
  1. I need more accurate scales. The relative quantities of flour, eggs and liquid are even more crucial than in most baking techniques. I think my second batch could be improved on further by getting it more exact.
  2. Making lumpy custard is easier than you think. A lower heat would have been better and more controlled.
  3. I need to research making chocolate sauce with dark chocolate for next time. I would have loved to see these with a luscious glossy coating of chocolate.
  4. It’s OK to chuck it all out and start again.
  5. I should wear an apron more often - sticky custard piped all over T-shirt!

  6. The braai was perfect, the autumn day even better for a lovely family lunch on the stoep

Monday, May 13, 2013

Autumn in the Western Cape

A sunbird in the Cape honeysuckle against blue autumn skies

Still sunny days, chilly mornings with wisps of mist rising, the first rains, but many more sunny days, an idyllic lull between the fierce heat of summer and cold winds of winter.

Autumn is about the only time of year when the wind dies here in the Western Cape. We enjoy a procession of still days, with only the mildest breezes: a breather between the Cape’s notorious blow-you-off-your-feet summer south-easters and gusting  north-westers bringing winter rain.

The first sign of autumn approaching is the flowering of wilde dagga and tecoma, (the Cape honeysuckle): slashes of orange with nectar loving sun birds flitting between them chattering, the iridescent green backs and scarlet mufflers another flash of colour returning to the dry land.

Wilde dagga or leonotis leonurus

New shoots of spring flowering bulbs emerge, the new green is a sign of spring in the Europe, but here it's a reward brought by the first autumn rains, as the watsonias make the most of a whole winter of rain to grow tall before flowering in late spring.

Proteas and sugarbush flowers open. More food for all the sweet nectar loving birds and bees.

 There is the scent of honey from what I now know, after our visit to Grootbos, to be metalasia muricata, an unimposing but beautifully scented fynbos plant that grows wild among the restios here.

Then jewel-like yellow oxalis flowers peep out of the sand, furling their petals again at night or on dull days and opening wide to embrace the sun as soon as its rays warm them every morning.

The white oxalis, first of the winter flowers

In the vegetable garden there is swiss chard, growing profusely enough to make spinach torta again and again, then rows of new seedlings of cabbage and salads; but the carrots have been ravished by moles... and by moles I mean mole rats, nothing like the cute velvety surface moles, but large, fat, furry beasts, the size of a rabbit, with long teeth to gnaw through the roots of our mulberry trees and take out rows of carrots, their tunnels making man traps for the unwary.
The hole left after my foot descended into a mole tunnel!

The first guavas are ripening, fragrant and perfumed, soon there’ll be enough for guava fool again. (For guava pics look at this winter post from June 2010.)

Olives ripen on the tree, for the first time in several years, waiting for me to get my act together and brine them for posterity.

Glorious sunrises are a daily spectacle at this time of year, and we’re up to see them now the days are so much shorter. On school days we get up in darkness at 6am, watch the skies lighten at the breakfast table, and rush out to photograph orange, red and pink flooded skies just after 7am, until the sun bursts over the mountain horizon flooding the house with light and warming cold feet and hands.

It’s the perfect time for long lunches on the stoep with posies of nasturtiums, as we did yesterday for my sister-in-law’s birthday. Good friends, good food, sunshine, fresh air and flowers, looking over an incomparable view of mountains.

I might miss European autumns with golden beech leaves falling in drifts, but we still get those same autumn colours in another form here, different but just as beautiful. How does autumn look where you are?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

After the Event - the Robertsons Spicemaster Challenge

My station just before I plate up
I'm back home after rather stressful but very enjoyable morning stepping way out of my comfort zone into competitive cooking! My last post was all part of the competition,  a challenge to South African food bloggers from Robertsons Spices, to see who could cook up a storm from a mystery box of ingredients and then blog up a storm about it immediately afterwards. We were to be judged by Chef Reuben Riffel and the winner would get to blog for Robertsons for four months as well as winning some pretty fantastic prizes.

Nerves, nerves, nerves attacked me beforehand. What if I couldn't think of a thing to cook, what if , what if, what if. I revised all my Indian dishes, checked up on the spices for chicken korma, aloo gobi and so on, but in the end the Indian spices, cardamom,  turmeric, coriander, mustard seeds weren't on the shelves, so I took refuge in my Italian comfort zone instead. I would normally never serve pasta with a main meat course, but the alternative starches were polenta, cake flour or risotto rice, so I crushed my food snobbery underfoot and went with a simple fresh tomato sauce on linguini that would serve as a foil for the mustard notes of the chicken.

My pic of my plated dish, snapped in the heat of the moment

Then I revved it up a little with a sauce of anchovies and capers mixed with oil and mustard to dip the broccoli in. That was winging it a bit as I haven't made anyting like that for years and I wasn't quite sure if I had it right, but I hope it worked.

The kitchen at SA Chefs Academy 5 minutes before times up

To put you out of your misery (my gorgeous blog friends who are holding your breaths), I didn't win... but I did bring home a lovely little Le Creuset sauce pot and a beautiful beech wood (and very solid) Robertsons spice rack, soon to be used on SA Masterchef,as well as having a wonderful morning meeting and chatting with fellow food bloggers that I'd never met before, and some lovely media people.

Great prizes from Robertsons Spices and Le Creuset

The winner was Barry of Cape Cook, who showcased the spices with plenty of oomph and made a chicken and chorizo stew on polenta. I think my spicing was a tad too subtle... on reflection trying to get that authentic Italian flavour, where the spices are a background note to the other ingredients without overwhelming them may not have  been the best strategy for a spice challenge!

Anyway thanks very much to Robertsons for inviting me to take part, to photographer Michael for being so helpful when I was writing my post on a strange laptop and trying to get pictures loaded (no stress!), to Jane-Anne for being so supportive, and to all the other food bloggers there for being such good company. Check out their competition posts too to see what we all went through.

Barry of Cape Cook,
Fritz of Real Men Can Cook,
Thuli of Mzansi Cuisine,
Kristy of Food Monger,
Matt of Curate this Space,
Saaleha of Meals on Speed
Totally gratuitous pic of cute kitten, dogs and spices

Would I do it again...? Yes I think I'm crazy enough to despite the nerves and stress. More than compensated for by the chance to be part of a friendly and fun food event, and of course the Le Creuset pot and Robertsons spice rack!

Live and Spiced Out from the Robertsons Spicemaster Challenge

Spicy, aromatic and fierce with fiery heat... and that is just the atmosphere in the kitchen at the Robertsons Spicemaster event, where I'm one of seven South African food bloggers competing in a Masterchef style mystery box challenge.

The mystery ingredients reveal themselves as we are briefed - I spot a whole chicken - how on earth to cook that in 45 minutes flat? We have ten minutes to orientate ourselves, check out the ingredients. Spotting anchovies I'm immediately on an Italian themed taste mission, but I want to keep it simple, something I'm used to cooking at home but spiced up for the event. After all I'm competing against some serious foodies here!

The time starts and I grab the chicken and divest it of its breasts. I'm going to grill them with a mustard, oil and vinegar sauce, so they are tender and juicy. There's a pack of linguini which I'll use as starch, even if it's not traditionally Italian to have pasta accompanying the main meat course. Some fresh tomatoes for the sauce with a dash of dried thyme, some garlic and just a touch of dried chilli.

Meanwhile those anchovies are demanding to be used. I ask my chef assistant if there are capers and there are, so I decide on an anchovy, caper and oil dipping sauce for some steamed broccoli. None of this is rocket science or even very ambitious but I hope the flavours will all come together and shine with just that touch of herb and spice that Italian cuisine requires, nothing too showy but tantalising and tasty.

I finish early and am plating up (me who never plates anything at home!) five mintes before crunch time. The plates disappear into the board room for judging. We wipe our brows and are all genuinely amazed at what each other has come up with. Seven very different dishes from exactly the same range of ingredients.

Grilled chicken with mustard, oil and vinegar sauce.

2 chicken breasts
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
2 tablespoons olive oil (the good stuff)
2 tablespoons vinegar
a pinch of Robertsons dried chilli flakes
a pinch of Robertsons dried thyme

Edited to add:
We only had 25 minutes to write and post our food experience, which was all part of the competition. I ran out of time, so I'm adding the recipe method after the event just in case you want to try this one.

Batter the chicken breasts with a rolling pin or other heavy implement, until they are an even thickness and slightly tenderised.
Mix up the mustard, oil and vinegar with the herbs and chilli. Season this with salt and pepper.
Put the chicken into an oven proof dish and pour over the sauce. Cook under a hot grill for 10-15 minutes, then turn the breasts over, baste with the sauce and cook the other side for another 10 minutes until cooked through. Scoop the mustardy sauce over the chicken as you serve.

Note: I usually use a grainy mustard, but there was only smooth Dijon available, which worked well for flavour but was less visually appealing.

Photos courtesy of Michael the very helpful photographer at the event. Thanks!