Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ancient, inedible fruit...

“There’s a common theme to these endeavours”, I said to my husband as we were both working at the kitchen counter. I was stirring a pot full of thick and potentially hazardous quince, destined for paste. Sandy was dealing to the olives he’d just picked from our trees, bashing each one with a hammer before immersing them in salted water. The theme was not ‘labours of love’, although they are, clearly, since the effort vs. reward equation in both cases is seriously questionable. No, the theme is actually ‘things you can’t eat raw’. Or to be more detailed about it, ‘things you can’t eat raw, and have to spend hours/days rendering them edible’.

This can’t help but make me wonder about who the brave people were who ever found this out.
Somewhere in the ancient past, someone picked a quince, gave it a gnaw and went ‘yuk!’. Probably more than one person. But somewhere along the line, someone said ‘Hang on, maybe we can cook this?’ and gave it a try.
I wonder if they were shocked when the pale quinces turned rosy and then ruby red? I wonder if they were even more shocked when they turned out to taste quite nice? One thing’s for sure, it was a long time ago – quince are mentioned in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome; where recipes for stewing quince with honey can be found. Olives are equally ancient – they’re all over the Bible, and pickled olives have been found among the buried wreckage of Pompeii.
Our olives are still on their way to becoming edible, soaking in their salted water. But after several days of effort I now have enough quince paste to last me for quite some time, even given the amount of cheese I eat. It turned out really well, and is a lovely red colour – something which varies, I understand, from crop to crop. I used Stephanie Alexander’s guidance in the Cook’s Companion to make it – basically cook up the quinces with water until soft, puree them, weigh and add the same quantity of sugar. Then the fun bit starts – simmering that mixture while it bubbles volcanically, until it goes ruby red and thick.
This is the stage at which you risk serious burns every time you open the pot to stir – I could have done with some of those long gloves farmers use when they want to do unmentionable things to the back end of cows (must look into that for next year).
And if someone can tell me how to get the concrete-hard quince paste off my stainless steel cooktop without gouging it, I’d be really happy. Anyway, once it’s ready it goes into trays to set, or - my innovation this year – muffin tins, to make cute little puddings. Then it’s a couple of days in a warm place (low oven for me) to dry. Then it’s sliced, wrapped, and ready to eat. Phew!
At this stage you really need a sit down, a glass of wine and a piece of cheese, served with a sliver of quince paste on the side, and a few minutes to feel self-satisfied. Before you figure out that the cost to buy that much quince paste in a shop, divided by the hours you’ve spent making yours, means you’ve probably got paste that’s worth about $30 a block.

But it’s made with love, right?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

An ode to fried rice

I was reading American Vogue recently, where my very favourite food writer, Jeffrey Steingarten, remarked that fried rice is up there with pizza as one of his absolute favourite meals. This made me very happy.

Of the many things I love about Jeffrey Steingarten’s writing, I think what I love the most is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He loves foie gras and Milky Way bars with equal passion. He acknowledges that even though he moves in the lofty circles of the professional New York food critic, he also lives in the real world, where people eat takeaways and snack on M&Ms and don’t always shop at artisan food stores. He has a laugh at his own expense. He’s fabulous.

Anyway, I’m right there with Jeffrey - even though I’ve never met him, I feel I can call him Jeffrey - on the fried rice. (And the pizza, for that matter, but that’s for a whole other posting.)

Fried rice is one of my favourite comfort meals. I don’t know if this dish was invented to use up leftovers, but I suspect it may have been; it’s a fantastic way to do that. But I think we should celebrate fried rice in its own right as a perfect, delicious dinner, and not just because it helps us get rid of all those bitty veges and odd leftover meats that languish in the fridge. Fried rice – I’m talking home-made fried rice, not some greasy thing slopped up at the local takeaway – is a perfect combination of comfortingly bland carbohydrate, crunchy and soft textures, and sweet, savoury, salty and zingy flavours. Add enough veges and it’s a complete and balanced meal, and keep the oil to a minimum and it’s a healthy meal at that. It’s simple, but sophisticated (I don’t mean dinner-party sophisticated, I mean complex in flavour). What’s more it’s quick, which appeals to me when I’m exhausted and hungry.

I think everyone who cooks will have their own version of what makes for the perfect fried rice, and often it depends on what’s in the fridge. There are versions of fried rice in dozens of cultures, from China to Hawaii to Cuba, and they’re all different. Like Paella, it seems, even with the Chinese version there are many ‘definitive’ versions depending on who you talk to!

My fried rice follows a bit of a pattern. It’s not authentic, if there is such a thing, but it works for me. Here’s my ideal breakdown:

Dry rice
Because I cook a fair bit of rice, I often have rice left over, usually Jasmine. Leftover rice is the best rice for fried rice, because it gets nice and dry in the fridge. I have been known to cook rice especially to make fried rice when I’ve really been in the mood, but somehow it’s not quite as good.

Something tasty
This is where I pull out the frozen prawns, which I keep mostly just for fried rice purposes. Chopped ham works, too, or barbecue pork (yum), or those little Chinese cured sausages called Lap Cheong. If I don’t have any suitable meat, I sometimes use the Thai dried shrimps, which add a tasty savoury flavour and a nice crunch.

Something crunchy
Here’s where veges come in – I love cabbage, broccoli, bean sprouts, carrots, and spring onions. Pile them in; remember half the plate is supposed to be veges, people, even in a combined meal.

Something soft
Egg is the obvious thing here, for its creamy, well, egginess. I make a little flat omelet and chop it up, and add it back in at the end. I also like soft veges like courgettes and baby spinach. Tofu is lovely, too.

Something hot
Chillies, of course – fresh or dried. And I love a Thai product called “Chilli Paste with Soya Bean Oil” which comes in a large jar with a yellow lid, from the Chinese supermarket. It’s a cooked mix of chilli, shallots, sugar, fish sauce and tamarind, and so fulfils the hot, tasty, salty and sweet categories all at once. I adore it; I have to stop myself eating it from the jar.

Something salty
Soy sauce or tamari is a must. Not too much – you don’t want it sloppy – but enough to colour the rice a little bit and get the nice umami flavour going.

Something sweet
I often add capsicums or other sweet veges for colour and flavour contrast. And for me - call me cheesy - peas are essential.

I can’t help myself wanting to doctor my rice on my plate, so I usually have an array of chilli sauces, kecap manis, sambal oelek and soy sauce on the table. I know, it’s chaotic, but sometimes I just feel like adding different things. Or sometimes nothing.

Fried rice is not really the kind of thing, I feel, that needs a recipe, but I understand that sometimes that’s what people want. So here’s one, from my book, Eating In. Adapt as you please.

Prawn & vege fried rice

1 tablespoon garlic oil
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 courgettes, sliced
1 head broccoli
1 cup sliced red cabbage
2 cups frozen raw prawns, thawed
2 tablespoons Thai chilli paste
3 cups cooked rice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cups baby spinach leaves
½ cup peas, frozen or fresh
1 red chilli, sliced

Heat the garlic oil in a large frying pan. Add the eggs and swirl them around to coat the bottom of the pan and make a thin omelette. When just cooked, tip the omelette onto a plate and slice into strips. Set aside.

Add the garlic, courgette, broccoli and cabbage to the pan and stir-fry for a few minutes until just tender.

Add the prawns and stir-fry until the prawns are cooked. Add the chilli paste and stir through, then add the rice and soy sauce, spinach and chilli and stir to combine. Cook just until the rice is warmed through and starting to brown a bit here and there. Add the egg back to the pan.

Serve in bowls with extra soy and chilli sauces on the side.

Serves 4