Monday, October 24, 2011

Das's Chickpea Salad

I never meant to threaten my housemate with a knife.

I was living at the time with a couple of Anglo women who studied too hard, and a Pakistani man named Das. Das had very regular habits. Every morning, he left for work in his little white car; every evening, he came home, parked in the driveway, stayed for an hour or two then, while we women headed back to our desks, he went to put in a few hours at a friend’s restaurant. On weekends, if we were lucky, he cooked.

One weekday I came home to what should have been an empty house. The driveway was empty, but to my alarm the front door was swinging open. I peeked in, and called ‘hello?’. There was no answer, so I called louder. Again, silence. Heart pounding, I stepped softly into the hallway, tiptoed to the kitchen and, being a silly young thing, grabbed a long knife. Then I crept around the house, checking each and every room – behind the doors, under the beds, the works – until I came, at last, to Das’s room. He wasn’t home; his car wasn’t in the driveway; he was at work.

But I thought I heard the sound of breathing.

So I crept in, knife raised high, only to find Das dozing on the bed. I shrieked, he opened his eyes and yelled, and I collapsed in hysterical giggles.

It turned out he’d felt sick at work. He’d left in a daze early, parked his car randomly up the street, staggered in the front door, and collapsed into bed, only to be woken by the knife wielding maniac that was me.

These days I’m older and wiser; I figure I’m the only person likely to be injured in a knife fight. So I keep my kitchen knives where they belong, and use them to chop vegetables and think of Das.

He was a terrific cook. I particularly remember eating industrial quantities of his chickpea salad, served warm. I still dream of it; mine, sadly, is never as good.

Chickpea salad is very simple, but it depends on two things. For one, I have never eaten a canned chickpea that hasn’t tasted tinny, so I cook my own from dried. If you don’t mind the tinny taste, you are welcome to use canned chickpeas, but for mealy chickpea perfection, cook them yourself.

The other is to chop the other vegetables neatly, chickpea sized or smaller. It makes the salad visually appealing, and it means that each mouthful is an explosion of different flavours.

Chaat masala is a spice mix for salads. Dried green mango and asafoetida give it sourness; and then about a dozen other spices just make it taste good! You can buy it at any Indian or Pakistani grocery store. It’s worth having a packet in your pantry just for this salad; I certainly do.

Das’s Chickpea Salad (Very Easily Multiplied!)

- 1 cup cooked chickpeas. If they are warm, so much the better.
- 2 medium carrots, diced small
- 1 celery heart, or 2 stalks celery
- 1 long cucumber
- a small bunch of coriander, chopped
- a hefty pinch of chaat masala
- the juice of a lemon

If you are using the celery heart, shred it crossways right up into the yellow leaves. If you are using celery stalks, dice them as small as the carrot.

Peel the cucumber entirely if the skin is coarse. Halve it lengthways. Cut out the seeds by slicing a shallow V and scraping them out. Dice the remaining flesh nice and small.

Chop the coriander coarsely.

Combine the chickpeas with the vegetables and the coriander. Dress with a generous amount of lemon juice, and sprinkle with a little chaat masala to taste. Mix well.

This makes enough for two or three lunches. In lieu of my mother’s chappatis – how I miss them! – I eat it with homemade unleavened bread made with buckwheat flour and sprinkled with nigella, or with fresh pita.

(Localish: chickpeas from Horsham area; carrots, coriander, lemons. Not so local: celery, salt, chaat masala.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Clove Scented Onions


My two favourite restaurant names are the New Wind, which serves Thai and Vietnamese food to its lucky patrons in Windsor; and the Sha Tin, serving up quality Chinese takeaway in Heathmont. Lately, after a spate of particularly bad cooking, I thought of the latter; it felt like more than one meal originated in the Sha Tin kitchen.

I admit this only because three people who really should know better have told me recently that they think cooking for me is intimidating. So I'd like to share some home truths.

I started this blog partly because churning out countless meals day after day for largely ungrateful small children had robbed me of any joy in the act of cooking. I thought that writing about the good things we ate might help sustain me through the infuriating claim I hear most days: 'no like it'.

There are still many times when I am careless, misguided or just plain uninspired in the kitchen. Last week was particularly bad, like something out of a fairy tale. I suspect I offended an evil spirit, because everything I touched turned to sand.

One night, dinner was well underway. The kids were bickering and generally so annoying that I hid in the laundry with the laptop and checked my emails while dinner cooked. I was returned to earth by the smell of burning. I managed to salvage a third of the beans, which I served as 'smoky'; but all the vegies, even the mustard greens I had picked earlier from the garden, had to go to the great compost heap in the sky.

A day or two later, I bought 'cheap' bananas to make smoothies. We had some rice milk in the fridge, so I whizzed it up with the bananas, some cocoa and a little almond meal, and poured each child a lovely foaming cup. Each child took a great gulp... each angelic face contorted demonically, and each pair of legs hotfooted it to the bathroom where I heard a frenzy of spitting, gargling, and tooth brushing. And that is how I learned that rice milk doesn't last more than three days in the refrigerator, and when it goes off, it seems to smell fine. It just tastes absolutely mouth-searingly gut-wrenchingly disgusting.

I also served up mouldy hommus; chicory so bitter it turned my stomach; and rocks of undercooked beetroot. Even the meals that weren't unmitigated disasters were largely uninspired, consisting of, for the most part, what one friend calls 'adulterated beans'.

Yet there have been glimmers of hope. The other day I had potatoes and sweet red onions from a local farm in the pantry. So I decided on an easy meal: baked potatoes and caramelized onions, with salad and adulterated beans on the side.

I wanted the onions to be rich, so I cooked them in a good slosh of olive oil and flavoured them with cloves. The result was unctuous and deeply flavoured, a perfect match for the mealy potatoes.

How is it that something so absolutely simple can be so incredibly delicious?, I wondered – and it was so easy, even I didn't stuff it up.

And yet in the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that, in the long run, even this meal wasn't entirely successful. It may have been delicious; it may have been easy; it may have been economical, but eating a multitude of fried onions has some after effects: this is not the thing for date night. Rather, it's a meal to be enjoyed in the privacy of one's own home, without guests, and preferably when you're happy to leave a few windows open. While it's not Sha Tin, New Wind just about covers it.

Potatoes Stuffed with Clove Scented Onions

- 4 baking potatoes
- 4 large red onions
- ½ tsp ground cloves, or more to taste
- 4 tbs olive oil
- good salt

Heat the oven to 200°C. Scrub the potatoes, dry them and prick them with a fork. Place them directly onto the oven rack. Leave to bake for 1 to 1½ hours, or until the skins are papery and the insides perfectly cooked.

Halve the onions stem to stern, then slice them into half moons ½ cm wide.

Warm the oil in a wide heavy based skillet set over medium heat. Add the cloves, the onions, and a hefty pinch of salt and stir well to ensure the onions are evenly coated. Turn down the heat and leave them to cook for thirty minutes or so, until they are a dark golden brown. Do not let them dry out. You may need to shove them around with a wooden spoon from time to time to prevent them from sticking.

Serve piled into the baked potatoes, or tossed through pasta, draped over steak or anywhere else you can think of. A tangle of peppery rocket on the side is a nice complement.

(Local: potatoes, onions, olive oil. Not so local: cloves, salt.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Grilled Chicken with Lavender Herbs

Our across-the-road neighbour is good Wimmera stock. As a little girl, she rode five miles every morning with her siblings to the neighbour's house. He drove them another ten miles to meet the town taxi; and the taxi took them the last leg to school. In the afternoon they'd do it all in reverse. She tells the story with a twinkle and a grin; to her credit, she has never used it against me and my soft daughters when we grizzle about the walk to school.

As an adult, she trained as a midwife and spent years delivering babies under palm trees in the Middle East. After that, she came back to work as a nurse on the children's hospital helicopter ambulance. Nothing fazes her.

Now actively retired, she lives in urban Brunswick and loves it. But every now and then, even after so many years and adventures, the country girl peeps out.

The other night she was leaning against the doorjamb, gazing at our pet hens and reminiscing about the taste of roast chicken. 'It's been years,' she said, 'since I had a proper roast chicken. Let me know when one of them stops laying and I'll show you how to kill it properly.'

My daughters looked at her, eyes and mouths rounded in shock, as she went on to explain how to chop right through the neck and hold the body down until it had stopped twitching, how to gut and pluck it, and how to let it rest a day before roasting. 'There's nothing like it,' she said. 'Except maybe rabbit – have you ever thought of keeping rabbits in your front garden? They're easy to keep, good breeders of course, and absolutely delicious.'

I thought of her lush green lawn across the street, untouched by rabbits or chickens or any other livestock except the multitude of young children who come to visit, and thought to myself, You keep rabbits, then! – and I grinned as I reflected how my grumpier neighbours would respond if I turned the garden into a slaughterhouse. Tempting, yes.

As delicious as roast chicken and rabbit casserole may be, we rarely cook meat; and when we do, it's on the grill alongside slabs of marinated tofu for the vegetarians. A cast-iron grill is a fantastic piece of kitchen equipment and should be at the top of your Christmas list. There is a certain sort of man who buys fancy kitchen equipment for his wife to emphasise that she should continue to cook for him. Well, I turned that one on its head: I bought a grill for my husband's birthday several years ago. He loves the taste of grilled fish and sourdough, and it was a promise that I would make them at home for him – and so I have.

A grill is very easy to use. Heat it over a medium flame until it is evenly hot (sudden high heat can crack it). Brush your food with a little oil and pop it on. Don't fiddle, but leave the food to develop those no doubt carcinogenic char lines. If you fancy neat diagonals, rotate it 90° once and once only; any more, and you'll just have a brown mess. When the food looks halfway cooked, flip it and let it cook through. The time it takes will of course depend on the thickness and type of food and how hot you have set the burners under the grill – use your eyes, your nose and your brain.

Serve bruschetta or grilled cheese sandwiches as soon as they are cooked. Grilled vegetables are best tepid; and meat particularly benefits from a short rest so place it on a board, wipe down the grill with a paper towel or a more sustainable alternative, then serve.

Don't ever scrub the grill. The blackening seasons the metal and stops food from sticking. If you feel you absolutely must clean it – say, you cooked salmon on it then didn't wipe it down properly and you don't want your grilled cheese sandwich to taste of fish – wash the grill gently, not vigorously, in hot soapy water to remove the smell, replace it on the stove, warm it until it is absolutely dry, then rub it with a little oil before putting it away.

It may not be freshly slaughtered and roasted, but chicken on the grill is very good: tender, juicy and richly flavoured. It's one of our simple standbys when we have visitors. The easiest way is to marinate it with lemon juice, garlic, marjoram and olive oil, but I also love to herb it up.

The second marinade, with lavender, rosemary and lemon thyme, is spectacularly good. The lavender gives it a floral sweetness, the thyme provides an earthy base note, and the lemon zest sings. One bite of this is like a little party in your mouth: absolutely delicious.

Grilled Chicken with Lavender Herbs

- some boned chicken pieces. Thigh fillets are my preference as they are much thinner than the breast, so they absorb the marinade better; also, they are slightly and deliciously fattier. However, breast pieces grill well, look prettier and may be sliced very elegantly along the grain which makes it easy to serve small people who want only a sliver or two.

- olive oil - good salt

And either: - a squeeze of lemon juice

- a few cloves of garlic, bashed with the side of a knife and the papery bits flicked off

- a handful of fresh marjoram or thyme or whichever herb that takes your fancy, leaves picked and coarsely chopped

Or: - equal quantities of lavender blossoms, rosemary needles and thyme (lemon thyme for preference but any thyme is good), about 1 tablespoon of each

- the zest and juice of a lemon

- ¼ cup olive oil

- a good pinch of salt

If you are using the first marinade, just toss the ingredients in with the chicken pieces, cover and refrigerate.

If you are using the lavender herbs, chop the lavender, rosemary, thyme and lemon zest, then combine them with the salt, the olive oil, and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.

Remove a tablespoon of the marinade, squeeze in an extra tablespoon of lemon juice, and reserve. Toss the rest of the marinade with the chicken pieces and refrigerate for many hours. I usually put this together after breakfast, so it sits all day; the longer the meat marinates, the better it tastes.

Close to dinnertime, heat the grill. Place the chicken on the grill and cook for five minutes or so, then rotate it by 90°; chicken looks best with diagonals. Cook without fiddling again until the flesh has whitened halfway up the piece.

Flip the chicken and repeat the process until it's cooked, which can take up to 15 minutes. To check, slip a knife into the thickest part and ensure there is no sign of pink.

Place the meat on a board to rest while you wipe down the grill. Drizzle the reserved marinade – or some extra herbs – over the chicken, and serve. You might continue the floral theme and serve it alongside a blossom salad, sans tuna!

Adapted from a recipe by Jerry Traunfeld in The Herbal Kitchen.

(Local: olive oil, all the herbs, and occasionally even the chicken. Not so local: salt.)

The Herbal Kitchen