Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Smoked Trout, Orange and Quinoa Salad


Some Tuesdays, eating last night's leftovers with the floor crunchy underfoot, the washing nagging at me, and the four year old chatting, just won't cut it. You see, my partner looks after her for a few hours while I read with schoolkids, study and write. Lunch, then, is an early pit stop between volunteer work and Deep Thoughts – but our four year old wants to play with me. So some Tuesdays, as much as I love her, I stay out and have a bit of peace and quiet instead.

Sometimes I'll go downtown, grab sushi then head to the State Library – although it can be rather difficult to (a) find a desk and (b) read, since always one or two people are chatting and in the otherwise studious silence that lone conversation drives me crazy.

Other times I seek peace and quiet in the bustle of a coffee shop, and in the general din am able to eat, read and write. Just around the corner from our house is 'the red door place'. More properly known as l'atelier de Monsieur Truffe (351 Lygon Street, East Brunswick) it's a chocolate shop and café rolled into one. My partner will do anything for one of their hot chocolates; my kids will do anything for their toasted brioche served with grated chocolate and salt; and I think their salads are wonderful.

L'atelier recently had a smoked trout, orange and quinoa salad on the menu, and after inhaling it one lunch time I've been playing with the combination at home. I've made it bigger, simpler, and just the thing for a one-dish dinner on a warm night. The most fiddly aspect is collecting and cleaning the salad greens – and if you buy washed greens (gasp!), then it will be quicker still.

Most quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) comes from South America; however, some Tasmanian farmers are now growing it. Tasmania may not be quite local for Melbourne but it's pretty close, and quinoa is, they say, a superfood.

It's only a fairly recent addition to the domestic kitchen, as evidenced by a scene in Offspring. A character is trying a host of new things. She does yoga in the park; she tweets; she shoves a great forkful of quinoa into her mouth... then spits out the lot in a great disgusted puff across the room.* It's pretty much what I did the first time, too.

So a couple of notes. One, quinoa has a bitter coating on the surface of the grain, so it must be rinsed very well before cooking. Rinse, rinse, rinse, and only then put it into the pan to cook. You can cook it in a saucepan like rice; or even use a rice cooker if you don't want to pay it any mind.

Two, unlike rice quinoa doesn't taste inoffensively bland by itself; eaten plain, it is not delicious. So don't cook it and serve it in a great mound on the side of the plate. Quinoa should be eaten with other things. It absorbs flavours beautifully, so always serve it with a stew or in a salad with a good dressing.

As to why you'd serve a grain that requires rinsing and isn't delicious alone? Well, it's very high in protein, iron and magnesium; high in fibre; gluten free; and fun to look at. The grains puff into little spirals which I think are very cute! And it has a strength of flavour which goes well with a juicy melange, and can form the backbone of a substantial salad.

Between the quinoa and the smoked trout, this salad is certainly substantial. And why nasturtiums? The bright petals echo the orange segments and make it look like a party, so pretty that even my kids will eat it. They also give the salad a slight peppery tang. Nasturtiums are flowering all over Melbourne this month. If you don't have any in your garden, ask your neighbours or, better, go for a stroll along a creek. You'll find some soon enough and, if you're lucky, a little peace and quiet too.

Smoked Trout, Orange and Quinoa Salad

- 1 cup quinoa
- 1 smoked trout
- 2 oranges
- 1 small salad onion
- 4-6 cups loosely packed baby salad greens (I use a combination of rocket (arugula), baby mallow, baby rainbow chard and salad burnet; but you can make it with just lettuces if you wish.)
- 4-6 nasturtium flowers, if you have them
- a few stems of mint
- pinch of salt, pepper
- olive oil

First, prepare the quinoa. Rinse it very thoroughly in a fine sieve, drain it, then place it in a saucepan with 2 cups of water. Cover, bring to the boil, then turn down and simmer for 10 minutes or until it is cooked but still has a little bite. Remove the lid, fluff the quinoa with a fork, and allow it to cool a little while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Flake the trout. I find it easiest to use my fingers, but if you wish to be more refined, use two forks to gently pull the flesh from the bones.

Zest the oranges – easiest with a Microplane. Sorry for the product placement, but nothing else does the job half so well. Finely chop the salad onion, then fork it and the zest through the quinoa.

Juice one of the oranges. Combine the juice with two tablespoons of olive oil, a good pinch of salt, and pepper if you wish. Taste. If it requires more zing, add the juice of half of the remaining orange.

Remove the pith from what remains of that latter orange (a half or a whole, depending on how juicy the first orange was), then cut the flesh into little segments.

Pull the mint leaves from their stems, and tear into smaller pieces. Gently pull the nasturtium petals from the base. Either use them whole, or slice them into ribbons using a very sharp knife. Keep one or two flowers for garnish.

Tip the quinoa mixture into a large salad bowl. Drizzle with half the dressing, and mix and toss with a fork to combine. Now add everything else bar the whole nasturtiums. Using your hands, lightly mix and toss the salad until all is thoroughly combined. Lick your fingers, wash your hands, then garnish the salad with the nasturtium flowers and serve.

(*Thanks to Chris who told me about this scene, and tested the salad first.)

(Backyard: salad leaves, salad onion, nasturtium flowers, mint. Yarra Valley: smoked trout. From the local food box: oranges. Grampians: olive oil. Northern Victoria: salt. Interstate (Tasmania): quinoa.)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Simple Orange Cake


Fridays mornings are ‘time off’. My four year old is at kinder for three! whole! hours!, and I, in theory, write – but life usually intervenes. Last week I spent the time doing laundry; working my way through a backlog of mail, bills and paperwork; washing the dishes; admiring the crab apple tree just about to bloom; and baking a couple of cakes, muttering all the while.

Kinder fetes, school afternoon teas: when will they learn that modern families rarely bake? A friend of mine told me that her brother-in-law always bought cakes or biccies from the supermarket to give to the school cake stalls. Late at night, he’d unwrap them and carefully arrange them on the plastic plate. Then, labelling laws being what they are even for a community cake stall, he’d painstakingly write out all the ingredients including the food additives thus: ‘flour, sugar, cocoa, vegetable oil, emulsifier 471, preservative 282’. Not the sort of thing I’d be falling over myself to buy, I must say!

Then again, I’ve talked to other parents who recommend particular brands of cookies as having no artificial additives; thus, when copied out on the cake stall label, they appear homemade and perfectly pure. Oh, the illusions we live by.

I haven’t quite come to that; I still bake, if with a sigh. And with the glut of oranges at winter’s end, I made the easiest orange cake recipe I know, Stephanie Alexander’s Afternoon Tea Orange Cake. I need to substitute gluten free flour for the wheat flour; I always add a pinch of salt to my cakes; and I cook it in a loaf pan. Otherwise, I follow her recipe. It’s just the thing for early spring, when the fruit bowl is full of oranges and the view out the window is of blossom.

Simple Orange Cake

- 1 orange
- 2 eggs
- 125g softened unsalted butter
- ¼ cup caster sugar
- 225g self raising flour(real or gluten free)
- pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 190°C. Line a loaf tin with baking paper.

Zest then juice the orange. Place all ingredients into a food processor and whizz until thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 40 minutes or until a cake tester comes out with a few minuscule crumbs attached.

Let cool for five to ten minutes in the tin, then remove to a cake rack to cool completely - although it is absolutely superb served warm!

Alexander recommends an orange icing, but it’s not something I can be bothered with, myself. If you want the recipe for that, buy the book; it’s the modern Australian kitchen bible.

(Backyard: eggs. Local: oranges. Victoria: butter, salt. Queensland: sugar. General supermarket mystery: GF flour.

The Cook's Companion [2004 Ed.]

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bracken Fiddleheads with Butter and Truffle Salt

Life was a little dull, and I wanted a thrill. So I went to a friend’s country block to pick young bracken, a food I have never sampled and have read about only on the internet. As you can see, I get my thrills quite easily these days.

The day was magnificent. We sat at the top of the hill and watched the weather sweep in hour after hour: sun, rain, hail, sleet, wet snow, dry powder – we got the lot. Great bands of clouds rushed across the sky; snow fell through a rainbow; and every form of precipitation dumped down on us.

Between showers, we picked juvenile bracken. We chose firm fresh looking stems, some still bent like a horseshoe, others upright but not yet unfurled. And when the next bout of weather swept in, we dashed back to the partial shelter of the tumbledown shack, warmed our tootsies by the roaring fire, and admired the show through the broken windows.

A day or so later, in a house with a complete roof and intact glazing, I prepared the bracken. I was slightly nervous, as bracken contains a known carcinogen; then again, so does red meat. So I washed it, blanched it, dumped it in an ice bath, soaked it, sautéd it, and served it up with a hint of truffles, as instructed. And then I discovered that none of us like it much. It was strong, nutty, but really not that great. Unusually for our family, we didn’t even finish the plateful. Meh.

As we have never eaten bracken before, I have no idea where the problem lies. Is Australian bracken unsavoury? Did I cook it badly? Or do we, quite simply, not like bracken? One day, I will travel overseas and sample bracken abroad. Until then, I will ponder these mysteries, and get my thrills via the weather instead.

If you want to try bracken yourself, click here. The link has a balanced discussion regarding bracken’s carcinogenic properties, and describes how to prepare it to minimise them. I followed the instructions and recipe in the link, but in place of truffle butter I used unsalted butter and truffle salt (a birthday present). I didn’t like it much, but perhaps you’ll fare better. If you have tried Australian bracken, please let me know how you cooked it, and what you think!