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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

To My Valued American Readers

It has been brought to my attention that there are some very worrying things going on in the USA as regards the production of organic produce and small scale farming.

Please go and read this post by Moose, which is a brief sum up of the law being pushed through the US legislature right now which will basically destroy the rights of anyone who wants to grow their own food, AT ALL.

This is serious stuff, and being rammed through without any publicity or consultation. Moose has some good links, please have a read and take action to spread the word.

Come on Obama, how can you let this happen?

Don't let Monsanto bully you all into their machine. Every person has a right to grow food for themselves, and the fines of $1,000,000 per offence per day for growing food without pesticides or fertilizers is just insane.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

How to make a Bug out of a Cake

Our son is 2, and he loves bugs. For his 2nd Birthday, Dessert Chef decided to make him a bug cake.

I'll point out once again that anything which is essentially a pudding, even if it's masquerading as a Southeast Asian delicacy, is not my cup of tea. But the effort that went into this work of art and the awesome final result both deserve mention.

Full credit to the girl who doesn't even like bugs getting up close and personal with this one.

Bug Cake
Bake two chocolate cakes, one smaller than the other. (Don't look to me for a cake recipe, mind you.)
Ice one with vanilla icing, the other with chocolate icing with a touch of black food colouring.
Get creative with the sweets jar to give our friend a grin that little kids won't run away from.
Spend a long while getting intimate with a piping bag full of, alternately, green and black icing, until you have a deceptively furry spider.
A for Affort, Dessert Chef!
A few bits of licorice for legs and some marshmallows for feet, plus a menagerie of followers, and you have one cake disguised as a cuddly insectoid beasty.

I think it might be the only insect I've ever eaten and enjoyed. It sure was tasty.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Who needs Twitter?

When I first started investigating what this Twitter thing was all about, I deduced that the 'Serious' users took umbrage with the 'Frivolous' users, whom they accused of wasting precious bandwidth by posting worthless junk like "Hey Look I'm having a bagel for breakfast", and "On the Tube, with a coffee and a danish".

Far better, the Serious users would argue, that Twitter be used for Useful Things, like the [Insert Product or Service Here] that the Serious user is peddling.

Truth be told, I still haven't quite figured Twitter out. I don't know how to follow #streams yet, and I seem to have a lot of people following me who just want to sell me stuff. So I ignore them.

Am I a Serious Twitter user? I use Twitter as an additional tool to keep an ear to the ground in the publishing world mainly, but it's so full of noise that it's hard to know what you're hearing that's worthwhile and what's not. Twitter is, for me, a mild diversion at the very most. I'm sure there's some real value to it, but I haven't had to the time to really get to grips with it yet.

I do, however, pop links to Freshly Ground up there from time to time. I haven't yet posted what I had for breakfast on Twitter, but there's a first time for everything.

Even though this is a scheduled post, when I get back online I'll be sure to let all my 30-odd followers know that if they'd like a look at what a Fantasy writer cum-Weekend Chef eats for breakfast on a Sunday, they can get a glimpse, in full living colour, with the simple click of a mouse.

So when it comes to posting on Twitter about what you had for breakfast, who needs it? That's what I've got a blog for!

French Toast with Bacon and Maple Syrup

(Serves 3, or 2 if you're slow)

Start with 3 large free range eggs.
In a large bowl, mix up the eggs with 3T Milk, and season with freshly ground pepper and salt.
Add a little grate of fresh nutmeg. (Ah, freshly grated nutmeg. How you brighten my days and warm my nights.)
Start frying up some bacon in a hot pan, preferably greased with the bacon rind.
Soak a piece of bread in the egg mixture while a slab of butter sizzles in a nearby pan. I have two pans on the go at a time like this; there's no point letting it get cold. Fry each piece of French Toast for about 3-4 minutes a side, until brown and crispy and cooked through.
Dish up with crispy fried bacon and maple syrup, with a pot of fresh coffee near at hand. Best eaten with the sun pouring in on the kitchen table, or rain running down the window while you're cozy inside.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Gnocchi, Gnocchi, Gnocchi on Heaven's Door

Yes, the sad puns don't get much sadder than that. However, you get the point.

Every culture has its own version of dumplings. The English have lovely glutinous globs of flour and butter, in China they wrap up pork in dumpling dough and steam them, and in Italy they make them out of potato and call them Gnocchi.

My sister asked me specially to have a go at gnocchi, because she's had some really good ones, and some really bad ones. Generally speaking, the bad ones have come from the supermarket in sealed plastic bags, and the good ones have been homemade or catered.
My own experiences of gnocchi have been, unfortunately, a combination: Mass produced gnocchi supplied as part of a catered meal, and I've never been impressed. So this time I did some research.

Eventually I settled on this recipe (scroll down a little to reach the recipe), give or take a few tricks and techniques and ingredients I noticed along the way. The key thing I found, and what I think distinguishes the rubbery shop bought stuff from the elusive light and delicious homemade type, is the handling. It's very important not to overwork the dough, as the air you create by grating the potato is what gives the gnocchi their lightness. I assume that commercial attempts at this are all done by soulless machines that crush the life out of the potato long before it ever gets as far as your mouth, thus the disparity of experiences as reported above.

I set out to remedy this cosmic injustice.

I just wish someone had told me how long it was going to take to do so.

Making good gnocchi took a long time. For the most part, I put this down to my not having a clue what I was doing, and I'd say that I could easily trim up the time and effort required with a bit of practice and the application of some cooking nouse, now that I've done it once.

But seriously, this is a dish for a rainy Sunday afternoon. Delicious, but labour intensive. My verdict: eating-wise, these were really well worth the time, but if I'd had anything else that had needed doing, it would have just become plain old hash browns.

Fresh Potato Gnocchi with Tuna Sauce (Serves 3)

Gnocchi Ingredients:
500g New Potatoes
75g Strong (Hi-Grade) Flour
25g Fresh Grated Parmesan
1 Small Egg, Beaten
Freshly Ground Pepper, Salt and Nutmeg, season to taste

Method (Direct from the Otago Daily Times, Wed 20th August 2008)Wash and boil the potatoes with the skins on until just cooked.

Drain and peel with a paring knife while still hot. (If the potatoes are not hot when peeled they can become gluey when mashed.) Mash or pass potatoes through a mouli, make a well in the centre and season.

Add egg, Parmesan and flour and mix together as you would scone dough.

It is important not to overwork the mixture.

Divide dough in half and roll out, on a floured surface, into two 2cm-thick lengths.

Cut through dough on the angle using a sharp knife or dough scraper.

For a clean cut, sprinkle a little flour over the dough before cutting.

Gently place gnocchi onto a tray and blanch in a large pot of salted boiling water.

The gnocchi will sink but rise to the surface when almost cooked.

Cook for one more minute and remove with a slotted spoon.

Chill in iced water, drain and toss in olive oil to prevent them sticking together.

Place gnocchi into a hot ovenproof non-stick pan with one tablespoon of olive oil.

Avoid stirring the gnocchi in the pan as you can damage the crust.

When a good colour is achieved, turn gnocchi over and place into a 180degC oven for 4-5min.

The Tuna Sauce, in comparison, is really really quick:

Tuna Sauce (Serves 3)

1 Onion, Chopped fine
1 Large Fresh Tomato, Chopped
2T Worcester Sauce
Freshly Ground Salt And Pepper
1/8 Cup of Tomato Paste
2t Sugar
100g Tin of Sandwich Tuna
2T Sour Cream

Fry the onion and tomato in a small pan with the Worcester and seasonings. When the onion has softened, add the tomato paste and sugar, then the tuna.

Mix well, bring to a steady heat and then simmer until heated through. Shortly before serving, stir Sour Cream through, then remove from the heat.

Dish up on a plate with the hot gnocchi.
Serve with salad, and more sour cream. And after all that work, you better make sure that everyone who's sharing these with you really enjoys them.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Curry Odyssey Episode 4: Lamb Korma

Freshly Ground will be operating in Auto-Publish Mode for the next two weeks or so, as we will be away in the blue yonder, many miles from cellphone coverage and internet access. Please feel free to leave comments, but don't be offended if they don't turn up here until April.

Have a good couple of weeks. I hope you find the stuff I have lined up as appetising as I did cooking and eating it.

A Curry Odyssey - Episode 4

When I set out looking for recipes for the next stage in my Great Curry Odyssey, I was completely blown away by the sheer volume and variety of different korma recipes out there. It seems that 'korma' is really just a vague, generic term for a type of curry that has a nutty base with some tomato paste thrown in for good measure, and which, in more northern areas of the subcontinent, utilises saffron, while this is substituted for turmeric further south.

More than this, I cannot tell you.

So, in my quest for the ultimate mash-up, which I hoped would turn out like the kormas I have enjoyed in the past, and not like those which I have not enjoyed, I engaged in a very practical bit of culinary engineering to create the recipe below.

It went basically like this: Of all the ingredients I've read in all the dozens of recipes I've googled, how many of these do I actually have on hand?

Based on that, and the lovely lamb I had picked up at the market that very morning, I dived into my first ever attempt at an authentic, ground-up korma curry. I also made raita and roti bread, and even my own tomato paste, all of which I'll also cover in future installments of the Great Curry Odyssey. It was a busy kitchen that Saturday afternoon.

(Yes, other men watch sport. I cook. Get over it.)

The results: I wouldn't be overstating it to say that this recipe came out this side of superb, what with it being a first try and all that. I think that with a bit more practice I could probably pare back the prep times and wotnot, but the results were well worth the effort. You can't get a meal with this sort of depth and texture by dumping a few spoonfuls of curry powder in a pot and leaving it on the stove for an hour, that's for sure.

Lamb Korma

(Serves 4)


For the Cashew Sauce:
2 Cloves of Garlic
1t Fresh Crushed Ginger
1/8C unsalted Cashews
1 dried chilli, chopped (more or less according to your taste for fire)
2/3C Water
Pulverise all of the above together to make a paste and set aside.

For the Masala:
1/2 Cinnamon Quill
1/2t Coriander Seeds
1 Whole Green Cardamon Pod
2 Cloves
1t Olive Oil/Rice Bran Oil
Pulverise all of the above together and set aside.

For the rest:
400g Fresh Diced Lamb (Stewing)
1 Onion, chopped
25g Butter
1/3C Plain Yoghurt
1T Tomato Paste (I used the paste I had made that very same day! Watch this space.)
Fry the onion in the butter in a large pan. As the onion starts to soften, add the Masala of spices and mix thoroughly.Add the yoghurt and tomato paste and turn the heat down.
In a second, smaller pan, brown the meat in batches over a high heat. Remove the meat as it becomes seared all over, and when all the meat is done, return it all to the small pan and add the onion mixture.
Finally add the cashew sauce in stages, adding a bit and allowing the mixture to reduce before adding more. This should be about 1/4C at a time.
Simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until reduced to a lovely, sticky consistency with delicious tender chunks of meat - probably about 2 1/2 hours.
Serve with the fresh raita you just pulled out of the fridge, and the rotis that you just pulled from the frying pan. If you really feel the urge, you can do something resembling a vegetable or two to go with this, but after all that work, you probably just want to sit down and enjoy a lovely spicy curry with hot roti bread and cold, minty raita. I know that's all we did.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Harvest Season

There's been a lot of talk lately about how this summer never really happened, and to some extent this is just a bit of dissatisfied moaning, because as summers go, it might not have been great, but nor was it awful.

The general lack of ambient sunshine and the omnipresence of the wind did, however, have a marginally detrimental effect on the tomatoes we were so carefully nurturing on the front porch. In short, the tomatoes decided not to ripen.

Thankfully, Gramps and Gran from Wanganui came to the rescue with the solution: Pick the tomatoes as they get big enough, and then place them on a plate on a windowsill, put a ripe tomato or two in with them, and cover them in paper.
This was working pretty well, until a very small and "helpful" pair of hands decided he would pick a few more for us; as many as he could get his hands on, to be accurate.
So now we also have a few tomatoes ripening up that we might just have to call "cherry" tomatoes, even though they're meant to be beefsteak or somesuch.
The results, however, speak for themselves.
And like I've always said, homegrown just tastes so much better.

I also currently have five pumpkins growing out back, along with rhubarb, potatoes, and lettuces (the latter thanks to The Boss - Cheers, Boss!).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

There's Something Fishy in my Burger

Anyone for a nip?

I got my woolly hat out of the drawer before I left the house this morning. I got my warm coat out of the wardrobe before going outside tonight to sort out the rubbish and the recycling. While I did this, Dessert Chef was lighting the fire. Then we put fresh sheets on the bed, after we replaced the electric blanket that has been off since about November.

So there's definitely enough nip to go around.

Yes, the southerly blast that's wrapping up the country has reminded us what living in Wellington in the winter is all about, and it's only March.

So as we wave goodbye to Summer and look forward to Autumn, the best I can do is look back at all that yummy summery food that I haven't quite got as far as posting yet, and sigh.

In the third installment of my four-part Burgers What I've Made series (didn't realise it was a series? Nor did I until just now), may I present in picture form (because who really needs a recipe for making burgers?) Fish Burger with Sliced Avocado and Capsicum:

LinkThe other Burgers in this esteemed collection:
Bacon and Egg
Ultimate Beef

Still to come:
Lamb Steak Burgers

(Is your mouth already watering?)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Ultimate Home-Made Beef Burgers

Things seem to have been a bit slow around here lately, and if you suspected that was because I had been abducted by aliens, you'd be wrong. *Phew!*

I've had my hands pretty full over the past few weeks, particularly with prepping and shooting another two days of The Winding City (which I've previously posted about here). We shot over the last two Sundays, and that doesn't leave much time on the weekend for the important stuff like hanging out with the family or posting to my blog.

I've also been making more of an effort to spend time writing fiction, which has meant that I haven't been allocating so much time to Freshly Ground. But the camera keeps coming out in both our kitchen and in the kitchens of unsuspecting friends and relatives. I have PILES of photos and recipes to get through, so hang in there.

We're also going to be away for a couple of weeks very soon, but I'll future-post a few items to cover that time, just for you.

Moving right along, we often have the discussion that it's just not worth buying takeout burgers because even the Big Guys (Like BK, McDs, and even Burger Fuel) can't make as good a burger as the ones we make at home. Then we sometimes have the discussion that even though we make great burgers at home, occasionally we don't have three hours to bake bread and half an hour to make fresh meat patties, fry them and grill them. But when we do, Oh Boy!!

World's Best Homemade Burgers

Firstly, put on some bread dough, using the same failsafe recipe that I use for my pizza bases and loaves of bread (it looks like I might've added some dried herbs to these ones too). Shape these into buns about half the size of your fist, set to rise for an hour and bake at 200C for 18 minutes.
For the patties, mix up the following:
200g Beef Mince
Freshly Ground Salt and Pepper
1 Large Free Range Egg
1 T Worcester Sauce
1/2 t Paprika
1/2 t Dried Mixed Herbs
1 t Mustard Powder
2 T Potato Starch
(To make these Gluten Free, just leave out the Worcester Sauce)

Shape into patties using a couple of spoons drenched in flour, and lay on a floured plate until you're ready to start cooking (for Gluten Free, use a GF baking mix for this step).
Fry the patties for about 10 mins on each side in hot rice bran oil, with a chopped onion cooking around the sides of the pan.

Place a slice of cheese on top of each patty for the last 8 mins of cooking, to melt.
Slice the buns, butter and dress with mayonnaise, sauce, relish, sour cream, aioli, or whatever you prefer, and layer in lettuce, tomato slices, a beef patty, cucumber slices, and beetroot. And when you're done with that lot, ask yourself why you would ever want a Big Mac again.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Crockpot Honey Soy Chicken

This is so easy and delicious, it's not even a recipe. It's just yum.

Take a whole chicken, and marinade for a few hours in 1/4C soy sauce, 3T honey, and 4 chopped cloves of garlic.
Place in the crockpot and cook on low for 5 hours.
It comes out with sweet crispy skin and succulent white meat. Serve with potato salad and fresh garden salad.
Save the breast meat and make into a chicken salad the next day, with croutons and fresh mint. Mmmmm.

Any guesses how summery it was in the week before Christmas, when I cooked and photographed this?

Yeah, pretty summery.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Podcast Review: Phil Rossi's "Crescent"

Phil Rossi's Crescent is the second full-length podcast I've listened to, after the brilliant Hoad's Grim, which I'm still listening to as the episodes come down.

The quick review: Crescent was an enjoyable "read", keeping in mind that it is intended for a mature audience. It told a pacy and chilling tale of terror in deep space, carefully balancing horror with action. The characters were generally well-rounded and portrayed with a deft hand, and there are moments where the writing really shines. If you have the time to listen to the thirty-odd half-hour segments, and you can handle a bit of audio scare, then do yourself a favour and start downloading Crescent. It's free, BTW.

I've been playing them through my car radio on the way to work and home again. It's a great way to kill the commute.

In recent news regarding Crescent, it has apparently been picked up as both a book and a movie, which is fantastic news for the author, and further proof of how it can be really worthwhile to use the internet to build an audience by putting a product out there for free. I remember thinking to myself as I was listening how it might adapt well as a screenplay, so I wasn't actually surprised to hear this development.

Now, the longer review. Yes, I liked Crescent and I listened all the way to the end. I won't toss in any spoilers here, but I will just make mention of a few things I wasn't impressed by.

Admittedly, being hooked on Hoad's Grim - which is absolutely stunning as far as the story, writing, voice talent and audio production go - puts Crescent on a back foot from the word go. The Crescent podcast series utilises music from just one song throughout it's entire length, and this gets a bit repetitive. But it's a good song, so that's not a complaint. It's just that a bit of variety might have been better.

My main niggle with Crescent was that the author, Phil Rossi, made a decision to voice all the characters himself. OK, stop me please if this is common practice for podcasting and audiobooks, but I found it a bit frustrating. Particularly the women's voices all tended to sound the same. Like I've said, the vocal talent on Hoad's Grim leaves you in no doubt whatsoever who is talking at any point in time. I think that it might have been to the author's advantage to have drafted in some other voices for this job, just for the sake of clarity. However, this didn't make the story un-followable, it just made it obscure in places.

It was nice to hear, in the Notes from the Vault, which are a series of short fiction pieces written by the same author, that he did indeed bring in some other voice talent from time to time during their production. The Notes deserve a review too, but it won't be tonight.

As a writer, I felt that in places Rossi might have profited from having a keen editorial hand run over his work. There were occasional pieces of clunky dialogue and prose, and sections of writing which I can imagine working well on the page but which didn't translate to the soundwave very well. Still, this was a free work, a work of passion, and Rossi's writing seems to get better the more I listen to it, so that's a good sign.

I'm now listening to Eden (mp3 promo link), and I have yet to make a judgment. So far, it seems to be about a ... hmmm ... haunted space station ... with ... wait for it ...

No, no spoilers. Suffice to say that I'll be downloading the new chapter very shortly.

My last word on Crescent, after all that good stuff, is sadly one of just the mildest disappointment, not in the work itself, but in an epilogue that was released some time after the final chapter. Crescent ended with a hint of irresolution - of the temerity of the immortal, and the infinite hunger of the unknown, leaving the reader only with the comfort of knowing that our lead characters, whom we have grown to care for, will at least be free and clear of the horrors they have faced, even if those horrors do live on somehow. Then the epilogue unwound this comfort, which replaced that feeling of catharsis with one of frustration, as if we were suddenly back in the middle of a story that had yet to be told.

As underhanded openings to sequels go, this one really kicked sand in the listener's ears. I would rather not have listened to the epilogue. So if you decide to give Crescent the time it's worth, my one piece of advice is this: Don't download the Epilogue. It's a spoiler all of its own.

Apart from all that: 3 1/2 Stars from me.