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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Olive(r) Stew

I've made noises here about celebrity chefs before, and a little while ago I posted a meal I cooked out of a Gordon Ramsay Cookbook that I picked up at the Food Show.

Now, the guys at Kamikaze Cookery (Link junkies: Language may offend. You've been warned) have taken it upon themselves to expose the glaring discrepancies between what most people are capable of cooking compared with what the Ramsays and Olivers of the world think we can manage, so I won't try to outdo them on that count.

Instead, I thought it worthwhile documenting my own attempt to pull off a recipe for Peposo - famous hunter's peppery beef stew - out of Jamie Oliver's book, Jamie's Italy. I like to think of myself as a slightly more accomplished home gourmandiser than the average kiwi bloke, so I was not daunted by the challenge.

Perhaps I should've been.

Admittedly I was trying to cook about 600g of beef rather than the 2.5kg in the recipe (I mean, who really cooks 2.5kg of stewing steak at a time? There are only 2 1/2 of us, after all!), and I was using normal stewing steak rather than beef shin on the bone, but you work with what you've got, right? I made the effort to use real french red wine, at least. And anyway, the first thing you do according to the recipe is take the meat off the bone, so why not just use deboned meat to start with?
Simple enough. Meat, onions, rosemary, garlic, bay leaves, salt and pepper.
Layer it all up in an oven dish and cover in wine, topping with water to cover the meat if necessary. Then bring to a boil and place in the oven at 150c for 6 hours. Yes, I did all this. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it?
Then at the bottom of the recipe (not at the top, not at the "when you're layering the dish" part) it says to skim off the fat and remove the bone. Aah. I see. So the bone was meant to go in? That bone I don't have? Right. Well, I didn't. Not only that but my dish didn't have any fat to skim off. It had virtually no moisture at all. Apparently it should have.
Yes, this was quite intensely flavoured as Jamie promised, and the meat was falling apart, if a little over-dry. I wonder if I had a small army to feed rather than my modest family, and I had cooked this in the five-fold quantity suggested by JO if this might have come out better. I can only guess so.

I dished it up on buttered slabs of fresh bread (also Jamie's recipe from his first book - I tried it once and have made it that way ever since), and we agreed that it was good that we had some nice bread for dinner.

So it's worrying that if even I, with my extraordinary powers of making stuff up on the fly and trusting my instincts to salvage the various disasters that arise from my untutored approach to cooking, can be derailed by a Jamie Oliver recipe that seems so straightforward, then how much paper is being wasted in this world in the printing of celebrity chef recipe books that people will simply never use? Or if they do, they'll be disappointed, and thus the book will sit on the shelf forever gathering dust?

I make an effort to make something from one of my many cookbooks every month or so, trying to learn new things and bring a dash of variety to our meals. But if the people who sell the most cookbooks on the planet - I'm looking at you, Jamie, Gordon and Nigella - can't come to terms with what average folk are really looking for in a recipe and capable of achieving in the kitchen, then I worry that even more innocent trees will die as a result.

Please, celebrity chefs. Take a moment to consider the trees. Then pull your heads our of your @rses and give us recipes that we can cook, damn it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mmmm Lamb...

Blogging both here and at The Podagogue has been a bit light this week, mainly on account of my having launched into writing my third novel. The first few chapters are surging around in my head, so I must get them down before either I go mad or they morph into something too warped and untouchable even for me to lock down in words.

However, for a moment I shall hide in the safety of foody goodness.

It's been a while since I last posted about lamb. I am a big fan of lamb, as you are all well aware.

Therefore, I'll keep this brief. Think of it as more of an indulgence than an education.
Lamb chops, herbs, freshly ground pepper and salt, fresh chopped garlic, olive oil.
Fry until lovely and brown over a high heat.
Grate with Parmesan cheese and grill (broil, my lovely North American readers).

Stick with me. A blog post of some substance will be forthcoming, I promise. In the meantime, imagine the smell of cooking lamb chops. That should fix what ails ye.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Mushroom and Sausage Soup

What do you do when your sister brings you a big bag full of delicious field mushrooms that only you will eat? And much as you would love to just fry them up with bacon and eat them, you're busy cooking sausages for dinner already?

You make soup.
Chop up the mushrooms, and take some photos, pondering the odd nature of these particular mushrooms that seem to be slightly out-of-focus in the real world (couldn't possibly be the camera, much less the photographer...).
Since you're already cooking up sausages, simply keep the oily pan, add some butter and the chopped mushrooms, and simmer away while you're eating the afore-mentioned sausages, keeping one aside. There was also a certain amount of fried onion in the sausage pan, which we will just take as a given.
Chop up that lone spare sausage.
Add 2 Cups of light chicken stock to the mushrooms and bring to a rapid simmer, then add a 1/4 cup of cream.
Take a stick blender or pour the soup into a blender. Pulse it a few times so that you're left with some yummy chunky bits. Then mix the sausage through.

Sadly, this is the best "Final Result" photo I have, since I then took both servings to work for lunch, where there is no camera. *sigh*

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Make Mine a YES

It's been a long time since I waded into politics, and although I've felt pretty uptight about a lot of what has been going on in this country since the election, I've kept my mouth shut.

But occasionally something comes up that fills me with enough gripe that I have to speak up. And this isn't even so much about ideology or politics, as it is about deconstructing a haze of misinformation perpetrated by Larry Baldock in the form of the NZ Referendum on Child Discipline 2009.

Far more qualified and literate authorities have spoken at length on this subject in the media, but I still feel that the whole argument is being lost in the flood of rhetoric, leaving average folk still wondering what the he!! it's all about.

The question itself, which directly relates to the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act - a change which removed the defence of "reasonable force" as an excuse for adults to abuse their children in the name of discipline - is deliberately misleading and unnecessarily emotive.

"Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

It sounds innocuous enough, and the immediate response that most people will have to this question is "No."

What a response of "No" means, however, is that it will not be illegal to abuse one's children, quite simply put.

What signal does this send to our children? That it's OK to use violence as a means of coercion if you're bigger than someone else, or if you hold a position of responsibility over them?

That because generations before us have used violence as a means of discipline that it's OK for us to, as well?

By answering "Yes" in this misguided referendum, we can send a message that the cycle of violence has to end. We can stand up and say that violence is not the way to deal with our problems, be they small or large, especially not against our little ones.

We can tell the government that we want to maintain a law that protects our most vulnerable from our most violent. And how can you possibly say "No" to that?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Blue Chicken

OR: Cooking for the Morgue.

So you'd think that if I had a reputation to maintain I would take some steps to protect it, wouldn't you? You'd think that if New Zealand's No. 51 Blogger was coming to dinner, I'd be at pains to research the best recipe I could and to make sure it was all as good as it could be, wouldn't you?

I say: Nah. Although I had a concept in mind, I didn't actually make up my mind about what I was going to cook for Morgue and StrongerLight until I went into the kitchen and, to be quite honest, happened to open up the fridge looking for a spark of inspiration.

What I saw instead was not something expensive or gourmet or haute cuisine: It was two packets of Blue Cheese, bang on their Best Before dates, and reduced from $4.70 each to 0.50c each, which Dessert Chef had spotted and bought a few days earlier. But hey, it's Blue Cheese. What's it going to do, go mouldy?

I had my inspiration. I will keep this brief:
Take your deliciously ripe Blue Cheese and slice it into thin, flat pieces. Dispose of annoying crumbly bits in your nearest mouth.
Slide the cheese under the skin of 4-5 large chicken legs. Wrap whole rashers of bacon around the chicken, fixing in place with skewers, and place on a bed of sliced leek, halved cherry tomatoes, cubed pre-cooked potato and kumera, and sliced mushrooms. Season and drizzle with a viniagrette mixture.
Bake at 200C for 1 1/2 hrs. Cook up a pot of jasmine rice, and reserve the starchy water when you drain it.

Remove the chicken from the roasting tray, placing onto your plates with the rice and steamed veges. Drain the juices from the pan into a bowl. Scoop off the bulk of the fat (there will be HEAPS due to the melting of the cheese) and return to the roasting tray. Add the starchy water from the rice as a thickener and mash up the veges there to make a thick and chunky gravy, while you heat it over an element. And guess what? That gravy is completely Gluten-Free.

OK, it was a bit more like a soup than a gravy, but with a little bit of stock and some more time on the stove, it would have been much more like the gravy we know and love. As it was, it was delicious regardless. And not to be outdone, Morgue and StrongerLight brought the dessert. What a grand way to top off a fabulous night.

Thanks, guys. Let's do it again sometime soon.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book Review: 'Vacation' by Jeremy C. Shipp

Full Review Available at The Podagogue by clicking here.

"At turns surreal and frighteningly real, Vacation challenges the reader to deny that they are in fact living through the same drug-addled haze that Bernard Johnson has been until the time he goes on his own Vacation. Utopia disintegrates into dystopia, and Johnson is thrust into a dark world where life is worthless, minds become the puppets of guerrilla warlords, and the grand illusion of the world he knew is ground to dust."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Quarantine That Bacon Over HERE!

So the much-dreaded Swine Flu is officially here n NZ, and it's officially a Level 5 Pandemic worldwide.

It seems that either nature has caught up with us, or us meddling with nature has caught up with us.

There is, however, one tragic misconception associated with the Dreaded Swine Flu: that the Swine Flu came from pigs. This awful failure of understanding has seen pigs across the world slaughtered, in much the same way that birds across Asia and Europe were murdered during the Avian Flu scare a couple of years ago.

This is crazy. For starters, there is still no evidence to suggest that this strain of flu, which is similar to but not identical to a strain of flu which affects pigs, is in any way actually related to pigs, or that it any way jumped from pigs to humans. However, the panic buttons were slammed home, and scared people - particularly in poorer countries - put thousands of animals to the knife, ruining businesses and leaving people starving. Who needs a Pandemic when we have man-made famine?

You cannot get Swine Flu by eating bacon. And if a pig sneezes, you will not get Swine Flu. OK, I'm not a scientist or a veterinarian, but I'm pretty sure from everything I've read on the subject that these two positions are verifiable fact.

It is only the fact that we are so ready to mess with nature that even allows the spectre of this fear to rule our perceptions and thus, our actions. On the basis of a purely imaginary fear, thousands of pigs were killed for no good reason. Where on earth will we be when biotech and genetic engineering do actually tip the scales of science against nature's delicate balance, and a real plague is unleashed? We'll all be wishing we had done more to support our organic farmers, that's where.

On that note, I want to prove a point: I ate bacon. I didn't get Swine Flu. Sweet, bro.

For a couple of weeks there, Bulls Bacon had a stall at the Hutt Riverbank Market. I was savvy enough to swipe up some of their wares, locally raised and prepared free-range organic bacon, with nothing added. No Swine Flu here.

I've written more than once about what I think of free-range, organic meat. Bring it on, I say.

Bulls Bacon was no exception.
Most commercially produced bacon is pumped full of water and nitrites to preserve it, and to give it some flavour. This is especially true of most stall-bred pork, which has very little flavour of its own anyway.

Of course, a lot of the bacon we eat here actually comes from China, so we have very little way of knowing how it has been raised or prepared before it reaches us, and that, to me, is more of a worry than Swine Flu. Conversely, this bacon was the real deal, 100% meat. And the difference was obvious immediately.
Put this stuff in a frying pan, and the pan doesn't suddenly fill up with water, bubbling and hissing away as the chemicals are forced from the meat, causing your breakfast to boil. Rather, it actually fries. Seems to fit with the concept of the FRYING PAN.
Just look at that. My mouth is watering again just looking at it.
The taste was stronger than normal bacon, a bit smoky, slightly gamey, and it had a tougher texture due to the thicker cut of the rashers. Overall the Bulls Bacon was by far a superior product to anything other than Freedom Farms Bacon that you can get from the supermarket, and worth paying a little more for.

Unfortunately, I haven't seen them back for a couple of weeks now. I'm hoping that their pigs didn't start sneezing.

(Disclaimer: As usual, I have nothing to gain by promoting what I see as responsible farming practices. I just think it matters.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Ugliest Chicken in the Room

Righto, lets get back into the "Recipes-I-Made-Up-As-I-Went-Along" genre.

I was so doubtful of this recipe that I didn't even take any shots during the cooking process, but it came out so nice that I had to get a final photo.

Basically, this is Chicken with Mustard and Apple. I know, it doesn't exactly sound appetising does it? So I was surprised and awfully pleased when these two flavours fused and made for some of the nicest chicken for which I've ever made up a recipe on the fly.

Mustard Apple Chicken

(Serves 3)

6 x Drumsticks
2T Wholegrain Mustard
1T Malt Vinegar
2T Flour (Use Potato Flour for Gluten Free)
3T Tomato Paste
Olive Oil for Frying
1/4 Cup of White Wine
2T Brown Sugar
1 Onion, Chopped
1 Apple, Chopped

Toss the drumsticks in the Mustard, Vinegar, Flour, Tomato Paste and freshly ground Salt and Pepper to coat.

Shallow fry for 10 minutes, to sear the flavour into the meat. Place the onion and apple into the bottom of an oven dish, and place the chicken on top.

Deglaze the pan with the white wine and remove the pan from the heat when the liquid has reduced by half. Add the sugar and stir to thicken.

Pour the gravy over the chicken and place in the oven to cook at 220C for 50 minutes.

Serve up with rice and salad, spooning the apple-onion gravy over the chicken. Seriously, this chicken comes out looking ugly and it sounds really wierd, but it's delicious.

I wouldn't lie to you. Give it a try, then let me know what you think.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Last Look

Wherein I discuss the end of Podcast Reviews on Freshly Ground, and welcome into the world my new site (for just this very purpose), The Podagogue.

Thanks to everyone who voted. I'll leave the poll up for a few more days, so you can see how close it really was. Ultimately, the "Nah, keep posting them here" readers won, but by such a slim margin that I had to examine very closely exactly what I've been trying to achieve with Freshly Ground.

Freshly Ground is a blog about food, and cooking, and reflections on the good (and not so good) things in life. As I've said in my introductory post across the road, "I think I was confusing the foodies, and making the Sci-Fi fans hungry. If there are two things you don't want beating down your door, it's confused foodies and hungry geeks."

To succeed in this wild world we call the internet, it's important to give people what they expect. Those who were drawn here by the food have frowned in consternation at the sudden deluge of podcast reviews I've posted as this obsession has gripped me, and those who have flocked here to read those reviews then find their tummies rumbling at inconvenient times when they come by looking for more fiction reviews.

Therefore: Location, Location, Location.

My reviewing self has a new home, and all my reviews to date have been cross-posted there too. I'll post quick links here as I write important reviews over there, but the full bodies of the works will now reside at The Podagogue, along with links to what I'm listening to at any given point in time, and stuff I highly recommend.

Back here at Freshly Ground, we'll be getting back into the food. Oooh, I can't wait.

So I'll be catching you all very soon, be it here or there. And I'd like to know what you all think of the new site, and of the decision to make the move, so go ahead and leave a comment. Either here, or there.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Podcast Novel Review: "Call of the Herald" by Brian Rathbone

To get the housekeeping out of the way first, if you haven't already voted in the poll, please take a moment to do so. At the time of writing this, it's still too close to call. It's not like I'll feel bound by any result either way - I have to decide if I have the time and energy to maintain a second site, after all - but it's interesting to get a gauge on how you all feel.

Call of the Herald is the first part in Brian Rathbone's Dawning of Power Trilogy. The complete trilogy is available as a trade paperback; so far, only the first part is in audio format, and this available free from of the Herald tells the tale of Catrin, a young girl thrust into a life of legend and prophecy when the quiet world she knew is changed forever.

Rathbone builds a haunting, immersive land of fog and mystery, meticulously building towards the unraveling of that world as the chapters unfold. He writes with care and attention to the finer details of Godsland, his fantasy world, and the characters that inhabit it. Listening to this audiobook, I was hungry for a bit more pace, but when Rathbone does bring on the action, he does so with the same refined skill and grace with which he has constructed his world. Without the methodical buildup, the climactic sequences would have seemed hollow. This is the fine art of world-building at its best.

The audio production is clean and clear. Rathbone never misses a beat in his crisp narration, and lets the prose carry the flow of his characters' voices. He has also chosen, for this recording, not to use any effects, music, or ambience, so the work relies very much on both his delivery and the weight of the writing for its effect. On this subject, Rathbone has a very soothing voice, which may at times be more relaxing than is good for the listener's focus. More than once I found I had to skip back because I had been lulled away from the story by the gentle timbre of Rathbone's voice rumbling away in my ear.

Call of the Herald took a bit of time to get into, but I was rewarded for sticking with it. The story finds its pace about halfway, and is unputdownable once it really gets going.

Overall, this is a fine effort in the fantasy genre, and I would have to give it a confident 3 1/2 Stars out of 5. I'll be looking forward to hearing future installments of the trilogy, and if the books were to cross my path I'd probably get my hands on them, if only to see if they read differently in my head without Rathbone's crooning voice to carry the words.

One thing I will say is that, unlike almost every podcast novel I've listened to, Rathbone doesn't plug his own site at all, which, while refreshing, is a shame. It is only tonight, as I skim over his site, that I see there are maps of Godsland for readers to look at, which would have made the listening experience a lot clearer. Maps are a critical part of the fantasy genre, and it is a skilled writer indeed who can write fantasy without recourse to a map in the front of the book - it's also one of the things we fantasy fans gobble up hungrily. It is a credit to Rathbone's writing that I made it right through Call of the Herald without ever seeing these maps, and never felt lost. Maybe a quick word in the intro or sign-off to check out the website for maps and artwork would have enhanced my experience of the audiobook.

Well done, Brian, on a great book and a fine audio production. Looking forward to your next offering.