Just one more cookie before bed won't hurt...

Peanut butter & chocolate chip cookies

I don't usually worry about this sort of thing, but I'm pretty sure I've put on weight in the last 3 days. Currently I'm working in the country, and Lucy (who is back from Japan! Yay!) came to visit me for a week. On the last night she was here she made a big batch of cookies then flitted off back to Adelaide, leaving me alone with the cookies for a whole weekend. Of course I did what any sensible person would, and I ate them in moderation... at frequent intervals.

The cookies in question were Nikki's peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, and they're pretty damn damn tasty. My only criticism is that these weren't as chewy as advertised, which leads me to wonder aloud to all bakers: what makes for chewy cookies? Despite being a fan of chewy cookies I was able to nobly overcome my own personal biases for this recipe and eat about sixty of the things.

So I guess you could say that I have grown in more ways than one. It's touching, really.

Peanut butter choc chip cookies

Recipe from Nikki.

Ingredients (makes a bucketload of cookies):

  • 1/2 cup (110g) of butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup of white sugar
  • 1/2 cup of brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp of vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup of peanut butter
  • 1 cup of plain flour
  • 1 tsp of baking powder
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 cup of chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 190ºC (375ºF).
2. Cream the butter and sugar, then beat in the vanilla extract and egg. Beat in the peanut butter until the mixture until combined well.
3. Stir the flour, baking powder, and salt into the mixture until smooth, then mix in the chocolate chips.
4. Onto a sheet lined with baking paper, drop the dough in heaps tablespoons about 2 inches apart. Bake for 12 minutes or until golden.

Our hungry eyes

Braised chicken pasta

When I was a kid, Dad would buy a roast chicken from the chip shop around the corner most Saturdays. He'd spread two pieces of bread generously with butter, then shred the meat from the chicken carcass and pile it between the buttered slices while we stood patiently next to him in the kitchen. With a flat palm he'd press down on the sandwich, then hand it to us with the faint impression of the base of his fingers still barely visible on the warm white bread. Other days my brother, my sister and I would sit on stools behind the kitchen counter where Mum served bowls of Campbell's tomato soup. She'd then take a plate of grilled cheese on toast from the oven and our hungry eyes would follow it to the placemat in front of us. We'd takes slices to dip, always emptying the plate before we'd finish our soup.

I have a lot of memories of the food I ate growing up, but above are the only ones I have of lunchtime. Roll them together with a big bowl of pasta and you can understand why this spiralli with tomato-braised chicken is pure nostalgia. The sauce is intentionally left a little soupy so that once you've finished the pasta and chicken you can pick up the bowl and slurp the buttery leftovers or (if you're not afraid of nostalgia overload) mop them up with garlic bread.

Pasta with tomato-braised chicken

Ingredients:

  • 200g dried pasta, cooked in lightly salted water
  • 2 chicken legs
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 carrot, peeled and halved
  • 1 celery stick, halved
  • 1 shallot, halved
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 cup passata (pureed tomatoes)
  • 2 tsp sour cream
  • Grated parmesan
  • 3 tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • Salt, to taste

1. Place the carrot, celery & shallot in a saucepan with the butter, chicken stock, passata, and a cup of water. Bring to a boil & simmer until the carrot is very tender and the liquid reduced by about a third. Salt to taste.
2. Add the chicken legs to the pan and simmer until cooked through, then remove and separate the chicken meat from the bones & skin (discard the skin & bones). Remove the whole vegetables from the sauce and add back the chicken meat.
3. Remove from the heat and stir through the sour cream and cooked pasta. Serve in bowls being sure to spoon over some of the juices, then scatter with grated parmesan and thyme leaves.

Cankerous tomatoes?

Tomatoes

My father grows tomatoes. Every week or so in summer he'll show up at the lunch table with an ice cream tub half-full of them. They're pathetic looking things, really. Small, diminutive, snub-nosed deformed orbs, wrinkled and splattered with scars and discolouration. They've got nothing on the large, firm, fire-engine red examples of pristine tomato-ness you can find at the supermarket. The things my dad brings to the table are the runts of the tomato community, the hunchbacked oddities.

They're my favourite fruit in the world. You take one of these cankerous things, still warm from the summer sun, and tear it into pieces with your knife (it's far too weak to be cut into slices). It'll dribble and spit seeds all over you, soggify your sandwich bread, and stain your pants. But when you eat it- oh, when you eat it, everything makes sense. There's a sudden epiphany, a realisation that this is what tomatoes are meant to taste like. All those snooty model tomatoes at the supermarket, the blue blooded hoi-polloi, the elite and the beautiful, they're just a pretty façade with nothing of substance inside. My dad's tomatoes taste like the essence of the fruit, the truth of what tomatoes were before we came along and decided what they should look like.

There is a similar experience to be had at Torbreck, in the Barossa Valley. Tasting their offerings is like a rebirth of sorts, an awakening. Because, like my dad's tomatoes, these wines make you suddenly aware of how it issupposed to be. Take grenache- you see this little kid all over the place. Shiraz grenache blends are popular, as are grenache shiraz mouvedres (usually called GSM). Very rarely would you see him on his own. He's the Paul Giamatti of the wine world- always playing a supporting role. It took Torbreck to see him in Big Momma's House and realise he had the potential to do an American Splendor or Sideways. So, finally, grenache was given a part fit for him. A leading role, a capella, on his own at last. The Torbreck Les Amis Old Vine Grenache is, simply, spectacular. None of the limp-wristed 'softening out the shiraz' for this little firecracker- this wine dominates your senses from the outset, but does so without overpowering you. It's a seductive, inky, silky masterpiece of fruit and smoke and pepper and humid afternoons in the tropics.

And it is what one may call a touch pricey- it'll set you back one hundred and eighty magical beans for a bottle. But I see it this way- you can enjoy the Mona Lisa without buying it, and the same is true here. Simply pay a visit to my pals in the Barossa and they'll be more than happy to introduce you to this suave and gentlemanly fellow. If you can't manage that, then there are always tomatoes.

[Tim's note: Rowan asked me to supply a photo of tomatoes for this post, but unfortunately I had none of his Dad's ugly-but-delicious tomatoes on hand. I apologise for the above perfect tomatoes that perpetuate the unrealistic standard the MEDIA sets to which few backyard tomatoes can aspire, and which only serves to lower the self esteem of delicious tomatoes everywhere that believe being tasty isn't good enough.]

The second pancake workout plan

Rhubarb cake

I've done it, I've figured out how you can eat cake for every meal and stay in shape. This isn't some fad diet, it doesn't involve skim milk, portion adjustments, forgoing cream, or partially hydrophosphorylated nanoengineered seafood-derived fat substitutes (or the previously unheard of medical conditions they precipitate). It's not complicated at all, and in fact I feel somewhat silly that it's taken me this long to work it out.

Are you ready? Okay, here is it:

Make the cake yourself.

"But Tim", you say. "I use my Kitchen Aid four times a day and I weigh 900 pounds". There's your mistake — I'm talking about really making the cake yourself — by hand. No food processors, no electric whisks, no immersion blenders, just two arms, a tall glass of water, and a light breakfast. Have you ever tried creaming sugar and butter by hand? It's hard work. I learned this for myself when I tried to make Amy's Rhubarb Cake using little more than a fork and a large square bowl. That's the other thing: use square mixing bowls, and you're guaranteed to burn off a brownie's worth of calories in frustration alone. Trust me, this is going to huge*.

You can probably tell that I'm not much of a pastry cook. I like the idea of sweets, and done well it can be a beautiful thing, but the truth is I don't have much of a sweet tooth. I do however have a girlfriend who is soon to return from a year overseas, and every intention of spoiling her.

It's rhubarb season here in Australia, and combined with my love of a a bit of sour with my sugar this seemed a natural place to start. Using what I had I replaced 'soured milk' with buttermilk and cooked it in a cake tin, adjusting times accordingly. Despite my modifications it turned out terrifically — a sugary crunch from the top, a moist banana-cake-like crumb, and bursts of tangy rhubarb flavour in every bite.

Rhubarb cake - slice

Rhubarb cake

Adapted from In This Instance by way of Amy.

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups of brown sugar
  • 110g (1 stick) of softened unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 cup of buttermilk
  • 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups of chopped rhubarb
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon

1. Preheat your oven to 175ºC/350ºF. Cream the butter, brown sugar, and egg, then mix in the milk & vanilla.
2. Add the flour, salt, and baking soda and mix until there aren't any big lumps left. Finally stir in the chopped rhubarb.
3. Pour in to a greased 22 cm (9 inch) cake tin. Mix together the extra sugar and cinnamon, and scatter evenly over the cake batter. Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.

*Disclaimer: Individual results vary. May cause weight gain.

An ace up your sleeve

Roast chicken with mustard sauce

What would you serve at a special dinner party if you didn't know who was coming? If you wanted to impress but knew nothing about your guests and what they liked? Would you play it safe with something homely and reliable, or go out an a limb hoping to wow them with the unexpected?

Personally I would err on the side of caution. A lot of people are not very adventurous eaters and feel uncomfortable beyond the safe and familiar: roast chicken, meat & three veg, and pork & beans, etc. Of course these people should be challenged, but choose your moment — if your date is grossed out by their warm beef tongue entrée you might well be getting cold shoulder for dessert. The best thing about unadventurous eaters is that they'll be surprised by even the most timid deviation from the mean, so a small adjustment to a classic recipe is all it takes to make them think you're Thomas Keller (although they won't think that, because they don't know Thomas Keller is).

This chicken dish is one of those aces that I keep up my sleeve for special occasions. It has all the flavours and textures of a classic French roast chicken with a couple of adjustments to elevate it above a standard Sunday roast. The recipe below is only a rough guide, but I'm happy to answer any questions in the comments.

Roast chicken breast with mustard & brown butter sauce

Potato gnocchi

Microwave a couple of large desiree potatoes for 10-20 minutes or until completely tender. Remove the skins and pass twice through a potato ricer. Season well with salt then chop through 1 part flour for every 4 parts of potato flesh by weight. Bring this together to form a homogenous dough, then divide and roll out into 2 cm-thick ropes. Chop into 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces. Boil, drain, and toss with olive oil. Set aside on grease-proof paper and arrange so they're not touching each other (or they'll stick together).


Mustard & brown butter sauce

In a saucepan over a high heat, cook 3 tbsp of unsalted butter until browned. Whisk in 2 tbsp of brown chicken stock, 1 tbsp of dijon mustard, and 1 tbsp of crème fraîche (or sour cream). Simmer gently until reduced by one third then remove from the heat until ready to serve.


Roast chicken & shallots

Take a whole chicken and remove the legs, wingtips, wishbone, and back (you now have what's called a 'chicken crown'). Season with salt & pepper. Sear the skin of the breast on all sides in a heavy pan, then place breasts-up and roast in a very hot oven (230ºC/450ºF) for 25-30 minutes. Throw a couple of skin-on shallots into the pan to roast as well. When cooked, remove from the oven, cover in foil, and rest for 10 minutes.


Putting it all together

While the chicken is resting, remove the tough outer layers of skin from the roasted shallots. Heat a few tablespoons of butter and a few of olive oil in a non-stick pan until the butter is foaming. Add the gnocchi, the skinned shallots, some salt and fresh thyme leaves and sautée over a medium-high heat on both sides until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper.

Meanwhile cook green beans in salted water for 5 minutes, then remove, shock in cold water, cut in half, and set aside.

Once the chicken is rested, carve the breasts and place in the centre of the plate. Around this arrange the gnocchi & shallots, then spoon over some sauce. Finally, scatter the green beans and serve.

Dip bonus round: Feta ghanoush & grilled pita

Feta ghanoush

Peeking in through the bottom-right corner of my hummus post was another dip, one I like to call feta ghanoush. The inspiration was born out of a surplus of spoilable pantry items before a short trip out of town, but I owe the name to Ivy and her tasty-looking Fetatziki. Think of the possibilities! Olive fetapenade! Baked fetato skins! Umm... Fetarte tatin?

Other than the addition of marinated feta & honey, this doesn't deviate far from a standard baba ghanoush. Grilling the eggplant couldn't be easier if you have a gas stove — poke a few holes in the eggplant skin and set it directly over a medium-low flame for 10 minutes, turning once. It will hiss, spit, become wrinkled and smell of smoke (like your Mum!), but once cooked the skin comes off easily and you can use it in dips, or seasoned and mashed as a simple side for grilled meat.

Baba ghanoush and hummus are traditionally served with some kind of flatbread such as pita. It could be total heresy for all I know, but I like to grill one side of the pita quickly under a very hot broiler, so one side is crisp and smokey while the other is chewy and warm. If that's wrong then I don't wanna be right.

Feta ghanoush

Ingredients:

  • 1 roasted eggplant, skin removed
  • 150g marinated feta1
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp tahini
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp honey
  • Salt & black pepper, to taste

1. Combine everything in a blender and blitz until smooth. Adjust seasoning to taste, then serve drizzled with olive oil.

(1) Mine was marinated in pepper, Greek oregano, parsley, and olive oil, but really it doesn't have to be with anything in particular or marinated at all.

To whom it may concern,

Hummus

We drank wine from McLaren Vale, bought cheese from the central markets, played beach cricket at Henley, danced to Curtis Mayfield at Supermild. You went off to explore Australia and when you came back you stayed with me while looking for a house. I'd come home from work to find you lounging around on the couches like a pride of lions and I would cook you dinner. When you found a cute cottage in Gilberton we went out for pizza to celebrate — Andy in that green jacket looking like you'd won the PGA masters, Daphne and Maggie looking beautiful as always.

Daphne, Andy, and Maggie, this post is for you. Although we've only had a year together, what an amazing year it's been. I'll miss you guys, but I understand that you are needed by your respective countries to solve all of their problems with your awesomeness.

See you in Greece,

Tim

P.S. Dapho, Here's that hummus recipe I forgot to give you.

Hummus

Ingredients:

  • 400g of cooked chickpeas1
  • 1.5 tbsp of tahini
  • 3 tbsp of lemon juice
  • 2 clove of garlics, minced
  • 1/3 cup of olive oil
  • Pinch of turmeric
  • Pinch of smoked paprika
  • Salt, to taste
  • Extra virgin olive oil & smoked paprika to garnish

1. Combine all but the last 2 items on the ingredient list in a food processor and blend until smooth. Salt to taste, and if necessary adjust the tahini and lemon juice to taste.
2. Drizzled with extra virgin olive oil & dust with some smoked paprika. Serve alongside warm toasted pita breads.

(1) My name's Tim and I use Savings brand canned chickpeas for my hummus (Hi Tim). Those of you from other countries or, god forbid, other hemispheres who don't know Savings brand would be familiar with its international equivalents. Savings brand is Coles supermarket's budget range. It inhabits the brand sub-basement far below their (respectable) "You'll Love Coles" range, on the bottom shelf where its sparse, Soviet-inspired labels are mostly hidden from view. I was brought up in a "Oh don't be silly, it all comes from the same factory" household, but let me put it this way: with Savings brand, you get what you pay for.

But you know what? Good on Coles for cutting corners and passing the savings on to you (me). Their chickpeas — cooked enough to taste good but not enough to be considered done — have exactly the right amount of inferiority for hummus. We're not talking about hard here, just a slight bite that gives the puréed hummus a rustic mouthfeel. Trust me on this.

(Slightly undercooking chickpeas from dry should give similar results)

On the similarities between wine and anything else that's spectacularly brilliant.

There are, on occasion, some things in the world that are a little confusing. What does it mean to obflisticate someone? Why are they called guinea pigs if they aren’t pigs and they’re not from guinea? Why is water wet?

In these times of conundrum and despair, it is reassuring to turn to something unchanging, something solid, some reliable point of reference from which to encounter our wild and dynamic world. With this in mind, may I present Windy Creek Chenin Blanc.

This wine is, and always will be, divine. It tastes like what water has always wanted to be. Clean, pure, refreshing and bright. You can serve it warm or ice cold, with salmon or cheese or roast lamb, in summer or in winter, and it always weathers the changes and tastes amazing. It tastes like the words ‘tranquil’, ‘soliloquy’, ‘lullaby’ and ‘ephemera’ have been liquefied. If humanity were required to justify its existence, this wine would balance out Cheryl Crow, the Crusades, and people who test new ring tones on public transport. It’s so delicious some customers have started to evolve taste buds in their oesophagas because tasting even more of this wine is essential for the perpetuation of our race. It is the vinified equivalent of Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 at the Olympics.

And it’s twelve dollars a bottle.

AMEN, AUSTRALIA. I salute you.

I've made some changes

The particularly eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that things look a little different — what do you think?

I've test-driven it on a few different browsers and so far so good, but if you notice any peculiarities please let me know and I'll look into it. This seems like the best time to mention that I've tidied up the categories as well. Previously just about every entry was in the "Cooking" or "Recipes" category, which rendered them both essentially useless. Things are now sorted a lot more sensibly, so have a poke around.

Feta crumble II: Electric boogaloo

Stuffed eggplant with feta crumble

Spoiler alert! This was awesome.

You might recall from the recent pork entry that I was unsatisfied with the feta crumble. The flavours were all there, but the crumble's texture was stodgy and lacked any of the satisfying bite I was expecting. I intended not to follow that exact recipe again, but the promise that drew me to try it in the first place was still there. The seed was planted, and I was determined to make a satisfying feta crumble.

This time though, I used the crumble as a filling for stuffed eggplant. I have Peter's stuffed eggplants to thank for the inspiration and rough idea of how to cook the thing. I'm sure he won't mind that I bastardised his recipe, because this turned out really, really well. The eggplant's skin could have been more tender (not entirely sure how to make this happen), and I can see this becoming a staple side dish in the second pancake household.

The changes made to the crumble were minor, and more or less along the lines of what my gut told me the first time I was making it. Rather than mix the crumble ingredients into the beans I baked the eggplant stuffed with the beans and scattered the crumble over the cooked eggplant for a final blast under the grill before serving.

Stuffed eggplants with feta crumble

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium-sized eggplant
  • 1 cup of baked beans
  • 1/2 cup of fresh bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup of crumbled Greek feta
  • 1/4 tsp dried Greek oregano
  • Olive oil for cooking
  • Extra-virgin olive oil for finishing
  • Salt & black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC (400ºF).
2. Cut the eggplant in half lengthways and scoop most of the flesh out of both halves. Roughly chop the eggplant flesh, salt it well, and set aside on top of a piece of cheesecloth for 5-10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, prepare the crumble: combine the feta, bread crumbs, oregano, and some cracked black pepper in a bowl.
3. Bring the baked beans a 2/3 cup of water to a simmer. Take the eggplant pulp, fold the edges of the cheesecloth up and wring out all of the excess water from the eggplant. Add this pulp to the simmering beans and cook until reduced by 3/4 (the mixture should be quite wet but not soupy).
4. Pile the baked beans mixture into the shelled-out eggplants and place on a baking tray in the oven. Cook for 50 minutes.
5. When the eggplant is cooked through, remove the tray and turn on the grill (broiler). While it heaps up, generously scatted the crumble mixture over the eggplants. Drizzle with olive oil and place under the grill for 5 minutes or until browned. Serve drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil.