Better late than never: Olive tapenade

Olive tapenade

In the background: Bucatini with olive tapenade and chickpeas.

Way back in June I posted a recipe for chickpea & olive bruschetta, in which I promised that an olive tapenade recipe would shortly follow. Regrettably my good intentions were thwarted by laziness, and it's taken four months for me to make it again.

There's no good reason for it to take so long — olive tapenade is quick to make, incredibly easy, and can be used in all sorts of ways. If you ask me, the simplest and still one of the best is to spread it on a thick piece of Italian country bread that's been drizzled with olive oil and grilled. It also goes terrifically with pasta (it is after all 2/3 of the way to puttanesca), and last night I thinned it out with extra virgin olive oil, stirred in a little fresh mint, and used it as a sauce for some roast lamb. Delicious.

Olive tapenade

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 cups pitted kalamata olives
  • 2 small cloves of garlic
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tbsp salt-packed capers, rinsed
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (use the best you have)

1. Blitz everything in a food processor until well blended. I told you it was easy.

Beef & green bean rice noodles, dry-style

Beef & green bean noodles

I simply can't resist ordering dry-style rice noodles when I'm in a Chinese restaurant. Pork, beef, duck, seafood, vegetables, they're all delicious. There's something about the perfect texture of fresh rice noodles that makes them so moorish, and as it turns out, they're a pleasure to cook as well.

If you've never cooked with fresh rice noodles before, I strongly recommend trying it. They're cheap, versatile, almost impossible to screw up, and it can't just be me that finds separating them to be a strangely relaxing experience. They're made by pulverising soaked uncooked rice into a paste, then spreading that out to a thin layer and steaming it. A layer of oil followed by a second layer of rice batter is poured on top, and the process repeated until you have a stack of steamed rice noodle sheets, ready to be cut into thinner strips. You could do this yourself if you were desperate, but just about everyone who isn't a Chinese farmer's wife buys them, and you don't want to be different, do you?

Fresh rice noodles

The other great thing about this recipe is flank steak. I'm shocked by what supermarkets pass off as "stir-fry beef" — If you're lucky it's tender-but-flavourless loin, but more often than not it's some unspecified cut that is sliced too thickly to become tender when cooked quickly. Flank steak, on the other hand, is perfect. It's a long, relatively flat muscle from towards the (wait for it) flank of the animal, with very a very obvious grain of muscle fibres that travel along the length of the muscle. While flank can be tough if not handled properly, very thin slices cut against the grain and stir-fried briefly are extremely tender. I took a photo of some raw flank steak to demonstrate how to cut it, but unfortunately it looked too much like an alien penis to post. Just remember, against the grain.

Beef & green bean rice noodles, dry-style

Ingredients (makes about 2 main serves):

  • 250 g flat rice noodles, fresh
  • 100g flank steak, sliced thinly against the grain
  • Small handful of green beans, parboiled until almost done
  • 1 egg, whisked together lightly with 1 tbsp water
  • Small handful of bean sprouts
  • 4 garlic chives, chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 tsp finely grated ginger1
  • 1 clove garlic, finely grated
  • 1/2 tsp chinese 5-spice powder
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper, ground
  • 1.5 tbsp dark soy sauce
  • 1.5 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 2 tsp hoisin sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • Peanut oil for cooking

1. In a small bowl, make the sauce by combining the dark soy, light soy, hoisin sauce, and sesame oil. In another bowl, combine the beef and beans with the garlic, ginger, chinese 5-spice powder, and white pepper. Pour over a small amount of the sauce (about 1 tbsp) and toss to coat evenly. Set aside.
2. Heat 1 tbsp of peanut oil in a medium-hot wok and add the whisked egg. Cook until almost set on top, then remove to a bowl. Meanwhile, separate the rice noodles.
3. Heat the wok to the highest heat, then add 1 tbsp oil and the marinated beef and beans. Stir-fry for 1 minute, then add the noodles and about 3/4 of the remaining sauce. Toss to coat the noodles evenly with the sauce, frying for about 2-3 minutes. Taste and add more sauce if necessary.
4. Remove from the heat, and toss in the bean sprouts, garlic chives, and reserved wok omelette which should break up as you toss it with the noodles.

(1) Alternatively you can mince a 1/2 inch piece of ginger — I just find that grating ginger is a quick and easy way to get crushed ginger. Make sure you grate it over whenever you plan to add it, to catch any juice.

Spring has sprung: Spaghetti genovese

Spaghetti genovese

It sure feels good to be home. I enjoyed my time in Whyalla, but a month away from home has taught me that there are some things telephones and facebook can't substitute. Driving home, I was looking forward to two things most — a night in my own bed, and a meal in my own kitchen.

Back in Adelaide I was shocked to learn that not only is it abnormal for every exposed surface to be covered in red sand, but that while I was away winter had become spring. Whyalla lacks seasonal flora, so the change of seasons is instead noticed by experienced locals who are able to sense a shift in the weather either slightly up or slightly down the scale of "uncomfortably warm and dusty". Back in Adelaide — where I am, at least — you wouldn't guess that we're still years into a chronic water shortage. The trees are green, flowers are blooming, and the skies are blue. Life is good.

As one does when life is good, I made pesto. Well, that was the plan. When it became clear that I'd left my paid-for pine nuts on the shop counter at the markets, I diverted course slightly and made what would be better described as a basil, cashew, and lemon paste. It doesn't quite have the same ring to it as 'pesto', but damn does it taste good. The generous amount of lemon makes it zestier than a traditional basil & pinenut pesto, which is perfect for a warm evening. I could even see this working at room temperature in place of your usual pasta salad.

Now without further ado, please allow me to officially return the second pancake to its regularly scheduled programming. Pesto & genovese recipe after the jump.

Yangzhou fried rice: a love story

Yangzhou fried rice

I used to grudgingly tolerate my old electric stove. It was my first stove, a fact that won it countless free passes. I could be cold and moody, but the two of us knew each other. It wouldn't short circuit or flame up if I let a pot bubble over, and I learned to keep two hotplates on at different temperatures when I needed to overcome its slow responsiveness. Sometimes it was hard work, but that's what they say about love — there's no denying it, that stove and I made some beautiful food together.

Fried rice changed things. Back then I truly believed that while an electric stove made a lot of things harder, it didn't make anything impossible. I attempted fried rice on it (like most of my workarounds, it involved cast iron) and while the results were good, it wasn't right. Maybe if I'd tried harder I could have made restaurant-quality fried rice, but then the next week it would be the same thing all over again with crispy-skinned salmon. Deep down I knew the fried rice was just a symptom — I had to face the difficult realisation that my stove was holding me back, that it was me making all the compromises. When I came home from a busy day hungry for a quick, smoky stir fry it was me spending extra time enacting all of these elaborate workarounds. Me! And the stove had been at home doing nothing all day!.

A week after I disconnected the electric stove, I already had a shiny new stainless steel gas range. Call it a rebound, but it's been 8 months and I've never been happier. I still remember the first night I got the gas hooked up and made a huge bowl of fried rice. It was delicious. The gas stove opened a lot of doors, but for me conquering fried rice was something special, something necessary. I've made it a lot since then, and it only gets better. Please, gentle reader, allow me to share with you these things I have learned.

10 ways that puttanesca got its name

Spaghetti puttanesca

Everyone knows that puttanesca means essentially 'whore's pasta'. However, the specifics of how it got this name are disputed to this very day. I've done a little research to collect some of the most likely origins of the name, and in case you're wondering, no I didn't just make some up to get ten.

  1. It's fiery and spicy, just like prostitutes.
  2. It was offered cheaply to customers to entice them into the brothels.
  3. It's quick to make so it could be cooked easily in between customers.
  4. It could be made from ingredients that keep well, as prostitutes often didn't have the opportunity to visit the markets every day.
  5. The intense aroma of the garlic, anchovies, and capers drew men by their noses to the brothels.
  6. The intense aroma was also advantageous to the women, who found that it deterred customers from breaking the 'no kissing' rule.
  7. Being red, it camouflaged well under the tawdry red lights. How this is of any advantage, I'm not sure.
  8. Because your mum makes it. Burn!
  9. Olives are considered by some cultures to have contraceptive effects. Particularly cultures with high birth rates.
  10. An early incarnation of the dish actually contained chlamydia.

Which one of these ten equally legitimate suggestions is the true origin of pasta puttanesca we may never know, but thankfully the recipe has remained intact throughout the ages. And here it is.

Spaghetti puttanesca

Ingredients (serves 1):

  • 100g spaghetti
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 1 small chili, sliced thinly (or substitute red pepper flakes to taste)
  • 1/3 cup of canned tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, torn roughly
  • 1 tbsp capers, drained (salt-packed are preferable)
  • 2 tbsp kalamata olives, pitted and halved

1. Boil a pot of salted water and add the spaghetti. You can make the sauce before the pasta finishes cooking.
2. Sauté the garlic with the olive oil on a medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the anchovies and chilies and cook for a further 30 seconds.
3. Add the tomatoes and parsley, and cook over a high heat until the tomatoes break down and thicken. Remove from the heat and stir in the olives1 and capers. The sauce can then be held until the pasta is cooked.
4. Once the pasta is almost al dente, drain it and toss with the sauce over a high heat. Add a little pasta water if it's looking too dry. Serve with grated parmesan.

(1) I find the olives can get bitter if you add them earlier and cook them with the sauce.

Singapore noodles

Singapore noodles

One of the things I enjoy most about eating at restaurants is thinking, "How did they do this and how can I do this?" The French Laundry Cookbook has taught me that even the most complex food can ultimately be reduced to a recipe, and the more I cook the easier it is to recognise patterns in the way food is made and ingredients are combined.

Inspired by a great meal the other night at East Taste, I set out to make Singapore noodles at home. When trying to reverse engineer a dish, a descriptive menu and some dominant flavours are the best starting point. But unfortunately, the name "Singapore noodles" is unhelpful, and the taste is just, well, Singapore noodles. What mixture of spices and sauces do they use to get that unmistakable flavor?

Reading recipe after recipe revealed a common ingredient: plain old British "curried egg sandwiches" curry powder. It's that simple. I didn't have any curry powder in the house, so I made some up by adjusting this recipe ever so slightly — if it tastes rubbish with store-bought curry powder, try making it with homemade curry powder before you throw the recipe out the window. Singapore noodles vary from restaurant to restaurant (and aren't even from Singapore, by the way), and my version here is closer to the dry, savory style I prefer. Try adding some dark soy and a tiny amount of hoisin sauce if you prefer a sweeter style.

Singapore noodles

Ingredients (makes 2 main course servings1):

  • 180g vermicelli rice noodles
  • Peanut oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 a red capsicum (red pepper), sliced thinly
  • 1/2 an onion, sliced thinly
  • 70g raw prawn meat
  • 90g char siu pork, sliced
  • 1.5 tsp curry powder (recipe after the jump)
  • 7 tsp light soy sauce
  • 1 spring onion, sliced
  • 1 handful of bean sprouts
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 small handful of fresh coriander (cilantro)

1. Soak the dried rice noodles in very warm water for about 20 minutes until pliable but still unpalatably tough2. Make sure you've got your mise en place, uh, en place. Briefly whisk the eggs together with a tablespoon of water and a pinch of salt. Heat a wok with 1 teaspoon of oil to a medium-high heat, then add the egg mixture and cook like you would an omelette, removing it to a bowl when still a little runny.
2. Turn the heat up as high as it will go, add 2 tbsp of peanut oil and heat until smoking. Add the onion and capsicum and stir fry for 1 minute. Add the pork and prawns and stir fry for 30 seconds or until the prawns are just cooked on the outside3.
3. Add the noodles, curry powder, about half of the soy sauce, and cook tossing regularly. Test the noodles, adding 1-2 tbsp of water at a time if they're still not cooked through and are drying out.
4. When the noodles are cooked, remove from the heat and toss through the sesame oil, spring onions, bean sprouts, fresh coriander, and omelette, roughly breaking up the omelette. Test for seasoning and add as much of the remaining soy sauce as necessary. Serve right away.

(1) I wouldn't suggest making more than about 3 servings at a time unless you have an exceptionally fierce heat. If you don't, you'll have trouble maintaining the high heat in your wok necessary to get the smoky flavour of a good wok dish.
(2) Err on the side of undersoaking your noodles: you can always add more water to the wok and cook them for longer, but once they're mush there's no turning back.
(3) They will be underdone in the middle at this stage, but this is necessary to prevent overcooking them.

Quick, no-knead pasta dough (that doesn't suck)

Fresh pasta

Cooking's a great hobby to have. Everyone's gotta eat, which means dedicating time and money to preparing food whether you like it or not. Enjoying cooking is like some kind of tax exemption from domestic drudgery — dinner doesn't get in the way of a relaxing evening, it's part of it. If only I could get into ironing in the same way.

Fresh pasta would be one of those recipes that would have most people saying, "Sorry Tim, I've got work at 8 am tomorrow and I'm not spending my entire Tuesday evening making a bowl of fettucini". Well I'm not going to do that either, but necessity is the mother of invention. And for me, it is absolutely necessary to eat the best food without wasting time or expense.

Now, this doesn't mean cutting corners. Here's what's going on in pasta dough (simplistically): flour and egg are combined, and kneaded to develop gluten. The traditional method has worked for centuries, but it's only one way. I use a food processor, adding half the flour at first to get a sticky dough that stretches, developing the gluten in the same way that kneading does. There comes a point where the dough becomes so dry that the processor stops stretching and just chops it up, but I've tried both ways and any difference is imperceptible. Try both ways yourself, if you don't believe me.

Fresh pasta dough, two ways

Ingredients (per person for a main course. It scales up well.):

  • 1 egg
  • 100 g plain flour

No-knead

Pasta

1. Crack the egg(s) into a food processor, and add roughly half the flour. Process for about 15 seconds until the mixture becomes a gummy, sticky mess, then process for another 30 seconds.
2. Add the remaining flour 1/4 at a time, processing for 20 seconds each time to fully incorporate. Once all of the flour is added it should take on the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs.
3. Turn the mixture out onto a board and push it all together to form a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and stand for 30 minutes before using.

The regular way
1. Pile the flour onto a large board or benchtop, and make a well in the middle. Crack the egg(s) into the well, and whisk the egg briefly to combine yolk and white.
2. Using a spoon or your finger, gradually incorporate flour from the edge of the well into the egg mixture. Once half of the flour is incorporated, mix the rest of the flour in and form into one dough.
3. Knead the dough for 5-10 minutes until it becomes smooth but elastic (it will be quite a firm dough, but it should spring back if you poke it with your finger). Wrap in plastic wrap and stand for 30 minutes before using.

Fresh pasta with bolognese sauce

100% infallibly authentic spaghetti carbonara

Spaghetti carbonara

As you already know, I'm obsessed with authenticity — most of all in Italian cooking. There is of course only one correct way to make a given Italian dish, and any deviation from that is utterly unacceptable. Don't even think about giving me that "but it tastes good and I like it" bullshit, either.

For those of you unaccustomed to sarcasm, the truth probably lies somewhere in between the extremes of culinary dogmatism and liberalism. If the meatiness of a bolognese sauce can be enhanced with star anise, surely this addition is true to the 'spirit' of ragu alla bolognese. When it comes to a dish such as spaghetti carbonara, the spirit of the dish is simplicity. Add onions, garlic, mushrooms, parsley, chili, spinach, whatever you like, but when it stops being about simple flavours it stops being a carbonara (as much as you might enjoy it).

'Traditional' spaghetti carbonara is made from pasta, eggs, guanciale (cured pork cheek; pancetta or bacon are okay), hard Italian cheese, and pepper. To my tastes, you really don't need any more ingredients. The addition of cream dilutes the sauce's delicate egg flavour, and in terms of texture it simply isn't necessary for a creamy, full-bodied sauce. Use the best quality ingredients you can find. Try it with guanciale at least once, and for the cheese use parmigiano reggiano, pecorino romano, or a mixture of the two.

When bringing pasta and sauce together, the books say that adding the hot pasta to the egg mixture is enough to cook the sauce. In my experience this isn't enough, so add the pasta to the uncooked sauce in a pan and toss over heat. Make sure you keep it moving in the pan once it gets hot to stop areas from overcooking &mdash the better you get at this, the quicker and hotter you'll be able to do it. This recipe serves 2, but it scales easily (making more than 5 servings at a time could get challenging). For a main meal, use 100 g pasta and one egg per person.

Spaghetti carbonara

Ingredients (serves 2):

  • 200 g spaghetti
  • 70 g guanciale/pancetta/bacon, chopped into pieces
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup of hard italian cheese (parmigiano reggiano, pecorino romano, or a mixture)
  • Plenty of freshly cracked black pepper

1. Cook the spaghetti until almost al dente in boiling, salted water while you make the sauce.
2. Sauté the guanciale in a medium-hot pan until it is crispy on the outside and chewy in the middle. Remove from the heat and add a tablespoon of cold water to bring the pan temperature down (this will evaporate, and if it doesn't it won't matter).
3. Add the eggs and cheese to the cooled pan and lightly whisk the egg mixture.
4. When the spaghetti is almost al dente, drain quickly (or just pull it out with tongs) and add to the egg mixture. Toss this over heat until the egg mixture thickens and coats the spaghetti. Add a generous amount of black pepper, toss to combine, and serve.

This is not a bolognese

Spaghetti almost-bolognese

Only a fool would be stupid enough to lay claim to a "traditional" Italian recipe. In Sicily they kill you for saying that sort of thing, by way of old Italian women hitting you with rolling pins. Even in Italy, the idea of what's authentic changes from one kitchen to the next.

With that in mind, I make no claims that this is a traditional ragu alla bolognese. It's not served with fresh tagliatelle and it does contain tomato. If that offends your orthodox sensibilities, either cover your eyes or polish your pitchfork because you won't be happy with the anchovies or star anise. But isn't it possible that this wide world of food might just be big enough for more than one Italian meat sauce? Let's make a deal: I won't call this real bolognese, if you concede that science and the expertise of Heston Blumenthal (oh, only the man behind the best restaurant in the world) might possibly, you know, maybe, make for a recipe that isn't so bad?

If you can get past the big deviations from tradition and understand why they were made, you'll find that this recipe (based on Blumenthal's from the Times) really isn't so inauthentic. Consider this:

  1. When star anise is cooked with onions, a chemical reaction occurs producing a substance that enhances the 'meaty' flavour of a dish. It's true, Heston says so. It's effect isn't simply limited to beef either.

  2. Anchovies are rich in glutamate, which is umami central and the 'active ingredient' in MSG. Like any taste umami can be overpowering and unpleasant when used to excess, but used judiciously it boosts the flavour of savory food. In case there is anyone who doesn't know this yet: beyond the baseline expected rate of hypersensitivity to any ingested substance, glutamate or MSG is not bad for you.

  3. Pork makes everything better. If you are pork-averse, replace the pork with beef for veal mince but be sure to use a fattier cut like chuck. Bolognese is much more a meat sauce than a tomato sauce, so for this bolognese-inspired recipe use good quality meat. Because you're using tougher and less presentable braising cuts, even from best-quality animals it will still be pretty cheap.

  4. You can't make this when you get home from work and have it for dinner — this sauce takes at least 7 hours to cook. Thankfully most of that time is slow-cooking in the oven, so you can go and do something else. It tastes great freshly made, but even better the next day.

  5. Eat your sauce with whatever the hell you want to eat it with. The bolognese were definitely on to something pairing ragu alla bolognese with fresh tagliatelle, but spaghetti or rigatoni are a different and equally enjoyable alternative. Have it in a toasted sandwich with cheddar cheese, I don't care. This isn't about creating an authentic cultural experience, it's about making food you want to eat.

A recipe for food you want to eat is after the jump.

Chicken & spinach lasagna: a recipe in four acts

Chicken & spinach lasagna

There's something deeply satisfying about making a lasagna. Totally unprepared it can be an afternoon's work, but it's relaxing, stress-free work. There's no bread dough to not rise and no large cut of meat to be perfectly cooked long before the vegetables are finished, rather you can work happily in your kitchen on each part of the lasagna and bring it all together when you're ready. Best of all, fifty minutes later your industrious self is rewarded with the similarly satisfying experience of eating lasagna, to enjoy while wondering why you don't bother making it more often.

You simply can't beat the traditional bolognese & béchamel lasagna, but my chicken & spinach lasagna is formidable competition. The recipe itself is made up of a number of smaller steps. The pasta, the sauce, the ricotta, and the chicken can all be prepared ahead so take your time. Now if you would kindly take your seats, the recipe will begin shortly.