Odysseus leaves Ogygia: Grilled lamb backstrap

Chargriled lamb with lemon potatoes and tzatziki

Greek food, man. Greek food.

Recently a great meal at Eros Kafe opened my eyes to the joys of Greek food. By all indications I should have seen this long ago — since high school almost all of my close friends has worked for a time at Eros — but that doesn't matter anymore, here I am. It's like the guitar: while I was growing up my dad collected and played guitars, but it took moving out to finally motivate me to learn (alternate explanation: I took up guitar in university thinking that if I could strum out Counting Crows songs it would impress girls).

The meal responsible for said eye opening was Eros's souvlakia: lamb loin skewered and chargrilled, on a tabouleh, chickpea and smashed potato salad, served with tzatziki. The meat was disappointingly tough for loin, but the flavours were excellent: crisp and fresh, perfect food for a warm summer evening. The dish was simple but came together really well. What better place than that to kick off my next cooking odyssey?

For my homage I used backstrap rather than loin, and can I just say to the uninitiated that you simply can't go wrong with backstrap. It's tender, flavourful, and effortlessly looks great on a plate. Unfortunately it's quite expensive, but with a hearty salad of potatoes and chickpeas a little meat goes a long way. Backstrap isn't used a lot in traditional Greek cooking, but it's obvious why it's a favourite in modern Greek circles.

The recipe below is a simple parsley and yoghurt marinade for the meat, but in time I'll put up recipes for the tzatziki and potato salad. The day after I took the photo I remade the salad for the remaining meat adding cumin and roasted tomato, which made it even better. This marinade is a good all-purpose Greek marinade, which would taste just as good on chicken or beef.

When I first made the marinade I added half a teaspoon of sugar to the mix. I hoped this would help get the nice charred crust I was after — and maybe it did — but it took the edge off the salty and sour tastes which should really be quite sharp to compliment the gaminess of the lamb, so leave it out.

Grilled lamb backstrap

Ingredients:

  • 400g lamb backstrap
  • 1/4 of a medium onion
  • 3 cloves of roasted garlic1
  • 1/4 cup of flat leaf parsley
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp greek yoghurt
  • 1/2 tsp salt

1. Combine all of the ingredients except for the lamb, and blend until they make a smooth puree. Coat the lamb in this paste and marinate in the fridge overnight.
2. Take the lamb out of the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature. Heat a grill (preferably charcoal) to very hot and cook the lamb for 5 minutes a side, or until it's medium-rare inside and charred on the outside. Rest the meat before slicing, then serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

(1) Fresh garlic would be fine, but I had a whole head of roasted garlic on hand which is never a bad thing.

Wherein Tony Robbins takes over the blog and makes a blue cheese butter

Steak with blue cheese butter

It's important to treat yourself once in a while. We're all kind of insecure, in need of frequent reminders of how awesome we are. These kinds of reminders are easy to find in a good relationship or with good friends, but it shouldn't be up to external sources to determine how we feel about ourselves.

The fact is that even if you are fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who love you and know how to show it, on its own that can't be the foundation of your self esteem. Because that's not self esteem at all, that's just peer pressure. Don't leave it to someone else to decide whether you deserve a steak dinner, decide for yourself!

And that's exactly what I did. Last week I celebrated something of a career milestone by cooking myself steak and blue cheese butter, with a side of potato gratin. Potato gratin on a weeknight isn't exactly a Rachael Ray 30 Minute Meal, but hey, I'm worth it.

Steak and blue cheese are a winning combination (they say that dry-aged beef actually takes on some subtle blue-cheese flavours), but if you aren't having steak there's absolutely no reason why this wouldn't work swimmingly on a grilled burger. My choice of cut — skirt — is a little unusual, but sliced against the grain this steak was as tender as any sirloin I've eaten and far, far cheaper. The potato gratin I made on the side was actually my first opportunity to test the potato gratin hypothesis, an using a ratio of 0.4 I'm happy to report that the first empirical gratin was a great success.

Blue cheese butter

Ingredients:

  • 20g blue cheeese, at room temperature
  • 25g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/4 tsp very ground white pepper (freshly ground, not the pre-ground powder rubbish)
  • 1 clove roasted garlic, minced

1. Mix everything up and put it on some meat. Take a nap solider, you've earned it.

Spaghetti with garlic and olive oil

Spaghetti with garlic & olive oil

Many of the best pasta sauces can be made in the time it takes to cook the pasta, so to be able to prep, cook, and wash up by the time it reaches al dente is something extra special. Spaghetti with garlic and olive oil is exactly what it sounds like, but this incredibly simple dish is more than the sum of its parts.

Still, that's no reason to skimp on the parts. When you're cooking with so few ingredients every individual component counts. The pasta should be a good quality dried durum wheat flour variety, and as for size I prefer the slightly thinner size (not spaghettini though — this would be fine, but I like the heartier texture of spaghetti). It always helps to salt your pasta cooking water, and this is a particularly important example. The final taste of this dish is as much the pasta itself as it is the sauce, so give your pasta all the help it can get.

The garlic and parsley should both be fresh, but beyond that most farmer's market garlic/parsley is much of a muchness. Slicing it thinly and cooking it slowly will take much of the edge off the garlic, giving you the tasty flavour but hardly any garlic breath.

Although I finish with the best quality extra virgin olive oil I can afford, to cook the garlic initially I simply use a good quality regular olive oil. Correct me if I'm wrong, but since I'm heating away many of the subtleties, I don't really see the point in using expensive oil for what is basically heat transfer. On that note, don't use too much oil. Sometimes when this (extremely margin-friendly) dish is served in restaurants you're left with a pool of oil at the bottom of the bowl. The oil should coat the pasta and nothing more, leaving the bowl more or less dry once you're finished.

Spaghetti with garlic & olive oil

Ingredients (serves 1, scales easily):

  • 90g dried spaghetti
  • 1 garlic clove, sliced very thinly
  • 1 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 an anchovy fillet
  • 1 tbsp good quality olive oil
  • 2 tsp best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • Cracked white pepper

1. Boil the pasta until just al dente in salted water while you cook the sauce.
2. Combine the garlic and regular olive oil in a pan and cook over a low heat for 3 minutes. Add the parsley about half-way through and continue to cook slowly for 3 minutes, making sure the garlic doesn't brown. Turn off the heat and add the anchovy, mashing with the back of a fork to dissolve it.
3. Once cooked, drain the pasta and toss in the pan with the sauce, extra-virgin olive oil, plenty of cracked pepper, and 1-2 tbsp of reserved pasta cooking water. Serve immediately.

Bacon-infused macaroni cheese

Bacon-infused macaroni cheese

See the strand of melted cheese over the edge of the bowl? If you make this recipe you get to eat that

Oh shit, I have a website. Huh, I totally forgot about that. Sorry!

I've been busy lately. In addition to all of the usual holiday shenanigans (turning up and eating a lot), I graduated from university and joined the world of full-time work. Good fun. Unfortunately the long hours have made cooking new things difficult — the biggest hurdle is my lack of availability when the fresh produce markets are open — but I've taken that opportunity to cook with what I have around the house, which has led me to revisit a few of my old recipes.

While some of the recipes on this site are old favourites (and some aren't even mine), a reasonable proportion of them are written up after my first or second time making them. A brief, slapdash audit of the site has seen many of the recipes stand up to review, but if I could ask for a do-over it would be for the macaroni cheese.

The original recipe I posted tasted good, but it was a little too thick and there was too much sauce for the amount of pasta. Also, while I'm still a fan of the double-crust (cheddar topped with parmesan then grilled, giving a crunchy top with melting cheddar underneath), when I remade it I couldn't be bothered. Oh yeah, I also used bacon stock.

You see, since discovering bacon stock a few weeks ago it is now used in place of all other liquids. Carbonated it makes a refreshing but hearty cool drink, and if you don't mind being followed around all day by stray dogs it is perfectly fine to take a bath in the stuff. By boiling macaroni in bacon stock you infuse the pasta with bacony deliciousess and can satisfy the holy trinity of comfort food (cheese + bacon + starch) without pesky bacon bits getting in the way of the fun.

Something else you might notice in comparing this entry to the first macaroni one is the difference in photo quality. I've been trying to work on my photography skills, and thanks to a better understanding of lighting and a little colour correction I think I've definitely made some progress. Go me!

Bacon-y macaroni cheese

Ingredients (makes 1 big serving):

  • 16g butter
  • 1 heaped tbsp
  • 3/4 cup cold whole milk
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • 1/4 tsp hot english mustard
  • 130g cheddar cheese, grated (set one handful of this aside)
  • 100g macaroni, cooked in bacon stock
  • 1 tbsp reserved bacon-flavoured pasta water

1. Melt the butter in a saucepan with the flour. Cook this paste for 1 minute. Add the mustards and first quarter cup of milk and stir to combine. It will be lumpy at first but should thicken up with stirring.
2. Pour in the second quarter cup of milk and stir until it is smooth, then repeat with the final quarter cup of milk.
3. Preheat the oven grill/broiler. Add the cheese (minus 1 handful), pasta, and bacon-flavoured pasta water to the sauce and stir through until the cheese is mostly melted.
4. Pour this all into an oven-safe bowl or small casserole dish, scatter the top with the reserved cheese, and broil until the top is golden brown.

Stress-free Christmas dessert: Individual apple crumbles

Apple crumble

Kids, light your photos properly. Colour correction is a pain..

Everyone who has asked me what I'm making for Christmas lunch gets the same answer: nothing, if I can help it. Cooking is great, but at Christmas time all I want is to relax.

I want to drink a few beers, gorge myself on cheese and dips, enjoy the sun (woo Southern Hemisphere!), and chat to friends and family, all without having the nagging worry that the meat and vegetables might not be done at the same time. But if you do find yourself in charge, you can (and should) make things easier for yourself by getting prepared. Dessert lends itself particularly well to preparation, and with these individual apple crumbles you can serve your guests dessert straight out of the oven without any anxiety on the day.

Apple crumble is a favourite of mine because it's hard to unforgivably screw up. Even if the topping isn't perfectly crisp or the apples are a little crisp it's still pretty tasty (and some good custard on the side is even better for masking any flaws). A good trick I've seen involves adding oats to the crumble to boost flavour and texture. I used to do that until one day I ran out of oats and substituted wholemeal flour. With wholemeal flour you maintain the crumbly texture most people are used to, but still get that earthy, wheaty flavour you get with the oats.

The best thing about this dessert is that it can be easily scaled depending on the number of guests and prepared ahead. Refrigerate the uncooked crumbles until it's time, then on the day put them in the oven an hour before you want to serve dessert.

Individual apple crumbles

Ingredients (makes 2 apple crumbles):

  • 1 small apple (tart granny smiths are my favourite for this)
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • g plain flour
  • g wholemeal flour
  • g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • g sugar
  • A pinch of nutmeg

1. Preheat an oven to 180ºC/350ºF. Peel, quarter, and core the apple, then cut each quarter into quarter-inch thick slices. Layer these in small ramekins until 3/4 full and sprinkle each with 1/2 tsp of lemon juice.
2. To make the crumble topping, place the butter, flours, sugar, and nutmeg into a bowl and combine by mashing with the back of a fork. You won't be shocked to learn that the texture should be crumbly but not completely bone dry. Taste a little to determine if it needs any more sugar or wholemeal flour.
3. Divide the crumble mixture in halves and use it to top each of the prepared ramekins. Pat them down rather firmly to ensure a compact package, then fluff the top of the crumble mixture up to ensure plenty of surface area to make it nice and crumbly.
4. These can be refrigerated now, or put straight into the oven for 45 minutes or until golden and crunchy on top. If you're cooking them from the fridge, allow an additional 5-10 minutes in the oven.

Pork belly hotpot

Pork belly hotpot

My friends and I have a semi-regular thing we like to do called 'corkasian'. The premise is simple: go to one of the many bustling restaurants in Chinatown (Cafe Kowloon, BBQ City, and East Taste usually) and take advantage of their tasty asian food and criminally cheap corkage ($1.50 per person! What?!).

At our first visit to BBQ City we ordered a pork belly hotpot dish that at the time was, quite simply, amazing. The pork was so tender you could cut through it with chopsticks, and the sauce was aromatic and perfectly seasoned. A few weeks later we revisited BBQ City and its famed hotpot, but it wasn't the same. It could have been the fact that I was taking an alcohol-free day, but even my more jovial tablemates agreed. Still, the seed had been planted and I have made it a personal mission to make my own delicious pork belly hotpot.

This recipe is adapted from Simon Bryant's red-cooked camel recipe. It's as simple as anything, too. Just put all your ingredients into a pot, then say goodbye to them for 6 hours. Unfortunately it's quite hard to photograph well, but do take my word that it tastes much better than it looks.

Pork belly hotpot, before cooking

See you in 6 hours!

Pork belly hotpot

  • 800g pork belly, in thick slices
  • 3 cups boiling water
  • 1/2 cup dark soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup shaohsing wine
  • 1 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
  • 1/2 a medium onion, diced
  • 30g sliced dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 3-4 cm piece of ginger, sliced thickly (skin on is fine)
  • 2 star anise
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 pieces of dried mandarin peel

1. Preheat an oven to 150ºC/300ºF. Select a heavy, oven-safe casserole dish that will fit the pork belly snugly. Place all of the ingredients except the pork belly inside, and stir to dissolve the sugar.
2. Submerge the pork belly in the liquid and cook, covered, in the oven for 5-6 hours.

The first time I made this I ate it as is, straight out of the oven. However pork belly being what it is, a lot of fat melts into the sauce. Because the pork skin and connective tissue also produce a lot of gelatin, my usual technique of refrigerating and pouring the liquid through a strainer doesn't work here (because the sauce sets as well as the fat). Instead while the sauce was warm I strained once to get hold back the solids, then used Jen's handy method. At this stage you can also pick out the whole spices so no one gets an unpleasant surprise.

So did I do it, did I recreate that first glorious meal? I'm getting there. I reduced the amount of dark soy from the original recipe by a third, but I could still afford to knock that down just a little more, adding a bit of stock to mellow things out. Also, while the star anise is absolutely crucial, two might be too much. However those are minor tweaks in search of perfection — even short of perfection this is a damn fine way to treat a belly of pork.

Bacon you can drink through a straw

Prawn & bacon risotto

As someone who never thought he would utter the sentence "I really don't like bacon in x" this is difficult for me to admit. I don't like bacon in risotto.

Let me clarify. Bacon: amazing. Risotto: delicious. Together: no thanks. There's something about the clash of textures, too harsh, too chewy, that I can't get behind. It's a shame, really, because the flavour of bacon is perfect for risotto. Salty, meaty, and slightly smoky? How can that not work with starch, cheese, and butter?

Referring back to my original risotto guide, the solution came from first principles: risotto being stock, rice, and the-rest-of-it. There's no real bacon-flavoured rice — If exists it likely comes from a packet and tastes horrible — and I've already complained about making bacon the-rest-of-it, so what we need is bacon stock. Hey guess what? I have bacon stock!

Bacon stock

Ingredients (makes about 1L):

  • 350 g bacon, diced quite small
  • 1 tsp tomato paste

1. Cook the bacon slowly in a large heavy-bottomed pot until it is deeply caramelised. Expect this to take a while. Pour off any fat and return to a medium heat.
2. Add the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute, then top up with 1.5-2 L (6-8 cups) of water and bring to a medium simmer. Simmer for 2 hours, then pour through a fine mesh strainer.

A few notes: Dicing the bacon before cooking means that there will be more delciously caramelised surface area to infuse into your stock. Don't add any salt to it either (you shouldn't be adding salt to your base stock anyway) as the bacon and tomato paste are already pretty salty. Finally, bacon can be very fatty, so you will want defat it. Either cool it in the fridge overnight and strain out the solidified fat, or use this handy trick.

With your bacon stock made, bacon-flavoured risotto is easy as pie. I used my basic risotto recipe, with some minor modifications. Because I failed to follow my own advice (salted the bacon out of habit, and didn't defat out of impatience) my stock was both salty and fatty. As a result the risotto didn't need extra butter or cheese. The bacon fat emulsified with starch from the rice to make a creamy risotto, and sans cheese it went perfectly with butter-poached prawns (screw you, heart disease). A pinch of cayenne pepper perked it up, and I was set.

Nerding it up with potato gratin

Potato gratin

Potato gratin makes me anxious. I'm not anxious to eat it, of course — who would be? — but rather I never feel in control. You're expected to submit to the oven a tray of soupy, raw potatoes and end up with a creamy, tender, caramelised final product. What if the potatoes are undercooked, though? What if it's too wet? It's just too much pressure.

I'm a big fan of scalable formulas in cooking. I have a few stored away already: pasta (1 egg per 100g flour), shortcrust pastry (1 part butter, 3 parts butter, 4 parts flour), and quiche custard (1 egg, 1/3 cup cream, 1/3 cup milk) all work pretty well for the amounts I cook. What's more, by using these over and over I get a sense for what 'just right' looks and feels like, to the point where in some cases I don't need to use them at all. What I need is a formula for potato gratin.

I should warn you now that this entry doesn't contain a tried-and-tested formula, just some preliminary notes. I searched Google for "potato gratin recipe" and looked at a handful of results to see what ratio of potatoes to cream were used. Exclusion criteria were recipes that mixed cheese in with the potatoes (rather than simply on top), recipes with milk or other liquids (because it just gets tricky), and those that didn't include potato weight (seriously, what the hell is '1 average potato'?).

The ratio, r is simply volume of liquid (ml) / weight of potatoes (grams). So for any given weight of potatoes, multiply by r and that's how much liquid to use. Hypothetically.

Table

In addition to learning that I am a huge nerd, we can also see that the ratio tends to be around 0.45. Of course, there's more to potato gratin than potato and cream. There's cooking time, oven temperature, and the shape of the dish. A shallow gratin will cook quicker, a hotter oven will brown the top faster, and a longer cooking time will reduce the cream more. Within the next couple of weeks I hope to test these results using different ratios and dish sizes. Then I'll eat the results and put on 10kg. It'll be awesome.

Meanwhile, here's the recipe for a gratin I made the other night which worked out really well. You'll see that I wussed out and cooked the potatoes in cream first, but hey, Thomas Keller does it so it can't be that bad.

Potato gratin

Ingredients:

  • 725 g désirée potatoes, peeled
  • 1.25 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup water
  • A few gratings of nutmeg
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • 2 cloves of garlic, halved
  • 3 sprigs of fresh thyme (or 1/3 as much dried thyme)
  • 5 peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt, to taste

1. Use a mandoline or sharp knife to cut the potatoes into thin slices. Wrap up the thyme, bay, peppercorns, and one clove of garlic in cheesecloth, and tie with string to make a neat little package.
2. Combine the cream, water, mustard, and nutmeg in a high-sided frying pan, then add the herb parcel and bring to a very low simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes to begin infusing. Salt the cream very generously — it should taste about the upper limit for what would be palatable, but not ridiculous1.
3. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF. Add the potatoes to the infused cream (keep the herbs in there as well) and cover. Simmer very slowly until the potatoes are just tender.
4. Rub the sides of a medium-sized baking dish with the cut side of a halved clove of garlic, the discard the garlic. Remove the potatoes from the pan into the baking dish, being careful not to break them as they'll be somewhat fragile. Discard the herb parcel.
5. Pour the cream over the potatoes, and bake until the potatoes are tender and the crust is golden.

(1) Once you add the potatoes it won't be excessively salty.

Baked ziti

Baked ziti

Lately I've been on a bit of an American food bender. Perhaps recent events have given me another reason to admire you freedom-loving crazies, as pulled pork, BBQ ribs, and the Rueben sandwich have all graced my table at some point over the last month. That will all get written up in due course, but today I wanted to show you my baked ziti. What other dish combines pasta, bolognese sauce, and mozzarella cheese, and still manages to remain a wholly American invention?

I can feel myself reaching the limit of what 6 seasons of The Sopranos taught me about baked ziti, so to avoid looking like a fool I will stop right there. The recipe below is for an individual serving baked in a bowl — which is convenient when you're cooking for one (cue the violins) — but it could just as easily be scaled up to fill a whole casserole dish. And just to be parochial, it uses the warm weather bolognese I wrote about the other day.

Now I'm no Italian-American, so I would love for someone who knows what they're talking about to tell me how I've butchered their classic*. Who knows, maybe one day I can make a batch that even Livia wouldn't criticise.

Baked ziti

Ingredients (makes one serving):

  • 110g ziti/rigatoni, cooked to al dente
  • 3/4 cup warm weather bolognese
  • 2 tbsp cream
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • Grated mozzarella cheese

1. Preheat an oven to 180ºC/350ªF. Combine all of the ingredients except the cheese, and adjust seasoning. Transfer this to an oven safe bowl, scatter generously with grated mozzarella, and bake until golden on top.
2. Pat yourself on the back for freezing batches of bolognese sauce.

* It just occurred to me that my so-called baked ziti contains no ziti.

'Warm weather', Naples-style bolognese

Spaghetti bolognese

You may remember my version of ragu alla bolognese from a few months ago. It was quite a big deal, in all the papers. That was in the middle of winter, when a hearty, rich meat sauce over fresh pasta was the perfect comfort food. Now as I look down the barrel of an Australian summer, long slow braises, as good as they are, are making way for lighter, brighter foods.

This bolognese is more 'southern style' — by which I mean Naples rather than Louisiana (and by which I mean Naples, Italy, rather than Naples, Florida) — but once again I would not be so foolish as to claim authenticity. While my meat bolognese had depth of flavour with many different flavours melting together, this sauce has lots of clear individual tastes. Everything is left relatively chunky so you get individual bursts of flavour in eat bite, and the amount of tomatoes make it as much a tomato sauce as a meat one. Some chillies for kick and anchovies to round it out, and you're in business.

Unlike my other bolognese this works much better with dried pasta. I also make bulk and freeze it, so rather than putting fresh herbs into the sauce and dulling their flavour in the freezer I tend to instead toss them freshly-picked together with the pasta and sauce before serving.

Warm weather bolognese

Ingredients:

  • 300g beef mince
  • 300g pork mince
  • Olive oil
  • 1/2 cup of dry white wine
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 2 carrots, in a medium dice
  • 1 stalk of celery, in a small dice
  • 6 cloves of garlic, finely-sliced
  • 3 dried birds-eye chillies, finely-sliced
  • 4 anchovies
  • 3 cans of tomatoes with their juices
  • A few gratings of nutmeg
  • Salt, to taste

1. In a wide pan, heat 3 tbsp of olive oil to a high heat and add the mince and some salt. Cook until the mince is well-browned, breaking up the mince so there are still some medium-sized chunks.
2. Add the wine and scrape the fond off the bottom of the pan while it sizzles. Turn the heat down to medium, ten add the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic and put a lid on the pan to let the vegetables sweat.
3. Add the anchovies, chillies, and tomatoes and bring to a high simmer. Grate the nutmeg over the pan, then reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook this for about 35 minutes or until the vegetables are completely tender, then salt to taste.