Microwaves are fun and useful

Potato gnocchi with gorgonzola and rocket

Why didn't anyone tell me you could microwave potatoes? Here I was making gnocchi, feeling hungry and impatient while my potatoes baked or lazy and compromising while they boiled, while this whole time I could have been zapping them and saving the fuss. It's perfect, really. Unlike baking the potatoes are thoroughly cooked in less than 10 minutes, and unlike boiling you're not adding any horrible, dreaded water.

Here's how it's done: Clean your potatoes and leave their skins on (I've switched from sebago to desiree potatoes for gnocchi, by the way), then pierce four times with a sharp knife. Don't skip this step or your potatoes will explode. Place in a microwave safe dish and cook on high. Cook for 6 minutes for 1 potato, adding 2-3 minutes for every extra potato. Once finished, leave in the microwave to rest for another 5 minutes. Congratulations, your potatoes are cooked!

In this case I used my totally rocking mashed potato to make gnocchi with gorgonzola and rocket. The gorgonzola sauce simple but extremely rich, so be careful not to reduce the cream by too much. The rocket seemed like a good idea in my mind, but I'm not convinced it adds much. Fresh or barely wilted the texture is a little harsh, but cook it any further and it loses a lot of flavour. My recommendation: leave it out.

Gorgonzola sauce

Ingredients:

  • 1 clove garlic, very finely diced
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2/3 cup of cream
  • White pepper, freshly ground
  • Gorgonzola, to taste1
  • 1/4 tsp truffle oil

1. Cook the garlic and bay leaf gently over a low-medium heat in the butter for 4 minutes.
2. Add the cream and a splash of water and bring to a simmer. Reduce by a quarter, then remove from the heat and break up the gorgonzola into the sauce. Season with white pepper, garnish with truffle oil, and stir.

(1) A little goes a long way — 30g should be plenty for 1 serving.

Beetroot tzatziki

Beetroot tzatziki

It's about time I posted a recipe. There have been a few posts lately, but the last recipe was the Aussie burger back in February, and I doubt many of you need instructions on how to make a tasty burger. I enjoy posting recipes, but it's as much for my own reference as anything — I don't know about you, but I rarely use the recipes I see on food blogs. It's not for lack of trust in their authors, either. Rather I like to soak up the appetizing photos and steal interesting combinations/techniques to apply to whatever ingredients I have on hand. I may not use everything I see straight away, but it all gets mentally filed away.

This beetroot tzatziki is an example of a recipe that I saw in the wild (in the food section of a newspaper, actually) and set about making months later. Some of the original elements are still there, but the gaps have been filled in with common sense. Beetroot pairs classically with orange and dill, turning an otherwise standard tzatziki into something completely new. Serve it as a dip or with grilled lamb (squeeze lemon over your lamb to balance out the sweetness of the tzatziki) and enjoy.

Beetroot tzatziki

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups grated beetroot1
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice2
  • 1 tsp orange zest
  • 1.3 tbsp finely chopped fresh dill
  • 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup strained greek yoghurt3
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt, to taste

1. Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and mix well to distribute everything. Taste for seasoning, and consider adding some more salt and lemon juice — these sorts of dips usually benefit from an extra kick of flavour.
2. Leave in the fridge overnight to allow the flavours to infuse.

(1) Boil beetroots whole, then allow to cool slightly before removing the skin and grating. For what its worth, these would have to be the easiest things to grate in the world.
(2) A word of advice: zest the orange first, it's much easier to zest an intact citrus.
(3) Strained yoghurt is exactly what it sounds like. Buy a tub of Greek style yoghurt and sit the contents in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl in the fridge overnight. Discard the liquid in the bowl and save the now-much-thicker yoghurt for tzatziki and marinades.

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.

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.

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.

Chana masala

Chana masala

I'm a little pressed for time, but I want to post this recipe for you to try because it's so damn good. To that end, I'll be brief and keep the paragraphs of bullshitting to a minimum. Chana masala is a North Indian chickpea curry that may be one of the best value dishes around. It's inexpensive, simple, quick (with canned chickpeas), and of course, really tasty — this dish is much more than the sum of its parts.

The flavours should be hearty, spicy, and a little sour. Serve it with basmati rice or even more tradtionally, battura.

Chana masala

Ingredients:

  • 3 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 2 tbsp peanut/canola/vegetable oil
  • 1/2 an onion, diced finely
  • 1/4 tsp asafeotida (hing)
  • 1.5 tbsp ginger & garlic paste
  • 2 green chillies, chopped finely
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 cup of canned tomatoes
  • 400g can of chickpeas, drained (or dried chickpeas, soaked overnight)
  • 2 tsp amchur (mango powder)
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 handful of coriander (cilantro), roughly torn up

1. If using dried chickpeas, boil for 1-1.5 hours until soft, then drain and set aside. Toast the cumin and coriander seeds and grind to a powder.
2. Cook the onion and asafoetida in the oil over a medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Add the ginger & garlic paste, green chilies, and ground spices from before and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the turmeric and canned tomatoes and bring to a simmer.
3. Simmer the mixture until the tomatoes break down and reduce. Salt to taste, then add the chickpeas, mango powder, garam masala, and 1/2 cup of water. Simmer for 10 minutes, until the texture is not too watery. Add the coriander/cilantro, salt to taste, and serve.

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

Risotto, abridged

Mixed mushroom risotto

I'll never forget my first risotto. Unfortunately. It was a first in more than one way — I'd never cooked a risotto before, but I'd also never eaten one. It showed, too — it was two years before I was ready to cook it again, and before Lucy was ready to eat it.

My problem was thinking of risotto as just another recipe. There are surely plenty of great recipes infinitely more reliable that the lemon I tried, but to make great risotto all you need is to get your head around three things: good rice, good stock, and good technique. With the basics down, you can easily improvise with whatever additions you like. The idea of a risotto recipe will become as ridiculous as a recipe for making a sandwich.

Good rice
Almost everyone says to use arborio. While I hate to get sanctimonious about these sorts of things, almost everyone is wrong. Objectively wrong. Especially autumn from the carbonara comments. Seriously though, arborio is a fine choice. You want a thick, starchy variety of rice and from that category you won't have any trouble finding arborio. Most risottos are made with it, and if you have good technique you'll make a good risotto.

But carnaroli is better. Let me put it another way: in the bizarro world where food eats people, in Bizarro Pirates of the Caribbean arborio fills Orlando Bloom's shoes while Captain Jack Sparrow is played by carnaroli. Arborio is inoffensive with mass appeal, but for totally badass risotto that everyone is going to remember, carnaroli is the rice you're after. The texture is better and it's much more forgiving and consistent. It's harder to find, but worth the search — try specialty shops and Italian delis, or order it online.

On the topic of rice, vialone nano is another well-regarded variety that I've never actually tried. I've heard it's best for seafood risotto, but if you've got more information leave a comment.

Good stock
If rice is the texture base, then stock is the flavour base. There are two things to consider with your choice of stock: does it taste good, and is it appropriate?

The taste part is easy: Homemade stock is better than bought, and if buying stock get a salt-free or salt-reduced version. The salt thing has nothing to do with snobbery or health, by the way. By simmering the stock until absorbed you will concentrate its saltiness and your risotto will be unbearably salty before even adding the cheese.

Appropriateness. A good rule is to match the stock with the additions/main course eaten with the risotto. For example, chicken and asparagus risotto? Chicken stock. Braised oxtail risotto? Beef or veal stock. Of course this isn't always possible — how likely are you to make rabbit stock for a rabbit risotto? In these cases a white chicken, veal, or vegetable stock are adaptable. Avoid using seafood stock in a non-seafood risotto unless you have some master plan for how it's going to not taste odd. These are guidelines rather than rules — try mixing it up a bit. In the mushroom risotto above I used duck stock because it goes well with mushrooms, and added the liquid that the dried porcinis soaked in for extra mushroominess.

Technique tips and a few recipes are after the jump.

Things not to attempt hungover: Pizza with tomato & pesto

Pizza with tomato & pesto

It took a while to get lunch out today. I woke up at 10:30 with a dry mouth and the punishment for a night of excess throbbing in my head. It was another hour before I was mobile enough to fetch 2 paracetamol for breakfast, which hit the spot but were frankly a touch bitter and powdery for my palate.

There was focaccia dough in the fridge (a new recipe), but it stuck to the bowl when I tried to remove it for shaping which was dispiriting enough to quash that idea — I made pizza instead. It was quite good really, but not the best I've made. Part of the problem was lazily not allowing it to rise enough, but the dough itself unsurprisingly would be better suited to focaccia. Keeping in mind that every step placed successfully ahead of the previous one was a small victory this afternoon, I'd still call this a moderate success.

Pizza

Ingredients:

  • 140 ml water
  • 5 g active dry yeast
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 215 g strong flour
  • 4.5 g salt

1. Mix together the warm water, yeast, and olive oil and let stand for ten minutes. Meanwhile combine the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl.
2. Add the yeast mixture to the flour and stir together with a sturdy wooden spoon. Turn out onto a lightly floured bench and knead for 10 minutes, or knead in an electric mixer until the dough is smooth1.
3. Rest the dough in a warm place for 1.5 hours then knead for 2 minutes, shape into a ball, lightly oil the dough and place it in the fridge, covered, for 24-36 hours.
4. Bring the dough to room temperature for 1.5 hours while preheating the oven and pizza stone as hot as you oven will go.
5. Gently pull the dough ball to about 3/4 cm thickness2. Top with whatever you like3 and bake on a pizza stone until the crust is golden brown and crispy (about 10 minutes).

(1) This dough is quite wet and a little challenging to knead by hand. If you have an electric mixer I suggest using it.
(2) Don't roll it with a rolling pin! This will get rid of all the bubbles you've spent 24 hours creating.
(3) I topped mine with a simple tomato sauce made from blending uncooked canned tomatoes with salt. On top was some terribly inauthentic supermarket cheddar (which I added 5 minutes into cooking to prevent it burning), and pesto added after the pizza was cooked.

Submitted to YeastSpotting

Why we cook

Dal Makhani

Dal makhani

Why do you cook? Do you cook just to feed yourself? Is it because you enjoy the food, or because you enjoy cooking itself? Do you cook to impress people? Do you cook for yourself, or do you cook for others?

Gentle reader, you'll have to be extra gentle around me today. If you've noticed the posts slowing down over the last week, it's because in my evenings I've been busy helping to pack a year's worth of clothes, providing a year's worth of preemptive tech support, and most importantly spending a year's worth of time hanging out with Lucy. And yesterday, she flew off to Japan.

This morning as I was planning my meals for the week, nothing came to mind. Left to my own devices I'll usually throw together a miscellaneous bowl of pasta for dinner, but with Lucy around I'm motivated to make things special. Now that she's overseas (I originally said 'not around', but it's not like she's dead), it's become obvious that a large part of why I cook is to serve food that makes people happy — and there's no one I want to make happier more than Lucy. I loved cooking 'hated' ingredients in a way that she could enjoy for the first time, or when we'd be eating at a restaurant and she'd say, "Yours is better". That desire to cook good food as an expression of how I felt is what started my serious interest in cooking. It's no wonder I ate so poorly when I was single.

So does this mean the end of posts at the second pancake? Not quite. Despite the sappy (but true) "cooking as love" angle, the other part of me cooks for the challenge, the competition. Some would accuse Gordon Ramsay of taking the fun out of cooking, but ignoring his media saturation and the entire US series of Hell's Kitchen, I admire him for his obsession with perfection — you can always do better.

Speaking of which, let's get on with it.