Nyonya fish curry, and why I love Poh

Last week I went to a class at the Sydney Fish Markets put on for the media by SunRice. Our teacher for the morning was the delightful Poh Ling Yeow, the company’s ‘brand ambassador’ among other, greater claims to fame. Let me say up front, I love Poh. After years of writing Kitchen Spy for the Sydney Morning Herald, interviewing celebrity chefs and lesser mortals, Poh remains a favourite. She’s smart, talented, funny, self effacing and, most endearingly, real. She’s the full package.


So we all piled into the demo kitchen where Poh conjured a particularly fragrant Hainan Chicken Rice then moved into the real kitchen, formed teams of four and made Fish Pineapple Curry. I know there’ll be readers shuddering at the pineapple idea but don’t. We’re not talking canned Golden Circle in syrup. We are talking fresh, firm and tangy, the perfect foil for the rich coconut cream base.

Poh credits a Malaysian aunty with this recipe which is an absolute cracker. It’s everything I love about Nyonya cooking. Hot, sour, salty, sweet yes but it’s also complex, gutsy and smells better than Chanel No 5.

Fish Pineapple Curry

Ingredients

fish:
800g blue-eye trevalla fillets
500g fresh pineapple, cut into 6mm triangles
700ml water
2 pieces dried ‘tamarind’ [see my notes below]
5 kaffir lime leaves
350ml coconut milk
3 tsp salt
3 Tbsp caster sugar
lime juice to taste

rice:
2 cups jasmine rice
2 pandan leaves, torn into strips an knotted together
1 cup water
2 cups coconut milk
1/2 tsp salt

spice paste:
15-20 dried long red chilies, deseeded, soaked in boiling water til soft, drained and chopped
2.5 tsp roasted belacan
3cm fresh galangal, peeled, sliced finely
4 stalks lemongrass [white part only] finely sliced
300g red eschallots, peeled and quartered
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and halved
5 candlenuts or macadamias
100ml canola or peanut oil

To serve:
1 continental cucumber, diced
lime wedges

Method

To make the curry, blitz all spice paste ingredients except the oil in a blender until smooth. Heat the oil in a large, heavy based saucepan or wok over medium heat and cook paste for until it’s caramelised and fragrant. This could take more than 10 minutes. You’ll know it’s ready when it stops smelling raw, thickens, deepens in colour and the oil floats on top.

Add the pineapple, water, tamarind slices, kaffir lime leaves and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to simmer for another 10 minutes. Add coconut milk, salt and sugar and return to the boil, then add fish at the very end to cook for 5-10 mins until cooked through. Taste just before serving. More salt, sugar or lime may be required to balance the flavours.

To make the rice, combine it with the pandan leaf, water and coconut milk in a medium non-stick or well seasoned saucepan. Bring to the boil then cover and reduce the heat. Simmer for another 10 mins, then remove from heat and allow to rest another 15 mins before fluffing up with a fork.

My notes:

You can find pandan leaves fresh or in the freezer in most Asian grocers. The fresh are better. The dried ‘tamarind’ slices are not related to tamarind, by the way. They’re the dried fruit of the gelugor tree, and may be labelled ‘asam gelugor’ which means sour slices. If you can’t get them use tamarind!

Miso roasted everything

Further to my little rave about Peter Gordon’s Savour cookbook, I thought I’d share with you his miso roasted eggplant / aubergine recipe. Although he makes it as part of an elaborate salad with Medjool dates, feta and crisp buckwheat I like it enough to make it as a simple side dish. And the really good thing about it is it’s ridiculously easy and works just as well on other vegetables. I roasted thick sweet potato slices with the same coating to serve with roast chicken the other night and it was the bomb – even the leftovers, cold from the fridge, were fab. So here you go miso lovers, get onto this.

3 tablesp white miso
3 tablesp mirin
2 tablesp light olive or other bland oil
2 tablesp sesame oil
sesame seeds
2 eggplants / aubergines, stems trimmed, each cut lengthways into six wedges OR
700g sweet potatoes thickly sliced or cut into 3cm chunks

Preheat the oven to 180 C. Mix the miso paste with the mirin to loosen it, then stir in the oils. Brush the mixture on the cut  surfaces of the chosen vegetable and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 20-30 minutes. The eggplant is cooked when you can squeeze it with little resistance. If you’re using sweet potatoes, poke with a skewer to check for tenderness.

I reckon this coating would be great on ordinary potatoes, pumpkin or even asparagus. Let me know if you try it or think there’s anything else that might happily roast in it.

Salads as art

I’ve been reviewing salad cookbooks for The Real Review and Savour, Salads for all Seasons from chef, Peter Gordon has me entranced.

Let’s get one thing straight: these are no ordinary salads. They’re imaginative with a keen eye on texture and punchy flavours but, hey, Yotam Ottolenghi and Karen Martini have been flying those flags for years. These ones are different.

Gordon’s efforts at first, and even subsequent, glances might seem like a bit of a palaver. Only the first chapter, Simple Salads, actually is. And although these ones are straightforward, they’re never boring. Here he does a red salad with grilled red capsicum, radicchio, tomatoes, beetroot and pomegranate and sesame seeds all dressed with a tangy, chili-spiked vinaigrette. That pushes all kinds of buttons, right there.

The rest of the book is all multi-staged extravaganzas divided into chapters including cheese, seafood, grains, poultry and meat. There are so many upsides to these though; with many of them, you probably won’t need to serve anything else, they’re very forgiving of omissions and substitutions and they teach you little tricks that you can apply to other, more simple affairs.

Last week I did a killer miso-baked aubergine salad with dates, feta and tahini yoghurt but didn’t bother with the crisp buckwheat topping because I couldn’t be bothered and it still had crunch from pine nuts. Not only did my quicker version work a treat, it introduced me to his miso-baked aubergine which I’ll do again just as a side.

The other hit was Puy lentils with quinoa, pomegranate-roasted grapes and tomatoes with chili, mint and basil. I won’t waste your time telling you how to cook lentils and quinoa because the genius of this recipe is the roasted grapes and tomatoes spooned on top of everything with their juices at the end.

Here’s how you make them:

Preheat the oven to 170 C.

Put 200g of a mixture of black and green grapes and 200g cherry tomatoes, a finely sliced eschallot, 1/2 a finely chopped red chili with seeds, 2 tablesp pomegranate molasses and 4 tablesp good olive oil in a roasting dish.

Stir to mix everything together then roast for about 30 minutes or more until caramelised, the skins have split and everything’s nicely juicy.

Utterly delicious on their own, this sweet, tangy combination that pops like bubble wrap would be great spooned over loads of things, not least, say, grilled haloumi. Or mixed through chick peas. I’d love to hear how you’d use this mix via the comments section below.

Peter Gordon is known for his mastery of ‘fusion’ cooking which can be a dangerous notion in the wrong hands. Relax, his are the right ones.

Slimy rocks

The more I cook the more I find myself chasing texture as much as flavour. The crunch of a gherkin with a rough country pate, the crispness of roast chicken skin and the gelatinous stickiness of a lamb shank. Okra, also known as lady’s fingers, is a must-have vegetable for the texture chaser. The late British cook and food writer Jane Grigson says its mucilaginous juice provides a ‘jellied smoothness’ to a sauce but the word that fits best I think is slimy.

When okra appears in recipes written by cooks not keen on the slime factor, elaborate instructions to salt the okra and leave in the sun, or rinse split pods in a solution of vinegar and water are included. These can safely be ignored. In fact it’s the slippery quality of okra that Americans in the deep south prize for its ability to thicken gumbo.

Late comedian Robin Williams loathed the stuff.

Okra is the closest thing to nylon I’ve ever eaten. It’s like they bred cotton with a green bean. Okra, tastes like snot.

Rest assured, it doesn’t. Actually it doesn’t taste of anything much which what makes it so versatile. Indians stew okra with spices and sometimes stuff the pods before crisp frying them. Greeks cook it with garlic, onion or leeks, tomatoes, lemon, parsley and olive oil which is delicious served hot or cold.

Fresh okra should be bright green with none of the brown patches that signal stock past its prime. As with many greens, smaller specimens are more tender and the best okra shouldn’t be more than about 6 cm long. It has a comparatively short shelf life so it’s best to buy only what you need no more than a day or so before cooking. A wash and trim of the conical stalk end is usually all that’s required by way of preparation. Australian cook Stephanie Alexander warns against cooking okra in an aluminium pan which she says turns the vegetable an unappetising shade of grey.

Strictly speaking it’s in season from mid Summer through to Autumn but it may make a surprise appearance in the depths of winter. So tell me, readers, where do you stand on slime?

Okra blog

Gumbo 

This has been adapted from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book

250g ham, cubed
1 large brown onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 red or green capsicum, chopped, minus seeds
olive oil
1 tablesp tomato concentrate
500g tomatoes, peeled and chopped
500g okra, trimmed
salt, pepper
cayenne or 1 dried chilli chopped

Stew the ham, onion celery and capsicum in a little oil or go trad and use lard. When they are beginning to soften, raise the heat so they colour lightly. Put in the tomato concentrate and the tomatoes. Stir until the tomatoes begin to collapse and liquify, then add the okra and seasonings. Cover and simmer slowly until cooked, checking if a little water is required but don’t drown it. The okra should be only partially covered with liquid. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

 

 

Ratatouille and Fascism

Late summer, early autumn, it must be time to make the world’s best ratatouille. I first discovered this recipe in Mediterranean Grains and Greens by Paula Wolfert, a food writer whose authenticity I love, and she attributes it to a Provencal restaurateur, Madame Saucourt.

Now Madame Saucourt was a bit of a recipe fascist it seems. The instructions she issued nearly scared Paula off the whole exercise – and Ms Wolfert’s not a cook easily rattled. So detailed. So uncompromising. And the quantities!

The onions must be the fresh sugary kind you find in the summer market. Don’t use red garlic, only white, and don’t use an aubergine that has a purple stalk because it will be bitter. Whatever you do, don’t reduce the recipe…Part of the great taste is due to the quantity. Most important, make this dish only in late summer when all the vegetables are ‘sun kissed’.

Yep, we’re talking about ten kilos of vegetables, a litre of olive oil and bails of herbs. Still when Paula Wolfert says it’s head and shoulders above any other ratatouille recipe then it’s worth listening. And even though she says “When you find the holy grail of a dish, you must respect it and never corrupt it” I reckon you can fiddle with it a bit. I’ve been making it for years and she’s right, it’s fabulous, but I rarely make quite as much as the original recipe dictates. She also says you get back most of the olive oil once the vegetables are drained but no, I find they soak it all up which is why it’s so good. I do stick like glue to the technique though and I think that’s what sets it apart.

There’s a lot to love about this. The technique means each of the ingredients retains its integrity rather than becoming lost in a sad, watery stew. But what I really love is how well it keeps. It becomes almost like a preserve, ready to spoon alongside roast lamb, chicken or sausages for at least a week if kept in the fridge. Cold it’s a great salad or, as Paula suggests, spread on pastry, crisscrossed with anchovies and baked into a tart. I actually had some for breakfast today with a fried egg.

Here’s the recipe with original quantities but you have my blessing to thumb your nose at Madame Saucourt’s hard line fascism. Text in brackets are my suggestions – just don’t tell Madame or PW. Oh and set aside about four hours for this, much of which can be spent away from the stove, drinking tea, etcetera.

Madame Saucourt’s Fabulous Ratatouille

2.3k eggplants
salt
2.3k onions (brown or white rather than red which might darken the dish) peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 litre extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons crushed garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mixed herbs: rosemary, savory, peppermint, thyme, celery
1 bay leaf
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
500ml dry, fruity white wine (I’ve used red and rose – both fine)
900g ripe tomatoes, cored and seeded
2.3k red capsicum
a few drops of red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mixed herbs for garnish: basil, parsley, thyme, celery

Prepare at least one day in advance, giving it time to mellow.

Stem and peel the eggplant (or peel in stripes if you fancy some skin)
cut the flesh into 2.5cm cubes and place them in a deep pan filed with very salty water. Keep submerged with a non-corrodible plate for at least an hour. Stem and peel the zucchini (I don’t peel them). Cut them into the same sized cubes as eggplant and place in a deep colander. Toss zucchini with salt and let stand for 30 mins.

Meanwhile, in a very large heavy frying pan or heavy-bottomed roasting tin, cook the chopped onions with 100ml water in 250ml olive oil until the water has evaporated and the onions are soft and golden, about 30 minutes. Add the garlic, chopped herbs, bay leaf, sugar, 1 tsp of salt, pepper and half the wine. Cook over medium heat, stirring often for 10 minutes.

Coarsely chops the tomatoes with their skins in the work bowl of the food processor. Add to the frying pan and continue cooking at a simmer for 90 minutes. Whenever the onion-tomato mixture starts to stick or burn, ‘spot deglaze’ with a few tablespoons water and scrape with a wooden spoon.

Grill the peppers; when cool, peel stem and seed and cut into small pieces. Set aside. Rinse and drain the eggplant and zucchini and pat them dry with kitchen paper.

Slowly heat the remaining 750ml olive oil in a wide pan big enough to hold everything (I use a large braising dish with a lid) until medium-hot. Add the zucchinis in batches and fry until golden on all sides. Transfer them with a slotted spoon to a colander set over a bowl to catch any excess oil (I’ve never found there’s much to catch, the vegetables hanging on to most of it). Once the zucchinis have all been fried, do the eggplants as well and, if you have captured any oil you can tip it back into the pan to continue frying.

Spread the zucchinis, eggplants and capsicums over the simmering onion-tomato mixture and pour in the remaining wine. Cover and cook at a simmer for 90 mins. From time to time remove the cover to help evaporate some liquid. Place a colander over a large bowl and pour the contents of the pan into it to drain. Stir carefully to avoid crushing the vegetable while trying to encourage any trapped oil and juices to drain. If there is a lot of juice, boil it down until thick. Reserve all the frying oil (if there is any) for some other purpose. Pour the juices over the vegetables, taste for seasoning, add vinegar if necessary and carefully stir to combine. Serve hot or cold sprinkled with fresh herbs.