Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Well, EASTER is really only a few days away now...
It’s time to think seriously about what you plan to eat over the weekend and definitely time to order your pork.  While I had hoped to cook a suckling pig for the family this year, I have been told by my butcher that it is too late, and we will have to settle for a roast loin of pork.
There will be 8 to 10 of us, so I have ordered a 3kg boned loin, and have asked the butcher to score the rind for me, as my knives aren’t up to the challenge at the moment.  We probably won’t eat the whole 3 kg, a few 100 grams less would certainly be sufficient, but who’s to complain about leftovers?
The skin (or rind if you would rather not think about what it is) should we well scored, that is, cut approx. 1cm apart, through the skin and into the fat about 5mm.  Don’t worry too much, but just don’t cut into the meat.  The fat in the skin renders off during cooking and makes the meat tender.
I plan to stuff and roll my pork myself (oh, that sounds a little risqué) but your butcher will certainly sell it to you boned, stuffed and rolled if you are time poor.  I prefer to make my own stuffing to ensure the ingredients are fresh and wholesome, and to maximize flavour and it’s certainly not hard to roll it.  You need some decent sized skewers and cooking string.  Not Bridget Jones blue!
You could also use a boned shoulder.  It will cost less per kg, and is really tasty.  It’s not quite as neat a cut as the loin, but the muscle has worked harder which makes for better tasting meat, but it benefits from slow (and lower temperature) roasting.
The key to great crackling is plenty of salt and starting the cooking at high heat.  The salt draws the moisture out of the skin, and the high heat blisters it.  After about 20 minutes the heat is reduced to continue cooking the meat at the appropriate temperature.
So, the day you are to roast you need to start by make your stuffing.  You’ll need about a pudding bowl full and you can make up your own recipe.  The best stuffing for pork generally includes some bread crumbs, herbs, onion, seasoning and fruit.  The sweet fruit works beautifully to counterbalance the richness of the pork.  Try the following:
·         Apples sautéed in brown sugar and butter, fresh breadcrumbs and chopped sage;
·         Prunes, diced apple, sautéed onion, fresh breadcrumbs and sage;
·         Apricots, cooked brown rice, toasted almonds, butter and seasoning;
·         Fresh breadcrumbs, and chopped fresh herbs with grated lemon zest and finely chopped spring onion;
·         Sautéed mushrooms and spring onions with water chestnuts;
·         Spinach sautéed with chopped onion, diced bacon and garlic, mixed with a little nutmeg and ricotta cheese;
·         Whole pickled walnuts, sliced dill gherkins and diced ham;
·         Drained sour cherries, chopped walnuts, onion and cinammon;
·         Or this one from Jamie Oliver (care of Gennero):

2 onions, peeled and finely diced
Olive oil
200g chicken livers, cleaned and roughly chopped
200g pork mince
75g pine nuts
100g raisins
½ bunch of fresh sage, leaves picked and roughly chopped
½ bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and roughly chopped
1 wineglass red wine or mulled wine, plus a bit extra for the stuffing
And some vegetables to form a trivet under the meat so the bottom stays moist.  Those wilted carrots or celery usually found in the vegetable crisper are ideal.

So before you start, preheat your oven to its highest temperature.

Lay the piece of pork on a board, skin-side down, and season well salt and pepper. Massage all over the meat.

Put a large frypan on a medium heat and fry the onion in a little olive oil until it’s softened but not coloured, then turn the heat down to low and add the chopped chicken livers and pork mince. Use a wooden spoon to break the mince up a bit and mix everything together.  TIP:  I use a flat ended wooden spoon for all my savoury dishes and reserve my round end spoons for sweet dishes, so I don’t mix the sweet and savory flavours. 

Add the pine nuts, raisins, sage and parsley, then season with of salt and pepper. Pour in a splash of the wine, and mix to combine.  Remove from the heat and to avoid overcooking, put the stuffing in a bowl if you are not immediately ready to assemble the thing.

I’ve read a lot of warnings about not putting hot stuffing into cold meat, but have always done so with no problems.  I think it’s more about large turkeys and maintaining an adequate internal temperature (and why meat thermometers are an important kitchen tool).  If you are interested in further reading, there is a whole heap of information on the United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service  I never stuff meat before I am ready to cook it, so perhaps that is what makes the difference…

So, now that the stuffing is made, place the pork skin side down on a board, and spoon the stuffing down the middle of the boned loin or shoulder. Roll the meat up quite tightly and along with some strategically placed skewers, tie it up as tightly as you can with string.    I will add some images after I prepare our roast on Easter Sunday.  

Drizzle all over with olive oil, season with lots of salt and some pepper.  Rub the seasoning all over the skin to help it turn into delicious crackling.

Lay the carrots or celery across the middle of the roasting tray or baking dish and place the meat on top.  Pour the wine and a glass of water in the bottom of the dish, then place into the oven.  

Now, Jamie says to turn the heat down immediately and roast on 180°C/350°F/gas for four hours, until lovely and golden.  I would normally roast on high for 20 minutes then reduce and cook for a further three plus hrs.  As a rule, it generally takes approx. 1 hour per kilogram at 180°C, but this also includes the time for the hot start.  If in doubt, buy yourself a meat thermometer and you’ll never make a mistake.

Remove the meat from the oven, and leave until it is cool enough to handle, then remove the string and skewers.  Remove the skin, and reserve to serve later.  Let the meat rest for at least 15 minutes before slicing the pork and serving it with broken up bits of yummy crackling.

Now to avoid disaster, if your crackling has not crisped up nicely, you can always place it under a hot grill for a few minutes.  BUT WATCH IT.  It burns very quickly and that would be a REAL disaster.

We all know how well apple sauce goes with roast port, but you could also try cranberry jelly with orange juice, a little orange zest and a dash or port or orange liqueur; or some lovely red wine jelly.

I will be serving mine with some ROSEMARY BAKED POTATOES and a ROAST PUMPKIN SALAD or a FRENCH STYLE ROAST VEGETABLE SALAD.   The roast pumpkin salad has become a family favorite and a great alternative to cooked green vegetables.  It is a slightly less traditional accompaniment, but really fresh and tasty, and very easy to prepare.

If you would prefer to serve hot vegetables, I a vegetable platter made up of GLAZED BABY CARROTS, BEANS WITH WALNUTS AND TARRAGON or PEAS WITH MINT AND PROSCUITTO (which we had last year with our slow roasted lamb shoulder and a glazed baked ham) are ideal.  These dishes were ideal for a large group with both meats sliced and served at the table with the vegetable dishes it was easier for everyone to help themselves (to seconds… and thirds…).

Here are some recipes side dishes (photos will be posted later!):

2 bunches baby carrots
100 grams butter
½ bunch fresh coriander, chopped with only a little of the stem. (You could put the rest of the chopped stem in the stuffing)
1 tablespoon of organic honey (optional)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional)

Cut most of the stems off the baby carrots, but leave 1cm.  Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, and cook a few minutes until tender.  Drain.  To the pan add the butter, melt, then add the chopped coriander, and sauté for just a few moments.  Add seasoning to taste.  Place carrots on platter, and pour butter over.  A little honey and a tablespoon of lemon juice can also be added for extra tang.

1 kilo green beans, trimmed
3 tablespoons walnut oil
¼ cup tarragon, chopped
1 ½ cups walnut pieces, toasted
Salt and pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, add the beans and cook until tender.  Drain, and toss with walnut oil, tarragon and 1 cup of walnut pieces. Season to taste.

Place on a serving platter and top with remaining walnut pieces. Serve warm or equally delicious at room temperature.

Before adding the Walnuts...
Ingredients (serves 6)
600g frozen peas
1 tbs olive oil
100g sliced prosciutto, thinly sliced crossways
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
30g butter

Cook the peas in large saucepan of boiling water for 4 minutes or until just tender. Drain.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a small frying pan over medium heat. Add the prosciutto and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until crisp.
Combine the peas, prosciutto, mint and butter in a large bowl. Serve.


Potatoes (1 medium per person), peeled and cut into even sized pieces – about 2  or 3 per potato. 
Olive oil
Rosemary sprigs, stem removed
Salt and pepper
Grated parmesan cheese (optional)

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, add potato and cook for 10 to 15 minutes depending on quantity.  You actually want the potato cooked.  Drain and set aside for a short while so they dry out really well.

Meanwhile, add olive oil, rosemary springs, salt and pepper to a heavy baking or roasting dish, and place in the oven to pre-heat for 5-10 minutes.  When potatoes are quite dry, add to baking dish and toss to coat in seasoned oil and rosemary.  Because they are well cooked, not partially, they tend to fall apart a little and all the soft edges make the cooked potatoes extra crispy.  Roast at 200°C, turning a few times until golden brown and crisp.  They usually less than half an hour at but you may need to turn your oven down a little if they are browning too fast.   You can throw some grated parmesan cheese on 5 minutes before they are done if you like.


Serves 6-8

1.5 kilos pumpkin, peeled and chopped into 4cm cubes
A packet of baby spinach leaves, washed (approx 200g)
A tub of bocconcini or baby mozzarella
Olive oil for roasting
4 tablespoons of olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
500 cherry tomatoes, cut in half (optional)

Preheat the oven to 2000C.  Place the pumpkin pieces in a lightly oiled baking dish, season, and roast for approx 30 minutes.  If using tomatoes, cut them in half, and place in a lightly oiled baking dish, season with salt and pepper and place in oven, 15 minutes after the pumpkin. Turn the pumpkin a few times and remove the pumpkin tender once cooked to a golden colour, not brown, and set aside to cool once.

This simple salad can be varied with the additon of raw or roasted red (Tuscan) onions, oven roasted red capsicum, or roast pumpkin seeds as a garnish.

To serve, place the spinach in a large shallow bowl, and top with the pumpkin, roast tomatoes and bocconcini.  Combine the oil, lemon zest, and garlic, and pour over the salad.

2 red and 2 yellow capsicums
2 zucchini
2 bulbs fennel
4 small (eggplants
2 red onions
3 carrots
2 parsnips
500g grean beans, trimmed and just cooked
2 whole heads garlic, cloves separated
3 lemons, thickly sliced
8 tbsp olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
¼ cup of whole egg mayonnaise or aioli.  Sometimes you will need more or less
A drizzle of honey
Salt and fresh ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Remove seeds from the capsicum, then slice everything into fairly even sized pieces. Place into a large roasting/baking pan.  Scatter the peeled garlic cloves and lemon slices evenly over the vegetables and drizzle with a little olive oil.  Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and roast for 30 minutes or so, until softened and caramelised.  Turn every now and then, and reduce temperature if they are cooking too fast.

Remove the cooked vegetables from the oven, take out the garlic and set aside for later use.  Place the roasted vegetables onto a large serving platter or wide shallow bowl.  Allow the vegetables to cool a little before adding the green beans.
To make the dressing, squash the garlic cloves with the edge of a large cooks knife, then chop finely.  Place the lemon juice, remaining olive oil, mayonaise and honey (if using) in a jar, add the garlic and shake to combine.  Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss well but gently.  Serve warm, or at room temperature.
For DESSERT, I am thinking I will serve a chocolate cake (if we havent already eaten too much, delivered kindly by the Easter Bunny.  If I do, it will be my new favourite: Willie’s Cloud Forest Chocolate Cake.  After watching the programme, Willie’s Wonky Chocolate Factory with morbid fascination, I discovered the website one day (see Links).  And it’s such a cute website.  You can buy the cook book, and 100% pure Cacao (pictured) online from the UK.  Its expensive so buy a whole lot at once to minimise postage! 
If I feel like cheating and doing somehting really easy, it will be figs with chocolate ricotta stuffing; or maybe quinces baked in verjuice syrup, both of which are in season in Autumn.

Well, I hope your prepareation goes well for Easter and I’ll add some photos next week to show you how it all looks.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

An Italian Summer of Food

The food highlight of 2009 for me was an ITALIAN SUMMER.

Thick Florentine steaks (and Chianti of course) cooked over a wood grill; delicious olive oil and fine balsamic vinegars on every table; gelato, delicious donut peaches, and ripe summer berries galore…  but there were also some new delights and specialties like burrata.

I’d never heard of it before, much less tasted it.  We were dining in a little pizza restaurant in a small Tuscan village and the burrata was served very simply with ripe tomatoes, salt, and pepper on a shared plate.  It is a mozzarella style of cheese with a delicious butter like filling and must be eaten absolutely fresh.  When you tear the cheese open, the inside oozes out.  It was such a typical Italian treat -  simple but incredibly delicious.

Unfortunately we did not dine at that famous butcher, Dario Cecchini’s Ristorante Solociccia, at Panzano in Chianti, but we did stroll amongst the picturesque village markets and stores, and bought some Chianti to take home.  Near Tavarnelle, we had a fine lunch at Ristorante  la Fattoria even though we were disappointed to miss out on the wood roasted suckling pig as we were nearly two hours late for our booking,  due to the typically Tuscan style directions we were given.   We settled for Bistecca fiorentina (Tuscan steaks), and a few other dishes we shared with our party, including what looked like ‘Kentucky Fried’ rabbit.  Delicious  and surprisingly not greasy, fried rabbit pieces served on the best stuffed and lightly battered zucchini (courgette) flowers I’ve ever tasted.
In Bologna – which many refer to the food capital of Italy – it’s all about pigs.   The area is famous for  cured meats like the mortadella and prosciutto, however we did not get to try the famous zampone – a boned pig’s foot stuffed with spiced pork, nor did we see any of that ‘classic’ Australian dish – spaghetti bolognaise!   Of course pork fat is also the principal cooking ‘oil’ rather than butter or olive oil.  Other famous specialties of Bologna are their pastas: Tortellini, Tagliatelle, and the spinach dyed pasta verde. The fat dairy cattle of the region, give the rich milk and cream used in production of Parmigiano Reggiano, that universally cherished cheese we unfortunately refer to as parmesan.  Another export is the region’s internationally famous wine – Lambrusco – a slightly sweet, slightly effervescent red wine – but give that speciality a miss!

Of course you cannot visit Italy and not eat Pizza!  Although originating in the south, it is everywhere in the north.  It varies slightly, although Rome was the only place I saw it made square.  Pizza alla Romana or Bianca, unlike the Napoletano pizza with tomato, is a crunchy white pizza, made from a thin crust brushed with olive oil and flecked with large chunks of salt, and sometimes flavored with rosemary.  Of course most pizza’s had that perfect thin crust.  My favourite was from a tiny shopfront in San Gimignano (Tuscany), just of the Duomo square.  Huge pizza’s were sold by the slice, and served on these great triangular ‘trays’ made out of something like corflute!  They deftly prevented pizza on shirt.

Traditional roman dishes waere suprisingly simple.  There was a distinct lack tomato which we often think every Italian dish includes.  Typical dishes were Gnocchi alla Romana, made with semolina flour rather than the potato used in the northern gnocchi; and Spaghetti alla Carbonara, a classic creamy sauce made of egg, cheese and guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig’s jowl or cheeks). Artichokes are also popular in Rome, and other dishes such as pasta fagiole, or bean soup, and rabbit stews, are very hearty and rustic.

In Rome we also visited the Trastevere market; a traditional food market with an emphasis on seasonally available foods fresh from local farms or brought in from the ocean fresh-caught.  We marveled over one stall selling nothing but tomatoes.  They came in all shapes and sizes but had one thing in common – incredible flavor.   There were even some from Pompeii which tasted of the volcanic ash soils.  Rome’s local government (province of Lazio) dictates that all neighborhoods must have a food market.  These wonderful markets sell unique regional foods along with everyday staples.  The seafood vendor doesn’t carry truckloads of single varieties, but small selections of the freshest catch available each day.  Although I am sure they are around, thankfully we did not notice supermarkets (something I cannot unfortunately, say for Paris).

In each destination we sampled beautiful seafood.  In Porto Ercole it was simply cooked langoustines and pipi’s in a port side cafe.  In Venice it was best summed up with a cold seafood platter, and in the centre a big pile of Bacalà mantecà. Salt cod boiled, cleaned and beaten into a delicious paste with oil before seasoning with salt, pepper and garlic.  At first I thought it was a very tasty fresh ricotta-like cheese.  Also served on the platter was botargo.  I’m still not sure if they are cuttlefish or mullet eggs.  They sound horrendous but they were tasty!  We also tried the classic Venetian dish of Sepe in nero – Cuttlefish cut into small pieces and cooked with garlic, onion, tomato sauce and the black ink of the cuttlefish, served in its characteristic black sauce, atop creamy polenta.  Another classic dish is Figà ala venesiana, veal liver cut into small pieces and fried with onions, oil and butter served with creamy yellow polenta.

Classic bar snacks called cichetti are served in the bacaro, or traditional workingman’s pubs frequented water taxi and gondola drivers after a quick snack, as well as other locals and tourists.  In the afternoon, the women  drink  a spritz.  The original Venetian recipe consisted of white wine mixed with water.  Nowadays, it’s a bitter, summery pre-dinner aperitif made with (1 ounce of) Aperol or Campari mixed with 2/3 glass prosecco and topped with soda or sparkling water. It is usually served in a lowball glass with ice, a slice of orange, and sometimes an olive.

I also had my favourite dessert in all of Italy, served in Venice.  It was also the simplest – Burrano Biscuits served which were piled with what I think was whipped mascarpone, dusted with icing sugar.  These Bussolà Buranello are traditional or artisan biscuits originally baked on the island of Burrano (the one with the colourful houses) on Easter Sunday, but they are now available year round.  They come in a variety of shapes.  Ours were Esse, in the shape of an ‘S’.   We were also served these as a snack while cruising around the vast and fascinating lagoon.  Biscuit in one hand and a glass of the opulently sweet Recioto della Valpolicella in the other – we were told to dunk.  Yum!

Talking about wines.  I finally got Prosecco whilst in Italy.  I’d previously thought it a little dull and flat, but it is just a slightly effervescent white wine, not at all like champagne.  In some great little Italian wine bars (Inoteca) we drank the house wines.  As we knew little about Italian wine other than Brunello or Chianti, we decided there was little point trying to select from wine lists.   We were there to eat anyway.  Generally we found that most served decent wines for very reasonable prices.  We learnt the secret to a good Bellini also.  The peach puree must be made from fresh white peaches.  Not canned, not yellow.

There was a wide variety in bread styles in Italy which I had not expected. For instance, in Venice the bread was made without any apparent salt.  I found it rather awful – one of the few things I ate in Venice I did not like!  In Tuscany, the bread was typical sourdough.  These regional food differences are apparent throughout Italy and provide a hint of the relatively short period since unification (19th Century).  It’s also reflected in the architecture – which is unique in each major city and region.