Monday, 27 December 2010

Cherries galore

Cherries are a tricky ingredient to work with – the major problem being that they are just so damned delicious fresh that I find it nearly impossible not to eat them all in the preparation stages!

I once lived in a rural house in Switzerland that had an enticing cherry orchard in the back yard. I would climb a tall ladder to pluck copious dark red bunches and fill one basket after another. Hours later I would clamber down, intoxicated with delight at the sight of my pickings. After most of the day spent up a tree my mind would be full of recipe ideas to experiment with but I was often too tired to cook my harvest. It was much easier to eat them immediately in all their glory.

A little further into cherry season when you’ve eaten a sufficient quantity then maybe it’s time to think about letting a few cherries make it into jam, cakes, puddings like pies and crumbles, and even some savoury fare, such as chutney or stuffing for chicken. Or perhaps douse them in brandy or a fruity liqueur and hide them away until winter.

With cooking, the only downside to a cherry obsession is the pitting process – beware as luscious plump cherries can splatter clothing (and often the walls) with their juices. Like deep-red cherry blood this forms a penetrating stain if left to set.

Choose cherries that are glossy, firm, fat and heavy for their size; this state indicates they have been left to grow fully and ripen on the tree. Mass and flavour are lost with early picking so cherries are best when voluptuously fleshy and yielding to the tongue.

I recommend buying at least twice as many cherries as called for in any recipe. This way you can work on the extremely satisfying, tried and true cooking method – one for me and one for the pot!

Chef’s tip: A cherry stoner is an essential culinary tool for any cherry addict as its use speeds up the otherwise laborious pitting process. A bonus is that this nifty gadget doubles as an olive stoner.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Yule love it...

Well, I can hardly believe that it’s that time of year again. Just when we all feel like winding down, we have to take one last breath and make it across the Yuletide finishing line.

For those of you who have taken on the responsibility of festive head chef, you have a vital and fun role. Here are some quick and easy but wonderfully festive recipes to help you rise to the challenge!
The only dilemma at Christmas is whether to go for the traditional Northern Hemisphere all-out turkey, pork, gravy and stuffing feast or a menu of seafood and salad to suit our summery climate and informal holiday mood. I like to have a bit of both – the tradition mixed with the casual – and that way it satisfies everyone.
Salmon is a superb fish to bake, plus a whole baked side of salmon makes a great centrepiece on any Christmas table. Salmon fillet is easy to prepare, easy to serve, and nicely sized, so it’s good for those catering for small numbers. To add something special and turn baked salmon into a truly festive dish, all you need to do is serve a delicious sauce on the side, such as Béarnaise sauce.

While turkey is my personal favourite festive meal, I don’t always want to deal with roasting a whole turkey on a hot summer’s day. So, this turkey salad is a clever option. I roast the turkey breasts the day before and then make up the salad just before it is needed – this makes life easy and leaves me plenty of time to relish the day’s festivities.

For informal Down-under summer celebrations at the beach or bach, you may opt to enjoy just this salad as the main event. But if you’re feeling really decadent, then this salad can be served as one component of a multi-course feast. However it works into your menu, I think you’ll find this festive salad captures some of the simple pleasures that infuse Christmas with magic and meaning.

Whatever you decide to cook on the day, enjoy preparing and sharing food with the people you love this Christmas.

Recipes copyright Julie Le Clerc 2010
All-in-one salads filled with lots of special ingredients are excellent summer Christmas fare.
Serves 8
1kg turkey breasts
olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
75g prosciutto
700g baby potatoes
4 spring onions, chopped
150g baby salad greens
1 cup podded broad beans (fresh or frozen)
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/3 cup dried cranberries
Dijon dressing:
2 tbsp quality balsamic vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Preheat oven to 200°C. Spray or brush turkey breasts with olive oil, season with salt and pepper all over and place in a roasting pan. Roast for 30 to 40 minutes, depending on size, or until the juices run clear. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
2 At the same time, boil potatoes in salted water for 10 minutes or until tender. Drain well and set aside to cool. Place prosciutto on a baking tray and bake in the same oven as the turkey for 5 minutes until crisp. Remove to cool, then break into bite-sized pieces.
3 Slice cold turkey and place in a large salad bowl with cold potatoes, spring onions and salad greens. Whisk dressing ingredients together in a small bowl to combine then pour over salad. Toss well to coat and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, if necessary.
4 Scatter salad with broad beans, pine nuts, dried cranberries and prosciutto and serve with watercress mayonnaise on the side.

Before starting to make mayonnaise, all ingredients should be at room temperature so that they emulsify easily.
Makes 1 1/2 cups
3 egg yolks, at room temperature
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup vegetable oil such as sunflower, canola or rice bran oil
1 cup firmly packed watercress leaves, coarsely chopped
1 Place egg yolks, salt, mustard and vinegar in the bowl of a food processor or in a bowl if making by hand. Process or whisk mixture until pale and foamy.
2 With the motor running, or while continuously whisking, add oils in a thin and steady stream until amalgamated into a thick mayonnaise.
3. Taste and adjust seasoning or add a little extra vinegar to taste, if necessary.
4 Store mayonnaise in the fridge with a covering of plastic wrap pressed onto its surface to prevent a skin forming. Lasts about 7-10 days if properly stored under refrigeration.

Recipe and photograph ©copyright Julie Le Clerc 2010

Monday, 15 November 2010

Food and family in Lebanon and Syria

Beirut's Corniche (waterfront promenade)
I recently revisited both Lebanon and Syria in search of authentic recipes, good food and family ties. On my first visit to Lebanon, seven years ago, I didn’t manage to find any relatives but I did find an amazing connection to the people I met through food. And many of my family ways around food all of a sudden made sense.
On this second trip, I could not get over the changes in Beirut. A huge amount of redevelopment has taken place over the last few years, meaning much of central old Beirut has been changed into glass high rise buildings, verging on the style of Dubai. And other parts had been modernised, too, which I can’t help but feel is a shame, in some ways.

However, my favourite part of Beirut remains the corniche (waterfront promenade), which is buzzing with life, especially in the early evening when everyone comes out for a walk. There are people fishing from rocks, families strolling or swimming, and everyone enjoys snacking on street food sold from carts, barrows and bikes by an enterprising array of vendors.  Corn on the cob is popular, as are tasty sesame flat breads that you can have filled with salty, feta-like white cheese.
Simple Lebanese sweets (pastries)
After 25 years of searching I have finally managed to trace my family links and when at last I meet my great aunt Abla and her family in Beirut, the first thing we do is eat sweets. The Arabs have a great love of sugar, and by sweets I mean pastries. Sweet shops are hugely popular and are a wondrous sight to behold. Sugary pastries of all kinds are displayed in the most elaborate ways. There are great pyramids of syrup-drenched morsels, intricate swirls of different coloured creations, honey coated jewel-like numbers, nutty filled baklava, and the list goes on and on. It’s terribly hard to choose but the assistants are on hand to ply me with tastes and to help with my decision making. 
Coffee in Tripoli, Lebanon
Beirut is good for a few days stay but I definitely prefer spending time in the northern town of Tripoli. To me this town feels much more like old Lebanon. In fact, visiting the souk (market) is like stepping back in time by about a hundred years. I stop for a coffee from a street vendor and enjoy chatting to the coffee man. He explains that his coffee pots were passed onto him by his father and that they are very old (1967 - not so old, I think). Then he tells me how they work, which I find fascinating. He shows me that these free-standing coffee pots have an internal cavity containing hot coals that he refills throughout the day with glowing embers purchased from a hot coal vendor.  The coffee, contained in a central cylinder, is kept piping hot by the burning charcoal. It is an ingenious system and I’m so pleased to have learnt this small but interesting fact.
sour pickled grapes and vegetables
Conversely, Arabs also have a great love of sourness in food.  Sumac (a sour tasting crimson coloured berry); lemon juice, pomegranate and yoghurt are all used to lend their tartness to cooking. They are also very fond of pickled vegetables that are so lip puckingly sour that they make my eyes water. The vivid tang of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice I enjoyed every morning for breakfast lingers in my mind. And I still have the taste of true labneh (strained yoghurt cheese) on my tongue – it has a silky consistency and creaminess that cannot be precisely reproduced outside its homeland.

My favourite Syrian fattoush salad
Another indelible food memory is the startling taste and texture of fattoush, a much-loved pita bread salad from this part of the world. In Lebanon, fattoush is dressed liberally with lemon juice, but in Syria the dressing is made with pomegranate molasses, elevating this humble salad to lofty and flavoursome heights. 

My days in Lebanon and Syria are punctuated by food. I count myself lucky to be able to taste time-honoured recipes that are part of a varied, tasty and healthy cuisine. The meals I eat almost seem to be infused with an otherworldly dimension. Layered with vibrant flavours, which echo a colourful past imbued with history and tradition, this is food that possesses a definite sense of place.
You can’t help but know you’re somewhere magical when you eat food like this. And for me, I know I’ve come home, as this is my ancestral land and I am eating with family. Food has never tasted as good as this food my family have made to demonstrate their love for me.

Footnote: How I found my long lost relatives in Syria and Lebanon is a tale of epic proportions and so, naturally, I plan to eventually write a book about my discoveries. My personal story will be interwoven with authentic recipes and travel photos taken to document my journey.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

food 'Made by Hand' tastes superior

Made by Hand, natural food to nourish and delight

I am so thrilled to introduce my new book, 'Made by Hand', to you all. At its heart, this cookbook is full of really tasty recipes using honest, natural ingredients, often with a clever twist. For example, some recipes are gluten-free (but never flavour-free). There are dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and everything in between, including chapters on natural baking, guilt-free desserts and happy family food. This is food that tastes good while being good for us, as well. To compliment the recipes, I have also included lots of useful lifestyle tips and information to help you be organic savvy; start a kitchen garden; shop smart, reuse and recycyle, and clean your kitchen in a non-toxic way using natural ingredients. I really hope this book will encourage everyone to get back into the kitchen, cook up a storm, and enjoy sharing delicious food with those you care about.

Made by Hand, natural food to nourish and delight
Author: Julie Le Clerc
Published by Penguin Books, New Zealand.
Available from bookstores nationwide and internationally