Pleasure in the process

Stephianie Alexander is the author of 18 books including The Cooks Companion, which has become a...
Stephianie Alexander is the author of 18 books including The Cooks Companion, which has become a kitchen bible for many cooks. Photos: supplied
Australian chef Stephanie Alexander’s mission in 60 years of cooking has been to convince as many people as possible that cooking a lovely meal without anxiety adds so much to the joy of living.

Alexander is the author of 18 books including The Cooks Companion, which has become a kitchen bible for many cooks.

THE BOOK: Home, Stephanie Alexander, MacMillan, RRP$65
THE BOOK: Home, Stephanie Alexander, MacMillan, RRP$65

For 21 years she was the force behind Stephanie’s Restaurant, an establishment which set a standard in its era, and she set up the Kitchen Garden Programme in Australian schools.

Now having turned 80, she has published Home, a tribute to her passions and preferences for flavours and produce.

"Green leafy salads are lauded throughout, and my love of beautiful extra-virgin olive oil is reinforced on almost every page. Anchovies, garlic, chicken and braised vegetables are star ingredients in my repertoire."

"Every recipe assumes you will choose your ingredients with care, that you will be willing to do some preparation, simple or otherwise, and that in fact you will look forward to the process."

Along with the recipes, she has included the stories behind them, tips, tricks and inspiration.

Speedy and spicy lamb cutlets with hot potato salad and baba ghanoush

Serves 4

I especially love well-trimmed lamb cutlets. I say "well-trimmed", but have to admit that I like a little bit of fat left on my cutlets to crisp deliciously, whether grilled on a chargrill pan or on the outside barbecue.

They seem to please almost everybody. I recall my amazement at seeing my granddaughter being offered a nicely grilled lamb cutlet as one of her first encounters with solid food when she was less than a year old. It would not have been considered baby food when I was raising babies but she certainly enjoyed it.

Often I ask my butcher to cut double lamb cutlets. The extra thickness ensures that you can grill each double cutlet quite hard for a crusty exterior but the middle of each will still be pink.

Double cutlets cooked in this manner will benefit from a few minutes’ rest - which will happen without any fuss if you serve a platter of them to the centre of the table. If you double the size of the cutlets, you will also need to double the amount of marinade.

Here I have borrowed flavours from India for a speedy marinade, and suggest making yoghurt flatbread and serving baba ghanoush as well as a side dish of potatoes tossed with spices and herbs.

Chilli paste can mean various things. There are many commercial products in supermarkets and even more in Indian and Asian food stores. Some are just chopped chillies in vinegar, others are complex spice mixtures with chilli being the major ingredient.

In this category I would place sambal oelek, originally an Indonesian spice mixture that typically includes garlic, ginger and lemongrass as well as plenty of hot chillies and a little sugar. "Oelek" means "grinding", so sambal oelek simply means ground chilli sambal! I keep a small jar of this in my refrigerator ready to add a chilli note whenever. It stays fresh for months.

As with all preserves make sure you use a clean spoon each time you scoop.

Ingredients 

12 trimmed lamb cutlets

1 quantity yoghurt

Flatbread dough

1 lemon, cut into wedges

BABA GHANOUSH

1 large eggplant

1 garlic clove, crushed

sea salt

juice of 1 lemon

⅓ cup tahini

2 Tbsp water

2–3 Tbsp thick Greek-style yoghurt

freshly ground black pepper

MARINADE

1 Tbsp finely grated ginger

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 long green chilli, seeded, finely chopped

½ tsp sambal oelek

1 tsp sea salt

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

 

HOT POTATO SALAD

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

½ tsp mustard seeds

½ tsp cumin seeds

8 waxy potatoes, unpeeled and cut into bite-sized chunks

tiny pinch of ground turmeric

sea salt

1 handful mint leaves

1 handful coriander leaves

1 handful coarsely chopped

flat-leaf parsley

freshly ground black pepper

Method

To make the baba ghanoush, place the eggplant on the barbecue grill over medium heat, or settle the eggplant on a rack over a moderate gas flame if cooking indoors.

Every few minutes turn the eggplant using tongs. Be gentle. You do not want to split the skin. The flesh will be quite soft after 10–15 minutes. Lift the charred eggplant on to a plate and allow it to cool a bit. Then strip away the black skin carefully, using a small knife and possibly your fingers, trying not to waste any of the flesh. The flesh is meant to be a bit discoloured (this is where the smoky flavour comes from) so do not discard any that looks bronze or even blackish. Resist the idea of rinsing the eggplant under a tap as you will reduce the flavour. Once peeled, split the eggplant open and remove and discard any really seedy sections with a sharp teaspoon.

Now put the flesh into a colander or non-reactive strainer resting over a bowl and let it drain for about 30 minutes.

Chop the drained flesh roughly and transfer to a bowl. Mix the crushed garlic to a paste with a pinch of salt and stir into the eggplant with the lemon juice. Season to taste. Mix the eggplant puree and tahini in a small bowl — the mixture will "tighten". Loosen the mixture with the water, and stir in the yoghurt. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Set aside until needed.

Combine all the ingredients for the lamb marinade in the small bowl of a food processor and process to a paste. Rub the marinade all over the cutlets and leave at room temperature for 1 hour.

While the cutlets are marinating, make the flatbreads and the potato salad.

Prepare the flatbread dough as instructed, and set it aside to prove for 30 minutes.

While the dough is proving, preheat the oven to 100degC (80degC fan-forced) with a baking dish in it.

Meanwhile, make the hot potato salad. Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or a deep frying pan over high heat and add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds. Stir for a few seconds with a wooden spoon, then add the potato and turmeric and season with salt. Cover and cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring several times. Add a splash of water to the potato if the chunks are sticking. Ideally they will brown and maybe break up a bit.

While the potato is frying, divide the flatbread dough into eight balls. With well-floured hands and a floured rolling pin, gently roll each ball until 2mm thick.

Cook the flatbread in a dry heavy-based frying pan or on the preheated flat plate of your barbecue for 2 minutes each side. The flatbreads will lift and bubble and will develop charred grill marks here and there. Slip the flatbreads as they are made into a folded clean tea towel and transfer to the low oven to keep warm.

When the potatoes are nearly cooked, heat an overhead grill or a chargrill pan to medium-high and cook the lamb cutlets for about 3 minutes each side.

Toss the fresh herbs through the hot potato, then grind on some pepper and tip the hot salad on to a large serving dish.

Add the lamb cutlets, and serve the baba ghanoush and flatbreads on the side. Offer lemon wedges to squeeze over the lamb.

 

Nut meringue layer cake with banana and passionfruit

Banana and passionfruit go so well together and if you add whipped cream you cannot go wrong. The combination is irresistible on top of a pavlova.

Here I use the same combination to sandwich thin layers of nut meringue, a fail-safe version for anyone who finds making a pav daunting. In pastry manuals these easy-to-make meringue layer cakes are variously known as a dacquoise or japonaise.

This dessert is even more delicious if you use ladyfinger bananas with their sweet lemony flavour. Select passionfruit with skins that are just a bit wrinkled for maximum juiciness and avoid those with hard unyielding skins or, even worse, the super wrinklies that are over-ripe, empty of juice and sometimes quite definitely fermented.

I have used a mixture of almonds and walnuts in this meringue, but feel free to substitute some or all for ground hazelnuts.

These quantities make three 20cm meringue discs. It is best if they can all be baked at the same time so do measure your trays and test them side by side in your oven before you start. If your oven will only accommodate one tray on a shelf, you will have to swap the trays halfway through the baking time.

Ingredients 

20g plain flour

120g ground nuts (I used 70g blanched almonds and 50g walnuts)

150ml free-range egg whites, at room temperature (from 5 large eggs)

180g caster sugar

2 ladyfinger bananas

6 passionfruit

1 Tbsp honey

300ml thickened cream

pure icing sugar, to serve

Method

Preheat the oven to 150degC (the meringues are best cooked without using the fan-forced function). Mix the flour and ground nuts in a small bowl and have it nearby. Line two baking trays with baking paper - use a tiny dob of the egg white to fix the corners of the paper to the trays. Trace three 20cm circles on the baking paper, two on one tray, one on the other.

Whip the egg whites in an electric stand mixer on high speed to stiff peaks.

Gradually add the caster sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, beating all the while, until you have a very glossy meringue. Stop the machine and scatter in the nut and flour mixture. Fold in gently using a balloon whisk. Swap to a nylon spatula or a large spoon and ensure that the nuts are folded right to the bottom of the meringue.

Now spoon one-third of the meringue into the middle of each circle and use the back of the spoon to spread it evenly - the rounds will be about 1cm high. Smooth the tops lightly. Some cooks like to pipe the mixture but I think there is a danger of overhandling the delicate meringue so that it loses its precious air.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the discs are pale-gold and feel crisp when tapped lightly with your finger. Cool on a wire rack. When quite cold, store the discs, still with their paper backing, in an airtight tin for up to 3 days, or else peel off the paper and fill. Once assembled, the meringue cake will need to soften for at least 1 hour before cutting. It is best of all if filled several hours before you intend to serve.

Slice the bananas finely and tip them into a bowl, then mash with a fork. Carefully halve the passionfruit. (The safe way to cut a passionfruit is to use a serrated knife.

Place the passionfruit on your board, holding it with your thumb on one side, fingers on the other, and position the serrated knife underneath the arch of your hand. In this way should the knife skid on the hard skin your fingers are right out of the way.)

Scoop the juice and pulp into the bowl with the banana and mix together. Leave to macerate while you prepare the cream.

Add the honey to the cream and whip the cream to very firm peaks. Refrigerate until you are ready to assemble. Fold two-thirds of the banana/passionfruit mix slowly into the cream. You want the filling to still hold its shape. Decide whether you need to add the rest of the banana/passionfruit mix.

Peel the baking paper from each meringue disc. Place a disc on a flat serving plate and scoop on half of the filling - I put my first disc flat-side up to receive the cream, but it doesn’t really matter. Settle a second disc on top. Scoop and spread the remainder of the cream over the meringue. Top with the third disc, best-side up.

Return the filled cake to the refrigerator or a cool spot and allow to soften for about an hour.

Dust with icing sugar to serve.

Note: Leftovers, refrigerated, are still delicious - or even better - two days later, if there are any left.

 

Assorted crostini and bruschetta

After a holiday in Tuscany I came back newly inspired with the charm and ease of starting a simple meal with a platter of crostini or bruschetta. Essentially both are slices of grilled bread, rubbed with garlic and finished with different toppings.

Small slices = crostini.

Larger slices = bruschetta.

The range of toppings is infinite and most are very simple, requiring minimal preparation. The recipe for cheesy toasts included here has followed me for years, as it was created when I was a part-owner of the Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder. But it is still a winner.

I have to restate one of my founding principles. Involve your children and grandchildren as often as you can in your shared meals. Even though they may not take to some of the flavours straight away, they are being introduced to the notion of variety, of sharing, and of passing around to others. Most important of all, they are registering the pleasure "their" special people experience from good food.

The bread does matter. Whether you are choosing a breadstick for crostini or a larger loaf for bruschetta, a sourdough is preferable. The bread should be substantial enough to stand up to brushing with olive oil and then being grilled over a hot fire, on a chargrill pan or under a hot griller without disintegrating. Day-old is good too. The bread should be grilled as close as possible to serving the crostini or bruschetta as part of the charm is the aroma of the just-toasted bread.

Each of the toppings on this page is sufficient for about six crostini or bruschetta. The cheesy toasts will make a little more, possibly as many as 10.

Preparing the bread

Makes 6-8

Sourdough breadstick or loaf (preferably oval)

extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, halved

Method

Prepare your fire so you have coals over which to grill, otherwise preheat a chargrill pan over medium-high heat, or preheat an overhead griller with a baking tray underneath it to high.

For crostini, cut 1cm thick slices on an angle from the breadstick. For bruschetta, cut 1.5cm thick slices from the loaf.

Brush the bread lightly with olive oil and grill, turning to grill both sides. The ideal is to have grill marks on the bread (not possible if using an overhead griller), rather than for the bread to be toasted to a crisp.

Remove the bread to a work surface and rub lightly on one side only with the garlic. A single swipe will be enough.

Now add your chosen topping while the bread is hot and serve without delay.

GORGONZOLA AND RADICCHIO BRUSCHETTA

1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

6 outer radicchio leaves, finely sliced

200g gorgonzola or gorgonzola dolce

40g butter

balsamic vinegar, to serve

Method

Preheat the oven to 200degC (180degC fan-forced). Heat the olive oil in a small frying pan and add the radicchio. Stir frequently for about 5 minutes until the leaves have collapsed and are starting to crisp. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Dot hot grilled bread with pieces of gorgonzola, top with the radicchio and then add a thin slice of butter.

Return to the oven until the cheese has melted. Add a few drops of balsamic vinegar to each bruschetta. Serve immediately.

 

CHICKEN LIVER CROSTINI
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
150g chicken livers, trimmed of tubes and any suggestion of green
1 tsp capers (if packed in salt, rinsed and dried)
2 juniper berries, crushed
1 sage leaf sprig, finely chopped
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Method

Preheat the oven to 220degC (200degC fan-forced). Fry the shallot in the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat until well softened and starting to colour.
 
Add the livers, capers and juniper berries. Saute until the livers are browned on the outside but still feel springy. Toss the sage through the livers, then set aside to cool.
 
Either pulse the cooled mixture in a food processor or chop to a coarse paste with a sharp knife. Season to taste.
 
Spread on to hot grilled crostini and reheat in the oven for just a minute. Serve while warm.
 
EGGPLANT, TOMATO AND FONTINA CHEESE BRUSCHETTA
sea salt
1 eggplant, cut into 1cm cubes
extra-virgin olive oil
1 rosemary sprig
2 roma or other really ripe but firm tomatoes, cut into 1cm cubes
freshly ground black pepper
150g fontina or other soft washed-rind cheese, diced
 

Method

Lightly salt the eggplant and drain in a colander for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200degC (180degC fan-forced) or an overhead griller. Rinse and carefully dry the eggplant.
 
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat and saute the eggplant with the rosemary until softened and lightly golden.
 
Add another 1 tablespoon olive oil and the tomato. Raise the heat and stir to mix. Season with pepper and remove the rosemary.
 
Divide the mixture among the hot grilled bread, then top each with small cubes of the fontina cheese and transfer to the hot oven or griller until the cheese has melted. Serve immediately.
 

TOMATO, OLIVE AND BASILBRUSCHETTA

6 roma or other really ripe but firm tomatoes, cut into 1cm cubes

6 basil leaves, torn

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

8 black olives, pitted and roughly chopped

1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Method

Toss the tomato in a bowl with the basil and season with salt and pepper. Add the olives and olive oil and set aside for 20 minutes, then taste for seasoning. Pile on to hot grilled bread and serve at once.

CHEESY TOASTS

1 shallot, very finely chopped
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil cup mayonnaise or Kewpie mayonnaise
1 Tbsp finely grated parmesan
2 Tbsp grated cheddar
2 Tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
 
Method
Saute the shallot in the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat, stirring until well softened. Transfer to a bowl and set aside to cool.
 
Preheat an overhead griller to high. Mix the remaining ingredients into the cooled shallot, and check the seasoning.
 
Pile the cheesy mixture on to hot grilled crostini, spreading it right to the edge of each slice.
 
Grill on a baking tray until golden brown and bubbling, just a few minutes. Watch closely that the topping does not burn. Serve immediately.

 

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