One of my favourite things to eat in Spain at the dingy tapas bars we frequented was the kind of aioli that tastes like plastic-y American mayo with some garlic thrown in for good measure. I could drink the stuff, in fact, I’m pretty sure I bought some in a Portuguese supermarket post-Spain and inhaled the whole tub. So any time I had a go at making aioli, I’d just mix mass-produced mayo and garlic. And now that aioli is trendy here, that’s usually what’s served in pubs all around Australia.

I have always shied away from scientific-sounding processes like ‘emulsification’ in cooking so you’ll forgive me if I only got around to making ‘proper’ aioli from scratch about a month ago. I figured it wouldn’t be worth the effort but boy, was I wrong. And what’s more, it goes with pretty much anything savoury – fish, chicken, polenta-crusted potatoes, the list goes on.

To make an aioli you basically do what you would do for a mayonnaise, only using extra virgin olive oil. You blend or mix egg yolks with garlic or herbs until creamy and then, while still mixing, add a large amount of olive oil drop by drop, finishing with a touch of acid like lemon or vinegar. The result is a thick creamy emulsion that will have you licking your fingers with glee, I promise you.

This is a recipe that lends itself to immersion blenders and food processors because the aioli must be constantly in motion or it won’t emulsify. Other than that, it is damn near impossible to stuff it up. You could make it too thick but I’m pretty sure no one would complain if you did and anyway you could just add more lemon, vinegar or water.

Classic Aioli
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 egg yolks
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon of Lemon juice (more if desired)

Turn food processor on to medium. Add garlic and egg yolks and puree until garlic is extremely fine and egg yolks are very creamy.

Add salt and once dissolved, pour the oil, drop by drop or in a very slow stream into the still running food processor. You may want to use a measuring jug to pour from. It should take a full 5 minutes to add the 2/3 cup oil to the egg and garlic blend.

Add the lemon and blend some more. Transfer to a bowl, chill and serve.

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It’s no secret that Christmas is all about eating, and not just the day of. People often make (or buy) and give treats as gifts, anything from shortbread to jam; rich, wintery foods that will keep for months but when you think abou it, make little sense in the context of an Australian (summer) Christmas. Let’s face it, there are only so many chutneys and flavoured oils you can fit in your pantry. I never really understood why people would make food to give on the most food-laden day of the year. It’s certainly not something I could be bothered doing.

That said, I’m totally in favour of tasting the fruits of someone else’s labour, especially baked goods. Christmas baking is a tradition that many hold dear, including my friend Gina who spent her spare time this week baking fruit mince pies and the traditional Italian Christmas treat paneforte, kind of a distilled, nutty fruitcake.

I took great delight in photographing the ‘pan-for-day’ (as we say in a broad Aussie accent) and all its preparations. Neither Gina nor I could pronounce its name to the satisfaction of her Italian housemate, who took the piss out of us incessantly. That was fine by me. I was taking home a mini paneforte for lunch!

Gina had to ring her parents numerous times to get the correct recipe as although it was written down originally, it has undergone endless metamorphoses and adaptations to become what it is today. So this post is significant in that the recipe is finally written down. Next year Gina will have it on hand, and so will anyone else who wants to make it…

Paneforte is quite flexible. You can use any glacé fruit and any nuts you like, just make sure you have the right amounts. If you don’t feel like chopping nuts, you can leave them whole for an ‘extra chunky’ paneforte or pulse them (briefly) in the food processor. If you can only find dried fruit, not glacé you can use it but keep in mind the paneforte will be drier. Gina’s best tip? Buy peeled hazelnuts. Peeling hazelnuts is a pain in the arse. And the Aussie twist? Glacé pineapple.

The Tarantos’ Paneforte
125g peeled hazelnuts
125g blanched almonds
60g glacé apricot
60g glacé pineapple
60g chopped mixed peel

2/3 cup plain flour
2 Tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon

60g dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup honey

Preheat oven to 160°c.

Roast the almonds and hazelnuts in a baking dish. Once cooled, coarsly chop the nuts, along with the glacé fruit.

Sift flour, cocoa and cinnamon together. Stir to combine. Stir nuts and fruit into dry ingredients.

Melt honey and sugar together on a low heat. Bring almost to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes or until thick and syrupy. Take off the heat, let cool for 5-10 minutes and then stir through chocolate until melted.

Pour wet ingredients into dry and stir until completely combined. This will take a lot of elbow grease!

Line a 20cm loose-bottomed round quiche tine with baking paper. This is essential – if you just grease the tin the paneforte is sure to stick. Dollop the mixture onto it and cover with a second sheet of baking paper. Press the mixture down to flatten it, right to the edges, to get rid of any air bubbles. Cut off excess paper.

Bake for around 35 minutes or until the paneforte has just lost its sheen. If you overcook it or even burn it, just leave it in an airtight container for a couple of days before serving. This will soften it. Lasts 3 months if not exposed to air.

What dish do you most look forward to at Christmas?

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It’s no secret that we Sydneysiders have a diverse culinary world at our feet. From ingredients to restaurants, we can find almost any kind of food, from Korean to Thai to Japanese to Malaysian to Italian, Vietnamese, Hungarian, Brazilian, Portuguese, Israeli, Lebanese…the list goes on, although I have had some trouble finding Ethiopian. And thus, you might conclude, especially if you were American and absolutely if you were Texan, surely there must be some good Mexican food somewhere.

However, it seems there’s only room for so many restaurants and, much like tapas, Mexican food is considered  prestige enough to be on the pricey side here in Aus. Add to this the assertion my Texan friend Ms. Phonetic makes that Aussie Mexican grills aren’t really worth bothering with (plus the argument she had with the owner of one of them when he wouldn’t let her have cheese on her taco, even if she paid extra, because it wasn’t ‘authentic’) and you really might as well have a crack at making them yourself.

I quite like Mad Mex, Guzman y Gomez et al, especially their chicken burritos. This recipe is my own take on them. I love the smokiness of the chipotle marinade and the way it pairs so perfectly with the fluffy Mexican rice. Wrap it a warm tortilla with a dollop of guacamole and you’re in heaven.

Lau’s Feisty Chicken Burritos
Serves 4 (2 small burritos per person)

You will need:
For the chicken:
700g chicken breast
2-3 Chipotles in adobo (finely chopped)
Paprika
Salt
Olive oil

1 portion of Mexican Rice (see previous post)

For the Guacamole:
2 Ripe Avocados
1 lemon or lime
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

To finish:
Chopped lettuce and tomato
1 packet of flour tortillas- I prefer Mission Tortillas, they come in a 12 pack and you can just freeze the leftovers (if there are any).
Sour cream (if desired)
Mexican Hot Sauce (I use El Yucateco Green)
Smokey BBQ sauce (I use Fountain, they even have a facebook fan page!)

Marinate the chicken in the chipotles and some of their sauce, paprika, a pinch of salt and a splash of olive oil overnight, or at least 2 hours.

Next prepare the rice and while it is cooking (it takes about 20 minutes), make the Guacamole and chop the lettuce and tomato. To make the guacamole, Mash 2 ripe avocados with lemon or lime juice, freshly cracked pepper and salt to taste.

Heat a frypan with a little olive oil until hot. Cook the chicken and marinade on both sides. It’s ok if it gets a little charred as long as it’s cooked quickly and all the way through. When it’s done, slice it into strips. This means you don’t have to chop up raw chicken and it’s actually much moister cooked this way.

To assemble, microwave each tortilla for 10 seconds. Place some chicken, rice, guac, salad, sauce and sour cream on each tortilla and wrap. Enjoy!

So, readers, where do you get your fave Mexican food?

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My friend Ms. Phonetic, a Texan girl born and bred, often laments the lack of good Mexican, never mind Tex-mex, available here in Sydney. When we were sharing a house back in the day, I remember her half-baked plans for tortilla stands, burrito buses and importing Mexican beer. More recently, I witnessed her untamed joy as we walked through Fiji Market on King Street, Newtown and came a across tins of Chipotles in adobo, Mexican hot chocolate, hominy and a plethora of Mexican sauces.

In recent years Australia has seen a lot of Mexican grill franchises popping up (Guzman y Gomez, Mad Mex and the like). Generally, these places will use large flour tortillas to wrap a burrito filled with your choice of grilled meat, rice, refried or black beans and various salsas, sauces, sour cream and always ALWAYS charge extra for guacamole. Ms. Phonetic maintains that they’re twice the price and nothing like the real thing. Debates about authenticity aside, I’ll have to take her word for it. I guess nothing beats a freshly made tortilla or a fresh batch of Mexican rice or real queso dip.

So, having only my experiences eating at lost-in-translation burrito franchises to go on, I worked to duplicate something of what I had tasted. I scoured the internet for ‘Mexican Rice’ recipes. This recipe is really easy and delicious, all I’ve done is added more spices and extra garlic. My favourite way of serving this is as part of a burrito, which I’ll outline in my next post, but it’s also an amazing side dish. I’ve yet to mix up a batch for Ms. Phonetic but when I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Mexican Rice (adapted from The Frugal Chef)
serves 4 as a side dish.
1-2 Tablespoons Olive Oil (I used Extra Virgin because that’s all I buy)
1 Tablespoon pickled jalapeños, finely chopped
2-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 a small onion, finely chopped
1 cup Basmati or other long grain rice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground paprika
1-2 Tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup liquid stock
1/2 cup water

Heat the oil in a small pan to medium high. Sauté the jalapeños, garlic, and onion for a couple of minutes. Add rice and spices and toast a couple more minutes.

When the rice begins to ‘pop’, quickly stir through the tomato paste. Add the stock and water and stir through.

Put the lid on and turn the heat as low as it goes. Simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Burning the bottom of the rice a little is encouraged. I generally turn off the heat after 15 minutes and just let the rice sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve with black beans or chicken or in a burrito.

I know it looks ugly, but trust me. It’s delicious.

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Aren’t other peoples’ families zany? It always seems that way to me. When I was a kid, other peoples’ houses were just different; they looked different, smelled different, ran differently. To a six-year-old child, the familiar, their home, has no smell, no particular look, no discernible system of organisation. It just is. Our own environments are the very definitions of normality. To us…

It isn’t until we find ourselves in someone else’s environment that we are forced to realise that our way of doing things is just one way, not the way. It’s easy to criticise the unfamiliar, from the way someone washes the dishes to the way they run their household. And when you move in with people you weren’t brought up with, their ways will almost certainly be at odds with yours, something which you may not have even considered before.

How is all this relevant? Mousse Chocolate (moos cho-ko-let, not moos chok-let), which is what my boyfriend and his family will call this recipe for all eternity, is technically a mistranslation. The name in Portuguese is literally ‘Mousse of Chocolate’. The name has always sounded slightly wrong to me.

But ‘Chocolate  Mousse’ would sound wrong to my boyfriend’s ears. In addition, ‘Chocolate Mousse’ to his family is something altogether different from what they prepare, something unbelievably creamy which, to a family that abhors cream, makes it unfitting for their beloved concoction of chocolate, eggs and sugar.

This was my second try at this recipe. The first time I made it I just couldn’t get the chocolate and egg whites to come together while still maintaining the mousse’s light and fluffy texture. I had a theory that without the pure fat of cream I’ve used in every chocolate mousse I’ve ever made, they just weren’t coming together, and that as such microwaved chocolate was more unforgiving. Then I noticed that many recipes call for a small amount of butter. So I bit the bullet and did the double boiler thing, butter and all.

So how was it? Rich? Yes. Creamy? No way. Delicious? Definitely. Mousse Chocolate.

Mousse Chocolate for two
2 eggs, separated
60-80g dark chocolate broken into pieces (I used nestle club but next time I think I’ll use something with a bit more depth of flavour).
1 Tablespoon of butter
2 teaspoons of sugar (optional- I left it out but in hindsight I think it needed it)

Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks in a completely clean and dry bowl. Set aside.

Put chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Make sure the water is not touching the bowl, the bowl should just be ‘steamed’.

When the chocolate begins to melt, add the butter and sugar if desired. Once melted together, turn off the heat. Stir in egg yolks one at a time, very quickly.

Remove the bowl from the pan and fold in a third of the beaten egg whites. Fold in another third gently and then the remaining third even more gently.

Put mix in container/s, cover with cling film and set for at least four hours.

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There are these very rare moments where you stumble across something you never expected, a hidden gem. Even better are those times when someone lets you in on their little secret…

On a recent visit to Canberra, my Mum took me to the Aru Padai Murugan Temple, a Hindu temple in Torrens. To raise money for the construction of the temple they open a canteen every Saturday selling Sri Lankan food, much like the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Helensburgh does.

The food was crazy delicious, not to mention crazy cheap. The dish that really stood out for me was spinach with coconut. This is a tad strange because I’m not normally much of a coconut person, for example, I don’t really like lamingtons all that much. But this vivid green, plain salty dish won my heart and made me realise I actually love coconut in it savoury incarnations. So I did what all of us do in this situation and googled the hell out of Sri Lankan spinach recipes until I found on that fit the bill.

The great thing about this recipe, besides it being quick, easy, vegetarian and high in iron is that (if you have spinach in the freezer) you may have all the ingredients on hand, which makes it great for when you don’t feel like shopping. I served it with basmati rice cooked by the absorption method (directions below) and a big dollop of greek yogurt.

Spinach with Coconut
(makes 2 generous servings)
Canola oil
½ an onion, finely chopped
80g potato or pumpkin, cubed (optional)
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground paprika
1 Tablespoon of red lentils
150g spinach, fresh or frozen, finely chopped
A handful of beans or snowpeas, finely chopped (optional)
Salt
Up to 1 cup stock or water
½ cup dessicated coconut
A smidgen of ground cayenne pepper

Parboil the potatos/pumpkin and lentils for 5 minutes, drain and set aside.

Heat oil and cook onion, cumin seeds, lentils and potato or pumpkin (if using) for 5 minutes with a pinch of salt to prevent browning.

Add some liquid and cook for another 5 minutes or until everything is soft.

Add all remaining ingredients and cook until spinach is soft. Serve with yellow rice.

‘Yellow Rice’
½ cup basmati rice
¼ teaspoon mustard seeds (optional)
Canola oil
Salt
Turmeric, for colour
1½ cups water

Heat oil in the pan on high heat and add rice and mustard seeds. Toast until seeds start to ‘pop’.

Add all other ingredients and immediately turn heat down as low as possible. Once rice is simmering just a tiny bit, put lid on and cook for 15 minutes. Leave pan on the stove with the heat turned off for another 5 minutes.

Do you have any food discoveries to share?

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Recently, my friends and I had a discussion about carbohydrates. We tried to decide if we were stranded on a desert island and were only allowed one type of carb, which it would be. And I’ve gotta say that although it’s a toss-up between pasta and potatoes  for me, potatoes won out. Their just so versatile and impossible to duplicate. In fact, I might go so far as to make them my desert island food. They’re what I’d eat if I were allowed only one kind of food for the rest of my life.

I won and amazing barilla prize pack from Not Quite Nigella recently. It included pastas, sauces a pizza kit and a packet of instant polenta. Awesome. The thing is, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the instant polenta. I’ve had a bag of the non-instant stuff in my pantry for about 2 years and only recently broke it out to make the polenta with bolognese recipe from ‘Poh’s Kitchen’.  I’m ashamed to say that’s the only time I’ve ever really had a go at it as I was under the impression I’d have to stir for an hour, but in reality polenta is a stir-every-so-often-type-deal.

So I was really excited when I stumbled on Malaysian-born Aussie Emily’s blog ‘fuss-free cooking’ and her post on Donna Hay’s Polenta-crusted baked potatoes, which called for instant polenta. Bingo. Two carbs in one dish! I couldn’t wait to make them, but of course I had to tweak the recipe quite a bit, as a pretty much always do. I halved the recipe as I only had half a kilo of potatoes on hand and I used Pontiacs rather than sebagos. I also left the potatoes unpeeled to make them extra crispy (also because I’m a lazy cook). I also used a pizza stone, because my oven is basically a glorified grill. Finally, couldn’t resist adding 3 cloves of garlic in with the polenta. I can’t wait to experiment with maybe a bit of romano cheese and cracked black pepper as well…

So how are they? Unbelievably crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle, with a gorgeous salty aftertaste and just a hint of garlic. I love their golden colour and how simple they are to prepare – definitely a case of results far outweighing effort.

Polenta-Crusted Potatoes
Serves 2 as a side dish

500g potatos, unpeeled and quartered (I used Pontiacs)
1/3 cup (85g) instant polenta
2 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
½ teaspoon freshly ground salt
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped.

Preheat oven to 220 degrees Celsius (425 degrees Fahrenheit).

Place the potato in a large saucepan of salted cold water and bring to the boil. Cook for 8 minutes or until just tender.

Drain and return to the pan with the polenta, oil, salt and garlic. Shake the pan to fluff the potato and coat in the polenta. Give them a stir.

Place the potatos on a baking tray and roast for 30 minutes or until crisp and golden.

So, dear reader, if you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one carb, what would it be? Pasta? Potatos? Rice? Or something else altogether?

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