In case you were wondering, I have decidedly unexotic and Catholic heritage- generic Irish/English stock on my Dad’s side and on my Mum’s side, half Northern Italian and half more of the same. I am, as they say, an anglo mongrel, and the food I grew up on reflects that fact. I am sometimes accused, mostly jokingly but with a dash of truth thrown in, of growing up ‘without culture’ by my partner, his heritage being a mix of Portuguese and Iraqi Jew now considered exotic.
In a way, I think as Australians we shortchange ourselves when we say we have ‘no culture’. We have every culture, that’s the point, and we can serve it all up on a plate and pretend for five minutes that we are all friends. It solves nothing, but it feeds everyone. And there are things that I think all of us who love food understand. Many of the conversations we had growing up centred on food. What did you have for lunch, what should we have for dinner, have you eaten? These are universal questions for perpetually hungry and food-obsessed families, whatever their nationality.
Food for me is mostly all about my mother. It is the same for my partner, on the phone to his mum trying to suss out exactly the right methods or ingredients to get that thing she made for him as a kid just the way she made it. If we cook something our parents used to make, and try to make it the way they would when we were kids, it is kind of ritual, a kind of homage. Whether that thing be a sausage sanger or a perfectly rendered matzo ball, we can chow down on each with equal gusto.
This recipe is basically eggplant parma, a combination of a traditional eggplant fritter recipe from my Grandfather’s family and the tomato sauce that we would eat in some form at least once a week when I was growing up. I would happily subsist on slow-cooked tinned tomatoes for the rest of my life, and this is one mind-numbingly delicious way of serving it.
Serves 8 generously, if served with salads and sides.
2 enormous eggplants, cut into ½ centimetre slices
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup flour
1 stale baguette, blended in the food processor
olive oil, for shallow frying
Extra virgin olive oil
2 small onions, finely chopped
pinch chilli flakes
6-8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4x 400g tins chopped tomatos
1/2 cup red wine
2 sprigs rosemary (optional)
500g mozzarella, sliced
150g good quality parmesan or romano cheese, grated
Tip: You can either make the sauce first or take the ‘do everything at once approach’ outlined below, just keep in mind that the sauce should cook for at least an hour. The whole dish can be made a few days in advance; once everything is layered together, refrigerate and when you want to serve it, bring it up to room temperature before cooking.
Salt the eggplant slices well, layer on a plate and place a heavy object on top. Arrange three bowls on the bench, 1 with the flour, 1 with the beaten egg, and 1 with the breadcrumbs. Leave the weighted eggplant slices to sit for 20 minutes.
Heat the oil in a large pan. Cook the onions until translucent, then add the salt, chilli flakes and garlic. Cook until all ingredients are done but not brown. Add the wine to deglaze the pan, cook a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes, give the tomato tins a bit of a rinse and pour the resulting water in too. Simmer the sauce for 45 minutes – 11/2 hours, adding in the rosemary about halfway through.
While the sauce is simmering, rinse the eggplants and pat dry. Heat the oil in a large frying pan to shallow fry the eggplant. Then it is just a matter of dipping each eggplant slice in flour, then egg, the breadcrumbs and popping them into the oil. Turn each slice over so it browns on both sides, and when done, put the slices on a plate lined with paper towel to drain well. This process takes about the same amount of time as simmering the sauce.
Remove the rosemary from the sauce, give the mixture a quick blitz with a stick blender if too lumpy, and leave to cool.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. In a large baking dish, layer the sauce, then the eggplant slices, then the mozzarella and then the parmesan romano until the dish is full or the ingredients are exhausted – whichever comes first. Bake for around 45 minutes or until the top is browned.
Do you have a favourite family recipe?
Sometimes a missing ingredient can lead to a tasty surprise. This is one such example, where I planned to make tabouleh for a bbq I was attending, but found that, strangely enough, Vietnamese greengrocers don’t always stock parsley. As the mint and spring onions smelled amazing and I’d already ducked into Woolies and found cracked wheat , the closest I could get to burghul (which is finely cracked wheat), I decided to forge ahead- almost-tabouleh it would have to be. Luckily there was plenty of dill around, so I improvised.
The recipe turned out well, very fresh-tasting and with a nice zing. The lemons I had were ancient (explains the $1/kilo price tag) so I had to add a teaspoon or so of castor sugar, but if your lemons are reasonably fresh you should be ok. This recipe makes a massive salad, a great addition to any summer feast.
1 cup cracked wheat or burghul
1-2 cups boiling water
1 clove garlic
6 spring onions
1 small bunch mint
1 bunch dill
3 large, ripe tomatoes
2 lebanese cucumbers
2 large juicy lemons
1-2 Tablespoons canola oil
1 -2 teaspoons baharat spice mix (if you have it)
Freshly cracked pepper and salt, to taste
If you’re using cracked wheat, boil in 2 cups of water for 10-15 minutes and leave to cool. If you’re using burghul, soak in 1 cup boiling water, covered for 10 minutes. You may need to drain it a bit, I had to rinse the cracked wheat in cold water as it went quite starchy.
They key to this salad is fresh herbs, finely chopped. Very finely chop the garlic and mix through the burghul/wheat. Finely chop the spring onions. Pick the mint leaves, discarding the stalks and very finely slicing the leaves. Finely chop the dill until you reach the point where there’s more stalk than leaf. Stir the herbs through the wheat.
Roughly chop the tomatoes, then quarter and slice the cucumbers. Douse in lemon juice and a slosh of oil, adding everything else to taste. Stir well and refrigerate. Best made a few hours ahead, can make the day before.
Have you ever had a missing ingredient lead to an unexpected dish?
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)
1 portion of Mexican Rice (see previous post)
For the Guacamole:
2 Ripe Avocados
1 lemon or lime
Freshly ground black pepper
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?
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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