Posts Tagged ‘my food biography’

My life in 10 dishes, continued.

Moroccan lamb tagine is a relatively new addition to my repertoire. But it is definitely a keeper. We visited Morocco briefly in 2007, and fell in love with the local cuisine, and in particular the salads, and tagines.

On our return, I wanted to search out some decent tagine recipes. My favourite food magazine, Cuisine, of course delivered. And my favourite food writer for the magazine, a master of flavour and simplicity – Ray McVinnie – provided the recipe that I now love. I make it at least once every couple of weeks. The lamb is tender, the prunes and honey (added to taste) can make it quite sweet, but then I have a sweet tooth, and so does my husband. The spice mixture, or Ras el Hanout, is complicated (13 different herbs and spices, toasted and crushed), and so I’ve learned that it is easier to prepare a batch in advance – toasting the seeds, crushing the spices with my mortar and pestle – and keep it in an airtight container for a month or so. This means that all I need to do is simply scoop out a tablespoon of the spices, add it to the meat and fruit and one or two other flavours, and I can finish dinner in only 20-30 minutes. I love it so much I’ve given people little jars of my spice mixture, with a copy of the recipe printed out. I rather boldly label the spice jar “Mali’s Ras el Hanout” when credit really goes to Chef McVinnie.

I make the tagine with lamb, but I think it would be just as nice made with eggplant, zucchini, and other Mediterranean or summer vegetables. I think it reflects what I want my food to be. Simple, tasty, and interesting. And the exciting thing is, I can only guess at what what other dishes I’ll discover in the future.

Correction: The problem with writing about food from memory. My favourite food writer Ray McVinnie did not actually provide this recipe. It was Julie Le Clerc. I still love Ray McVinnie though.

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My life in 10 dishes, continued
The first time that I remember having fried rice was Sunday 23 March, 1980. It was the day I went to live with my host family in Bangkok. They collected me (this might be the subject of a separate post sometime if there is any interest), and before going to my new home, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. It was a large, air-conditioned restaurant, and lunch was buffet-style. I saw this strange coloured rice and thought I’d try it. A lifelong love affair began.

Since then I have had many memorable fried rice meals, and many that have just blurred together. It was a popular lunch choice at school in Bangkok. A plate cost four baht (about 20 cents), or if we wanted an egg on top, then it was another baht. I have to point out that a fried egg on top of fried rice is one of the great culinary treats of living in Asia. The egg breaks open and the yolk oozes all over the rice. It was a favourite of mine, but it required decent Thai language skills. Mistakenly pronounce khai as gai and you ended up with the more ordinary chicken fried rice. It happened … too often. I remember eating fried rice with egg on the train to Chiang Mai. I was travelling second class with Sharon and Cee, it was delivered to our seats, and we ate fried rice as we chugged off into the night.

Ten years later, when I returned to Thailand, I introduced my husband to fried rice. He learned how to eat it the Thai way. You hold the spoon and fork just so, and push the rice onto your spoon. And you must never forget to squeeze lime juice over the fried rice. In my view it is the lime juice that makes Thai fried rice so much better than Chinese/Malaysian, etc (although the fish sauce and lack of soy sauce helps too). I even introduced my Malaysian sister-in-law to lime juice on fried rice. She thought I was mad, until she tried it.

When living in Bangkok, we were very lucky and had a maid five days a week. She cleaned, and washed and ironed and generally made our lives easier. She cooked dinner too, and it was always a happy day for us when she was feeling a bit tired, and made fried rice for dinner. A big bowl that we went back to a couple of times during the meal. I can’t remember if she introduced us to fried rice with Chinese sausage, or if we told her. But this was my husband’s favourite – slices of pungent, sweet, Chinese sausage (goon chieng) scattered through the rice, the lime juice cutting the flavour. It was always a hit with visitors too.

Fried rice is the perfect, on-the-go lunch when you’re travelling. You can find it everywhere, it is made hot each time, and in Thailand, prawns are cheaper than pork. I remember eating it on the side of the river in Ayudhaya, and with my in-laws in the Golden Triangle near the Burmese/Laotian border. I’ve eaten it on trains (more than once), in five-star hotels and at stalls by the beach.

Since I returned to New Zealand, I make it regularly, serving it in the same large bowl our maid used. I plan* fried rice days ahead. I have to buy limes first (not always easy), before the pork (my husband prefers it to egg, I compromise … sigh). Then I have to cook the rice the day (or two) before. Fried rice is to us a treat, and brings back so many memories. I’m going to share my recipe here.

Vegetable oil (canola, soya, sunflower – not olive)
1 chopped onion
1 tsp sugar
Two eggs
Several cups of pre-cooked rice, at least the day before. Jasmine rice preferably, but otherwise long grain. Don’t use short grain rice, the texture won’t work.
One or two tomatoes, chopped
Some chopped capsicum
Some steamed/microwaved corn/peas (frozen is easiest)
Fish sauce
Chili sauce (or tomato sauce/ketchup at a pinch)
A wok or large frying pan

Fry a chopped onion slowly, till soft. Push it to the side, and sprinkle a teaspoon of sugar on the onion, leaving it till the sugar melts.
Whisk a few eggs together (one per person) and pour into the pan. Let it cook into a kind of omelette, then with your spoon/spatula just chop up into bits.
You probably need to add extra vegetable oil, then add the pre-cooked rice, crumbled in your hands if necessary to separate the grains, and stir-fry to mix with the egg and onions. When it is hot, add the chopped capsicum, and stir-fry to heat through, then the cooked corn/peas (or whatever vegetables you want really, as this is a one pot meal), and the chopped tomatoes.
Add the fish sauce and chilli sauce, and keep stirring. Ensure it is all piping hot before serving, with at least half a lime on the side for each person.
Squeeze the lime over, and enjoy!

It is also great heated up the next day, provided you have some extra limes.

*   2018 update: These days, I’m not quite so organised, and sometimes cook the rice at lunch time, then spread it onto baking trays/flat baking tins and refrigerate or even freeze for the next five or so hours. Then it is fine for frying. Also, I cheat sometimes and buy a bottle of lime juice – that way I can make it on impulse! 

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My life in 10 dishes, continued

I’ve always been envious of friends who can invite people over and just throw on a roast, or fire up the barbecue. I was always too nervous to try that. There seemed to be too many variables to ensure success. How long should I cook it? What should I serve with it? What if one person prefers their meat rare, and another wants their meat well done? Finally, in the 1990s, I decided to face my fear. I discovered roast beef – not a roast I grew up with. I saw how easy it was. So easy, in fact, that I served it for about 20 of my husband’s family at my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday party. I even had a selection of medium, rare and well done. And timed it all to start cooking automatically as we were all out at an event. It was a hit.

And so now, I’m a big fan. In fact, I’d serve it all the time if I could.

I’m very picky about the meat I use. I hate meat full of fat and cartilage. So I buy beef fillet. It’s lean and tender and delicious, and yes, expensive. But worth it for a treat, and not too bad when I’m only buying for two. I like feeling that I’m getting plenty of iron without too much fat. It only needs a little seasoning, but often I’ll dress it a little differently. Sometimes I’ll spread a mild, seeded mustard all over the top. If I’m feeling a bit fancier, I might baste it with a butter (or oil)and garlic mixture, then sprinkle lots of cracked (not ground) black pepper over it. If I’m feeling really fancy, I’ll add a bordelaise (red wine) sauce. But most importantly, the meat must be cooked perfectly, sliced thinly, and medium rare.
Roast beef works any time of year. Mid-winter, with lots of roast, root vegetables, or in the summer with a fresh, crusty piece of bread, a green salad and some barbecued capsicum, zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes. And of course, it’s always an occasion to open a nice red wine. My favourites are a Villa Maria Cabernet blend (Bordeaux style), or a spicy Syrah. Bon appétit!

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