Friday, October 29, 2010


My grandfather, Lajos Bund was a young boy when his father, Josef, enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army in the Great War.This left the rest of the family to scratch a living from their farm in Northern Slovenia. After Josef was killed in action, the family moved to Budapest, where Lajos’ mother, Anna, opened a grocery store. With the poverty that devastated Hungary after the war, she struggled to feed and clothe her young family, and I can only imagine the pain that led her to surrender her four children for adoption. By the time Lajos was nine years old, he and his sister were living in Middelharnis in Holland with their new family.

Lajos grew into a determined, popular and gregarious young man and he developed a passion for business and good food which was shaped and influenced by his adoptive family and by the various twists and turns his life had taken.

His first business venture was a gourmet chocolate shop in Middelharnis, where he became well known for his lavish and award winning window displays.

Lajos fell in love with and married my grandmother Altje, and they had five children who often helped in the chocolate shops and delicatessens after school. When World War II broke out, Lajos was imprisoned by the Nazis, leaving Altje and the children to run the businesses. Against all odds, Lajos survived and after the war, the family migrated to Australia, for a new life that began in Newcastle, NSW.

Lajos and Altje bought another delicatessen and built the business up over a number of years, introducing Novocastrians to a world of new flavours. When they were in their sixties, they sold the deli, and bought a farm near the Central Coast of NSW where they kept chickens, pigs and dairy cows, among orchards of mandarins, lemons and oranges. The farm was a wonderful playground for a tribe of cousins, which included my sisters and me. A typical Sunday saw the entire family gathered for lunch that always included freshly killed roast chickens and garden vegetables, accompanied by lots of rowdy, but good humoured discussion on current events, mostly in Dutch and Hungarian.

The paddock-to-table philosophy was alive and well, and I have vivid memories of arriving at the farm to see a number of freshly killed, soon to be eaten chickens hanging upside down from the clothes line, draining before cooking. The strong smell of wet, hot feathers hanging in the air is with me still.

The dairy cows, who came when called by name, would gather at the fence to nuzzle and lick our hands, making us giggle. My grandmother made her own butter, yoghurt and cheese and we always had mountains of fresh cream and milk on hand for baking her cakes and puddings. As kids, we loved staying overnight at the farm because breakfast always included porridge that was made with the fresh milk and cream that had been hand milked earlier that morning.

These are great family memories and I feel fortunate to have been exposed to such a fundamental appreciation and love of fresh food and cooking. The recipe for Lajos’ Roast Chicken is as comforting as one of his great big warm hugs, and features his all-time favourite spice, cinnamon. I have also included a Strawberry Soup recipe, another family favourite that works well after the richness of the chicken.

Lajos' Roast Chicken
Serves 4
1 x 1.5kg free range chicken
8 bay leaves
2 lemons, thickly sliced
1 bunch of thyme

Spice butter
2 tsp ground pepper
3 garlic cloves
3 cm knob ginger grated
¾ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cumin
120g unsalted butter

1 tsp salt

Cider vinegar and lemon dressing
¼ cup lemon juice
1 tbsp cider vinegar
2 small onions, finely sliced
2 tsp lemon zest
2 tsp salt
1 garlic clove, chopped
½ cup olive oil
Cinnamon quill

To make the pepper butter, mix pepper, garlic, ginger, salt and ground spices in a small bowl. Mix in the butter and set aside to infuse.

Trim away excess fat from inside the chicken, leaving neck, parsons nose and wings intact. Place in a lightly oiled roasting tin, breast-side up. Using your hands gently ease the breast and thigh skin away from the meat without tearing the skin. Place half of the reserved butter mixture between the skin and the meat of the chicken, smoothing and spreading evenly under the skin. Place sliced lemons, thyme and bay leaves inside cavity. Rub the remaining pepper butter over the skin. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 190C. Roast chicken, uncovered, for ¾ of an hour and turn oven off. Remove chicken from oven and cover with foil and return to oven while making the dressing.

For the dressing, cut the skin and pith away from the lemon, following the curve of the fruit. Cut the lemon flesh into segments and then chop roughly into small pieces. Pound garlic and salt in a mortar and pestle and then add lemon pieces to bruise. Add the remaining ingredients, mix well and set aside.

Remove chicken from pan and chop into pieces and arrange on a platter with lemon pieces and bay leaves. Pour the mixture over the chicken, making sure all the chicken is coated. Add the pan juices and re-cover with foil. Leave chicken to sit in juices for five minutes to infuse before serving.

Serves 4

Strawberry Soup
2 punnet strawberries, washed and hulled
1 small rockmelon
1 cup sparkling dry white wine
3 tbsp honey
1 cup cold cup rosehip tea
½ cup plain yoghurt mixed with vanilla bean seeds

Slice one punnet of strawberries and mash the strawberries from the remaining punnet with a potato masher. Remove seeds from melon and scoop out flesh with a melon baller or a teaspoon. Combine all the fruit in a large bowl. Stir, wine, honey, rosehip tea together in a separate bowl and pour over fruit. Chill for several hours before serving. The soup is more fragrant if served at room temperature. Serve with a dollop of vanilla bean yoghurt. Column first published Canberra Times October 27 2010.  Photos Steve Shanahan

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Warm goat's cheese with peppery strawberry salad

While holidaying in France in the Dordogne region a couple of years ago, we enjoyed warmed goat’s cheese as part of a set menu at Le Rapier restaurant in Sarlat La CanĂ©da. Although, two courses into the five course meal, we realised we were never going to do justice to the quantity of food, and attempted to explain this to the owner. Our mimes and protests were met by an insouciant shrug even though we tried to explain it was a quantity issue, and the food we had eaten was exquisite.
Photo: Steve Shanahan

We loved the subtle combination of the flavours of the goat’s cheese so much, that when we returned home, we worked to recreate this dish with the addition of some local ingredients.

The strawberries in France are intoxicatingly sweet and the most fragrant of them all are the smaller fruiting Alpine varieties, known as Perpetuals or Remontants which are bred from seed. They are sold individually at the food markets in France and the sweet strawberry perfume, although subtle, wafts around, tempting you to buy them. I have found some equally beautiful varieties in Canberra at local markets and those sold in the larger punnets seem to be far superior in flavour.

While on a recent early morning forage to the Capital Region Farmers Market, I came across some beautiful, traditional French style goat’s cheese’s and the most wonderfully fragrant strawberries, which, as it happens are a perfect match. I made my decision then and there about what to serve for a light spring lunch for a gathering of our friends.

Mountain Ash Goats Cheese
Photo Steve Shanahan

After tasting some of the cheese’s on offer, I settled on an award winning Capra Cheese from Mia Mia Farm in East Gippsland which is certified as one hundred per cent organic goat’s milk. My choice, a traditional, ash-coated, French-style pyramid called Mountain Ash cheese, had a delicate sweetness that was balanced by gentle acidity. While chatting with the cheesemaker, Matthew Gurnsey, he explained that his cheesemaking facility is on-farm, which ensures only the freshest milk is used and reflects the specific local character of the one farm and one herd method.

I learned that Mia Mia Farm is family owned and operated and run as a self sufficient and sustainable enterprise. The goat herd has access to a wide range of predominantly native grasses, herbs and shrubs, reminiscent of their natural feeding habits with the health and well being of the goats paramount in producing fine quality cheese’s.

When Gurnsey showed me some photos of contented looking goats roaming and munching their way around the grassed paddocks, and then rattled off the names of each one, I found I had become somewhat personally connected to these goats; that provided an extra dimension to the passage of our meal from farm to table.

This dish is very easy to prepare and can be done in advance, with the warming of the goats cheese and the tossing of the salad in the final moments before serving. It really works well as an elegant, light entree, or a casual lunch with a dessert. The cheese takes the starring role and can be dressed up or down depending on the salad you choose. Quantities serve 4.

250g goat’s cheese
75g walnuts, chopped and lightly toasted
4 slices good quality sourdough
2tbsp cracked black pepper
120g fresh roquette, wild and peppery is best
punnet of strawberries, washed, hulled and sliced lengthways
walnut oil for drizzle
2tbsp balsamic vinegar
truffle oil for drizzle (optional)

Cut four circles, approximately 7 centimetres in diameter, out of each piece of bread, avoiding the crusts.To obtain an even shape I use a pastry cutter. Toast the bread circles lightly under the grill so just crisp, but not browned. I use sourdough bread as it has a sharper taste than most other breads, but any bread works, even a yeasty grain bread is fine.

Combine three tablespoons of walnut oil and the balsamic vinegar in a jar and shake to combine. Place the sliced strawberries in a large bowl and dress with the oil and balsamic mixture and 1 tbsp of the cracked black pepper. Mix through gently and leave to infuse.

Preheat oven grill to medium. Divide the cheese into four portions and spread roughly onto the toasted bread circles, making sure the bread is covered right to the edges. Top the cheese with a good sprinkle of fresh thyme and a drizzle of walnut oil. Place under the warmed grill and heat until soft and oozy but not browned for about two minutes, and remove from grill.

Finish preparing the salad by adding the roquette to the dressed strawberries and toss to combine.

Plate the cheese onto four small dinner plates. Divide the salad between the four plates, and sprinkle with the remaining black pepper, walnuts and drizzle cheese with a little more walnut oil. A couple of drops of truffle oil over the cheese is great for a special occasion.

This meal is perfectly matched to a pinot noir, however if you are a white wine lover, the local Clonakilla Viognier, with its silky fruitiness is a winner. Article first published Canberra Times 20 October 2010. 

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mussels - Moules A La Pulbah!

One of my early food memories was tagging along with my father while he collected mussels from the shores of Pulbah Island, a small uninhabited island, now a nature reserve, situated in Lake Macquarie near Newcastle in New South Wales. He collected the mussels in a hessian bag to keep them alive and cooked them on an old piece of corrugated iron that he used as a barbeque hot plate over burning logs.

Photo Steve Shanahan
The barbeque was a permanent fixture on the island for fisherman to cook their catch. When the mussel shells opened, he drizzled them with white wine, sometimes beer, and we ate them with our fingers, while the fragrant juices dripped down our arms.

My mussel-eating memories were stirred again when on holiday in Brugge in Belguim, we visited an outdoor eatery in a Belgian Beer House whose specialty was Moules A La Mariniere (Mussels in wine) The mussels in broth were served in small metal buckets and wait staff brought dozens upon dozens of these overflowing mussel filled buckets out to the customers, while the unmistakable aromas of ocean, wine and butter wafted around the diners. Although the Belgians served their mussels with french fries, instead of crispy bread and butter, we managed to soldier through the fries with true grit and determination.

There are a few rules however, to observe when buying mussels, so be fussy, and your efforts will pay off. Always check for freshness and ensure they are still alive. Live mussels should smell like the ocean, and if they smell fishy, don’t buy them. To avoid the mussels dying from suffocation, ask your seafood retailer to place them in a loose bag in water or kept damp. They should not be put into plastic bags or clingfilm. If they are wrapped in butcher’s paper, tear a hole in the paper to allow them to breathe. I like to take my own mesh bag to the shop to transport them home. Never buy mussels that are cracked, chipped broken or open, they should be tightly closed. They are best eaten the same day of purchase, or if necessary stored overnight in the bottom of the refrigerator in a bowl covered with a wet towel.

The preparation and cooking of mussels is very easy and made even quicker now with seafood retailers selling mussels already de-bearded and cleaned. If you are not lucky enough to buy the pre prepared mussels, scrub the mussels well to remove any grit or shell and pull off the beard (this is a little, hairy protrusion used by the mussel to attach to rocks or pylons) just before cooking.

They really don’t take long at all to cook, so make sure you have everything prepared before you start cooking. The colour of the flesh will range from orange-red (female) to creamy white (male) and both are delicious. Finally, as a general rule they will steam open in a pot within two to four minutes, don't overcook them, as they tend to become tough.

The mussels, perfect for an outdoor lunch, served in a large stone bowl in the centre of the table, with baskets of crusty bread, a pot of French unsalted butter and a fresh, green salad will make for convivial gatherings, but don’t forget the finger bowl. Great with a crisp, citrusy riesling or a young semillon.

Serves 4-6

1.5-2kg live mussels
100g unsalted French butter
small pinch of saffron threads
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and finely sliced
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 leeks, trimmed and finely sliced
2 tbsp grated ginger
1 tsp sea salt
¾ cup white wine
¾ cup fresh orange juice
extra sea salt to taste
2 tsp grated orange zest
1 medium tomato, sliced
¼ cup mint, coarsley chopped
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

De-beard and scrub the mussels, if uncleaned, then rinse and set aside. Combine the saffron with 2 teaspoons of boiling water in a small bowl and set aside.

Melt half the butter in a large, heavy-based pan. Add carrots, fennel, leeks, ginger and salt. Gently fry vegetables, covered, over low heat for about 10 minutes, or until softened but not browned. Stir often to prevent the vegetables catching on the bottom of the pan.

Add the remaining butter, then the wine, orange juice, extra salt to taste, and the saffron with the water. Bring to the boil, then stir in the reserved mussels and orange zest. Reduce the heat and simmer gently, covered, for 3 minutes. Scatter over the tomato and herbs and continue cooking for a further minute, or until the mussels have only just opened, throwing away any that won’t open. Remove from the heat immediately and serve.  This article first published in the Canberra Times 6 October 2010.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Strawberry Jam

One of my favourite things to do is to get along early to the Farmer's market on a Saturday morning and grab the freshest and best produce for the week.  There is something very special about that time at the market, there's a particular smell and a buzz, even the conversations with the stallholders is a little more relaxed at that time of the morning before the rush. 

I had gone along with a list of ingredients to buy for a dinner party and on my list were strawberries.  When I got to the strawberry farmer he offered me a large box of very ripe strawberries which I bought, and decided then and there to make strawberry jam.  While on a Strawberry theme I also made Strawberry Soup and Strawberry Salad.
Photo by Steve Shanahan
Strawberry Jam
1 large lemon
200ml water
1 kg strawberries, washed, hulled and chopped
zest from 1 small lemon
800g sugar

Thinly slice the large lemon, removing pips and simmer in water for 3-5 minutes. Remove slices, squeezing juice from each back into water and discard them. Add strawberries to water and bring to boil. When boiling rapdily, add sugar and zest and stir continuously till sugar has dissolved. Continue to boil, this took one and half hours, and when mixture thickens, (check this by putting a spoonful onto a saucer and running a finger through it and it should wrinkle) pour into sterilised jars and cap securely, then turn upside down till cool (this helps to keep an airtight seal).

Portuguese Custard Tarts

Who doesn’t feel the magic of a Portuguese custard tart? The sweet, creamy cinnamon- scented custard and the flaky warm pastry is a sensational combination especially when eaten still warm from the oven.

Portuguese Custard Tart   Photo Steve Shanahan
 Many producers of these custard tarts are unwilling to share their recipes and keep the contents a closely guarded secret. I felt very fortunate when a number of years ago, I received this version of a recipe passed on to me from a patissier from Newcastle. Although dedicated to his pastry making craft, rather than making the pastry for these tarts, he recommended buying Careme pastry, which is a high quality commercially produced puff pastry.

These magical little tarts are believed to have been invented by two Catholic sisters in the convent at the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos in Lisbon, Portugal and were called Pasteis de Belem. The recipe was still a highly guarded secret when in 1837 clerics from the monastery set up Casa Pasteis de Belem the first shop to sell the tarts commercially to raise funds for the monastery. The shop was well known by tourists and still exists today.

A good Portuguese custard tart should have a crisp pastry, a firm, smooth-textured custard and caramelised top, which occurs naturally during the baking process due to the sugar content of the custard. At 220C the oven temperature is hotter than usual to produce the golden top. A good tip to remember when cooking custard is - if it boils it will spoil.

There are many recipes for these tarts around but it is by far the best I have found with a 100 per cent success rate. There is some work involved in making the custard, but it is well worth the effort. The recipe makes 12 and is best made on the day of serving.

6 egg yolks
½ cup castor sugar
300 ml pure cream
seeds of 1 vanilla bean
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of salt
3 sheets of butter puff pastry (Careme pastry is best)
2 tsp castor sugar extra mixed with 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

You will need a 12 hole buttered muffin tin and a 12 cm round cutter. Cut 12 x 12 cm diameter circles from the thawed butter puff pastry using a floured cutter. Line individual muffin cases with pastry circles, pushing and folding to fit, and place in the refrigerator until needed.

Preheat oven to 220C. Whisk the egg yolks to break up before beating in the sugar. Gradually add the cream, salt, cinnamon stick and the vanilla seeds. Pour the custard mixture into a saucepan and stir over a low heat with a wooden spoon, ensuring the heat is kept low. Continue to stir until the custard coats the back of the wooden spoon. This should take about 15 to 20 minutes. Immediately pour the custard into a clean bowl. Remove the cinnamon stick and allow the custard to cool, stirring until the mixture returns to room temperature. Once the custard is at room temperature, spoon the mixture evenly among the prepared pastry shells, filling to just over half full. Place in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. When the tarts are caramelised on the top remove from oven and while hot sprinkle with the extra sugar and cinnamon mixture.

Note: Careme pastry can be bought from good delicatessens