Wednesday, December 22, 2010

St Nich's Biccies

First published Canberra Times 22 December 2010.

The story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas who was said to be born during the third century AD in the village of Patara on the southern coast of Turkey. He was left an orphan by his wealthy parents, and legend has it, that over his lifetime he spent his inheritance helping the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving the poor and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. He was known for his generosity to those in need, his love of children, and his concern for sailors and ships. He died on December 6, 343 and the anniversary of his death became a feast day in the Christian tradition.

Photo by Steve Shanahan
During the 1800’s, political cartoonists and writers influenced the transformation of St Nic into Santa Claus. Along with a phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus to Santa Claus, we see a shift in appearance to a jolly elf-like character in a red suit.

In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas day is still celebrated on 6 December, by sharing biscuits, sweets, small gifts, and riddles. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for gifts. Black Pieter, St. Nic’s vaguely scary assistant, throws small cinnamon spiced biscuits through the front door in preparation for St Nic’s visit.

These biscuits are also called Pepernoten (Peppernut) and it’s probably because they are so crunchy, although they soften up with age and the flavour develops. With my mother’s help, all the kids in our extended family were herded together to cook a large batch of these biscuits each year to throw around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. The kids then scrambled in and out of the wrapped presents to find the biscuits, creating mayhem while the adults got quietly smashed on alcoholic egg nogs.

The smell of these biscuits baking is quintessentially Christmas, and they are easy and fun for the kids to make, even if someone older prepares the mixture to the dough stage.

2 cups sifted flour
½ tspn baking powder
¼ tspn salt
1 tspn white pepper
¼ tspn cinnamon
¼ tspn ground ginger
1 tspn grated orange rind
2 tspns grated lemon rind
1 tbspn butter
1 cup icing sugar
2 eggs separated (beat egg whites stiffly)
extra icing sugar

Mix the flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, orange rind and lemon rind in a bowl and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer and add slightly beaten egg yolks, beating well until creamy. Gradually stir in the flour mixture, then the stiffly beaten egg whites, gently blending all ingredients. Refrigerate dough for 1 hour and let stand overnight at room temperature. Roll dough into small teaspoon sized balls, placing on baking paper lined biscuit trays a few centimetres apart. Press each ball down gently with the back of a glass. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes at 170C. Sprinkle biscuits with extra icing sugar while still hot.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bitter chocolate tartlets with sea salt

I needed a chocolate treat to take up to the coast for Christmas, so decided to whip up a batch of my standby chocolate tarts. These are very rich and not for the chocolate faint-of-heart. My tartlet tins are vintage tins with a pattern in the base, and because they are rounded and shallow they are very easy to remove without breakage.

When the tartlets were cooled, I placed them in an airtight container and froze them ready for the trip. I used my favourite pre-made Careme pastry, as I needed to get these done quickly.

Makes about 20 tartlets

Roll of chocolate Careme shortcrust pastry
1 ½ cup double cream
2 tbsp caster sugar
300g bitter chocolate (I used 80% cocoa solids) chopped
2 eggs
Coarse salt flakes for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 180C

Grease mini tartlet tins, mine were about 2 inches in diameter and quite shallow. This makes them easier to remove when cooked. Roll out the thawed pastry as thinly as possible and using a cutter, cut  rounds slightly bigger than the holes and press into the tartlet tins. Prick with a fork, and place in the oven to bake for about 15 to 20 minutes. The crusts should be dried when fully baked.

While the tartlet shells are baking, heat the cream and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Pour over the chopped chocolate and whisk together until chocolate melts and is combined. Whisk the eggs into the chocolate just before the shells have finished baking. You should end up with a glossy ganache type consistency.

Remove the shells from the oven and turn off the oven. Spoon the filling into the shells, finishing with a twist. Return the tartlets to the oven and leave them in the oven for about 5 to 10 minutes. This will set your filling.

Place tartlets on a wire rack to cool. Sprinkle each tartlet with a few grains of salt.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas with Salmon Gravlax, Pate, Panforte and Salad!

Wow - I love Christmas, and it's mainly because of the great food and cooking. I've been laid up with the flu for the past week and a half and I've been unable to wield the wooden spoon. I can tell you it's like having my arms cut off. But I'm up early now to head out to the markets to source some good looking salmon for Gravlax. I love this dish, it's going to be available for grazing, to take up to my sister's place for the feast.

Each year when possible, we gather at my sister's house at Lake Macquarie and because there are so many of us this year, we have hired another house close by to fit our mob in. Daughters are gathering extras along the way (gorgeous partners), and this means our extended household is expanding each year. This also means more food!

Suz my sister is preparing rotisserie chickens for the feast and a roast pork with crackling and a baked glazed ham. Because we are travelling some 400kms I need to take things that can trasnsport well. So I have made my absolute standby - Panforte x 3, Chicken Liver Pate, Gravlax, Scottish Shortbread. I have bought loads of bacon, eggs, yoghurt, olives, nuts and blah! Salads will be comprised of asparagus, pea, parmesan in a light vinaigrette and probably my old standby, crunchy noodle salad - oh my god it's so easy!!

Photo by Steve Shanahan

¼ cup sugar
2tbsp coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon crushed black peppercorns
2.5kg salmon, filleted and deboned, but with skin left on
2 tbsp vodka or brandy (I use vodka)
4 tbsp very finely chopped dill

Mustard sauce
1 ½ tbsp cider vinegar
1 tsp caster sugar
½ cup olive oil
2 tspn chopped dill
2 tbsp Dijon mustard

Combine the sugar, salt and peppercorns in a small dish. Remove any bones from the salmon with tweezers. Pat dry with paper towels and lay one fillet skin side down in a shallow tray or baking dish. Sprinkle with half the vodka or brandy, rub half the sugar mixture into the flesh, then sprinkle with half the dill. Sprinkle the remaining vodka over the second salmon fillet and rub the remaining sugar mixture into the flesh. Lay it flesh side down on top of the dill-coated salmon. Cover with plastic wrap and place a heavy board on top - weigh this down with 3 heavy cans or a foil-covered brick. Refrigerate for 24 hours, turning the salmon over after 12 hours.

To make the mustard sauce, whisk together the ingredients, then cover until needed.

When the salmon is ready, take off the weights and remove the plastic wrap. Lift off the top fillet and lay both fillets on a wooden board (traditional). Brush off all the dill and any seasoning mixture with a stiff pastry brush. Sprinkle with the remaining fresh dill and press it onto the salmon flesh, shaking off any excess. Serve the salmon whole on the serving board and thinly slice (use a very sharp knife with a long flexible blade) on an angle towards the tail. Serve with the mustard sauce and fresh baguette. Gravlax can be refrigerated, covered, for up to a week or it can be frozen.

Panforte (makes 2 cakes)

300g macadamia nuts or peanuts
200g whole hazelnuts
125g sun-dried pears, chopped
125g dried apricots, chopped
125g raisins
125g prunes, chopped
125g dried figs, chopped
½ cup brandy
2 cups plain flour
¼ cup Dutch cocoa
1 tbsp Dutch cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
300ml honey
1 ½ cups caster sugar

Preheat oven to 180C. Toast the nuts on separate baking trays until they are lightly golden. Remove and set aside. When cool enough to handle, rubs skins off the hazelnuts using a tea-towel.

Place all the nuts in a large mixing bowl, then add all the fruit. Sift in the flour, cocoa and spices. Toss well to combine making sure the fruit is coated. Pour over the brandy and mix through. This gets heavy now.

In a saucepan, heat the honey and sugar and bring to the boil. Simmer gently until it reaches soft ball stage (112c-116c). Pour the toffee liquid over the fruit and nut mixture and use a wooden spoon to combine. It will be very sticky, but use your muscles until all the flour is incorporated. Turn oven heat down to 150C.

Line 2 26cm spring pans with edible rice paper or baking paper, and grease the sides well with butter. Press the mixture into the bases. Dip your hands in water to make this easier. Put another layer of baking paper on top and press down. Bake for 40 minutes, I generally remove the paper 10 minutes before finished baking and then allow the top to cook a little.

Remove and leave to cool a little before easing out of the pan. Cut into thin wedges to serve, dusted with icing sugar. Store in an airtight container.

Chicken liver pate

Serves 6
15g butter
400g chicken livers, trimmed
½ an onion, chopped
5 fresh thyme leaves
2 tbsp Marsala
1 tbsp brandy
2 tbsp double cream, whipped
salt and pepper

Melt 100g butter in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Melt the remaining butter in a frying pan. Add the chicken livers, onion and thyme and cook over a medium heat, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes. Sprinkle with the Marsala, season with salt and pepper and cook for 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, chop the chicken livers and place in a bowl. Stir in the cooled melted butter, then add the brandy and fold in the cream. Chill in the fridge for 6 hours before serving.


1 large Romaine lettuce
big bunch of asparagus
500g peas (shelled)
200g beans
2 ripe avocados

1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
8 tbsp olive oil
herbs - basil, thyme, mint, parsley, chives
sea salt and ground black pepper

Wash and drain lettuce leaves. To make vinaigrette, put the mustard into a small bowl, add the vinegar and oil and whisk together. Add the chopped herbs and season to taste.

Bring a pan of water to the boil and cook beans for 2 minutes and remove and place in icy cold water. Cook the asparagus in the same water, for another 2 minutes, removing and adding to the ice water. Do peas the same way, except cooking for only 1 minute. You can also use the peas raw if you want.

Drain vegetables in a colander, while you prepare the avocados. Remove the skin and stone and slice into quarters, then crossways.

Combine all ingredients and at the last minute, dress the salad.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Suzie's Melting Moments

Photo by Steve Shanahan
 First published Canberra Times 15 December 2010.
My sister Susie is the queen of Melting Moments. Nobody else I know can make these beauties as feathersoft, silky and melt like sugar in the mouth like she can. Last year she arrived at our cafe on the south coast with a jar of mini Melting Moments. They were so perfect, that I couldn’t resist using them as an accompaniment to coffee orders. What I didn’t realise was that the customers would go so mad for them, and that’s another story.

Thankfully, after much grovelling, she gave me the recipe, but I must confess, hers still contain that elusive something. They are too good to be kept a secret, are very easy to make and very indulgent. These whisps of butter and sugar make an ideal foodie gift, although they do need to be kept in the fridge in summer.

To achieve the melt in the mouth texture of the biscuits, Susie says you need to follow a few simple techniques. Whip the softened butter, sugar and vanilla for at least 5 minutes on the highest setting of your mixer. Use only pure vanilla essence or scraped vanilla bean seeds. Make the biscuits on the small side as they expand in the oven, as bite-sized are easiest to eat. Use at least one centimetre of the butter cream filling between the biscuits. Keep any unfilled biscuits in an airtight container in the fridge. You can freeze the filling if needed.


250g unsalted butter, softened
⅓ cup icing sugar mixture, sifted
2 teaspoons pure vanilla essence, or 1 scraped vanilla bean
1 ½ cups self raising flour, sifted
½ cup custard powder, sifted


120g unsalted butter, softened
1 cup icing sugar mixture, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla essence

Preheat oven to 180C. Line two baking trays with baking paper. Beat butter, icing sugar and vanilla in electric mixer for about 5 to 8 minutes on high until pale, smooth and creamy. Mix the flour and custard powder into the butter mixture by hand until well combined. Roll out teaspoonfuls into balls and place on lined tray. Flatten each biscuit lightly with a fork. Bake for 15 minutes, checking to not let the biscuits turn golden or burn. Keeping them lightly cooked preserves the melt in the mouth texture. Remove biscuits to a cooling rack to completely cool before filling.

To make the filling, beat the butter, icing sugar and vanilla until light and creamy. Sandwich two biscuits together with the filling and dust with icing sugar.

Recipe makes about 20 filled biscuits.

Preserved Lemons

Photo by Steve Shanahan
First published Canberra Times 15 December 2010.
Although you can buy preserved lemons, there is something particularly satisfying and tastier when you make them yourself. If you are lucky enough to own alemon tree or you can befriend someone who does, why not confit a crop for yourself, or give a jar as a Chrissy gift?

When preserving lemons yourself, try and buy the smaller ones, which might mean having to dig through the lemon mounds in the vege shop or market. While searching for the perfect lemons, don’t do as I did, and upset the artfully arranged lemon mound in search of the elusive sized fruit.

Preserved lemons bring an exotic flavour to simple salads, couscous, lentils or warmed olives, although their standout role is the piquant, lemony infusion they give to marinated meat. Preserved lemon and meat, are meant for each other especially when used in dishes, such as chicken tagine, marinated lamb, beef kebabs and fish dishes. They can also be used to flavour sweets, such as biscuits, cakes, macarons and ice cream. Use your imagination, but use it sparingly as their flavour and saltiness can be quite intense. If you find the lemons a little too salty, wash them before using them in your cooking.

Aside from their many uses, there is something nurturing about watching your lemons mature, a friend of mine said to me it’s f like watching a bottle of sea monkeys come to life, or a bud coming into flower. I think I’ll go with the flower thing, I’ve never been terribly fond of sea monkeys.

I choose unsprayed lemons because the skin of the lemon is used in cooking, rather than the flesh.. You will need about 5 to 6 small lemons with about 8 or so large lemons extra, used for juicing. Keep a few extra lemons on hand for topping up the bottle with juice a couple of days later as the lemons need to stay submerged in liquid while they mature. Use sea salt as this provides a better flavour than regular table salt. To preserve 5 to 6 lemons you will need a sterilised 1.2 litre jar.

5 to 6 small lemons, washed
8 larger lemons for juicing (to make about 500ml juice)
6 to 7 tbsp sea salt
2 cinnamon sticks
4 to 6 bay leaves
6 cardamom pods, just split
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 to 3 tbsp olive oil

Quarter the small lemons without cutting all the way through. Open up a lemon and sprinkle 2 teaspoons of salt inside. Close tightly and place in the sterilised jar, sprinkling with another teaspoon of salt. Repeat process with the remaining small lemons.

Cover the lemons in the jar with a round of baking paper. Squash down with a clean weight, such as a large stone wrapped in foil. Put the lid on and leave in a warm place for 2 to 3 days to let the juices run out.

Remove the weight and add the cinnamon, bay leaves, cardamom pods and peppercorns randomly through the jar. Top with the freshly squeezed lemon juice, covering the lemons entirely. Pour over the olive oil which acts as a seal. Top up with extra lemon juice after a few days if needed. Replace the lid and store in a cool, dark place for a few weeks.

To use, remove a lemon and rinse with water. Scrape out and discard the flesh, and use the finely chopped skin in your cooking. Once opened, store in the fridge for up to 6 months.

Moroccan Dressing

Use this dressing with grilled chicken or meat.
100ml extra virgin olive oil
40 to 60 ml of lemon juice
1 birdseye chilli, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1-2 tbsp finely chopped preserved lemon

Whisk together all of the ingredients in a medium bowl. Adjust the lemon juice according to taste and season with salt and ground black pepper.

Chocolate Rum Truffles

First published Canberra Times 15 December 2010
Patrick Roger's Paris Christmas window display
Patrick Roger calls himself a sculptor of flavours and he treats chocolate like a raw material, which he transforms into giant 80 kilogram creations, or wrapped sweets in metre-long boxes. Roger, a Parisien chocolatier creates the most innovative and skilful of combinations, which makes him stand out from the crowd. This unrestrained creativity often clashes with the generally classic held views and reserved world of chocolate. But I don’t mind, he can put his chocolates under my tree, any time.

Like Roger, each year I make chocolate truffles for Christmas, but that’s where the likeness ends. Unlike Roger, I make a batch of simple rum truffles which are pretty popular when given as gifts for friends and family.
Photo by Steve Shanahan

It’s easy to make truffles, but observing a few tips will make the experience even easier. Make sure that you melt the chocolate slowly, if it’s overheated the mixture will be become grainy rather than silky. Don’t rush the cooling process, the mixture needs to be firm enough to handle. Truffles will keep up to two weeks in a sealed container in the fridge.

Makes about 40 truffles

500g good quality dark chocolate (70-80% cocoa solids)
30g unsalted butter
300ml double cream
4 tbsp rum
100g ground almonds
60g Madeira cake crumbs (or a store bought plain cake)

60g finely chopped pistachios
60 g finely chopped hazelnuts
50 g sifted dark cocoa powder

Place the chocolate, cream, butter and rum in the top of a double saucepan over simmering water. Stir the mixture until it’s melted and combined. Transfer to a bowl with the almonds and cake crumbs and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate for about 2-3 hours.

Coat your fingers in cocoa powder, take teaspoons of the chocolate mixture and shape into 2 cm balls. Roll some of the balls in the cocoa powder and some in the combined chopped pistachio and hazelnut mixture. Place the balls on a tray lined with non stick baking paper and chill for about 1 hour before serving.

Another easy and delicious variation is to make a praline coating for the truffles, by placing a combination of sugar and nuts on a baking tray and placing under a hot grill for 1-2 minutes until caramelised.

Drunken cherries

First published Canberra Times 15 December 2010
It’s time to fess up – this recipe was an experiment, but what a lot of fun it was. It all started when I read a book about a chef who spent a year in France and he talked generally about creating fermented cherries. So I did a bit of research on fermentation of fruit and I came up with my own recipe, thinking it might work for a unique Christmas treat.

The fresh cherries ferment while wrapped inside a sugary layer of fondant and are then enrobed in a double layer of dark chocolate. This seals the cherry inside the chocolate, kicking off the fermentation process. They make a great gift, or served with coffee after dinner.

I used fresh and firm cherries, which were a little on the under-ripe side with their stalks intact. I used white icing fondant bought from the supermarket to wrap the cherries.

Photo by Steve Shanahan
20 firm, washed and dried cherries
125g dark chocolate, 75 – 80 % cocoa solids
200g ready-made white icing fondant (you can seal the remaining fondant in cling wrap and store in the cupboard)

Roll the fondant out thinly on a surface dusted with icing sugar, loosening as you go so it doesn’t stick. Cut out approximately 20 x 5 cm circles large enough to cover each of the cherries. Wrap a thin layer of the fondant around the cherries, making sure you cover the cherry up to the stalk. Pinch off any excess fondant at the stalk and place on a tray lined with baking paper.

Melt the chocolate over a double boiler, being careful not to get any water into the chocolate. When the chocolate has melted, hold the cherry by the stalk and dip it into the chocolate. Spoon the chocolate over the cherry to ensure complete coverage. When coated place the cherry back onto the tray to set. Continue until all the cherries are coated with chocolate. Leave the cherries to set for 30 minutes.
Reheat the remaining chocolate and dip the bases of the cherries for the second time.

Return the cherries to the paper lined tray and when the chocolate has set, transfer to a paper lined container and place in the fridge to ferment for about 2 weeks. Some of the fondant may ooze out of the cherry, this only means the cherries are doing their thing. Be aware the cherries will still have their seeds.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fig and Pecan Torte

First published Canberra Times 8 December 2010
When my friend Bronnie had trouble sleeping she would turn to baking cakes and biscuits. She often phoned me to join her in these late night sessions, and time was forgotten as we chatted and played with food. We spent many late hours together working through recipes, creating some degustation masterpieces and some disasters. It was during one of these late nighters we came up with this recipe that contains the flavours of Christmas.

Photo by Steve Shanahan

It makes a very quick and easy dessert, but is special enough to serve for a celebration. The torte should be served with a heavy cream or mascarpone, topped with a drizzle of Vino Cotto or brandy.

1 cup chopped dried figs
1 cup chopped pecans
4 egg whites
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp plain flour
1 tsp sifted icing sugar
Vino cotto or brandy
Roasted almonds (optional)
Preheat oven to 170C

Mix chopped figs, nuts and flour in a bowl. Beat egg whites in an electric mixer until stiff, add the brown sugar a spoon at a time while beating. Fold in the fig and nut mixture and vanilla, mixing gently so as not to break down the mixture. Spoon into a greased and paper lined 23cm springform pan and bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Leave in the oven with the door ajar to cool slightly before removing to a wire rack to cool. This will reduce shrinkage and cracking. Remove spring-form pan collar and dust with icing sugar and optional roasted almonds. Serve still warm with mascarpone drizzled with Vino Cotto or brandy.

Breakfast berry brulee

First published in the Canberra Times 8 December 2010.
It’s Christmas morning, the present wrappings are strewn across the floor, family members are gathered in small groups looking at their gifts and drinking fresh orange juice. I’m standing in front of the stove making toffee to pour over an industrial sized bowl full of juicy berries and creamy yoghurt to feed the hungry mob. I know this sacrifice is well worth the breakfast to come.

Photos by Steve Shanahan

It has become something of a tradition in our household to have this breakfast on those special occasion days such as Christmas and birthday family gatherings. When I ask my family for their breakfast choice, generally the response is “you know Mum, the yoghurt with the berries and the toffee stuff”. Grown-ups love this breakfast too, it gives them permission to eat toffee, which is okay, as it’s balanced by the fruit and yoghurt.

This is a very simple, special occasion brekky, a snack to prepare, but packs a punch in flavour and presentation. Buy the best quality fruit and yoghurt you can find and if you are unable to obtain fresh berries, use frozen ones. While nothing can take the place of fresh fruit, if you do use the frozen ones, leave them slightly frozen as this gives a nice zing to the dish.

A slice of toasted Panettone, an Italian Christmas yeast bread, served on the side or with the brulee on top makes a nice addition.

A medium to dry sparkling wine and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice complete the picture.

Serves 4 to 6

600g thick Greek yoghurt
1 punnet raspberries – about 120g
1 punnet blueberries – about 120g
120g strawberries, halved
3 peaches sliced
1 cup caster sugar

Place the yoghurt in a large serving dish, scatter the berries, then add the peaches. Place the sugar in a heavy based saucepan with 310mls of water and stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat to medium and continue to cook until the mixture becomes a light golden colour or when a small amount dropped into a glass of cold water hardens slightly. Quickly pour the hot toffee over the fruits. Serve as soon as possible. Some of the toffee will melt into the yoghurt while some will be crisp shards. Optional: top with roasted slivered almonds.

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Salt Crusted Fish - a festive feast

First published in Canberra Times 8 December 2010
Photos by Steve Shanahan

It was at the Il Pirata restaurant in Praiano, a little fishing village on the Amalfi coast of Italy, where we first had fish prepared this way. We were so bowled over by the delicate sea flavours and moist texture that we just had to try making it for ourselves.

The restaurant sits on a rocky terrace, an extension of a cave in the sea cliffs, and gazes over the hazy blue Gulf of Salerno. The shoreline is dotted with brightly painted wooden fishing boats and is overlooked by the Saracen tower built to warn of approaching pirates. Dining tables are on the water’ s edge and the sea keeps time with recording of popular opera arias sung by a former waiter in an endless looping CD.

Evening view from Il Pirata

The fish arrived at our table on a trolley, propelled by a hammer and chisel wielding waiter armed to remove the salty crust. This was done with style and precision, neatly dissecting the fish from its backbone.

I have tried this method using various species of fish and Australian Kingfish seems to provide the best result, probably because of its thicker skin. Other species work well but I suggest you leave the scales on to ensure the salt does not penetrate. However, don’t be concerned as the skin will peel off easily when the salt crust is removed after the fish is baked. If baking a large fish I use a hooded barbeque, although a smaller fish baked in the oven works fine. To remove the salt crust you will need a small hammer and chisel to lift away the salt.

This time, I used a gutted 1.4kg fresh red snapper with the head and tail left on. For anything larger you could have the head removed to enable you to fit the fish in the oven or barbeque. For a larger fish I use two disposable foil pans, one inside the other for strength, with the tail hanging out the end. If cooking a smaller fish I generally use an oven tray and adjust the egg whites and salt ratio accordingly.

This is a great Christmas meal to share with family and friends and provides a spectacle when the salt crust is removed. I like to serve it with a simple crunchy noodle salad, grilled lemons, potato salad and a cold semillon. Don’t forget the arias.

3kg fish serves 8 to 10.

1.4 kg fish serves 4

1.4 kg white fish
4 lemons
3 kg of cooking salt
4 egg whites
2 bunches of fresh whole herbs, any combination of thyme, parsley, sage or oregano

Heat the BBQ or oven to around 220C.

Fish Preparation

Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl with 3 tbsp of water, mixing till just slightly foamy. Add the salt to the egg whites and combine with your fingers until the mixture resembles wet sand. Before putting the fish into the pan place a layer of salt, about 1 cm thick, underneath where the fish will lay. Make this the length of the fish. Then place the patted and dried fish on top of this layer of salt. Cut 1 of the lemons into slices and place inside the fish cavity along with the whole herbs. Pat the remaining salt around the fish until you have the fish sealed inside the salt crust which should be about 1cm thick. Sprinkle a little water over the top of the salt with your fingers to set. The fish should be sealed within the salt crust to allow it to steam and retain moisture.

Cooking the Fish

I generally use only 2 of the 3 barbeque burners and place the fish in the centre of the barbeque with the hood closed. The time required for salt crusted fish is approximately 25 minutes per kilogram. When cooked, let it sit for about 10 minutes before lifting away the salt using a small hammer and chisel. The salt should come away in large pieces and if the skin does not come off with the salt it will peel off easily to expose the moist flesh beneath.

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sticky Pork and Fried Eggs

First published in the Canberra Times 1 December 2010.
The secret to this peasant style Chinese dish is in the long cooking time that allows the pork to caramelise and turn sticky and melt-in- the- mouth. I learned this dish from my former mother-in-law. She was a Chinese-Malay and she had learned it from her mother, who had migrated from China to Malaysia about fifty years ago.

Although I didn’t speak a word of Chinese and she not a word of English, we managed to communicate nonetheless. She used a combination of sign language and hand signals, insisting that I cook the pork for her while she watched over my shoulder, nodding and shaking her head wildly in approval, and flailing her arms in displeasure when things were not right. This was disconcerting, to say the least, considering it was to be served up for the extended family dinner later that day.

Whenever one of the family members felt unwell, she would make this dish, adding dried ginseng and sesame oil to it, believing that it healed upset tummies and provided longevity. She always served it with a side dish of her version of fried eggs and boiled rice.

This dish is very easy to make, although you do need to take the time to cook it properly, as forcing it to cook quickly will toughen the meat. The quantities are approximate, although try to stick to the same ratio of soy sauce to water, as this provides the flavour base. If you aren’t a pork eater, you could cook this dish using chicken instead of pork, and in this case, the cooking time can be shortened to about an hour.

This dish keeps really well for a few days and improves with age although we never have much left over and more often than not end up moving into the realms of overindulgence. I cooked this recently and matched it perfectly with a fruity and viscous Clonakilla Viognier 2008. The dried mushrooms and fungus are available from Chinese grocery stores.

Photo by Steve Shanahan
Serves 4


1 kg pork belly, chopped into 3cm lengths
2 large white onions, diced
2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsp ginger, chopped
¼ cup dark soy sauce
½ tsp Chinese five spice powder
3 cups of hot water
5 star anise
3 cinnamon quills
¼ cup Chinese dried black fungus (cloud ear fungus), softened in 1 cup of boiling water
6 dried Chinese mushrooms, softened in 1 cup of boiling water

Combine the soy sauce, water and five spice powder and set aside. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over high heat, add the chopped onions, garlic and ginger and fry for 2 minutes. Add the chopped pork belly and cook until browned. Add the water and soy sauce mixture to just cover the pork. If there is not enough liquid to cover the pork, add some extra hot water. Add the star anise and cinnamon quills, and bring to the boil. When boiling, reduce the saucepan to as low a heat as possible and cover with a lid. After cooking the pork for about one hour, add the Chinese fungus and mushrooms and continue cooking for approximately another hour or until the meat is fall off the bone tender. Skim the oil that has settled on the top at this point if you prefer. You can use the soaking water from the fungus and mushrooms to add to the dish for flavour, instead of the extra hot water. Serve with a herb salad of mint, basil, coriander and Chinese cabbage. If cooked the day before you can scrape the settled fat off the top of the dish before reheating.

Photo by Steve Shanahan
Fried Eggs

5 large free range eggs
4 shallots, sliced
2 chillies, sliced
3 tbsp vegetable oil
Freshly ground pepper
2 tbsp oyster sauce

Break the eggs into a bowl without breaking the yolks. Heat the oil in a hot wok and slide the eggs gently into the hot oil keeping them whole. Fry for about one minute, then spear to release the yolks, cooking for another minute until the eggs are crispy on the bottom. Sprinkle the eggs with the chillies and shallots and drizzle with the oyster sauce. Slide the eggs out with an egg-lifter onto a platter and season with pepper. This is a great dish to share.