Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Blood orange pudding

Photo: Steve Shanahan  

First published Canberra Times 28 September 2011. Strange but true, it was the hospital system in France, with a kind of gruesome appropriateness, that ignited my passion for blood oranges and blood pudding. I hadn’t tried either of these foods until illness forced a brief stay in a provincial hospital in Saumur in the Loire Valley a few years back. These two foods, linked by name only, were on offer daily to the patients, along with a decadent menu of meals that incorporated fresh, locally grown produce.

Subsequently, during my long, slow recovery from glandular fever, it is the sweet, European, red-pigmented oranges, the size and quality of which is not seen in Australia, that I still crave.  This wonderful fruit is offered three times a day to patients and more often if you want it at the end of each meal.

In a daily menu that would make the gruel served in Aussie hospitals taste like workhouse fare, the standouts were a tender chicken casserole (similar to Coq au Vin), blood pudding, and the fattest, whitest asparagus you’ve ever seen, braised in butter with eschalots. I’m not sure if you could consider it health food, but at least you could die happy.

But it is the steaming morning cafe au lait in large bowls, served with my childhood favourite, Dutch crispbreads, unsalted butter and little ceramic pots of jam that win me over. I am mildly amused that even in hospital, food is one of the main games and is taken very seriously by patients and staff alike. As if highlighting the importance of culinary perfection as an essential part of the cure, the doctors check in with patients during mealtimes to ensure that the food reaches the high standards that they expect.

In keeping with French custom, meals in the hospital are served in a number of small courses and the main meal of the day is lunch, always served with a good wine. Seriously! I am presented with an interestingly dark sausage, potatoes dauphinoise and juicy salad greens that I later learn are called maché. I eat most of the sausage, finding its rich meat deliciously piquant with a hint of nutmeg. It’s only a few days into my stay that I discover what this is!

One doctor is fluent in English and my French is limited, so discussing the finer points of the food is not an option, but I befriend another patient and we manage to communicate. When she points at the veins in her arms and then at the sausage, it all becomes horrifyingly clear. Now I know what I’m eating, I feel there is something not quite right about serving blood pudding in a hospital. I may have been still a little delirious as I imagine all sorts of weird things, but mostly wonder where the blood is sourced from. My focus turns to blood oranges.

Dessert is always served in this hospital, and is generally a fruit pudding or a crème anglaise. My memory of the blood orange pudding has stuck with me - the colour of the fruit penetrates the sponge crumb, creating a rainbow of pinky-orange, making it perfect for a spring dessert.

This recipe calls for orange segments, and I learned this knife technique, also known as supreming, while in France. With a sharp knife, cut off the bottom and top of the orange, so the flesh is exposed and the orange can stand upright on a cutting board. Cut away the peel and the pith, following the curve of the fruit with your knife. Hold the orange in one hand over a bowl and cut the segments out of their connective membranes from each side and let them fall into the bowl. Reserve any juice to use later.

These blood orange upside down puddings are best eaten warm from the oven, served with a berry sauce.
Photo: Steve Shanahan

125g unsalted butter and a little extra to grease
5 large blood oranges, peeled and segmented
175g caster sugar
1 tbsp water
2 large eggs
125g self raising flour, sifted
1 vanilla bean, scraped or 1 tsp vanilla paste
zest of 1 orange, finely grated
2 tbsp blood orange juice

Berry Sauce
300g mixed berries, frozen or fresh
150g caster sugar
juice of 1 orange

Preheat the oven to 180C. Butter 6 or 7 small pudding moulds, depending on the size. Toss the blood orange segments with 50g of the sugar in a small bowl.  Heat a wide pan over a high heat and add the blood orange and sugared segments with 1 tbsp of water and cook for a minute or so until slightly softened but still holding their shape. Spoon them into the prepared moulds, along with the juices. Set aside to cool while making the sponge mixture.

Cream the butter and remaining 125g caster sugar together in a bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at the time, adding 1 tbsp of flour with the second egg. Beat in the vanilla and orange zest. Fold in the rest of the flour in two batches, and then finally the orange juice until just evenly combined.

Spoon the mixture into the moulds to two-thirds filled, and smooth off the tops. Stand on a baking tray and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until risen. Test by inserting a thin skewer into the centre, it should come out clean.

While the puddings are baking, make the berry sauce. Put the berries, sugar, juice into a wide pan and stir over a high heat until the berries have burst and softened. Cook for 10 minutes or so, until the mixture is thick. Transfer to a bowl to cool.

Once the puddings are cooked, leave them in their moulds for a few minutes, then run a thin knife around the edge of each one to loosen. Invert them onto individual plates, serving with a spoonful of berry sauce and a drizzle of cream. Photos by Steve Shanahan

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Aunt Kitty's Tomato Pie

First published Canberra Times 16 September 2011
I’ve just returned from a weekend on the south coast and a visit with my good friend Jen, an incredibly talented and intuitive cook. She vehemently denies this, but continues to produce all manner of amazing heirloom dishes, mostly from old family recipes, which she prepares in her cozy cottage kitchen. Jen conjures the best roast pig I’ve tasted.

As I wind my way down the Clyde Mountain to the coast, I know another one of her famous “swine nights” is in the offing.  It takes all my concentration to keep my trusty Skoda on the straight and narrow and my mind off the delights to come. 

Jen plays mother hen to many of the local waifs and strays, who feast at her kitchen on perfectly cooked pig, crunchy baked potatoes and crispy pork crackling. You will regularly find a tribe of friends at Jen’s kitchen table, gathered there for swine night, being fed and wined with gusto, while she holds court on the other side of the kitchen bench.

One of her more unusual, but well-honed side dishes that accompany her roasts, is her great Aunt Kitty’s Tomato Pie. Jen’s family hail from the wilds of Goondiwindi and the dish has been cooked by the females in her family for generations. She insists that this pie needs to be almost charred to intensify the burnt umami flavour of the tomato and apologises for the amount of butter it uses.  In her defence, I maintain that it’s the butter that actually provides that special je ne sais quoi!

This tomato pie is great as a side dish to accompany roast meats or with a green salad as a light lunch.

1 medium onion, sliced
6 ripe tomatoes, sliced
3 slices of wholegrain bread with crusts
3 tbsp softened salted butter
parmesan cheese
sea salt flakes and ground black pepper
2 tspn brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 200C. Smear a medium sized pie dish very liberally around its base and sides with the softened butter. Tear the bread into small one inch pieces and roughly cover the base with a third of the torn bread. Cover the bread with a third of the onion rings and then a third of the tomato slices. Sprinkle the tomato with a good pinch of the brown sugar and season with salt and pepper.Dab nut sized pieces of butter over the top of the tomato. Repeat the layers two more times, ending with a layer of bread pieces on the top. Sprinkle the top layer of the bread pieces with the parmesan cheese and finish with the dobs of butter.

Place in the oven uncovered for 1 hour. After cooking for 30 minutes, push the layers down with the back of a spoon to flatten the pie. Continue baking the pie for another 30 minutes until blackened around the edges. Remove from the oven and serve hot or at room temperature. Photos by Steve Shanahan