Spring

Where is spring?

By | Australia, summer | No Comments

I’ve been back from Australia, less than a week and my body clock is still playing up. I’m tired when I don’t expect and hungry at the oddest times. I knew it wouldn’t be warm when I returned, but I’d hoped for some respite from the long winter. It seems it’s not to be. Not only is it cold, but bitterly cold with the wind chill plunging the temperature to -14C. That feels even colder after the warmth of the Antipodes. I’ve dragged out my winter coat however, I refuse to wear my boots, after weeks in light summer sandals I can’t deal with their weight.

At least I’ve had 3 weeks of paradise and memories of coffee on the deck, walking along the beach and swimming are keeping me warm. As the sun streams into my office and all I can see is blue sky, I flip through my photos and am instantly transported back, it’s good to know my friends are warm and drinking gin and homemade tonic water. It will warm up here, eventually but I’m not sure how long I can wait.

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Travels

By | Australia, travel | One Comment

The frigid weather has me thinking about traveling and living elsewhere. I spent 10 days on the west coast, Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco promoting Bitter. Victoria was rainy, but a lot milder than Toronto. I went crazy tweeting photos of daffodils and camellias in bloom as it was only the end of January. However, I’m not sure I could live on an island and endure the continual grey skies.

Vancouver was my next stop where it was clear, sunny and around 12C, positively balmy after Toronto. I admit the view of the mountains and the ocean make it special, although I’m not sure I could put down roots there. Seattle has many of the same charms, mountains and water, however it was San Francisco that stole our hearts this trip. I stayed with friends, who make great martinis, so that swayed my judgment plus I arrived to perfect weather; sunny, warm 23C, and clear, not always the case in early February. This time the city reminded me even more of my birthplace, Australia. There were eucalyptus trees everywhere and wattle trees in flower, like the one pictured here.

I consider wattle a quintessential Australia flower, although acacias now grow around the world. You see them in the south of France and they’re called mimosa. I’m headed back to Australia for a few weeks going from -30C to +30C, it will be quite a shock to my system. I won’t see any wattle in flower, it’s the end of the summer down there, but I will see flowers, feel the warmth and be able to go out without wearing long underwear, boots, gloves, scarf and heavy winter coat. I can’t wait to have my morning coffee on my friends deck.

I’ll also do a little promotion for Bitter so check out Books for Cooks I’ll be there in March. Mostly I will be soaking in the heat and dipping my toes into the warm ocean water. I can’t wait.

I’ll try to post if I can manage on a mobile device, in the meantime feast your eyes on the wattle. And for all of you stuck in the north east of North America remember that one day spring will come…… it will.

White Asparagus Part 2

By | Paris, white asparagus | No Comments
As I said in White Asparagus Part 1, I’d always just boiled my white asparagus. Well this asparagus season we went to Spring restaurant in Paris. My favourite taste in the meal was the grapefruit jelly for many reasons, but the white asparagus were delicious too and a revelation. Obviously  chef Daniel Rose shares my opinion that white asparagus should be big and fat, look at these beauties in the photo. You can read about Daniel and his restaurant in an article written by my friend Lesley Chesterman.
The asparagus at Spring were roasted, you can see their brown colouration and served in a shellfish sauce with sorrel leaves and toasted buckwheat. It was a great combination, however it was the idea of roasting them that hooked me. Of course I’d roasted green asparagus in the oven and even put them on the barbecue, but that was before I became an asparagus snob.
I talked to a couple of Parisian friends who pointed out that this was how Alain Passard cooked them at L’Arpège. I’ve eaten there twice, but never in the spring and perhaps never again, given the prices. Well I began with a heavy cast iron pan and butter. My husband did the trimming and peeling and I could only fit 6 fat asparagus in my pan. I added butter to the pan with a drizzle of olive oil and when the butter melted I added the asparagus. I “roasted” them turning them in the pan until they were nicely coloured, with the heat on medium. It took about  12 minutes. At this point my asparagus weren’t completely cooked, so I reduced the heat to low and covered the pan. After another 5 minutes or so, my asparagus were cooked, I tested them with a cake tester. I seasoned them with salt and pepper, added more butter to the pan, and when it began to melt, I served them with the butter and pan juices.
They were delicious, so much so I’m going to have to buy a bigger pan so I can share this treat with friends. And I guess I really pan-roasted and steamed them, if we want to be exact.

White Asparagus Part 1

By | Paris, white asparagus | 2 Comments
I’m an asparagus snob. For me asparagus are white and fat. You have to peel white asparagus, so you want something left when you finish and I’d rather eat three fat ones than half a dozen skinny ones.  When I first came to France eons ago, green asparagus, the only ones I was familiar with at the time, were no where to be found. You could find skinny wild green asparagus, but everything else is white. Today green are everywhere. To my taste white asparagus are superior to green. They are the same plant except the white ones are buried under a mound of sandy soil. This protects them from the light and stops the formation of chlorophyl resulting in a pure asparagus taste, free of the grassiness of the green ones.
One of the main reasons we come to Paris in the spring is to eat white asparagus. I just cook them, my husband does all the work. They must be trimmed at the base and carefully peeled, a small knife is the best tool. You can see how much of the stringy outside he removes, that’s why you buy fat ones.

Now there are always instructions to tie asparagus into neat bundles and steam them standing up. Well bundles are a good idea if you are cooking large numbers, and as for standing them up, how many people own a special steamer for asparagus? I usually cook 12 to 16 at a time so I let them float around in my roasting pan. The roasting pan, on an oval burner, is ideal. You can move the pan so most of the heat is concentrated to one side. (You can also do this with frying pan on a regular burner if you’re careful). Then you place the asparagus in the pan so their bases are over the heat and the tips are further away.  The tips of white asparagus are more robust than green and the stalks are uniform, which makes them easier to cook.

Put the asparagus in the pan to make sure they fit in a single layer and cover with cold water. Remove the asparagus, add about 1 teaspoon of salt and a good pinch of sugar to the pan. Bring the water to a boil, add the asparagus, bases towards the heat and lower the heat so that the water simmers. No matter what you read you need to cook white asparagus longer than green, at least 15 and maybe 25 minutes. The fatter and the older they are the longer they’ll take to cook.

Test by piercing the base of the asparagus with a cake tester, or a fine skewer. You want them cooked NOT crunchy. You also don’t want them overcooked and mushy. Pay attention.  Drain them well on a towel, to help absorb the water, and keep them warm if you plan to serve them hot. You can cook them ahead of time and reheat them in the oven.

Asparagus are often served cold with mayonnaise, or a vinaigrette. My friend Caroline makes a sauce with an egg yolk, mustard and crème fraîche, which she often “lightens” with a stiffly beaten egg white. I prefer them hot and I make a sauce maltaise, a variation on hollandaise with blood orange juice. The blood orange and white asparagus seasons overlap and they match brilliantly. This photo show another good mach for asparagus – scallops Here they are both served with a blood orange butter sauce. Just reduce the zest and juice of a blood orange down to a couple of tablespoons, add 1 tablespoon whipping cream and then whisk in about 100g of unsalted butter, making sure it emulsifies into the sauce and does not melt in.

Simmering asparagus is my main method for cooking this fabulous vegetable, but this spring I discovered another thanks to a dinner at Spring restaurant. More soon.

Paris in the spring

By | Paris, Spring | 4 Comments

The spring has started wet and cool here. Although the weather isn’t spring-like, the produce in the markets screams spring. The main reason we come to Paris at this time of the year is to eat white asparagus. These beauties were displayed with a bulb of new garlic.

White asparagus must be peeled and trimmed before cooking, and if they are thin there is nothing left, so we always buy big, fat ones. My husband has become an expert at peeling them, leaving no coarse strings behind. White asparagus must also be cooked until tender, not crunchy, and this takes time, depending on their thickness and age it can take 20 minutes or more. Simmer them in salted water with a pinch of sugar.  Test the asparagus at the thick end, I often insert a cake tester from the cut end, the whole length of the spear, if there is no resistance, I know they are ready. Drain them on a towel before serving.  For our first meal we devoured them with hollandaise and slice country ham.

Next on the menu will be white asparagus with a maltaise sauce, using the blood oranges, which are still in the market.  The other sign of spring is the bunches of peonies, one of my favourite flowers, everywhere. Here is a before and after photo of them.

The tight buds open up to reveal lighter coloured flowers that become paler as they age. I am not sure why, but peonies always make me joyful. So even as the rain falls, and the temperature barely edges into double digits I’m smiling.