15 August 2012

Happy Birthday Julia: Rocquefort and Pear Spirals

Happy 100th birthday to a woman who forever changed American kitchens.

As I wrote in my tribute for PBS.org's celebrations, Julia Child was a woman who taught more than just cooking. She taught viewers to think on the fly, because no matter how much we prepare for perfection, perfection is never guaranteed.

Think about that in context of today's Stepford Wife-ian cookery shows. Click over to Food TV and tucked in amongst the plethora of Amazing Race-like competitions, "reality" shows from the back rooms of bakeries and restaurants and shows focussing wacky food-related adventures, you will find what passes as instructional cooking offerings.

Seemingly perfect food, seemingly perfectly prepared by seemingly perfectly coiffed presenters. Sure they can hit their marks, tilt their heads so klieg lights glint off their bleached teeth and have perfectly mastered the forced, authoritative yet approachable "Mmm--that's so good!" They rate well with the 18-55 year old male demographic, don't intimidate those who could easily live with only a microwave, fridge, and are the darlings of those proud to have perfected "finger cooking."

But do you actually believe those presenters would know what to do if--horror of horrors--a bit of shell followed along with the yolk, or a drop of water found its way into a pot of melted chocolate? Without a doubt Laura Calder, Anna Olson, Nigella Lawson, Bobby Flay, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay (to name but six) would. But others? Well I'm sure they've mastered the art of the teleprompter.

When I watch Julia Child I watch a woman who was passionate about food and cooking...but she was also focussed on instilling that same passion in us. In Julia's world, it was more than figuring out which of the Chicken Sisters would make the best roast or how to pan-fry mushrooms. In her world, part of that passion came from knowing what to do when things go wrong.

Although she wanted to show us the proper way to prepare recipes, sometimes things didn't quite go to plan. Mistakes weren't to be feared but to be quickly and deftly dealt with. They were lessons that made us stronger in the kitchen and, by extension, in life.

So when it came to a dish to prepare to mark her centenary, I went to the very first Julia Child cookbook I purchased: The Way to Cook. It wasn't the first cookbook I bought, but it was within the first five...maybe three.

I was drawn to all the loveliness found in the pages dedicated to pâte feuilletée--puff pastry. In a perfect world I would have spent a day dedicated to layering butter within pastry dough. But this is not a perfect world and I don't have a day to devote to making puff pastry. However...in this imperfect world of mine I do have a mediumscarymegamart around the corner that does stock frozen butter puff pastry.

Julia would understand--in the first French Chef episode, the one about Boeuf Bourguignon, she counselled viewers on using canned beef bouillon instead of consommé. Yes, she advocated making stock, but she seemed very aware that not everyone had the time or ability to make their own beef stock.

Her variations of cheese tarts caught my eye, so I decided to improvise slightly. I decided to make spiral nibblies, with (as she suggests in a tart variation) a mixture of bleu and cream cheeses. Since I'm a fan of pears and nuts with bleu cheese, I chopped a couple of sugar pears and pulled my walnut pieces from the freezer as well.

The resulting Julia-inspired appetiser is easy, with a tasty contrast between flaky pastry, crunchy nuts and soft filling, sharp cheese and sweet fruit. Serve them as nibblies, or along side a simple salad made of rocket (arugula) lightly tossed in balsamic dressing.

Rocquefort and Pear Spirals
Yield 12- 16 spirals

225g (0.5lb) puff pastry
165g (approximately 6oz) softened cream cheese (2/3 package)
55g (2oz) Roquefort cheese
2 small sugar pears, peeled, cored and cut into a small dice
a couple of handfuls of walnut pieces
black pepper


Preheat oven to 200C/400F. Line a cookie tray with parchment paper.

Roll the puff pastry into a about a 0.5cm (0.25") thick rectangle.

Mix the cheeses together until well blended. Spread the mixture on the puff pastry, leaving about 1cm (approx 0.5") clear boarder around the rectangle. Strew the chopped fruit over top the cheese, followed by the nuts.

Roll the smeared and sprinkled pastry and lightly pinch the ends together. Slice the long roll into 2.5cm (1") rounds. Place the discs onto the lined cookie tray. Sprinkle with pepper.

Bake for 10-12 minutes and serve warm

You can make your own puff pastry, or you can buy a package from the shop. If you do buy it , make sure it's all butter puff pastry.

Bon appetit!
I'm a quill for hire!

06 August 2012

Cook For Julia: Seeni Sambol

For the next few days PBS food celebrates what would have been Julia Child's 100th birthday. Their senior food editor sent me a note several weeks ago asking me to write a tribute--you can find it here.

In as much as she was a great force in American (and North American cooking) I have to admit that I really didn't know all that much about Julia. From her various cookery shows, I knew she was a cookbook author and teacher; she was tall and has a sing-song voice. She was devoted to her husband Paul, loved cats and she was, at some point in her life, was part the US's Office of Strategic Services, where she worked on top secret things during the war. I also gleaned this and that from Nora Ephron's Julie and Julia.

I picked up Noel Riley Fitch's Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. I'm about half-way through (various things kept distracting me--I hope to finish it by summer's end). I've just gotten to the point where Julia McWilliams has returned to the US, from OSS duties in Asia, and she is absolutely besotted with the older and much more worldly Paul Child.

I am totally engrossed in this love story...and I say that as someone who rolls their eyes at such things (well, except for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy)...I know there are decades ahead for them, and I'm looking forward to following their journeys.

When I thought of my own foodish tribute #CookForJulia tribute, I decided to not go with one of her recipes, but instead take inspiration from an important point in her life.

Julia met Paul, when they were both stationed in the OSS in Sri Lanka. She was young and free. But then came Paul who would open her to many new experiences, including exploring local cuisines where they were stationed. Not much is said about the foods they ate (or if there was, I don't recall). My guess is their cooks made available meals palatable to Americans and the British who were homesick, as well as some curries. That said, in my mind, I want to believe Paul may have introduced her to local home cooking.

In looking through my cookery library for Sri Lankan dishes, I came across Sri Lankan sambols--condiments made by grinding ingredients with a paste, served with meals and snack. Most of the recipes I have are for uncooked sambols, but I chose to make Seeni Sambol, a cooked condiment from Jeffrey Allford and Naomi Duguid's Mangoes and Curry Leaves.

This is a very easy dish to make, but it does require time and attention. The end result is a gorgeous brick red, salty-sweet-sour-hot dish that can be used to accompany meats, used as a dip, or to flavour soups, or mixed with other ingredients for marinade.

Seeni Sambol

Adapted from Jeffrey Allford and Naomi Duguid's Sri Lankan Seeni Sambol in Mangoes and Curry Leaves.

Yield: 310ml ( 1.25c)

60ml (0.25c) flavourless oil or coconut oil
750ml (3c) thinly sliced red onion (approximately one very large onion)
60ml (0.25c) minced garlic (approximately 10cloves)
2Tbsp (30ml) minced ginger
10 fresh curry leaves
8 dried red chillies, stemmed and crushed
1.5tsp (7.5ml) fish sauce (optional)
5ml (1tsp) ground cinnamon
0.6ml (1/8-tsp) ground cardamom
0.6ml (1/8-tsp) ground cloves
185ml (0.75c) coconut milk
0.5tsp (2.5ml) salt, to taste
juice of one lime
sugar, to taste


Over a medium-hight flame, heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the onions, garlic and ginger. Stir frequently until all the water has evaporated and the onions have softened and caramelized, turning colour from a spring lilac to a golden colour.

Stir in the curry leaves, dried chillis, fish sauce, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and coconut milk. When the mixture starts to bubble, turn down the heat to a bare simmer and let blurble for about 30-40 minutes, stirring every so often, so the mixture doesn't catch on the bottom of the pan. Don't be concerned as to it's pinkish-grey hue--it will deepen in colour as it simmers.

Remove from heat, add the lime juice, salt and sugar. Stir well. Puree to a smooth paste (the curry leaves are slightly fibrous, so don't be surprised if you see threads wrapped around the blades). Balance flavours to taste.

Let cool to room temperature before storing in a sealed jar. This will keep for a month in the refrigerator.

Serving Suggestions
  • Alongside puri, parathas
  • As a condiment chicken, fish or pork or kebabs
  • Mixed into tuna salad
  • Spread on toast
  • Mixed with mayonnaise and served with fish or chicken fingers
  • Mixed with sour cream or Greek yoghurt as a dip for pitas or tortillas

For other Julia Child-related posts I've done, click here.

Bon appetit!
I'm a quill for hire!