14 July 2011

curried carrot & lentil soup with minted eggplant

So yesterday's post was a bit of a rant about the media harping on about the astronomical prices of tomatoes and capsicum - in the middle of winter.  Go figure!  And then I put in my two cents worth about food budgeting.  So it only feels right to follow that post with one on a carrot and red lentil soup.

Carrots and lentils are cheap at any time of the year.  So its easy on the budget.  This one has been adapted by a recipe I found on another blog.  I made it once exactly like that recipe and then the second time, I changed it a bit and curried the carrot and lentils - not so much that it was overly spicy, but just enough that it say nicely warming my tummy on a cold winter's night.  And it's a breeze to make, so pretty perfect for a weekday dinner when you've had a long day at work and don't want to fuss around in the kitchen too much.

Eggplant is expensive right now because it's off-season.  But if you can afford it, go ahead.  If not, I found that substituting onions for the eggplant worked really well.  But you'll need 2-3 onions, depending on their size and cut them into thick-ish slices because they do cook down a lot.  The caramelisation of the onions with the mint and paprika works a treat!

And for those of you voracious meat eaters out there - you ought to give this a go.  It's a very 'big' and tasty dish, especially if you enjoy a bit of spice kick every now and again.  And its pretty filling as well.

This has become one of our favourites at home.  Hopefully you'll like it too!

If you want to read my rant on off-season produce and what we do for food budgeting - check this post out.

Curried Carrot & Lentil Soup with Minted Eggplant
Recipe adapted from My Darling Lemon Thyme

1 large onion, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground tumeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 cup red lentils, rinsed well under cold water
2 small carrots, grated
1 large tomato, chopped
2 green chillies, finely chopped
1 cup coconut milk (if you're using coconut cream, use 50g mixed with 1 cup water)
3 cups vegetable stock or water
Juice from 1/2 lemon
2-3 tablespoon light oil (I use rice bran)

Optional additional seasoning*:
2 tablespoon light oil
1 more large onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
Handful of curry leaves (optional)

Minted Eggplant:
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large eggplant (about 500g), cut into 1cm dice
2 tablespoons salt (sea salt if possible)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3 teaspoons dried mint
2 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil over medium heat and fry the onions until soft (not brown).  Add the spices and fry for another minute until fragrant.
Add the lentils, carrots, tomato, chillies, coconut milk and water, and bring to boil.  Skim any scum from the surface and lower heat and simmer for about 25 minutes, or until lentils and carrots are cooked and become a soft mush consistency.
At this point, add the cooked additional seasoning* if you're using it.
Add the lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.

Additional seasoning:
Heat oil over low heat, add the cumin and black mustard seeds, and allow the seeds to pop.
Add the onion and curry leaves, and fry until golden brown.
Stir into the simmering lentil soup.

Minted Eggplant:
While the lentils are cooking, sprinkle 2 tablespoons of salt over the diced eggplant in a colander. Set aside for 20 minutes in the sink to let the juices run out of the eggplant.
Rinse eggplant well under running water, drain and dry thoroughly on paper towels ( I lightly squeezed the eggplant with the paper towels to help the drying process).
Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a large heavy-based frying pan over medium heat. Add the eggplant and cook until soft and golden - stir often.
Add the garlic and cook for a further few minutes.
Add mint and paprika and cook until fragrant.

To Serve:
Ladle lentil soup into bowls and top with the minted eggplant and drizzle with the paprika stained oil.  We LOVE the minted eggplant, so heap quite a lot of it on our soup!

budgeting & expensive off-season produce

There's been a lot of talk in the media about skyrocketing prices of groceries.  And in particular fruits and vegetables.  Now I'm not the only blogger out there who has written about their feelings on this subject, but I'd like to add my two cents worth.

Now I'm not an economist, accountant or financial expert of any sort.  But this much I know - grocery prices have been climbing for a while now and we've felt the pinch even more due to the economic downturn for the last couple of years, an increase in our goods and service tax, and rise in petrol amongst other things.  And when you throw horrid winter weather into the mix, prices for certain produce (like off season ones) become rather ridiculous.

On the news tonight, one of the main highlights was how expensive fruits and vegetables have become (a 12.2% rise), contributing to the overall increase of 1.4% in food prices.  The fruits and vegetables that they (i.e. the media) chose to use as examples were tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicums and lettuce - all summer produce.  We are currently in the cold, wet and windy (gales for some of us!) grasp of winter.  You see what I'm getting at, right?  So here is what's irritated me - that the media highlighted what most of us already know, but just to make it sound worse and more 'newsy', the more expensive off-season produce were used as examples.

In a previous job, I witnessed genuine despair - children sent to school without breakfast and a parent not being able to put food on the table that night for dinner (there was a frantic ring around by the school principal and a bag of potatoes and other basic foods were collected and donated).  You hear about these things and read the stats in the news.  And for middle-class me, it was suddenly very real.  It was an eye-opener, shocking, humbling and upsetting all at once.

So as I watch the reporter highlight expensive off-season produce and talk about the overall rising grocery prices in the same breath, in the middle of one of the more expensive and high-end supermarket chains in the country, it kinda irritated me a bit.  I sat there thinking how in the hell does that help those that are really in need?

I thought about the constant complaints I hear from those who are slightly better off, or those who are better off enough to shop at the more expensive supermarket chains - and I wondered...perhaps better budgeting, some menu planning and even less arrogance for cheaper brands may help?  Complaining certainly doesn't.  Rocketing prices is not a personal attack and not just a phenomenon that our country is facing - it's worldwide.  What about shopping at cheaper supermarket chains or vegetable markets?  And how about buying seasonal?  Correct me if I'm wrong - but I've never heard of someone dying because they weren't able to eat capsicum, lettuce, tomatoes or cucumbers for the 3-4 winter/cold months!

In our household, there is only one of us earning since I was laid off last November.  But we'd probably still be considered middle-class since the one salary coming in is a comfortable one, and there are no children (just a furbaby).  However, with increasing living expenses, we've still had to re-look at our food budget.  And to be honest, I've not found it too hard to do.  Here's our simple and effective (for us) 'formula':

  • Do a big shop once every fortnight instead of weekly (which we used to do previously).
  • Only allow a top up of vegetables and fruit for second weeks.
  • Plan a weekly menu and stick to it.  You don't have to spend a lot of cookbooks or foodie magazines.  The internet has thousands and thousands of recipes of every dish imaginable - so it's not that hard if you put in a small effort.
  • Write a grocery list based on your menu - it does help with only buying what you need.
  • Plan as many weekly meals as possible that can be cooked in bulk and appropriate to take to work the next day for lunch.
  • Buy vegetables and fruit from the weekend market if it's cheaper than your neighbourhood supermarket.
  • Try eating less meat - there are loads of interesting, delicious and nutritious meatless dishes on the internet. Try cooking some recipes - surprise yourself!
  • Buy cheaper cuts of meat - in the colder months it's quite cheap to feed a few mouths with a simple casserole of meat and root vegetables cooked in a slow cooker or in the oven.
  • If you like fresh green salad leaves - buy just what you need from the loose bin, unless you are certain that you'll be finishing the entire pre-packed bag within a couple of days.  If not, the leaves start to go off and its a waste.
  • If it's not too much of a stretch, give yourself variety by including seafood once a week. Apart from fresh fish, there's also smoked fish - it's pretty cheap to put a fish pie together with smoked fish, vegetables and mash potato (which can be cheaper than pie pastry).
  • And don't get carried away with thinking that everything from the loose bins are cheaper than packaged products - in my experience it's not always necessarily so!
  • Don't be arrogant to think that some of the cheaper budget brands mean lesser quality.  Some do, but some don't. Try some and you may be surprised.
  • And it won't kill you to buy cheaper substitutes - for example, use stock cube instead of the more expensive ready-made stock liquids. And if you must cook with wine, unless the quality of your life depends on it or a reputable visiting food reviewer is coming for dinner, buy what's on special. 
Because the above works for us, we've been able to allow ourselves treats or home baking every now and again, which doesn't blow our budget out of the water.  It has also allowed us to sometimes splurge on one or two more expensive items.  We also still eat out or have takeaways, but a lot less than we used to.  We now eat out twice and have takeaways twice within a fortnight.  And although it's a lot less than what we used to do before, since we still have the occasional treats, eating out and takeaways, we don't feel like we're missing out, or hard done-by.

Now I'm not saying that what works for us will work for everyone.  And since we're only feeding two adults and a cat, we don't have the added financial worries that come with having children.  But some of the above may help some of you, to some degree.  Surely that's better than complaining about the ridiculously priced off-season produce in the middle of winter.

Here's a link to a post on a relatively cheap but yummy and filling soup if you're looking for some ideas!

11 July 2011

lasagne - almost like Jamie's

I know this is not a plate of lasagne.  Its walnut tart silly!  To be exact - a walnut tart from Floriditas Cafe and Restaurant in Wellington.  I'm not a nut tart kinda gal.  But I wanted to share this photo with you 'cos this is likely to be the best dessert tart I've had in a long time.  That, and I'm on a bit of a walnut roll and obsession.

Now here's that lasagne - based on a Jamie Oliver recipe and tweaked a little by moi.

Jamie Oliver's recipe uses leftover roast meat, but seeing that I didn't make a roast, I used a mix of minced lamb and beef.  The few other times that I've made lasagne, I've only just used a meat sauce.   This recipe calls for two sauces: the usual meat sauce (ragù)  and...

...a béchamel sauce.

My experience in making white sauces is sorely lacking - I've only ever made the most basic of white sauces with just flour, butter and milk.  I've not made white sauce in this way before - the milk delicately infused with the flavours of the onion, flat leaf parsley, peppercorns and nutmeg.  So simple and yet so effective!  I wanted to know more about the different types of white sauces, so I had a poke around the internet.  From what I've read, there seems to be 3 basic types - one that's flavoured with just nutmeg, one that has added peppercorns and bay leaves, and one that uses the classic mirepoix flavours of onion, carrot and celery.  It's definitely a sauce that I'll be making (and experimenting with) again, especially with seafood.

There was discussion on whether we'd buy or make the lasagne sheets.  And there was discussion on whether the store-bought stuff was any good.  Heck, there was even discussion on fresh or dried pasta sheets.  At the end, the decision was easy - we'd run out of time to make our own in time for dinner, so it was fresh store bought stuff.  It wasn't that bad really.  I secretly sighed in relief, especially when the last attempt at homemade pasta produced some very ugly and knobbly pappardelle!

The layering part of the lasagne was easy.  It was probably the first time that I made enough sauce for all the layers.  Usually, I'm left with too little sauce for the top layer.  But this recipe was spot on and it also called for the top to be spotted with some mozzarella and drizzled with olive oil.  In the past, my lasagnes have just been topped with good 'ol grated colby or tasty cheese!  I got to say, I was well pleased with how it all looked even before it went into the oven.

And I was quite excited about cutting into the layers once it was all done.

The sauce was seasoned just right and although it looked it, the béchamel sauce did not make the dish too rich.  I even liked the burnt cheese and burnt pasta at the top and edges.  This was perfect winter fare!

Lasagne - almost like Jamie's
Recipe from (tweaked slightly) Jamie Oliver - Jamie's Italy, Lasagne alla Cacciatore

Meat Ragù:
500g mince lamb
350g mince beef
Olive oil for frying and browning
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig of rosemary
3 bay leaves
3 x 400g canned Italian/plum tomatoes (good quality )

White Sauce:
1 litre / 4 cups milk
Handful of flat leaf parsley
Pinch of fresh grated nutmeg
1/3 onion, peeled and sliced
6 black peppercorns
80g butter
65g flour
150g parmesan, grated
salt & pepper

For layering and topping:
Fresh pasta sheets, or make your own
A small knob of butter, to butter baking dish
Parmesan for grating
Mozzarella for topping
Handful of sage leaves
Extra virgin olive oil (good quality)

Preheat oven to 220C.

Meat Ragù:

  1. Heat some olive oil and brown the mince in batches and set aside.
  2. In the same pan, add an extra spash of olive oil and fry the garlic over low heat until lightly browned.
  3. Add rosemary, bay leaves and tomatoes, and cook gently with lid on for about 30 minutes.
  4. Add the browned mince to the mixture and cook further for 20 minutes without the lid - if the sauce becomes too dry, add a little hot water.
  5. Remove the rosemary and bay leaves and put aside.

White Sauce:

  1. Add the milk, parsley, nutmeg, onions and peppercorns in a pot and heat over medium-low heat and bring to boil gently.  Remove from heat and strain the milk.
  2. Just before the milk comes to boil, melt the butter in a separate pan and stir in the flour well to make a paste (roux).
  3. Add the strained milk one ladleful at a time to the roux and mix well each time.  You'll end up with a thick smooth sauce. Bring to boil and then lower the heat to simmer for 2 minutes.
  4. Take off the heat and stir in the grated parmesan.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Putting together:

  1. Butter a large baking dish.
  2. Cover the bottom of the dish with your pasta sheet, letting them hang over the edges.
  3. Top with some meat ragu, and then some white sauce, followed by a sprinkling of grated parmesan. (Don't be tempted to overload and put too much each layer).
  4. Repeat until you run out of meat ragu - but make sure you have enough white sauce left to cover the top.
  5. When the final sheet of pasta goes onto the top, fold over the pasta from the edges and cover the entire top with white sauce.
  6. Sprinkle with grated parmesan, tear and scatter mozzarella over and scatter sage leaves.  Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and bake for 45 minutes, or until the pasta is cooked and the top golden.