Monday, May 31, 2010

Paella and Spanish Flavours

Paella is a Valencian rice dish that originated in its modern form in the mid-19th century near lake Albufera, a lagoon in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain. 

According to the Guinness Book of Records the largest paella ever made was on 8 March 1992 in Valencia, Spain. It measured 20m in diameter and was eaten by 100,000 people. Imagine that!

The name paella comes from the ‘paellera’ pan what is used to cook the dish. The pan is round, flat and shallow, and is made of polished steel with two handles.

On the weekend I decided to try cooking a paella. Firstly, I deliberated on whether or not to buy a paella pan. Some recipes will tell you that you can use a large frying pan but a paella pan has a thin base made of steel/iron to distribute heat evenly, and is wide and shallow to allow the rice to cook relatively fast and evenly. Considering that the name of the dish is derived from the pan that it is cooked in, I decided that it would be a good idea to invest in a paella pan and it would feel a bit more authentic too! I like to use the right equipment to cook things. Cooking without a paella pan would be like cooking a stir-fry without a wok, or cooking rice in a microwave or a saucepan, may produce relatively the same outcome but it’s not really the same is it ?!

To make paella, I needed to buy some chorizo. Apparently, a true Valencian paella would never have chorizo, but chorizo is delicious and included in many modern paellas. (A traditional Valencian paella contains chicken, rabbit, duck, green beans, snails, and fresh lima beans.) A google of ‘best place to buy chorizo in Perth’ brought up as the first search item a blog entry by Abstract Gourmet and I went to check out Spanish Flavours Wembley. 

Spanish Flavours is situated at the end of a food court at the Cambridge Forum and it’s tiny but has everything that you would need to cook Spanish foods. The lady who helped me was lovely too. I bought some chorizo, Spanish saffron ad sweet smoked paprika.

There are many different versions of paella. I looked at a number of different paella recipes and here is how I cooked my paella with some tips that I have picked up from my readings.

A paella shouldn’t have too many ingredients – it is all about the rice and the ingredients are there simply to flavour it. Don’t bastardise it and swamp it with ingredients!

olive oil
prawns (6-8) raw with shells, heads removed
fish fillets (200g) cut into bite sized pieces
chorizo  (1) sliced diagonally
sofrito – finely diced shallots (1-2), garlic (2 cloves), tomatoes (3 peeled and deseeded), roasted red capsicum (1)
sweet smoked paprika powder (2-3 teaspoons or to taste)
hot paprika or cayenne pepper powder (1 teaspoon or to taste)
Spanish saffron ( ½ teaspoon crushed with a back of a spoon into powder in a small bowl and add 2 tablespoons of water, mix and let infuse for a few minutes)
stock (you can use chicken or fish stock) or water (1 litre)
peas ( ½ cup) 
Calasparra rice (400g)
Parsley (2 tablespoons, finely chopped)
lemon wedges 

(Some special ingredients - calasparra rice, Spanish saffron and sweet smoked paprika)

Paella needs a gas flame, do not use an electric cook top as it will make a hot spot in the middle and burn the rice. You need to use a large heat source which is almost as big as the paella pan you are using. Most paella pans are wider than the typical stove burner, so you need to continually move and rotate the paella pan around to distribute the heat and keep the temperature of the pan constant. 

A short-medium grain rice should be used (such as Calasparra or Bomba) as it absorbs and holds the flavour and cooking liquid well, better than long grain rice varieties. When making paella, don’t wash the rice as it needs its outer coating of starch to keep the grains separate when cooking.


Firstly, I made a simple seafood stock with some prawn heads, fish bones, a bay leaf and onion. I put all of these into a pot of water and brought it to boil, and then simmered for 20-25 minutes. I strained the stock with a sieve and set aside.

Heat the paella pan and add some olive oil, and fry the chorizo for a few minutes until golden and season with a little salt and pepper. Remove and set aside. Sear the fish and prawns a little (don’t cook all the way through) and set aside.

Make the sofrito. Add some more olive oil to the paella pan and cook the shallots until they have softened and turned golden. Add in the garlic and cook for a bit, and then add in the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and cook until the tomatoes have reduced and there is no liquid left (around 15-20minutes). Then add in the roasted capsicum and cook for another 5-10 minutes. The sofrito should have a concentrated flavour and pulpy consistency. The ‘sofrito’ provides the flavour base for the paella, it is Spanish word referring to a sauté or braise of aromatic ingredients which have been cut into very small pieces.

Then add to the sofrito mixture - the Calasparra rice, sweet smoked paprika powder, hot paprika powder and the saffron water mixture. Add in a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir everything together until the rice is coated and sauté for a bit, even out the rice in the pan.

Add in the stock and bring to boil, then turn the heat to low.


Simmer the paella for 20 minutes or until the liquid has reduced and the rice is plump and almost soft. At 10 minutes, add in the peas and place in the chorizo, pieces of fish and prawns over the rice and poke them in so that they can cook. As the paella cooks, the rice will start to appear through the liquid and dry out.

At the end of the cooking time, cover the paella pan with a piece of foil and increase the heat to high for 1-2 minutes and cook until you can smell the rice toast at the bottom (but be careful not to burn it!). You will hear the rice crackle and pop as it caramelizes at the bottom of the pan and forms a dark crust which imparts a slightly smoky flavour. This crust is called the ‘socarrat’ and is the most highly prized part of the paella, and is a sign that you have made a good paella. The socarrat is also the reason why you should not stir the rice while it is cooking so that it can develop.

Remove the paella pan from the heat and cover with the foil for 10 minutes, then remove the foil and allow to rest for another 5-10 minutes before serving. This resting time is crucial so that the flavours can settle in and be absorbed into the rice.

Squeeze over some lemon juice and sprinkle with chopped parsley. 

Eat the paella straight from the pan!

The rice grains should be al dente, loose and not mushy or creamy like a risotto. Therefore, it is important to use a short-medium grain rice like Calaparra and not a risotto type rice eventhough some recipes say that you can use a risotto rice. There should only be a thin layer of rice and it should be spread out over the entire base of the pan, the key is to maximize the amount of rice touching the bottom of the pan because that’s where the flavour lies.

Nanaimo Bars

The Nanaimo bar came about when a housewife in Nanaimo, a city on the Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada entered a recipe for chocolate squares in a magazine contest some 35 years ago and won. It is a three-layer bar that requires no baking and is delicious! It consists of a chocolate crumb base, followed by a layer of custard flavoured buttercream and is topped with a glossy layer of chocolate which provides a slight crunch with you bite into the bar.

There are many different recipes for Nanaimo bars. The City of Nanaimo even provides an official recipe.


Bottom Layer
½ cup (115g) unsalted butter
¼ cup (50g) caster sugar
1/3 cup (30g) cocoa powder
1 large egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups (200g) graham cracker crumbs (I used 13 digestive biscuits)
1 cup (65g) desiccated coconut
½ cup (50g) walnuts, coarsely chopped (you can also use pecans or almonds)

The recipe calls for graham crackers but we don’t have these in Australia, digestive biscuits are an appropriate substitute. I have never had digestive biscuits before but they are quite nice. They are a wholemeal biscuit which have a little sweetness.

Note: as it says on the box “The ingredients in this biscuit do not contain any substance that assist in digestion”

Middle Layer
¼ cup (56g) unsalted butter, room temperature
2-3 tablespoons milk or cream (I used cream)
2 tablespoon custard powder
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups (230g) icing sugar, sifted

Custard powder was the invention of an Englishman named Alfred Bird. He invented this powder because his wife loved homemade custard but was allergic to eggs. You can buy the ‘original’ Bird’s custard powder from specialty food stores - The Best of British at Floreat Forum.

Top Layer
150g, dark chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons butter

When I went to the supermarket to buy some chocolate I found out that by beloved Lindt now produces cooking chocolate! 


Line a 23cm by 23cm pan with greaseproof paper.

Bottom Layer

Combine the biscuit crumbs, coconut and nuts in a large bowl. (I reduced the biscuits to crumbs by putting them in a plastic bag and using my hands to crush them)

In a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, melt the butter and stir in the sugar and cocoa powder. Then gradually whisk in the beaten egg. Cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla extract.

Pour the chocolate mixture into the dry mixture and thoroughly combine. 

Press the mixture firmly and evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Cover and refrigerate until firm (about 1 hour).

Middle Layer

Beat the butter until smooth and creamy. Add in the custard powder, cream, vanilla extract and icing sugar. Beat all the ingredients together until light and fluffy. Spread over the bottom layer, cover and refrigerate until firm (30-60 minutes).

Top Layer

In a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, melt the chocolate and butter. Cool the chocolate until barely warm/room temperature but still liquid and then spread evenly over middle/custard later. Chill in the fridge until the chocolate is set (30-60 minutes). You have to allow the chocolate to cool, otherwise it will melt into the custard layer and mix in with it. 

After it has set, slice it into little squares. 

To prevent the chocolate from cracking when slicing, dip a sharp knife in a glass of hot water for a few seconds and then wipe clean between cuts.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Lamb Ragout with Root Mash and String Beans

Growing up with Chinese/Vietnamese food, I have not had much exposure to French cuisine and the slow cooking/braising/stewing style of cooking where you cook something for hours so that the meat is so tender it falls off the bone. 

On the weekend I made my very first lamb ragout. I have only cooked lamb once before when I made some Moroccan grilled lamb cutlets. I adapted a recipe from the Gourmet Traveller. I also made some root mash to go with the ragout and the addition of Dijon mustard gave the mash a really nice flavour.

For the Ragout
Olive oil
3 lamb shanks
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
1 brown onion, coarsely chopped
1 celery, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 fresh bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig rosemary
3 black peppercorns
200ml red wine
100ml dry white wine
1.5 litres hot chicken stock
some chopped parsley for garnish

Preheat the oven to 150C.

Heat some olive oil in a large casserole over medium-high heat. Season shanks with salt and pepper and cook, turning occasionally, until golden/browned and all sides of the meat are sealed (5-7 minutes). Remove shanks and set aside. 

Add some more olive oil to the casserole, reduce heat to medium, then add carrot, onion, celery and garlic, sauté until just starting to colour (5-7 minutes). 

Add tomato paste, sauté until paste darkens (1-2 minutes), then add tomato, bouquet qarni of bay leaves, thyme and rosemary, peppercorns and wines, cook until slightly reduced (5-7 minutes). 

Add stock and lamb shanks, cover with foil and roast until shanks are tender and falling from the bone (3-4hours). Remove the shanks from braising liquid. 

Spoon some of the braising liquid into a small saucepan to make a sauce to go on top of the shanks - season with some salt, pepper and sugar to taste, and use some cornflour mixed with water to thicken.

For the Root Mash
3 carrots
1 jumbo celeriac
3 potatoes
~ 50g butter
1-2 teaspoons of Dijon mustard
½ - 1 cup hot milk
small grating of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

Peel all the vegetables and chop into 3cm pieces. Place in a large pot and cover with cold water, add some salt and bring to boil, then simmer for 20-25 minutes or until the vegetables are fork tender. 

Drain the vegetables and return them to the pot over low heat to dry out. Then remove the vegetables from the pot and out them into another bowl. Use a potato masher to mash the vegetables back into the pot, then add some butter, Dijon mustard, milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir together until the milk has absorbed into the mash, the butter has melted and you achieve your desired taste and consistency.

To Serve
Place some root mash onto a plate, put a lamb shank on top and spoon over the shank some of the braising sauce, garnish with a little parsley. Blanch some strings beans to go on the side. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

Comfort Food #2 - Rice Congee and Pressure Cooking

Rice congee is a popular Chinese breakfast and frequently eaten as a late supper dish (if you are living Hong Kong, you would be able to pop out to a food stall and easily get some as a late night snack), and you will also find it served at Dim Sim. It is rice boiled in a lot of water for a long time until the rice breaks down into a creamy consistency like a thick soup. The consistency of rice congee varies depending on the amount of water used - it can be quite watery or more soupy with a texture similar to lentil soup, or be thicker with a texture like Western oatmeal porridge. 

Rice congee is another one of my favourite comfort foods. I often have rice congee when I am sick and love eating it when the weather is cold. My fondest memories of rice congee are whenever I had major dental surgery like when I had to get braces to realign my back teeth or when I got my wisdom teeth out and I could not eat solid food. My mum would cook rice congee for me everyday and I would eat it for three meals a day….and I just felt content. During those times I didn’t care that I could not eat any other food as long as I could continue eating my rice congee.

Rice congee is great food therapy when you are unwell. If you are ill or recovering from an illness you usually have a poor appetite. Rice congee is warm, hearty, nourishing and easy to digest. Having it when you are sick helps to improve your appetite and provides you with much needed nutrients.

Because rice congee is soft and easily digestible, it is one of the first solid foods served to young infants, it is also commonly eaten by the elderly for the same reasons.

Rice congee is very versatile and you can add in anything you want.

I like the congee that my mum makes which contains dried scallops, century duck eggs and pork bones.

I made some rice congree on the weekend with my pressure cooker. I inherited my parents old pressure cooker (because they bought a bigger one) when I moved out and it has been sitting in my cupboard unused for over a year. I have always been a bit freaked out by the thought of using a pressure cooker because it makes a hissing noise and sounds like it could explode at any moment. When my mum first started using a pressure cooker, she would take the pressure cooker pot outside and put it in the middle of the backyard before turning the knob to release the pressure and let the steam out to avoid any explosions in the kitchen! My mum gave me a big lecture on how to use the pressure cooker properly when she handed it over to me. Pressure cookers have a reputation as a dangerous method of cooking with the risk of explosion! However, modern pressure cookers typically have two or three independent safety valves, as well as some additional safety features. Not all pressure cookers are the same so make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions to reduce the risk of explosion!

A pressure cooker cooks with steam and pressure. A quantity of liquid is brought to a boil in a sealed airtight pot that does not permit air or liquids to escape below a preset pressure. As the liquid boils, the steam increases which fills the pot and raises the pressure. This pressure forces the steam and its intense heat into and through any food that is in the pot, tenderizing and cooking at the same time. As the pressure rises, it increases the boiling point of the water and the pressure built up inside the cooker allows the liquid in the pot to rise to a higher temperature before boiling. The higher temperature causes the food to cook faster, cooking times can typically be reduced by about 70 percent. Pressure cooking is often used to simulate the effects of long braising or simmering in shorter periods of time.

Rice Congee with pork, dried scallops and century duck egg

2.5 litres of water (how much water you add, depends on the consistency you want to achieve – you can always add more water during the cooking process to your desired consistency)
1 ½ cup of uncooked rice, washed
4-5 dried scallops
750g soft pork bones, chopped into pieces and par-boiled
1 or 2 century duck eggs, chopped into pieces
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon salt
garnish with coriander and spring onion
fried break sticks (you can buy these at Asian groceries)

(Chopped pieces of soft pork bones with excess fat trimmed off)

(Par-boiled soft pork bones – simmered in boiling water for around a minute and then rinsed with cold water)

(Century duck egg – made by preserving duck eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months. It has a very strong odour and is an acquired taste)

(Fried bread sticks, I pop them into the oven for around 7-8 minutes at 200C until they are crispy and then cut them into pieces with scissors. They are kind of like the Chinese version of croutons.)

Method for pressure cooker (total cooking time around 35 minutes)

Bring to boil the water and dried scallops in the pressure cooker pot (just have the lid on but don’t have it locked to the pressure cooker function or use a different lid). Then add in rice and soft pork bones. Turn the pressure cooking function on and cook for 10 minutes. 

Turn off the pressure cooker, open and use a spoon to break up the dried scallop into pieces and add in the century duck egg. Check the water level and add more water if necessary.

Turn the pressure cooking function on again and cook for another 10 minutes. 

Turn off the pressure cooker and season with fish sauce and salt to taste, then simmer without the lid on for 10-15 minutes.

Scoop some congee into bowls and serve with some freshly ground pepper and garnish with coriander and spring onion. Top with pieces of fried bread sticks.

Method for cooking in a pot (total cooking time around 2 hours)

Bring to boil the water and dried scallops, then add in the rice and soft pork bones. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for around 2 hours, partly covered. After half an hour of cooking, add in the duck egg and after an hour of cooking use a spoon to break up the dried scallop into pieces. 

Stir the pot occasionally to prevent the rice sticking to the bottom of the pot and skim away any froth at the top. Add in a little boiling water every now and then to keep a runny consistency, if necessary.  About 15 minutes before serving, add fish sauce and salt to taste. 

Rice congee is cooked until the rice is thoroughly soft. I like mine to have a medium to thick consistency.

Eventhough only pork bones are used in the rice congee, there is still quite a bit of meat left on the bone and I like to gnaw at it – the meat is very tender and delicious.

Melting Moments and Chocolate Lace Crisps

Over the weekend I baked some melting moments and chocolate lace crisps to give away as birthday presents for my friends. It’s always hard to think of what to get someone for their birthday so I am going to be giving baked goods as birthday presents more often….it’s the thought that counts afterall and any sweet, rich baked good is sure to put a smile on someone’s face.

Melting moments are shortbread-like cookies which contain a lot of butter for its rich flavour and have a fine, crumbly texture. They are called melting moments because that’s what they do – they literally melt in your mouth when you eat them. What gives them this soft texture is the use of cornflour. You’ll see jars of these cookies at cafes because they go really well with tea or coffee.

The melting moments I made contained a sweet lemony filling.

Melting Moments

(Recipe from Joy of Baking)

225g butter, softened
30g icing sugar
1 teaspoon  vanilla extract
60g cornflour, sifted
195g plain flour, sifted
¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 170C.  Line baking trays with greaseproof paper.

Beat the butter, icing sugar and vanilla extract together in a bowl until pale and fluffy. Then add in the cornflour, plain flour and salt, and mix together until combined.

Use hands to bring the mixture together in the bowl into a soft doughy texture. Then roll the mixture into small balls (around 2.5cm in diameter) and place them onto the baking trays 3 cm apart. Use a fork to press into the surface of the balls to flatten them and form discs.

Bake for around 12 minutes or until golden. Allow the melting moments to cool and them sandwich with a cream filling.

Lemony filling

75g butter, softened
1 cup icing sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon zest

Beat all ingredients together until light and fluffy.

I also made some chocolate lace crisps, the recipe was from a Women’s Weekly baking book that I received for my birthday a few years ago.

Chocolate Lace Crisps

100g dark chocolate, chopped coarsely
80g butter, chopped
1 cup caster sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup plain flour, sifted
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup icing sugar, sifted


Melt the chocolate and butter together over low heat and set aside to cool.

Stir in caster sugar, egg, flour, cocoa power and baking powder into the chocolate/butter mixture. Cover and refrigerate for around 15 minutes or until the mixture is firm enough to handle.

Preheat oven to 170C and line baking trays with greaseproof paper.

Roll level tablespoons of the mixture into balls and roll each ball in icing sugar. Place the balls on the trays 4-5 cm apart and bake for around 12 minutes. 

The recipe specified 15 minutes for the baking time but I always like to undercook my biscuits a little and then let them cool on the baking trays as the residual heat on the baking trays will continue to cook the biscuits. I like my biscuits to have a softer texture and not be too hard.