Can I stop wearing a bra now? With a Mexican pork and black bean soup.

It feels like a right of passage to be a female writer and write about your boobs. I hadn’t thought I’d get there quite so early in the piece, but here we are, talking about my boobs.

At least it’s not my period.

So how do we find ourselves here? Trying not to be uncomfortable, looking everywhere but at each other, wondering what my mother-in-law and her friends will say about this. Well, as there so often is, there’s a story. And a point. I promise.

A month or so ago, I had a reasonably unpleasant allergic reaction to some pretty toxic soap. This resulted in a rash developing all over my body. A violently itchy rash, which I scratched until I made myself bleed.

Said rash resulted in my children tell me off for scratching. One of many role reversal episodes that feature in my life these days. It also resulted in being unable to wear a bra.

I should point out that I have worn a bra pretty much every day since I was 14-ish. I’ve worried about my breasts ending up down around my ankles. I’m also quite a prude, so the idea of anyone being able to see my nipples is horrendous at best. Unless I wanted them to, of course. I have never been the #freethenipple poster child.

I now haven’t worn a bra for over a month. The itch from wearing one was unbearable, I’ve resorted to cotton singlets under my clothes instead. Which has been fine, no-one has said anything (they may be too polite). Also it’s winter, so jerseys are my friend.

Then last week, the rash had finally cleared up, and I decided it may be time to go back to my old ways. I pulled one of my bras out of my underwear drawer, and put it on.

Oh God it was so uncomfortable! It was constricting, I felt like I couldn’t breath properly. The tightness all around my back and chest was like wearing a cropped straight jacket.

So I took it off. I haven’t put it back on again.

And I’m wondering, can I stop wearing a bra now?

So far it seems to be working for me. My boobs are hardly double Ds. I’d be a B at best, possibly a large A. It gets worse as I lose weight, and given my weight is coming down as I’ve stopped drinking, the future for my cup size is not looking bright.

My husband has never been a man who sees any sexiness in lingere, so my undergarments are pretty utilitarian. I like cotton and lace makes me itch. Even pre-rash saga. So no loss there.

At the heart of my question is am I too old to stop wearing a bra? Most women go through their braless stage when they’re young and perky, not knocking on the door of a half century. I’ve tried to adopt a bohemian look on and off, which would lend itself nicely to bralessness, but it just doesn’t gel with me. There’s too much black in my wardrobe.

I haven’t applied seasonality to this potential problem. Being winter, there’s a certain advantage to being able to rug up. Layers hide a multitude of sins. But come spring and then summer the layers come off and hiding is no longer an option. So what then?

Although there’s a bunch of stuff I’ve taken out of my life as that daunting milestone approaches, I still try to keep myself looking nice. I haven’t gone completely feral. So is no bra a step too far?

MEXICAN PORK AND BLACK BEAN SOUP
Serves 6-8

Many of the Mexican bean soups I’ve found have the beans blended at some point in the process so the soup thickens. I’ve made this one more like a Mexican minestrone with a tomato broth like consistency.

2017-06-21 13.02.06 v12 tablespoons olive oil
1 red onion finely chopped
1 green capsicum, deseeded and finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 chipotle chillis in adobo sauce, deseeded, finely chopped
1 tablespoon adobo sauce
2 x 400g tins crushed tomatoes
500g pork leg or shoulder, cut into 2cm cubes
2 litres chicken stock
2 x 400g tins black beans, rinsed and drained
Salt/pepper to taste
Bunch coriander, stems and leaves chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Sour cream to serve

  1. In a large stock pot, heat olive oil over a medium heat
  2. Add onion, capsicum and garlic and cook until onion is soft and translucent.
  3. Sprinkle over cumin and oregano, stir to combine and cook for another minute or two
  4. Pour over tomatoes, chipotle chillies and adobo sauce and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes or until tomatoes have darkened and thickened
  5. Add pork and chicken stock, bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 60 minutes or until pork is very tender.
  6. Tip in black beans and cook for another 20 minutes. Season to taste.
  7. Sprinkle over coriander, and squeeze in lime juice, stir to combine then serve with sour cream. You could also serve with chopped avocados if they’re in season.
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The winter blame game. With a beef, lentil and parsley pesto broth.

I am well aware that this is the second week in a row that I’ve written about illness. Generally I am not especially obsessed with the possibility of getting sick. Except that it’s now officially winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and as if a cosmic alarm went off, cue me coming down with a cold.

Actually, cue me and both of my children coming down with a cold. So not only do I feel like rubbish, I have to ignore my own ill health in favour of my children’s.

Anyway, this is not supposed to be a pity party. More an observation about illness, and the way people react to it. Particularly illness of the viral kind. Particularly my family.

Amongst certain members of my family, being sick comes with finger pointing and blame. They research, track and hunt down those responsible for their sickness. The seriousness of the crime of passing on a virus is reflected by the severity of the punishment. The ultimate scarlet letter – the virus is given the offender’s name.

It becomes “Jane’s Cold” or “Brian’s Stomach Bug” or “Hazel’s Strep Throat”.

Well after the original virus has gone, the offended party back to full health, the story of “Jane’s Cold” is retold again and again. With judgement attached.

“How could Jane have come to dinner/lunch/for a walk KNOWING that she was going to pass on HER cold?”

Because Jane is nothing if not an malicious, evil woman, who fully intended to share her disease with everyone she came into contact with.

Despite the fact that every visit to the supermarket puts you into contact with the germs from hundreds of hands that have touched their trolleys. Every trip to a shopping mall has you breathing the same air as thousands of others. Every trip on a plane, bus, ferry, in a taxi can leave you exposed. Your children come home from school crawling with God knows how many viruses, which you may or may not catch.

I’m quietly confident, that while Jane has a cold, there’s an even chance that you may not even have her exact cold. And even if you avoid Jane like the plague-carrying sickie she is, chances are you’ve just caught norovirus from the random who’s trolley you’ve just pinched in the supermarket carpark.

My advice? Wash your hands. Get a flu shot. Take vitamin C (although the science is a little sketchy here). Forget about avoiding people who might be sick and live your life. If you are unfortunate enough to get a cold, have some respect for others and keep it at home. Rest up. Drink tea. Get better. And thank God you’ve lived you life fully and that it isn’t Ebola.

And stay the hell away from Jane. That woman’s bad news.

BEEF AND PUY LENTIL BROTH, WITH PARSLEY PESTO

Last week I made lentils with Toulouse Sausage from L’Authentique, and had quite a few lentils left over. Cold weather and sore throats makes me want soothing, hearty, winter fare, and this beef broth ticks all those boxes, and was a great way to use up leftovers.

Make sure you use a casserole quality cut of beef here. Anything fancier will not have the flavour you need, and won’t respond as favourably to the slow cooking.

For the broth:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 kg gravy beef or other casserole quality beef, cut into chunks2017-06-03 08.38.20 v1.jpg
4 rashers bacon, sliced
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots finely diced
2 sticks celery, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 bay leaf, 2 sprig thyme, a few bits of parsley, tied together to make a bouquet garni
1 cup red wine
1 litre beef stock
500ml water
1 cup puy lentils
1/2 savoy cabbage, chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
salt/pepper to taste

For the parsley pesto:
1 cup walnuts
2 cups parsley leaves
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice

  1. Heat the oil in a heavy based soup pot.
  2. Add the beef and brown in batches until deep brown. Remove and set aside.
  3. Reheat the pan over a medium heat. Add the bacon, and cook until crisp and golden.
  4. Reduce the heat to medium/low and add the onions, carrots, celery and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are cooked.
  5. Add the bouquet garni, increase the heat to high and add the red wine. Allow to bubble up to cook off the alcohol.
  6. Return the beef to the pan and add the beef stock and water. Bring to the boil, reduce to simmer and cook, covered for 2 hours.
  7. Meanwhile, make the parsley pesto by putting parsley, walnuts, parmesan, garlic and salt in a food processor and process until reduced to a breadcrumb consistency. With the motor running add the lemon juice and olive oil and process until combined. It should be a liquid mix – add more oil if you feels it’s needed.
  8. Check the meat is very tender. If not, leave it for another 30 minutes or so.
  9. Add the lentils and savoy cabbage, stir and cook for another 30 minutes.
  10. Add red wine vinegar, return to the boil and cook for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  11. Serve drizzled with parsley pesto, alongside warmed crusty bread and lashings of butter.

 

To the one I lost. With a roast kumara, carrot and miso soup.

I have two children. I may have already talked to you about them. One girl, one boy. We replaced ourselves perfectly.

I had always thought that two was the perfect number of children. One for each adult to look after. The family fits well in a car, with extra room for one friend. Perfect for a three bedroom house, or providing a convenient spare room in a four bedroom..

I was 32 when Rich and I married. Shortly after we moved from New Zealand to London to further our life experience, our careers, and to have children. We wanted to give our kids the opportunity to live in another country in their future lives, unemcumbered by the burden of visas.

I fell pregnant with Amelia when I was 34, and gave birth to her just after my 35th birthday. I was painfully aware of my age, had seen all the charts showing the increase in risk factors during pregnancy for women over 35. So we didn’t want to mess around getting pregnant again.

I never went back on contraception after having Amelia, and fell pregnant when she was 6 months old. I remember being on holiday in Crete not long after, being so happy and excited about this New being we were bringing into the world.

That one didn’t last. I miscarried at around the 8 week mark. I can hardly remember the details now, just that there was a lot of blood, then nothing. We were staying at a friend’s parents house, they were very English, and I had to pretend to be the perfect guest whilst going through the emotional agony of losing my second child. Watching the blood go down the toilet and wondering which part was my baby.

When we went back to London the visit to A&E confirmed what we already knew. I said to the doctor “well, there was clearly something wrong, so it’s for the best”. She said “I’m sorry, that’s not necessarily true. We don’t know why people miscarry”. She needed to work on her bedside manner.

4 months later, I fell pregnant with Oliver. My beautful son, who I have adored since the moment he arrived.

But I still mourn the one I lost. I’m crying while I’m writing this. I know the statistics for miscarriage. I know many friends and family members who have lost children of their own, often in far more harrowing circumstances than mine. It doesn’t stop me from missing, with all my heart, the one that I never got to meet. The one who has never hugged me, called me Mummy, who I didn’t see grow up into a beautiful little human.

I am thankful for the two we’ve had. My children are growing so fast and I love them more than life itself. I’m one of the lucky ones in that respect. There’s no guarantee that we would have tried for Oliver had our middle child survived. I can’t bear to think of that.

But I can’t help but think that two is not quite the perfect number of children. Perfect would be to have all three.

ROAST KUMARA, CARROT AND MISO SOUP

Serves 6

700g kumara, scrubbed and halved

700g carrots, peeled and ends cut off

1 large onion, skin still on, cut into quarters

Olive oil

Salt/pepper

2 litres chicken or vegetable stock

1/3 cup miso paste

1 tablespoon grated Ginger

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

To serve:

6 rashers bacon cooked until very crisp, sour cream

  1. Preheat oven to 200C
  2. Place kumara, carrots and onion in a roasting dish. Drizzle with olive oil, and season generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 1 hour.
  3. Remove vegetables from oven and allow to cool until you’re able to handle. Scrap the flesh from the kumara skins into a large soup pot using a spoon. Cut the ends off the onions, remove the skins and add to the pot with the carrots. Discard the kumara and onion skins.
  4. Mix the miso paste into a smooth thin paste with a 1/3 cup stock. Add to the pot with remaining stock, and ginger.
  5. Bring to the boil and cook for 15 minutes.
  6. Turn off heat. Add sesame oil, rice wine vinegar and extra pepper to taste.
  7. Using a blender, stick blender or food processor, blend the soup until very smooth, being careful not to burn yourself.
  8. Serve, garnished with bacon and sour cream if desired.

In season now: tomatoes

There’s little doubt that tomatoes that are in season taste significantly better than at any other time of the year. Arguably this is true of any fruit or vegetables, but I think the difference in flavour is far more obvious when it comes to tomatoes.

Winter grown tomatoes are a sad affair – pale in colour, watery in flavour, they’re like a summer tomato’s distant cousin. A tomato in name only. The resemblance is there, but all of the important aspects of what are tomato should be are missing.

Summer tomatoes are a thing of beauty. Vibrant in colour, powerfully flavoured, you can feel the heat from the sun emanating from them. They’re an essential part of a good summer salad, or just sliced simply, sprinkled with salt and pepper and drizzled with olive oil.

It pays to be fussy about your tomato suppliers. You may know not to keep your tomatoes in the fridge, because according to the University of Florida:

“..when tomatoes are harboured in temps typically found in refrigerators, their flavour weakens, and some of that flavour doesn’t come back..”

But when it comes to buying tomatoes, most supermarket stocked tomatoes are chilled at the distribution hub, then at the supermarket itself. So the damage has already been done, and the flavour diluted before they hit your plate. Head to your local farmers market or green grocers and ask if their tomatoes have been refrigerated. Or better still, grow them yourself (even if space is limited, they grow well in a pot). You’ll taste the difference.

downloadSo how good are tomatoes for you?

  • They’re the major dietary source of lycopene. Lycopene is regarded as a prostate cancer preventative, particularly when tomatoes are cooked. The highest amount of lycopene is in the skin, and the redder the tomatoes, the higher the lycopene. Absorption rates increase when tomatoes are eaten with fat hence the importance of pairing with olive oil!
  • They’re high in antioxidants, especially beta-carotinoids. Studies have linked the antioxidants in tomatoes with improved bone density in menopausal women, and with reducing the risk of degenerative eye disease, amongst many other health benefits.
  • They’re a good source of vitamin C (for collagen growth), potassium (for blood pressure control), vitamin K1 (for blood coagulation and bone health),  and folate (for normal tissue growth and cell function)
  • They’re high in fibre, helping to reduce blood glucose levels in people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

How do I use them?

Are you serious?! If real you were here right now I’d slap you. No, I wouldn’t really. It’s just that tomatoes are used in so many obvious ways, it’s hard to believe you’d need any new ideas!

But, in case you have a glut, here’s a few thoughts:12744191_10155244965282228_7422408061261496652_n.jpg

  • Make a Caprese Salad with slices of fresh tomatoes, mozarella, and basil. Arrange in layers on a plate and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Alternatively, use cherry tomatoes, cut the mozarella into chunks and toss in a bowl.
  • Make this pizza sauce
  • Make a quick pasta sauce with uncooked tomatoes. Cut two punnets of cherry tomatoes in half. Place in a bowl with a clove of finely chopped garlic, a finely chopped chilli and a handful of fresh basil leaves. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Cook pasta of your choice until al dente. Drain and toss with tomato sauce. Serve while still warm.
  • Make this Greek Salad
  • Make bruscetta by toasting slices of ciabatta brushed with olive oil on a griddle pan or barbecue until slightly charred. Top with chopped fresh tomatoes, torn basil leaves. Season and drizzle with olive oil to serve.
  • Make this minestrone
  • Make a quick salsa as a side to chicken, fish or steak by combining finely diced tomatoes, red onion and avocado with fresh lime juice, chopped chilli and coriander. Or serve with tortilla chips and use as a dip.
  • Have tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle over fresh thyme and drizzle with olive oil. Cook in a medium oven (180ºC) until tomatoes are soft and slightly collapsed.

Or make this chilled summer soup

GAZPACHO

2 cloves garlic, crushed
1kg ripe tomatoes
1/2 cucumber, peeled
1/2 red capsicum, seeds removed
100g stale bread, crusts removed
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar (or sherry vinegar if you have it)
5-6 drops Tabasco sauce
1/4 tsp ground cumin
Salt and pepper

  1. In a blender or food processor, puree tomatoes, cucumber, red capsicum and bread until smooth
  2. Add garlic and olive oil and pulse until very smooth. Strain if necessary.
  3. Transfer to a large bowl and stir through vinegar, cumin and Tabasco Sauce and season to taste. Thin with water if texture is too thick.
  4. Chill until very cold.
  5. Serve drizzled with extra olive oil, and fresh crusty bread.

Source: nzherald.co.nz, whfoods.com, authoritynutrition.com, webmd.com, medicalnewstoday.com

Not quite ramen.

I lived for ramen when I was in Japan. We were skiing in the mountains inland from Tokyo at Hakuba. The snow was deep, the temperature cold, and ramen was a nutritious, delicious way to warm up after a morning on the slopes. It was also invariably well priced and very well made.

12208283_10155125058502228_2229439237229553170_nRamen is a catch all name for different styles of Japanese noodle soup. This story from Lucky Peach outlines how ramen differs by region, but loosely speaking they can be grouped as being shoyu, miso, shio, or tonkotsu, although there are variations on a theme at a restaurant level. Ramen has it’s origins in China, and all soups share the same elements of noodles, broth, tare and toppings. When I came home from Japan, I desperately wanted to make ramen myself, but the only really good recipe I could find (this one from Bon Appetit) requires 3 days to complete.

So I took the elements, roughly, from that recipe, plus a couple of others, and shortened the process to make it a bit less unwieldy and more of a quick Sunday/Monday dinner for when you have left over roast meat in the fridge that you need to use up. I used roast pork in this instance, but you can change out the ingredients for chicken which would work as well. Not completely authentic, but completely delicious.

NOT QUITE RAMEN2016-11-13 19.49.09.jpg

For the broth:
2 litres of stock (either chicken or pork. I used the pan drippings from a roast and thinned with water)
1 sachet dried dashi powder
2 Tbsp grated ginger
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice wine (sake or similar, or use sherry at a pinch)
1 Tbsp mirin

100g ramen noodles per person, cooked to manufacturer’s instructions

To assemble (choose any of the following):
Roast pork or chicken, thinly sliced
1/2 hard boiled egg per person
Nori sheets
Spring onions
Bamboo shoots
Sweet corn kernels
Spinach
Chilli oil
Sesame oil
Shichimi togarashi (Japanese spice mix)

  1. Cook all the ingredients for the broth together in a large pot. Bring to the boil and cook for 15 minutes
  2. Place noodles in the base of large noodle bowls, and ladle over hot broth
  3. Top with any of the above ingredients as desired
  4. Serve with chilli oil, sesame oil or shichimi for diners to add to their taste.

 

Japanesey salmon & noodles

I have been consistently obsessed with Japan for ever. I love the food, I love the culture, the skiing’s great, the pop culture’s crazy, but the food is brilliant. Actually, it’s mostly about the food.

I don’t have the self discipline to refine my cooking to the degree of we generally think of as Japanese food. My sashimi (although ridiculously fresh thanks to fishing/diving husband), is more hacked than I’d like. My plating is far from minimal.

I’m more drawn to Japanese street food. Noodles, fried chicken, ramen. And OH MY GOD TAKOYAKI BALLS!!!! The best thing ever, which I haven’t even come close to trying to replicate! (Deep fried octopus balls – amazing)

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But I digress. A challenge I have is I generally find salmon too rich. I know it’s insanely good for you, but the oiliness often leaves me feeling unsettled of stomach. So I’m constantly looking for ways to cook salmon that cuts through some of the richness. Japanese flavours are perfect for this.

In an attempt to keep the meal light, I’ve paired the salmon with a light Japanese style broth, soba noodles and steamed vegetables. This meal benefits from a bit of heat, but in the interests of being kid friendly, I make like the Japanese and sprinkle over shichimi togarashi (Japanese chilli spice mix) before eating. The coriander isn’t, strictly speaking, Japanese, but I like it, so it’s there.

2016-08-16 20.20.20.jpg
Noodles

SALMON & NOODLES IN JAPANESE STYLE BROTH
(Serves 4)

Broth
500ml fish stock
500ml water
1 sachet powdered dashi* stock (5g)
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 Tbsp mirin*
1 thumb ginger, peeled and sliced
Green stalks of 2 spring onions, cut in half

  1. Put all ingredients into a medium sized sauce pan.
  2. Bring to the boil
  3. Simmer for 15 minutes, then cover until needed.

Salmon
4 salmon fillets, pinboned (approx 500g)
3 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp mirin
2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp ginger, finely grated
2 spring onions, white only, finely sliced

  1. Heat the oven to 180°C
  2. Lay a large sheet of tinfoil onto a baking dish, large enough to hold salmon fillets side by side
  3. Place the salmon onto the tinfoil
  4. Mix together all other ingredients and pour over salmon
  5. Wrap salmon tightly in tinfoil, so it’s well sealed
  6. Bake for 10 minutes

To serve
200g soba noodles, cooked to manufacturer’s instructions
Steamed broccolini (I allowed 3 stalks per person)
100g oyster mushrooms, steamed
Handful coriander
Toasted sesame seeds
Sesame oil

  1. Divide the noodles among 4 large soup bowls
  2. Top with broth to cover
  3. Arrange broccolini, mushrooms, salmon and coriander neatly. Garnish with sesame seeds and a light drizzle of sesame oil and serve.

Another week gone by

File 8-07-16, 2 05 55 PM
Florentine Pork

SUNDAY:

Florentine Pork was a wonderful Sunday night dinner. This is a recipe I found a year or so ago in Dish magazine (it was their cover issue), and it’s become a regular part of my winter repertoire. Despite cooking in the oven, the pork chops remain moist and tender. You can find the recipe here.

 

Picture 050-1
Brined Chicken

MONDAY:

Brined chicken is a great way to ensure a moist, flavoursome roast. Sadly, my family are growing too fast, so we rarely have leftovers, just enough for stock. Read my blog and see how easy it is to make!

 

Picture 057
Tomato baked prawns and feta

TUESDAY:

Another day where I couldn’t find inspiration, so turned to a food magazine for ides. This time, Gourmet Traveller with delicious greek prawns, baked with feta, tomatoes, fennel and mint. Sadly we don’t have the amazingly fresh prawns our Aussies counterparts take for granted, but this was a simple, delicious, one pan dinner. The recipe is here.

 

WEDNESDAY:

Picture 079
Vietnamese noodle soup

A few days since we’ve had any red meat, and I’m mindful of my teen aged daughter’s iron levels. We haven’t had soup so far this week, and I’m feeling wistful for the heat of Hanoi. Vietnamese noodle soup ticks all the boxes (aside from actually being there!)

 

 

File 9-07-16, 1 16 24 PM
Pearl Garden Dim Sum

THURSDAY:

My kids have been on holiday this week (a full week before anyone else!), so I took them to yum cha (or dim sum, depending on which part of the world you’re from) at Pearl Garden. My kids have been going to yum cha since they were first able to eat solid food and we all love it. Kids love the perfect portions and constant surprise than yum cha brings, and it’s generally an affordable restaurant experience (sans Michelin star). The folks at Pearl Garden in Newmarket have been producing outstanding Chinese food for three generations now. Still friendly, still fresh, still reasonably priced. They’re open for yum cha every day, or go there at night and try their outstanding three course Peking Duck feast.

FRIDAY:

Picture 060
Audrey’s Cheesies

While the holidays are on, we go through an insane amount of food. The kids are growing fast, and their appetites appear to be insatiable. I’m trying to reduce their reliance on processed snacks, so have turned to an old recipe from Richard’s grandmother, Audrey, that has all the crunchiness and cheesiness a good snack needs, but without the additives. Get the recipe here.

Picture 018
Spring Tulips

SATURDAY:

In the grey of winter, some brightly coloured flowers can be just what the doctor ordered. I’ve noticed the first spring blooms breaking out around Auckland (in July, one small upside of global warming). Tulips are available commercially, at a reasonable price. They’re the only flower to keep growing once cut, so put them into a vase with about 5cm water. Change the water every two days, and trim an inch or so off the bottom to keep them fresh. They should last well for about a week.

Memories of Hanoi

Rich and I were lucky enough to travel to Hanoi last year. I’ll be honest – it was a total junket, with all the good stuff laid on, but it gave us a great opportunity to briefly visit a country we’d never seen before.

I’ll write more about this trip, the highlights, the food, etc, and post a few snaps so you can get a feel for why Hanoi is a place worth seeing. Aside from anything else, the food is beyond sensational. Although hotel food can be sub-par at the best of times, we were staying at the Intercontinental Westlake (amazing!). Breakfast every morning was wide ranging, but we always managed to plough through a bowl of beef or chicken pho.

I’ve been craving this fragrant, fresh soup a great deal recently (likely because it’s cold and I’m missing summer). I turned to Luke Nguyen’s comprehensive Vietnamese cookbook, Vietnam, and the recipe gave me the basics, but was too much for a Wednesday night!

So I messed with it a bit to make the recipe something a bit more achievable when time is short and you can’t be travelling all over town for ingredients.

VIETNAMESE BEEF NOODLE SOUPPicture 079

SOUP:
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 onions roughly chopped
large thumb ginger roughly sliced
2 whole star anise
1 cinnamon stick
5 cloves
1tsp whole peppercorns
2 litres good quality beef stock
1/3 cup fish sauce
500ml water
2 tbsp raw sugar

4 pieces of sirloin steak (approx 150g pre-trimmed), fat trimmed
250g packet rice noodles

Picture 070

TO GARNISH:

Coriander
Mint (Vietnamese if you can get it)
Spring onions, sliced
Red onions, thinly sliced
Lime wedges
Red chilis, thinly sliced
Chili oil
Fish sauce

  1. Heat oil in a large pot over a moderate heat.
  2. Add onions and ginger, and cook until beginning to turn brown
  3. Add spices and cook until fragrant
  4. Pour in stock, fish sauce, water and raw sugar and bring to the boil
  5. Reduce heat to simmer and cook until reduced by approximately a third
  6. Meanwhile, cook noodles in boiling water as per instructions. Drain, rinse and set aside
  7. Heat a barbecue or griddle pan until very hot, and sear steaks very briefly (no more than a minute each side) until steaks are charred but still very rare in the middle
  8. While steaks are resting, arrange noodles in four large, deep bowls. Strain soup, discard onions and spices and pour over noodles
  9. Slice steaks thinly and arrange on top
  10. Serve with garnishes and allow everyone to garnish their soup to taste

NOTES:

  • Vietnamese mint is really hard to find in Auckland (I’ve had no success so far). It’s not quite as authentic as I’d like, but I use common mint instead
  • Luke Nguyen recommends using cassia bark. Cinnamon sticks are a suitable replacement (which I’ve used above), but if you can find cassia, use that instead in the same quantities
  • If you want to substitute beef for chicken, change the stock to chicken stock, and change out the beef for chicken breast or thighs, depending on your preference. I would recommend  poaching the chicken until cooked, which you can do in the soup base for approximately 15 minutes or until no longer pink in the centre.

Taking stock

In my post yesterday about making minestrone, I mentioned that I made my own stock. And I do, as much as I can. I’m not sure that it’s the amazing thickened gelatinous gloop that proper chefs produce, but mine is good enough to provide a tasty base for my winter soups, stews and sauces.

If I was paleo, I’d call my stock a “bone broth” since this is really what it is. A bunch of bones (still with some meat on), cooked with water, vegetable off cuts and herbs. It’s a brilliant way to use up a leftover chicken carcass, the ends off onions, carrots and celery, you can even throw in that last bit of wine left in the bottle.

In a pinch (that is, when I don’t have any cooked bones lying around) I have made this with raw chicken carcasses from the butcher, but I don’t think it tastes as good. The roasted bones add more depth of flavour. I remember reading a Nigella Lawson recipe preface, which talked about her stealing the bones from her dinner guests plates to use in stock. I don’t think I’ve ever gone quite that far, but you know, needs must….

Keep in mind that the stock is a base for a dish, not the dish itself. While it needs good flavour, you will add a great deal more than just stock to your soups and stews, so there’s loads of opportunity to add flavour later. I don’t bother to season my stock with salt and pepper but wait until the whole meal I am preparing is almost complete.

Here’s all you need to know about stock:

  • Use whatever leftover bones you have available. This includes duck bones, ham bones, chicken, lamb or beef. Make sure they still have a bit of meat on them
  • In a large pot, add enough water to cover the bones. You can keep topping up the water if it gets too low during the cooking process
  • If you want to add wine, I’d put that in the pot first (before anything else), bring to the boil and cook off the alcohol. You probably only need about a cup
  • Throw in a roughly chopped carrot, onion, a stick or so of celery, and a clove or two of squashed garlic. Looking at the photo above, I’ve also used some off cuts from a bulb of fennel. Don’t bother to skin anything or take the leaves off the celery
  • Herbs should complement the meat you’re using ideally, but a bayleaf, a sprig of thyme and parsley goes well with most things. You can also add spices, such as cloves, fennel seeds, peppercorns, cumin or coriander seeds.
  • If you want to use stock in an oriental recipe, keep the vegetables as above, but consider adding ginger, star anise and maybe coriander stalks.
  • Bring everything to the boil, then reduce the heat to simmer, cover and cook slowly for at least an hour. I have been known to keep stock cooking all day, just topping up the water as needed.
  • Skim any scum or fat from the top, strain into a large container and either freeze or set aside for immediate use. Stock will keep for about 6 months in the freezer and for 3 days in the fridge.

Minestrone

In winter I really like soup for dinner. Last night was particularly hideous (wind, rain, lightening) and a bowl of homemade liquid goodness was just what the doctor ordered. Besides which, after a weekend of eating and drinking in a less than ideal fashion, soup is a great way to pack in all the vegetables and nutrients our bodies were craving.

Last night was a minestrone. I make mine with homemade stock (more on that later), beans but not pasta and as many vegetables and herbs as I can squeeze in. I’m generous with the bacon, which keeps the 11 year old boy happy.

Time wise, it’s not bad either. I started cooking at about 6pm and dinner was on the table just after 7. Bearing in mind that I had to convince said 11 year old into then out of the shower which slowed me down somewhat. This fed my family of four comfortably and it looks like I have enough left for lunch for the next few days.

So to the recipe. There are many versions of minestrone, this is mine. I’ve added some extra notes down the bottom if you need them.

MINESTRONE

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 x rasher streaky bacon, chopped
1 x red onion chopped
2 x medium carrots, diced
2 x sticks celery diced
2 x cloves garlic, crushed
1/8 teaspoon chilli flakes
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, toasted and ground
2 x 400g tins crushed tomatoes
1 litre chicken stock
2 x 400g tins cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
150g kale or silverbeet, middle rib removed, chopped
Parmesan cheese rind (about 20g)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Sea salt/Freshly ground black pepper
Handful basil leaves, torn
Extra virgin olive oil

Method:

  1. Prepare all your vegetables, bacon and herbs before starting to cook
  2. Cook bacon in olive oil until brown and crisp over medium heat
  3. Add onion, celery, carrot and garlic and sweat over low heat until soft
  4. Add chilli flakes, oregano and fennel seeds and cook until fragrant
  5. Add tomatoes and chicken stock. Bring to the boil, cook 30 min
  6. Add beans, kale and parmesan cheese rind. Cook 30 minutes more (add more stock if too thick)
  7. Add balsamic vinegar. Cook 5 minutes
  8. Season with salt and pepper to taste
  9. Stir through basil leaves.
  10. Ladle into bowls and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil

Notes:

  • Free range bacon please! I found a very smoky brand which added a great flavour to the soup
  • Although I’ve recommended kale, you can really use any leafy greens you have available. Spinach, cavolo nero, silverbeet are also good
  • You can change out the oregano for chopped fresh rosemary and bump up and decrease the chilli, depending on your desired heat levels
  • The parmesan cheese rind is the hard bit after you’ve grated all the good stuff. I also tend to forget to wrap parmesan properly and most of the block goes hard. Once this has happened, it’s perfect to use to add flavour to minestrone, or any other soup for that matter. Just throw it in the pot with everything else and wait for the melty cheese to do it’s magic.