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Queso de Bola Spread

Queso de Bola Spread

Because the holiday season is already so stressful, there are some things that you should never do in December.

Getting married is one of them.

This of course is from first hand experience when eight years ago, three days after Christmas, I said “I do.”  When I got engaged my then fiancé said “pick a date” and there was no doubt in my mind that we would get married around the Christmas holidays.  I had visions of a string quartet playing Christmas carols at the wedding reception, pointsettias hanging around the ballroom and because my Mom was taking care of the catering, I asked for a Holiday themed menu including glazed hams and roast turkeys.

The stress started as early as September when the dressmaker told me that because I wanted a beaded dress, whatever my current weight was then was what my weight had to be at my wedding.  There was no room to put on any holiday weight as this would mean major adjustments to the dress.

It was hard to enjoy engagement parties and holiday get togethers when every time I’d want to stuff myself silly I’d envision a little bubble over my head and inside was the dressmaker shaking his head saying “Tsk… tsk… I told you not to eat so much!”

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Mango Weiss Bar

Mango Weiss Bar

Sometimes I think I am in over my head asking chefs for their recipes.  Last week I had a dream that I asked Gordon Ramsay for his Caesar Salad recipe and he screamed at me.  He said there was no way he was going to give it to me and I should just wait for the release of his next book where I could find it!  I swear, I woke up in a sweat and my heart racing.

Howard from Eat Show and Tell and another friend had Dared Me to get  Sepia‘s famous Mango and Vanilla Weiss Bar and so I approached the restaurant for the recipe.  I made contact with Vicki Wild not only who manages the front of house but is also partner to Head Chef, Martin Benn.  I thought, if anyone could charm Chef Benn into parting with such a coveted recipe, it would be her.  And luckily, Vicki Wild is much more charming and accommodating than Gordon Ramsay.

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Italian Pistachio Cookies

Trissalicious Pistachio Cookies

I first tasted pistachio cookies in Italy, about  two years ago.  My husband and I were searching for Il Gelato di San Crispino that was supposed to serve Rome’s best gelato when we chanced upon a little bakery selling these bright green chewy balls of pistachio cookies that were called Bocconcini al Pistacchio di Bronte.  The gelato store was set aside for another day.  Instead, we bought two cookies each (At 3.80 EURO each they were expensive!) and went to Sant’ Eustachio for a caffe and devoured the little gluten-free Italian pistachio cookies.

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Fettuccine alla Carbonara (Recipe from Family Italian)

Fettuccine alla Carbonara (Recipe from Family Italian)

When I was a child, I dreamt of being adopted by an Italian family.  I loved their accents, the way they sounded like they were shouting at everything when in fact they were carrying on a normal conversation, I loved how they always called me Bella and of course, their food.

Fast forward to my first year of high school where I spent the summer travelling around Europe with my family.  Italy was my favourite of the ten countries we visited that summer, and this time I had dreams of marrying a vespa driving, cappucino drinking, dark eyed Italian as my ticket to that Italian family.

Through the years, I figured the only way to get my Italian family was to amass an unusually large number of Italian cookbooks.  So when I told my husband that I had a copy of John Lanzafame’s Family Italian cookbook to review, he said what any practical husband would say “Don’t you have enough Italian cookbooks already?!”

So here in my hands was an Italian cookbook from that Italian family I never had but always dreamed of having.

So to answer my husband’s question whether I have enough Italian cookbooks?  There’s always room for one more, especially when it’s inspired by Mum’s cooking.

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Relleno Alimasag (Philippine Style Stuffed Crab)

Relleno Alimasag (Philippine Style Stuffed Crab)

One of the greatest food writers in the Philippines was a lady by the name of Doreen Fernandez.  When I was in the Philippines I took for granted her contributions to our cuisine and so I rarely paid any attention to her works which was a pity since I have been crazy looking for some of her books which are almost impossible to find.  Last month in Melbourne I went to a store called Books For Cooks where tucked in a corner was one of Doreen’s books.  I couldn’t believe my luck!  The book is called Palayok (a type of native cooking pot) and while not a recipe book, is filled with valuable information on what and how our cuisine has come to where it is today.  The chapter I’m reading now for instance, is on the Spanish influences on food.

This influence is  of course inevitable considering we were a colony from 1521 to 1898 (I tell everyone we were colonized for around 300 years, but now I realize it’s 377!).  The first Spanish settlers were officials and their families then later on, friars.   Ingredients in the Spanish kitchen often make an appearance in our food like chorizo (sausages) and jamon (ham). Another example, is in our cooking methods.  To saute in the Philippines is called “gisa” from the Spanish word guisar.

Another cooking process commonly used in the Philippines, is called relleno which means to stuff.  With some types of relleno, the Spanish influence is much clearer, for example,  rellenong manok (stuffed chicken) will typically be stuffed with pork, chorizo and ham.  Other relleno has been adapted to the produce more easily available in the Philippines, for example, rellenong bangus or stuffed milkfish (milkfish is very accessible in the Philippines).

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Chorizo Croquetas

Chorizo Croquetas

The other day, as I do every morning, I took my two labradors for a walk. Nothing out of the ordinary except I had overslept and had less time to walk them and get ready for work. I knew I had to rush. So we went to a park that was 10 minutes away and I let them loose thinking I would let them spend a good ten minutes chasing each other and sniffing other dogs. This took longer than I expected because the little one, Bizou, decided to forage for breakfast which meant I had to spend an extra ten minutes chasing her and trying to get her to stop.

As we made our way home I saw a man stading infront of his truck. He must have been in his twenties, and I suspect he was in the construction business because he was wearing a fluorescent yellow safety jacket, worn boots and had a rugged look about him. As we walked towards him I saw him look at them and his face broke into a wide grin and then he looked at me and said “Can I pat them?”.

He kneeled down and my dogs made a dash for him. He started patting them and then Baci, flirt that she is, lay on her back as if to ask for a tummy rub, which made him smile and happily oblige.

“You have a labrador too?” I asked him.

“Had,” he replied. “She died early this year. She was fifteen.” Then I saw him close his eyes and give each dog a big hug.

I was in a hurry and had an early morning meeting that I didn’t want to be late for… but at that moment none of that was important.

“There’s a park across the road, I was going to take them there for a little run. Did you want to come along for a few minutes?” I asked.

What mattered was that I felt like I was giving him a few moments with his dog back.

There are times in our lives when we have the opportunity to help someone relive a certain moment, it’s wonderful when we can oblige. Whether it’s spending an extra few minutes with them… or even cooking a dish that brings back the memory.

Which is why I made these Chorizo Croquetas the other day.

But I’ll save that story for another time.

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XO Sauce

XO Sauce

Hong Kong ranks up there among my favourite cities.    I love it’s vibrance, diversity and the fact that I can indulge in two of my favourite hobbies when I’m there.  Food and shopping.  I love that the malls close at 10 pm and that they take their sales very seriously (nothing perks me up more than a sign saying 70% off!).  It’s not unheard of to spend the whole day shopping at a mall and then at night, despite the aching feet, we continue on to the night markets.  Of course there’s also the food.  On my last trip there with my Mom, sisters and aunt, indulged in dim sum, peking duck and roast goose in between marathon shopping.

I’m sure though that Hong Kong isn’t for everyone.  Some may complain about the pollution or the cramped living spaces.  I know for certain my husband doesn’t get the same thrill when setting foot in a new mall and he makes numerous excuses when I ask him to come shopping with me.

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Bacon and Cheese Biscuits

Bacon and Cheese Biscuits

As part of “The Cooking Basics” series, I thought I’d share with you one of the books I consider to be an invaluable resource for creating your own recipes.  Michael Ruhlman’s “Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking” is slowly turning out to be pretty handy in the kitchen.

Essentially, the author refers to a culinary ratio as a fixed proportion of one ingredient relative to another.  He says that these proportions for the backbone of the craft of cooking.  The book contains ratios for doughs, stocks, sausages, sauces and custards and once you know the basics, you are really only limited by your imagination.  For example, the ratio for bread is 5 parts flour : 3 parts water.  So combining 500 grams of flour plus 300 grams of water plus a small amount of yeast will give you the basic bread dough.  Now, once you know how to mix this properly, comes the fun part!  Looking for a savoury bread?  Add bacon, caramelized onions, or cheese.  In a nutty mood?  Add walnuts, olives, and raisins.

I must caution, if you are looking for a “cooking bible” or “the best bread recipe, best custard recipe etc” this is probably not what you are looking for.  Think of this more as a guide to help you understand how certain ingredients work together to give you different results (for example, pizza dough and bread are made up of the same ingredients but why are they so different?)

This book enables you to rely less on cookbooks and more on your creativity and as the author says  “When you know a ratio, it’s not like knowing a single recipe, it’s instantly knowing a thousand.”

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Braised Oxtail with Asian Flavours

Braised Oxtail with Asian Flavours

How I wish you could meet my Aunt Jenni.  She’s my sister’s mother-in-law and twice a year we head over to Canberra for the long weekend where she generously welcomes our whole family for Christmas and Easter lunch.  She cooks for over 20 or so people and I’ve never once seen her stress about it.  She’s all about simple, delicious and as much as possible, “make ahead” recipes.

Jenni came to Sydney this weekend to celebrate her son’s birthday.  “Jenni, you MUST MUST give me some recipes to blog about!”  I told her.  She did better than that – she gave me two of her well-used recipe journals that contain her tried and tested recipes!

Here’s one of Jenni’s recipes I had over the weekend (Yes!  She cooks even while she is in Sydney).  The recipe of Braised Oxtail with Asian Flavours is from New Zealand food celebrity and cookbook author Annabel Langbein.

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Chocolate and Hazelnut Bombe Alaska

Chocolate and Hazelnut Bombe Alaska

It’s funny how some of the major decisions in our life are made on impulse.

One weekend, over a month ago I was in the kitchen (where else?) when my husband walked in and mentioned that a house we had looked at four years ago was again for sale.

“Which one?”  I asked.

“The one on so and so street, with the sandstone facade, large kitchen (he knew how to get my attention) and backyard.” he said. “Do you want to have a look?” he continued.

I remembered that one.  It was a brand new house we both fell in love with but for one reason or another we didn’t buy it.  And now four years later the house was up for sale again.

“Nooooo. I said.”  I remembered the last time we bought a house.  First there was the heartbreak of being told that our bid was accepted only to be gazumped, the frustration of losing out on several auctions and of course the stress of our last move where I packed over 80 boxes.  Plus, I didn’t think it was in our price range. “I’m busy baking.” I told my husband.

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