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Fancy food | Blackcurrant-Cured Salmon with Herbed Cream Cheese

Salmon fillet before and after curing with salt, sugar and blackcurrant powder

I actually mean it – make this dish and you will feel so, so fancy. It’s elegant. It’s delicate. It’s raw fish, dyed purple and eaten on thin slices of sourdough bread. There’s even herb flowers in there; I mean, come on! We are talking classy. Classy doesn’t come easy, mind you, so it’s only fitting that the recipe should contain an obscure ingredient that you will need to hunt down, but trust me on this one: imagine this purple salmon served as a starter at Christmas Day lunch or a canapé for your New Year’s Eve party. It’s definitely worth the effort.

Blackcurrant-cured salmon served with herbed cream cheese

I don’t normally do fancy – I’m sure you’re well aware of that – but that doesn’t mean that I’m not a food snob (I am) or I won’t be wowed by a new idea (happens all the time). I’m not going to be forcing the latest food trend on you any time soon (I don’t want to eat egg-flavoured marshmallows aka “cloud eggs” or rainbow-coloured unicorn food anymore than you do) but I am so into food that looks gorgeous and is actually very simple to make.

Home-cured salmon (also known as gravlax) is hardly new – I’ve wanted to try these gin-cured  and beetroot-stained versions for ages – but I’m really not the type to hurry. Way back in January I was in New Zealand dipping into a local food magazine and came across an article about the local blackcurrant industry. Apparently New Zealand’s relatively unpolluted environment and high ultra violet light intensity produces blackcurrants with high levels of anthocyanin, which is a potent antioxidant. Lately blackcurrant farmers have been experimenting with products other than whole fruit and most brands now offer a freeze-dried powdered blackcurrant that can be added to smoothies and such. The article featured a gorgeous photograph of blackcurrant-cured salmon and I just had to make it.

Soft fresh herbs for chopping, sprinkling and mixing with cream cheese

One short shop on the way to the airport later and I had a bag of blackcurrant powder stashed away in my bag. It took several more months before I actually made the fish, but that’s because I needed an occasion. Curing salmon is hardly something that you’d do for a mid-week meal, but a dinner party with friends in May provided the perfect excuse. It was as good as I had dreamed and everyone LOVED it; of course, I then waited another five months to make it again and share it with you.

Blackcurrant-cured salmon with herb and lemon cream cheese

The recipe is so simple but you do need to cure the salmon for a total of 12 hours: no more and no less. This means that if you want to serve the fish at 7pm, it will need to be nestled into its curing solution by 6.30am of the same day. You could cure it overnight, store it and avoid an early rising,  but it’s my opinion that a story of dedication and self-sacrifice always makes food taste better. There’s also the fact that your guests will love to see you pull their entree from the fridge as a murky, blackish lump before being rinsed and sliced to reveal its true beauty.

Texture is important in this dish and slicing the fish as thinly as possible really does improve the flavour. Use your sharpest knife and shave that fish whisker-thin. The curing process draws out a lot of the moisture in the fish so this is easier than it sounds, but try to be your most-patient self and shave, shave, shave. The salmon is served with a smear of cream cheese, delicately scented with lemon and herbs. Slices of sourdough are available for spreading and gorging purposes and that’s about it: beautiful, raw, purple fish!

Salmon cured with blackcurrant powder and served with herb cream cheese

[A word about the photos – I’m currently forcing myself out of my comfort zone to use the manual settings on my camera. It hurts a bit, I’m not going to lie, but I know it’ll be good for me in the long run. Most of these photos came out blurry because I used a slow shutter speed to keep it moody. I should have used a tripod I know (gahhhh), but I’m not exactly going to run out and buy a new piece of salmon as you’d be waiting another year for the recipe if I did. Taking better photos is a process. Mistakes will be made and there were plenty here to learn from.]

Slices of blackcurrant-cured salmon

Blackcurrant Cured Salmon with Herbed Cream Cheese

Slightly adapted from Miles Drewery’s recipe, featured on Food to Love but originally published in Taste Magazine (NZ).

For the cured salmon:
500g salmon fillet, pin bones and skin removed
2 Tbsp sea salt
2 Tbsp raw sugar
2 Tbsp blackcurrant powder

For the herbed cream cheese:
125g cream cheese, at room temperature
2-4 Tbsp finely sliced soft herbs, such as mint, apple mint, sorrel and/or marjoram
1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest

To serve:
Finely chopped chives
Finely grated lemon zest
Herb flowers, such as chive or rosemary flowers
Sourdough bread (I used a rye and walnut sourdough)

Inspect your salmon and ensure that any excess fat on the skinned side of the salmon has been trimmed away as the cure can’t penetrate through fat. Place the salmon fillet in a glass or ceramic dish large enough for it to lie flat. In a small bowl, mix together the salt, sugar and blackcurrant powder (break up any lumps in the blackcurrant powder). Sprinkle the mixture generously over both sides of the salmon, but reserve 1 Tbsp for later. Use your fingertips to pat the curing mix into the fish. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6 hours.

After 6 hours turn the salmon over and sprinkle it with the remaining blackcurrant, salt and sugar mixture. The salmon should be very dark in colour and liquid will be gathering in the dish as the salt draws out the moisture. Re-cover and refrigerate for another 6 hours.

Mix together the cream cheese, soft herbs and lemon zest until smooth, and season with salt and pepper. Start with the smaller quantity of herbs and taste the result. You want it to taste fresh but delicate, with no single herby flavour dominating. The cream cheese can be prepared ahead of time and stashed in the fridge.

When ready to serve, remove the salmon from fridge and rinse off the excess curing solution under cold running water. Pat the fillet dry using paper towels. Using your sharpest knife, slice the salmon very thinly. Place a dollop or smear of cream cheese on each plate, top with a ragged pile of salmon slices and sprinkle with chives, lemon zest and herb flowers (if you have them). Serve with thin slices of fresh sourdough bread.

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What to do with sad and mad | Nature photos | Part 2

Evening sky in Far North New Zealand - August 2017

Evening sky in Far North New Zealand – August 2017

I saw a film recently that lingered like the taste of bitter medicine. Beatriz at Dinner is the story of a Mexican immigrant (played by Salma Hayek); her roots firmly in the wilderness of her childhood home, but living and working in sprawling LA. The film opens in her bedroom at daybreak as she sits on the floor to cuddle an agitated pet goat. Eventually we come to understand that a disgruntled neighbour has recently murdered one of her goats, leaving its bloody carcass on the lawn for her to find.

Beatriz leaves for work. She’s a healer who uses her hands to massage away the troubles of her clients, but through the day we feel the heavy burden of her grief. At the end of her shift she drives her battered car through dense traffic and eventually pulls into an affluent gated community. Beatriz is there to give a massage to a private client, Kathy, who wants to relax before the dinner party she is hosting in celebration of her husband’s successful business deal.

After the massage, Beatriz’s car fails to start and all options for an emergency repair are found to be impossible. Kathy has a soft spot for Beatriz (believing that she helped her daughter recover from cancer) and graciously insists that Beatriz stays for dinner. As the wealthy guests arrive Beatriz is clearly out of place. Her plain clothes, brown skin and lack of adornment keep her on the invisible periphery of the group. Kathy remembers to introduce her but even then, Beatriz’s sincere, unaffected manner raises more than one eyebrow. At one point a guest mistakes her for the hired help and we cannot help but cheer as Beatriz remains stoic. Rather than giving into the anxiety we feel for her, she gently turns the conversation to deeper matters. Her desire for genuine connection is palpable.

At dinner things take a turn for the worst. Kathy’s husband’s business parter, Doug (played by John Lithgow), reveals himself as a capitalist of Trumpian proportions – grandiose, vulgar, sexist and entitled. As the other guests laugh along and suppress the odd cringe, Beatriz’s Latin blood begins to simmer. Despite Kathy’s efforts to diffuse the tension, Beatriz becomes increasingly impassioned – much to Doug’s amusement. Soon Doug is sharing a photograph of the rhinoceros he killed on safari and Beatriz cannot contain herself any longer. Kathy is shocked and embarrassed. Beatriz apologises and agrees to retire to the bedroom to rest.

Alone with her sadness and anger, Beatriz dreams of her childhood home. In her memories she is a girl again, drifting along sparkling waterways lined with dense green foliage. These scenes are a welcome respite from the ugly reality downstairs but they are all too fleeting – a metaphor in itself for a planet approaching crisis. The respite is short lived when Beatriz starts searching the internet and discovers that Doug’s real estate empire is responsible for the destruction (environmentally and economically) of a community near her home in Mexico. Beatriz rejoins the party, confronts Doug, and this time his attitude of amused condescension fails him: he is rattled and angry at Beatriz for revealing his guilt. The film continues in this vein to an end both inevitable and unfinished.

Beatriz at Dinner has received mixed reviews, but like C.C. Ford for the Daily Review and Max Cea for Salon, I’m a fan. This is Trump-era cinema and uncomfortable viewing at its best. Like Beatriz, I was left both sad and mad. I can do something with mad because every little action counts (support issues you believe in, challenge attitudes that are just not cool, reduce, reuse, recycle etc, etc, etc). Sad is harder. It can really get to you.

Long-time readers will know that I’m a country girl living an urban life in the heart of a major city. I love the pace and excitement of my world, but I need regular doses of peace and beauty to feel like a human. Last year I published a post featuring 16 nature photos taken over six years and today I’m publishing 19 nature photos taken over a six month period. Each moment depicted was and is a lungful of air. Be mad, but never forget to breathe. Peace out people ♥

Above the clouds, over the Tasman Sea

Above the clouds, over the Tasman Sea – August 2017

Surfers at Coolum Beach, Sunshine Coast

Surfers at Coolum Beach, Sunshine Coast, March 2017

Sunrise through the bush, near Enoggera, Brisbane

Sunrise through the bush, near Enoggera, Brisbane – May 2017

Palm trees against deep blue sky, Newstead, Brisbane

Palm trees against deep blue sky, Newstead, Brisbane – June 2017

Rose garden in New Farm Park, Brisbane

Rose garden in New Farm Park, Brisbane – June 2017

Beauty in the city, Chinatown, Brisbane

Beauty in the city, Chinatown, Brisbane – July 2017

Cool green ferns, Roma St Parklands, Brisbane

Cool green ferns, Roma St Parklands, Brisbane – July 2017

Water iris, Roma St Parklands, Brisbane

Water iris, Roma St Parklands, Brisbane – July 2017

Rainbow foliage, Roma St Parklands, Brisbane

Rainbow foliage, Roma St Parklands, Brisbane – July 2017

Green striped foliage, Roma St Parklands, Brisbane

Green striped foliage, Roma St Parklands, Brisbane – July 2017

Winter sunset at home, Far North New Zealand

Winter sunset at home, Far North New Zealand – August 2017

Bare winter branches at sunset, Far North New Zealand

Bare winter branches at sunset, Far North New Zealand – August 2017

Misty morning down by the river, Far North New Zealand

Misty morning down by the river, Far North New Zealand – August 2017

Flowering magnolia, grey day, at dusk - Far North New Zealand

Flowering magnolia, grey day, at dusk – Far North New Zealand – August 2017

Snowdrops in the bottom paddock, Far North New Zealand

Snowdrops in the bottom paddock, Far North New Zealand – August 2017

Misty morning in monochrome, Far North New Zealand

Misty morning in monochrome, Far North New Zealand – August 2017

Setting sun after the rain, Far North New Zealand

Setting sun after the rain, Far North New Zealand – August 2017

Lemon tree, Far North New Zealand

Lemon tree, Far North New Zealand – August 2017

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Celebration Cake | Orange Blossom, Yoghurt, Cardamom

A cake for spring - Orange & Cardamom Yoghurt Cake

Thank you for your feedback on the last post. Those thoughts had been brewing for some time and I needed to get it off my chest. It turns out that many of you feel the same – big sigh of relief for me and virtual high-five for you! I have a feeling that I have more to say about this topic, and others, but you might be pleased to know that there is no crankiness from me today: there is only cake and it’s a good one.

Fresh oranges for Orange & Cardamom Yoghurt Cake

There are many reasons to celebrate this cake and the first is that there is no creaming of butter and sugar involved. I really, really dislike creaming butter and sugar. It sounds petulant (and that’s a fair judgement) but the whole faffing about with bringing the butter to room temperature and setting up the cake mixer just annoys me. Batters that come together with a light stir make the whole experience so much more relaxing and this one takes all of 15 minutes to whisk the dry ingredients, whisk the wet (in another bowl), stir the two together and shove in the oven. This is a cake that gives far more than it takes.

Hetty McKinnon's Orange & Cardamom Yoghurt Cake

For all its minimum effort, this cake delivers on maximum flavour – its second obvious virtue. I love the light, damp flavoursome crumb that you get from yoghurt cakes and this one is infused with the beguiling fragrance of orange blossom and ground cardamom. If you’ve never used orange blossom water it’s worth tracking down from Middle Eastern delis, herb and spice retailers, or even some good supermarkets. A little goes a long way, so buy a small bottle, and I promise that you will get through it soon enough when this recipe becomes your go-to cake. Atop the pale orange crumb you may, if you are so inclined, drizzle an orange-infused cream cheese icing. Cream-cheese icing just has that OMG factor (don’t you think?) and this one is no different. It’s gorgeously indulgent, but I only include it when making the cake for a party or gathering. If I’m making the cake for casual snacking I like to keep it simple with a light dusting of icing sugar and tangy Greek yoghurt served alongside. Both versions are divine.

Prepping your bundt tin properly is the key to successful bundt cakes

Third and last, this cake looks great. The original recipe calls for a sprinkle of chopped pistachios to top the icing, which sets off the golden cake and creamy icing perfectly. I happen to have dried rose petals in my cupboard right now (bought for a culinary experiment that is still in the experimental stage) and a few of these scattered over makes the cake look extra special. The pretty is upped even more if you bake it in a bundt tin and make it look like a giant flower. Speaking of bundts, if you’re going to use one, save yourself the heartbreak of stickage/breakage by prepping the pan properly. Grease the pan throughly with butter, don’t miss a single tiny ridge or crease, and dust the entire surface with icing sugar, not flour. If you’re skeptical of my advice, I refer you to the experts and this authoritative article.

Hetty McKinnon's Orange & Cardamom Yoghurt Cake

The recipe for this delightful cake comes from the creative Hetty McKinnon of Arthur Street Kitchen, but I first saw it featured on Elizabeth’s lovely blog, The Backyard Lemon Tree. I’ve made a couple of tiny adjustments to the original (more juice in the icing to make it thinner and the addition of rose petals) but really, it was already perfect. You’ll note in the recipe that you can make it with either melted butter or macadamia oil. I’ve tried both and agree with Elizabeth that the oil version is slightly better, so that’s what I recommend. I also recommend that you freely and openly share this cake as it will do wonders for your baking reputation. No-one has to know how simple it was to make.

Orange Blossom & Cardamom Yoghurt Cake

Slightly adapted from Hetty McKinnon’s Neighbourhood

250ml macadamia oil (or 250g salted butter, melted and cooled)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp vanilla extract
zest of one orange
3 Tsbp orange juice
1 cup Greek yoghurt
2 tsp orange blossom water
300g self-raising flour (or 2 cups plain with 4 tsp baking powder whisked through)
330g raw sugar, granulated/caster
1 tsp ground cardamom
Pinch of salt (if using oil, not butter)
Icing sugar (powdered sugar), for dusting

For the icing:
125g cream cheese, at room temperature
90g icing sugar (powdered sugar)
dash of vanilla extract
3-4 Tbsp orange juice
1/2 tsp orange zest

To decorate (optional):
2 Tbsp pistachios, chopped
2 tsp rose petals

Preheat oven to 160ºC / 320ºF. If using a bundt tin, grease it thoroughly with butter and sprinkle icing sugar over all surfaces, shaking the tin to get it into every crevice and then tapping it upside down to remove the excess. Alternatively, grease and line a 22cm springform tin with baking paper.

Combine the flour, sugar and cardamom in a large bowl and mix well using a whisk.

In another bowl, combine the wet ingredients by whisking together the oil (or butter), eggs, vanilla, orange zest, orange juice, yoghurt and orange blossom water.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, pour in the wet and fold together gently using a large spoon or spatula. Mix until just combined – do not overmix. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a skewer or toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Leave in the tin to cool for 15 minutes before turning out onto a serving platter. Dust the top with icing sugar or, wait until the cake is completely cool then top with cream cheese icing (instructions below).

If making the icing, whisk together the cream cheese, icing sugar, vanilla extract, orange juice and zest. Once smooth, spread the icing over the cooled cake, nudging it to the edges and letting it run down the sides a little. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios and rose petals.

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Rhubarb & Fennel Fizz (+ blog rant)

Fennel infused gin and rhubarb syrup

In these days of conservative politics, human rights abuses and global unrest, writing a food blog seems vapid and frivolous, and I agree that it mostly is. Not only is blogging supposedly dead – in the “old-school” sense of daily blogs written by a single person and designed to engage readers in conversation – but who actually reads them now? We’re all over on Instagram curating our lives; who has time to read an article longer than 250 words? Even if we do, are we genuinely engaged by the continuous churn of reposted, sponsored, SEO-optimised content titled: “Beyond the chip: 20 new ways with kale” or “Avoid these 8 common mistakes when buttering toast”? For a long time now, blogging has been about building your brand, driving traffic to your site and trying to land sponsorship deals and I have to say that I’m weary of the rampant consumerism. Blogging was once the domain of citizen journalism; now it’s all affiliate links and clickbait, radical democracy perverted as “the establishment itself”.

Rhubarb & Fennel Fizz - a fresh and fruity spring cocktail

Here’s a story to make you cringe – three years ago we travelled to Mudgee in NSW for a week of relaxation and wine tasting. I wasn’t familiar with wines from Mudgee, so I sought recommendations from The Wine Wankers (a group of Australian wine experts with an extensive online following) about the best wineries to visit. A member of the team kindly supplied me with a list and asked me to pass on his regards to one of the recommended winemakers if I saw him. As it happened, I did see him (it was a small, boutique winery), and the encounter sparked a discussion about blogging that quickly turned sour. The winemaker had recently been contacted by a blogger who requested that he host she and a friend for dinner at his restaurant in return for a feature on her website. Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with mutual back-scratching in principle, but what made the winemaker uncomfortable was the thinly-veiled threat that if he asked her to pay for the meal, well, she couldn’t guarantee a positive review. Unfortunately this is not an isolated experience for those in the hospitality industry and the winemaker had every right to feel outraged at the attempted manipulation. I felt guilty by association and weakly argued that mine wasn’t “that” type of blog.

Market haul - fresh spring fennel and rhubarb

I’m doing that thing that people do, right, painting the past as a lost utopia? The reality is that blogging was exploited for its commercial potential virtually from the beginning and has been highly lucrative for those who got in early. It’s much harder to make a living as a professional blogger now (does this explain the rise of dodgy tactics?) but that doesn’t stop many trying. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the use of blogs as a marketing tool. It’s a competitive world out there and for people whose livelihood depends on making a sale, blogging is an important communication medium, among many. The crux of the matter is that I crave originality. Don’t give me pop-up ads and expect me to hang around your site. I want to enrich my life with blogs that are beautifully written, that make me think deeply, provoke me, challenge me, inspire me to action, even if it’s just to cook. Fortunately there are many bloggers out there who still write like this: consider Tim’s thoughts on racism, Steve’s informative posts on food politics and Molly’s heroic coming out narrative. Food bloggers, all of them, and all with something really gutsy and interesting to say, not to sell. If I follow your blog, you can be assured that it’s because I think you do too (thank you).

Baby fennel - about to become fennel-infused gin

I’ve been writing this blog for six years and have been contacted by my fair share of PR reps offering free products or cash in exchange for reviews, or app developers chasing content. All very modest in scale I assure you and nothing that I couldn’t easily refuse, but as the offers slowly mounted up I was forced to think hard about my position. Essentially it is this: we already live in an over-advertised world and I don’t want to write to influence you to buy just to make a buck myself. Monetisation is a slippery slope and I won’t even take the smallest step. You’ll never find sponsored content on this blog. I’ll never ask for or accept any product or service in exchange for a review. If I do happen to mention a specific brand (which is extremely rare) it’s because the recipe calls for it or it’s truly exceptional in some way. This stance makes me a dinosaur, I’m well aware, but I only want to write how I want to write (and read). I have a job that pays the bills and this blog will never be that.

Making fennel-infused gin, to be paired with rhubarb syrup in Rhubarb & Fennel Fizz cocktail

So what has this got to do with cocktails or rhubarb or fennel? Not one thing. I’m sorry to be all serious and grumpy but this is something I had to say. Make this (delicious) drink and forgive me? Please?

Rhubarb & Fennel Fizz - a delicious fresh and fruity cocktail to welcome spring

Rhubarb & Fennel Fizz

  • Servings: 4-6 drinks
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Very slightly adapted from A Year in Food

For the fennel-infused gin and rhubarb syrup:
1 small fennel bulb
350ml gin
500g rhubarb
350ml water
1/4 cup sugar

For each drink:
90ml rhubarb syrup
60ml fennel-infused gin
60ml sparkling water
Squeeze of lemon, to taste
1 lemon slice

First, prepare the gin. Wash and roughly chop the fennel, reserving a few pieces of fennel frond for garnishing the drinks later. Add the chopped fennel to a tall, narrow-mouthed glass jar and top with about half of the gin. Using a muddler, heavy wooden spoon (or the end of a rolling pin, as I did) vigorously muddle the fennel for two or three minutes. Add the remaining gin, stir and let the infusion sit at room temperature for 1-2 hours (2 hours produces a stronger flavour, but 1 is fine if you’re in a rush).

While the gin is infusing, prepare the rhubarb. Wash and chop the rhubarb and combine with the sugar and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, until soft but not completely collapsed. Remove from the heat and strain immediately through a fine sieve. Use a spoon to press the juice from the pulp. The pulp can be reserved for another use, such as muffins.

Strain the gin and discard the fennel. Refrigerate the gin and syrup until chilled.

For each cocktail, mix 90ml rhubarb syrup, 60ml gin, a squeeze of lemon and a small handful of ice cubes in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled glass or small mason jar. Add 60ml sparkling water, a few ice cubes, a slice of lemon and a piece of fennel frond.

Filed under: Eat