Saturday, June 29, 2013

Playing chicken

We're into the 700th consecutive day of rain (or so it feels, it might just be the second week) but it's wet in Sydney, folks, and this little gardener ain't doing any gardening right now. The seeds I've sown of the next crops of parsley, coriander and radish are all frolicking in the rain, the lavender inexplicably has decided to start flowering, and none of that is coaxing me outdoors. 

Instead, on this soggy Saturday afternoon I'm playing chicken with one of my favourite recipes, and it's one that I have now cooked several times and each time it has worked out perfectly. The method itself sounds a bit dodgy to Western cooks, but the Chinese have been cooking chicken this way since Confucius was a schoolboy.

Here's some of the ingredients: ginger, garlic,
spring onions and salt. The bottle is of Chinese
cooking wine (Shaoxing), and in our local
Asian grocery it's $1.20 for the whole bottle,
and you use the whole bottle in the stock.
It's like a dry sherry, so I've been told.
Hope that's true (not a sherry person), but the
first time I taste a dry sherry I plan to say
"It reminds me of Shaoxing wine".

The first part of the recipe is dead easy, and normal. Make
a cooking stock (recipe below) but it's the whole bottle of wine,
5 litres of water plus lots of garlic, ginger, spring onions and salt. 
And the chicken itself needs no special prep.
Just one size 16 (1.6kg) free-range chook.
So far so good. Once you've cooked the stock for a while, add
the chicken and cook for... wait for it... 15 minutes! No, it's not
ready yet. What you then do is turn off the heat, put on the lid
tightly, and let the chicken cook very slowly and gently in the
cooling hot stock for 3 whole hours. And it works. The chicken
comes out fully cooked (ie, no 'pink' bits), super juicy and
tender. When I tell people about this recipe most of them
look a bit suspicious and you can tell from their eyes they
ain't never ever going to try this recipe. I don't care, here
it is, and this is what we're enjoying tonight!

White cooked chicken with ginger and spring onion sauce
This is based on a Kylie Kwong recipe found in the newspaper a long while ago. She didn't invent it, of course, an ancestor in 1500BC did, but I have had the temerity to change some amounts, too.

1.6kg whole free-range chicken

Cooking stock
1 x 700ml bottle Shaoxing Chinese cooking wine
5 litres water
12 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup roughly chopped ginger
1/3 cup salt flakes (eg, Maldon)
8 green spring onions, trimmed and roughly chopped

Dipping sauce
2 tablespoons grated ginger
2 tablespoons finely chopped spring onions
1 teaspoon salt flakes
1/2 cup peanut oil

You’ll need a big stock pot to cook this, preferably one with a heavy base that can hold its heat, plus a tight-fitting lid that does the same.

1. Make sure the chicken is out of the fridge for a couple of hours before starting, so it isn’t ultra-chilled.

2. Put all the cooking stock ingredients into the stock pot and bring it to the boil (that can take up to 25 minutes). Turn down the heat, cover the pot and let it all simmer gently for 40 minutes, to make a fragrant cooking stock.

3. At around that 40-minute mark, wash and trim the chicken of excessive fat if you like. While you prepare the chicken, turn up the heat on the stock so it’s near a boiling again. Add the chicken gently to the pot, breast-side down, then turn down the heat under the pot to medium, so it’s barely simmering, not boiling. Let the chicken poach in the simmering stock for 15 minutes (and no longer).

4. Turn off the heat, fit the lid securely to the pot and let the chicken steep and cook slowly in the poaching liquid for 3 hours. Never take the lid off the pot. Don’t go near it!

5. Well before that 3 hours is up, make the dipping sauce. Combine the salt, ginger and spring onions in a wide, shallow heat-proof dish or pan, then in another small pan, heat the peanut oil until quite hot (but not smoking) then carefully and slowly pour the hot oil over the ginger/spring onions. They’ll fizz a bit in the oil but it all cools down within half an hour.

6. Once the 3 hours is up, carefully remove the chicken from the pot, using tongs, and place it on a plate for 15 minutes to cool down, before cutting it up. I use a Chinese cleaver to chop the chicken into pieces, chopping across the bone. The breast meat is very juicy and tender, so you could just cut off large pieces and slice them, to serve.

7. I serve ours with steamed Chinese broccoli, chopped into chunks, with rice on the side, plus a little bowl of the dipping sauce, which is essential. 

8. The remainder of the chicken makes a sensational cold chicken for salads or sandwiches the next day. The flavour of that ginger-infused cooking stock comes into its own more on the day after than it does on the night you cook the dish, in fact.

9. Don’t skip the dipping sauce; it’s a huge part of the flavour of this dish. It’s a classic Chinese dipping sauce, so you probably will recognise its flavour if you’re a regular at Chinese restaurants and yum cha.

Monday, June 24, 2013


A strange little realisation dropped from the sky a while back. I knew my blog was coming up for its fifth anniversary sometime in June this year, as I had started blogging back in 2008, but I wasn't sure which day exactly. So I looked it up and got a little surprise. It was the 24th of June – today – but hey, wait on, today's our wedding anniversary, too! So I started our blog on our wedding anniversary? Well I must have, and so today I am delighted to celebrate not only 24 years of very happy marriage to my darling girl, Pammy, but five years of blogging here at Garden Amateur as well.

Here's the two of us on holidays back in 2011, on Tybee Beach
in Georgia, USA on the Atlantic Coast. Nice idea, swing seats
right on the beach. Happy anniversary darling!

And so just a few words on this fifth anniversary of our Garden Amateur blog. 

Sometimes things start for reasons that no longer apply, and continue with a life and purpose of their own. In the case of this blog I thought of it as a 'letter from home' for a pair of good friends of ours, Evan and Michelle, who left Sydney to live in the heart of the Australian outback, in Birdsville, for a year, while Evan wrote a book about the experience. Michelle set up her own blog to post day-day-day observations about life there, and so I was inspired to set up a blog documenting life here in Sydney, intended for them as a 'letter from home', as Michelle and Evan are both gardeners (and they ended up growing some very good crops of herbs and vegies despite Birdsville's 40°C heat). Evan did end up writing that book, called 'Birdsville, my year in the back of beyond' and it has sold very well indeed. And he has gone on to write several other fine books, notably a series about life in the outback, and meanwhile here in Sydney I've plugged away at this happy little blog about gardening, cooking and the occasional travel adventure with Pammy.

Blogging is something that is best done for the sheer love of it, and that's why I do it, and also why I called my blog 'Garden Amateur' – as I do this for love, not money. It's something I do a lot of when there's lots to talk about, such as in spring and early summer, and I quieten down in winter, just as my garden does.

I think I've also managed to keep it going because I've taken little breaks from blogging from time to time. If you do something for love, never let it become a chore. And so when I've tired of blogging I've walked away from it for a few weeks. Then, a bit later on, I notice something interesting going on and the urge to take photos and write comes back, just as hunger always does, no matter how big a meal you enjoyed the day before.

So thanks to everyone who visits here. I never tire of being fascinated by all those little red dots on the spinning world globe at the top of this blog, showing all the places where readers come from. I can understand readers from similar climates paying visits here, but when I see readers from Greenland, Siberia, Saudi Arabia's deserts, the Sahara or Alaska, I feel as if this blog serves purposes I never imagined possible.

It's always a lovely little thrill to get a comment. And so here's an especial big thanks to all you lovely commenters here – most of you are also bloggers just like me and you all know what a positive thing it is to see a little email in your inbox saying there's a new comment to be read.

Finally, a big kiss and thank you to my girl Pammy, who notices so much that's going on in our backyard and has inspired dozens of postings here, thanks to her keen artist's eye. It's our blog, not just mine, and it's our garden, too. We do live life together, and that's the way it's going to be for the next 24 years, too (if I live that long!). Happy anniversary darling!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Little green woolly head

Lately, when I head out into the garden in the late afternoon to pick some mixed leafy greens for a salad,I stop at our woolly-headed chervil pot and pick a few of its soft, mildly aniseed-tinged leaves to add their gentle, pleasant flavour to the mix. This lovely little potted herb is one of the stars of our garden right now. It's such a beautiful green colour.

Extremely up close and personal, you can see why some people
mistake chervil for parsley, but chervil leaves are much smaller
than parsley, and have an altogether different flavour.
This pot full of baby chervil has probably the softest foliage
of any plant I have ever touched, so soft you sometimes wonder
whether it's actually there. It's round, like a head of fluffy,
woolly hair, and that green colour is freshness itself.
As with growing parsley, the secret to growing chervil seems
to be to grow it from seed. As I had my macro lens out for that
opening foliage shot, I thought you might to meet chervil seed.
I sow chervil seed fairly thickly, barely covering the seed with
seed-raising mix. When they come up, I don't bother to thin out
the plants, either. They look so lovely as a dense crowd. 
Perhaps a size comparison is more useful: on the left are chervil
seeds and on the right are some curly parsley seeds. So chervil
seed is long, narrow and dark. Chervil comes up more quickly
than parsley (two weeks, compared to parsley's three or four).
Chervil and parsley are relatives (along with carrots and
parsnips) and all these plants grow best from seed, and quite
badly from seedlings (that's because they send down a long
taproot that doesn't like to be disturbed). Like parsley, chervil is
one herb which can do well in semi-shade, so it's a good one for
inner-city gardens, many of which don't get all-day sunshine.
While I read in some cookbooks that chervil and parsley can be substituted for each other, I don't really agree, apart from using both as a token garnish. I have both herbs growing here, and each has its own uses. 

The flavour of chervil is more delicate than parsley, so it's at its best in a salad, or tossed into a pot moments before serving. It also adds a real flavour lift to blandish vegies such as zucchini (courgette) and squash. 

Flat-leaf parsley, by comparison, has a more robust flavour that contributes itself to soups, casseroles and other slow-cooked dishes, pasta sauces, salads such as Lebanese tabouleh, and spice pastes such as North African chermoula. 

I'm still exploring chervil's uses (and I suspect there will be many) but discovering its vividly green, soft-leafed beauty is a very pleasant thing indeed.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Pomegranate wrangling

At last some heavy rain and cold, strong winds blowing water under the door — that's more like it, Huey! It's the second day of winter here in Sydney and even the most dedicated gardeners are indoors today. Some might have their noses pressed against the window panes watching the rain streak down sideways, but me, I'm in the kitchen wrangling pomegranate arils (seeds) out of their membrane cells. 

Mind you, this isn't one of those pretend expert 'how it's done' blog posts. It more of a documentary on 'how I did it', and at the end of this posting I have a few YouTube links to how it's really done. My method basically worked, because here's the harvest, below.

Aren't pomegranate arils pretty? They taste nice too. I mostly
use them as a prettifier in salads, where they work a treat, but
this batch is for Pammy, who snacks on them, adds them to
her breakfasts, and stirs them into plain yoghurt.

Here's what it's like right now out in the garden here at Amateur
Land. Cold, wet and forbiddingly miz. Perfect kitchen weather.

And here's Pammy's pomegranate.

The first time I deseeded a pomegranate a lot of juice flowed
in all directions, so now I take no risks and use a big bowl.
First, I cut a lid off the top. Once this is done you can see
that pomegranates are a bit like oranges, in they consists of
a series of distinct segments inside.
Then I cut down the sides of the pomegranates to break it into
segments. I think I should have cut it into five segments, not
these four, but what the hell, I've done it now!
Then, using sheer brute strength, I broke the segments up.
OK, so I lied. They come apart with just a bit of a tug
from your fingers. It's just that I've always wanted to say
something about 'sheer brute strength' in the many years I have
been doing this blog, and still haven't had the chance.
In heaven, all the pomegranates break easily into distinct
segments filled with juicy, delicious, tangy rubies.
In hell, all the pomegranates (if you can find any, the prices
are ridiculous) are filled with nothing but this inedible membrane.
Consider this membrane your enemy and you're on the right path.
I had a separate bowl on the side where I tossed all the bits of
membrane. To do the whole job took about 10 minutes, but
that included me stopping endlessly to take these snaps.

Had to repeat my "traaa-daaa" shot of the bowl of pretty arils.

Now, as for how it's really done, there are endless variations available. 

This English video shows two basic methods. The first is the "Cut in half crossways then bash with a wooden spoon." I tried that once, and if you have a very juicy pomegranate it ends up like a scene from that immortal classic move 'The Bloodbath at the House of Death'. The second method is like mine: "Cut off lid, cut into segments, good luck." Here's the link.

I like the way this guy demonstrates how he does it at what looks like the dinner table, mid-dinner. How it should be done!

And this method is out there on the net. It's the "do it underwater" method. The problem with this is that you lose all the juice, which doesn't seem very smart. But if neatness is your top priority, this might be for you.