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Today’s post is brought to you courtesy of the weird and beautiful things I found in the back of my fridge this week: left over smelly cheese and vacuum-packed pre-cooked octopus!

It was one of these nights, when we had ran out of fresh meat and were left with odd assortments of vegetables, opened tubs of cream and lonely eggs. I actually like it when this happens, as it forces me to not only clean up the fridge but also challenges me to come up with interesting ideas for dinner. We call it our own Mystery Box Challenge!

A quick search revealed half a shelf-full of cheese leftover from a big dinner party last month: I picked the French contingent of mimolette, camembert and tomme, leaving the blue vein, swiss cheese and cheddar for another use. Anne was hoping there would be enough to melt into a fondue; sadly for her, it was just the right amount to turn into a tart along with caramelised onions and a bunch of broccolini. She wasn’t disappointed for long, puff pastry has this magical effect on my kids: it makes anything taste good!

Another interesting discovery was a packet of pre-cooked octopus I had forgotten I bought from the supermarket a while ago. It reminded me of the times we cruised around Portugal and Spain, and I fell in love with octopus salad and tapas there. That was 10 years ago, and in spite of my many attempts at re-creating these dishes, I have never come close ( probably because I can’t boil octopus properly, it is either too tough or turns into mush!). I can stop trying now that I have found these little gems that only require heating in the microwave, slicing, seasoning and a splash of olive oil. For $13 a packet, it is a cheap trip down memory lane!

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Throw back 10 years ago in Spain, the kids could not get enough of this!

Cheese and broccolini tart

This is my favourite way of using any cheese left over in my fridge. The flavour will of course depend on the cheese used. This time, I used mimolette, camembert and tomme. This resulted in a fairly mild tasting tart, though you could still tell it was cheesy. A blue vein and/or washed rind cheese will definitely make for a stronger flavour!

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Serves 4 as a main

Ingredients:

1 sheet of puff pastry ( I used store bought, but feel free to make your own!)
100g butter
2 brown onions, peeled and sliced
1 tsp honey
a handful of thyme sprigs ( 3)
1 cup thickened cream
3 eggs
1 tbsp dijon mustard
300g mixed cheeses, rind removed, and roughly chopped
1 bunch broccolini

  1. If using frozen, thaw out puff pastry at room temperature, then roll out to fit a round flan tin. Dot with a fork. Line with parchment paper and add ceramic beads. Place in the fridge for 30mn. Pre-heat the oven to 200C.
  2. In the meantime, melt the butter in a frypan and saute the onions over low heat for about 20 minutes, or until very soft ( do not let them burn). When nearly done, add the honey and thyme and stir to caramelise slightly. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
  3. Bake the pastry in the hot oven for 15 mn.
  4. In a small bowl, beat the eggs, the thickened cream and mustard until combined.
  5. When the pastry is cooked, remove the parchment paper and the ceramic beads. Spread the caramelised onions on the base, sprinkle the chopped cheese all around, pour in the egg mixture and place the broccolini on top.
    Reduce the oven temperature to 180C and bake for 30 minutes.
  6. Let cool for 15mn and serve warm with a green salad.

Octopus Salad

This dish is inspired by the octopus salads you find all over Portugal and the braised octopus tapas dish, Pulpo Gallego, a classic from Spain north western region, Galicia. I first tasted this dish at the Portosin Yacht Club in Galicia in 2006. I totally adored it and became so obsessed with it, being lucky enough to cruise around the area again 5 years later, I asked Terry to take the boat back so we could have dinner there again. That meant a detour of 100 nautical miles, but it was so worth it!!
Mine is a quick and easy version, the cheat’s way, as I am using a pre-cooked ready-to-eat octopus instead of simmering the fresh thing for hours ( though, using a pressure cooker did reduce the cooking time drastically to about 30mn). There are no specific quantities for the dressing, it is a matter of taste, though I would recommend you be generous with the olive oil and the paprika!

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This is the dish without lettuce, perfect snack!

Serves 4, as a side dish

Ingredients:

200g pre-cooked octopus
1/3 iceberg lettuce, washed, trimmed and roughly torn
Sea salt flakes, to taste
Smoked paprika, to taste
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste

  1. Place the lettuce in a serving bowl.
  2. Microwave the octopus as per the packet’s instructions. Slice and add to the lettuce.
  3. Sprinkle generously with sea salt, smoked paprika and extra virgin olive oil.
  4. Serve cold or at room temperature.
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And here’s what the packet looks like, if you’re heading to the supermarket!! 

Because Anne’s birthday falls close or on Mother’s day, depending on the year, we rarely do anything special for me. Come to think of it, Marc’s birthday is on Valentine’s Day Eve and Terry’s birthday falls on or close to Father’s Day. That means that, by the time we’ve focused on the birthday person, we’re generally too “partied out” to organise another celebration. I realise it sounds quite sad, but in truth, we’re all ok with it and we’ve been known to pick a random date when it suits us and make it our very own romantic day!

Besides, the advantage of being a multi-national family like ours, is that we get to enjoy French celebrations as well as Australian ones. Which is probably the reason why we don’t really feel too perturbed about missing out, since we can always make up for it on the French calendar.

So Australian’s Mother’s Day was very quiet indeed. The kids allowed me to sleep in while they cooked breakfast and we all sat together for a while. Then Terry and Marc left for work, and Anne asked if I wanted to go somewhere for lunch. I politely declined, dreading the queues and busy restaurants we were sure to find ( being Mother’s Day and all…) and offered to take her to the movies instead for a mother-daughter date. I had my mind set on the advanced screening of the new historical drama Viceroy’s House which I knew neither of the boys were keen on seeing, but was hoping to interest Anne. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t a fan of the idea, but agreed to come along if I would let her watch Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2 , a film “she was dying to see” and then we could meet at the end of our respective movies. For a split second, I felt like putting my foot down and invoke my right to pick the movie of the day. Then I took a deep breath, and said “ you got yourself a deal ”. It wasn’t a bad deal, quite the contrary: we both got what we wanted, in my case a little “me” time and an escape from the everyday. The day ended as easy as it started , with a comforting dish of Beef Osso Bucco and polenta that I had prepared the night before in anticipation, so that technically I would not be cooking on Mother’s Day. Yes, sometimes a little organisation helps for things to fall into place…

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As for my own mother, she lives in France and could not join us. In fact, I am embarrassed to say that in the 30 years since I left home, I can count on one hand the times we have celebrated Mother’s Day together. She and my father came to visit us in May last year, and it was the opportunity to share a special lunch at Henry’s in Cronulla, making up for all these long distance phone calls over the years…
La Fete des Meres, French Mother’s Day, is this weekend, on May 28. I will not spend it with Mum, as she is overseas this year ( she travels nearly as much as I do, maybe I got the bug from her! ) but she will be in my thoughts as always. Hoping her day is as relaxing and joyful as mine was, I like to think that some kind soul will be cooking her something delicious too…

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From our house to yours, Bonne Fete des Meres! xx

Beef Osso Bucco

This is my version of the italian classic. As usual, I adapted for whatever was on hand starting with a profusion of mint and carrots! The “Osso Bucco” part of this dish comes from the cross-cut beef shanks, more readily available ( and cheaper ) than veal. I substituted port for wine, as an experiment and because I had some left over from another dish. It gives the sauce a subtle sweetness we all loved! Finally, polenta was my accompaniment of choice but it would be equally delicious with pasta and I know my mother would prefer it served along with rice.

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Serves 6

Ingredients:

6 cross-cut bone-in beef shanks ( approx 1.8 kg)
1 cup plain flour
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled and diced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 can 410g diced tomatoes
1 cup of port
1/4 cup sultanas, soaked in the port for 30 mn
4 cups chicken stock
A handful of mint leaves, chopped

  1. Pat the shanks dry using paper towels. Place in a ziplock bag with the flour, salt and pepper. Close the bag and shake the meat to dredge it in flour. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over high – medium heat until slightly smoking. Shake off excess flour from the meat before adding it to the pot and cook until browned on both sides. Set aside.
  2. Add onion, carrots and celery to the dutch oven, reduce heat to medium and cook stirring occasionally until vegetables start to soften. Add the diced tomatoes and their juice, the port and marinated sultanas and stir. Cook for a minute until fragrant. Add chicken stock, scraping any brown bits from the bottom of the pot.
  3. Transfer the shanks back into the pot along with any juice they would have rendered. Bring the mixture to the boil, reduce the heat to very low and simmer covered for 1h1/2 or until the meat is very tender.
    Uncover and keep cooking for another 20mn to allow for the sauce to reduce a little.
  4. Serve hot with polenta and sauteed vegetables ( I used mushrooms and broccolini ) Sprinkle with mint and/or parmesan, if desired.

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April and May are big birthday months in our extended family. I have at least 5 dates to remember in April, including my own. May is no less busy, with 4 occasions to celebrate. Starting with Anne’s birthday last week. As usual, she had 2 feasts: one on the actual birthday, with the family and another on the friday night with her friends. Turning 14 means she’s now a teenager, with well asserted tastes. Traditionally she has always joined the other kids ( and grand-kids) in requesting KFC for her birthday family feast. Not this year. Our youngest child, taking a leaf out of her older brother’s book, declared she was over fried chicken (gasp!!) and her favourite food was sushi and thai noodles!
This was actually music to my ears, not only because I knew everyone else has a fondness for asian food as well but it would make catering a whole lot easier.

The family feast was a tuesday night, and with 16 guests coming over straight from work and after school activities, I wondered how on earth to prepare enough sushis and stir fry pad- see- iew, without spending all day in the kitchen! So after some research ( read, tasting of our local asian restaurants) I took the easy and convenient option to order takeaway. At least for the main components: Caringbah Sushi delivered 3 big trays of sushi and sashimi, Chili Blossom did the same with enough coconut rice and noodles to feed a football team, while I picked up the Maltesers ice cream cake from Cronulla’s Cold Rock Ice Creamery ( Anne’s request ). Knowing I had the essentials covered, it gave me plenty of time to cook the extras: baked teriyaki chicken wings, salt and pepper pork belly and spinach sesame salad. To keep with the “quick and easy “ theme, these dishes were adapted from a book from Adam Liaw’s “Asian After Work”, which was given to me by my step-son Mal a while ago. I have plenty of Asian cookbooks already, but I find that this one lives up to its title, and indeed with the help of a well stocked fridge and pantry, we’ve enjoyed fast asian food quite often! I am pleased to report that EVERYONE loved our asian feast, the grand-kids devoured the sushis ( well, the ones with no cucumber, avocado or raw fish!) and the coconut rice, without mentioning the ice cream cake which I decorated with extra Oreo biscuits, because it looked a little bare otherwise.

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As for the friends party on the friday night, it was the occasion for more takeaway, with Anne’s second favourite food: pizzas and ice cream buffet!

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Ahhh, to be 14 again…

Baked Teryiaki Chicken wings

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This is inspired by Adam Liaw’s Nagoya-style chicken wings recipe where the food is coated in corn flour and deep-fried first, then plunged straight into the warm teriyaki glaze. I reversed the process, marinating the wings in cold teriyaki sauce for a while then draining them and coating them in sweet potato starch before baking them. This resulted in a light crunch and lots of flavour. I also like how you can marinate the food in advance, and slide it in the oven before your guests arrive leaving you time to enjoy a cocktail with them!

Serves 4 as a main, 8-10 as part of a buffet

Ingredients:
2 kg chicken wings ( about 16 wings )
2 cups Teriyaki sauce ( store bought is ok)
1 tsp caster sugar
1 cup sweet potato starch
Coconut oil spray

  1. In a large bowl, mix chicken wings, sugar and Teriyaki sauce. Marinate for at least 1 hour, in the fridge.
  2. When ready to cook, pre-heat oven to 220C. Drain the wings, discard the marinade.
  3. Tip the sweet potato starch in a large zip-loc bag, working in batches, toss 4-5 wings inside the bag, close the zip and shake the bag well to coat the wings. Place the wings on a baking tray, lined with parchment paper. Spray lightly with coconut oil. Repeat with the remaining chicken.
  4. Bake in the oven for 35 minutes, reducing the temperature to 180C after 15 minutes.
    Serve seasoned with black pepper and scattered with toasted sesame seeds on top.

Spinach and Sesame salad

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This is a classic in our house. It takes minutes to prepare, and the dressing is so versatile I keep a big jar in the fridge to use with all kinds of Asian foods.

Serves 4-6, as a side

Ingredients:
280g baby spinach leaves
2 Lebanese cucumbers, peeled and sliced thinly
6 shallots, trimmed and sliced thinly
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp caster sugar
4 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
2 tbsp sesame oil

  1. For the dressing: combine the shallots, soy sauce, sugar, rice vinegar, sesame seeds and sesame oil in a jar. Shake well to dissolve the sugar and set aside.
  2. Toss the baby spinach and cucumber in a serving plate, pour the dressing over and serve immediately.

Celery Soup

Autumn has well and truly arrived. Gone are the light dresses and t-shirts, except for my teenage daughter who still insists on wearing the skimpiest of shorts (with the compulsory hoodie!). For me, boots and coats are back in service, as well as fluffy pyjamas and bed socks!! Oh, the feeling of curling up on the lounge with a hot cup of tea ( or a mulled wine, depending on the mood…) all wrapped up in comfy “interior wear”…
Unsurprisingly, comfort food is on the menu these days, and soups have become regulars at our table. At the moment I am obsessed with celery soup. For the flavour, but also because it uses all the bits of vegetables that are always left in the bottom drawers of our fridge: celery sticks, broccoli stems, lonely onions… And not only is it comforting and filling when eaten warm with crusty bread, it is equally satisfying and delicious served cold! This recipe is so simple and quick, I think I might buy extra celery and broccoli, just so that I can turn them into soup.

Celery Soup

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Serves 6 as a starter

Ingredients

4 celery sticks, including leaves, washed and trimmed
2 large broccoli stems ( left from using the florets for another dish), trimmed and roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
750ml store-bought chicken stock ( home made is ok too!)

  1. In a large pot, soften the onion in 2 tbsp of butter. Add the vegetables and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 25 minutes or until very soft.
  2. Transfer the mixture in a blender and whizz until creamy and smooth, adding more stock/hot water if too thick. Careful! It will be very hot, use a tea towel to cover the top of the blender, to ensure the hot soup does not leak out!
  3. Taste for saltiness, if using store-bought stock it will already be salty. Season with white pepper and extra salt if desired.
  4. Serve warm with a dollop of sour cream or enjoy cold with a a splash of extra olive oil and a a sprinkle of pumpkin and sunflower seeds.

Earlier this year, shortly after returning from our Canadian skiing holiday, I embarked on a project to post pictures of our favourite weekly meals on Instagram. It was originally meant as a way to document our journey towards a lighter and healthier way of eating after a fortnight of carb and melted cheese filled indulgence. 11 weeks/posts later, this feed #foodpicsoftheweek is now a collection of healthy choices and comforting dishes, one that I look forward to put together every monday! Much to my family’s despair, as my interest in food photography is now turning into an obsession ( so my husband says…)

This had led me to expand the cooking repertoire seeking variety beyond roasts, omelettes and curries. I am dabbing in raw food, cured meats, vegan baking…not so much for health or philosophical reasons, but because I am curious ( and also bored with old ways I must admit).

I made this mushroom salad one day, after seeing Jamie Oliver’s version in a magazine. It uses raw mushrooms, which reminds me of a French starter Salade de champignons served often in the school canteens. It also makes good use of the lettuce from the garden, and combined with sliced radishes, shaved parmesan and salty prosciutto, you have the perfect simple salad for a warm autumn day ( or any day! )

Mushroom Carpaccio salad

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Serves 2, as a light lunch or starter

Ingredients:

Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 slices of prosciutto
100g firm white mushrooms ( you can use other kinds if desired ) sliced thinly
4 radishes, thinly sliced
Baby cos lettuce leaves
20g parmesan cheese, shaved
Chives, snipped for garnish

  1. Make the dressing: combine the lemon juice, olive oil. salt and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.
  2. Place the lettuce leaves on a serving platter. Loosely drape the prosciutto over the leaves, arrange the mushrooms and the radishes in the middle. Scatter the parmesan and chives on top.
  3. Spoon over the dressing and serve. Voila!
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