Bring a plate. Those three little words that are guaranteed to make my hands go clammy and my heart start to race. Because we all want to bring something faaaaaa-bulous to a gathering with friends, don't we? Something that's tasty, can be made in advance and will transport well. A dish that won't cost you half your pay packet or chain you to the kitchen for 42 hours straight.
That's why I was pretty darn pleased when I finally settled on two dishes I could bring along to John's casual get-together last weekend. Cooking for friends is fine, but cooking for fellow food bloggers can be pretty intimidating. And that was before it was decided we should follow a theme. "Let's make it Mediterranean/Adriatic!" and soon my inbox is flooding with excited nominations of exotic dishes that will be made while I rock to and fro nervously in a corner.
I kid, of course. I just rocked to and fro in my chair.
But you know what? We all know that no friend is going to judge you on your food. I ended up bring white bean dip with crostini (super easy!) and brutti ma buoni, Italian hazelnut biscuits that live up to their "ugly but good" translation. Recipes for both are at the end of this post, but read on to see what everyone else brought along!
John's home smoked nuts with salt and nigella seeds
We arrived to nibbles of mixed nuts smoked in John's newest toy, the Anuka smoker. The effect is phenomenal, giving the nuts an intense smokiness that reminds us of eating bacon cheetos. In a good way.
John setting up grapes on the Anuka smoker
John picked up his smoker on eBay but we pump him with so many questions, it feels like a product demo. Basically it's an electric hot smoker that uses granulated wood chips set over an element burner. The temperature is fixed at 190C and a timer allows you to pre-set smoking durations from 10 to 60 minutes.
Lifting the smoker lid after fifteen minutes
We crowd around like little kids watching John set up the smoker for grapes. After fifteen minutes, there's an audible "ding" just like a microwave, indicating that the smoking is complete. We all want one by now, although they come at a pretty price. It's $289 although it looks like you can pick them up on eBay for $185.
The grapes are for our cheese plate, and they're left to cool while we start lunch.
My white bean dip with crostini
We kick off with my white bean dip with homemade crostini. I made these on Friday and they kept perfectly until Sunday. Garlicky with a zing of lemon and a background hint of rosemary, this was blitzed in the food processor in about three minutes. The crostini was made from a sourdough baguette.
John's paštetu od cvaraka or pork scratching pate on Iggy's bread
John had said he was worried that people would freak out about pate made from pork fat, but we couldn't get enough of this Croatian specialty. The pork fat is mixed with boiled eggs, pickles and sour cream, creating a chunky pork paste that is perfect on a crusty baguette.
Amanda's timballo di crespelle or crepe pie
Amanda brought along a timballo de crespelle, a specialty from Abruzzo, where her family are originally from in Italy.
Timballo di crespelle slice
It's an impressive layered construction of crepes and alternating fillings of mince, mushrooms and mozzarella. It's kinda like a fancy vegetarian lasagne, without the bechamel sauce.
Phuoc cutting up her spanakopita cheese and spinach pie
We move to Greece with Phuoc's spanakopita. The filo pastry is so flaky you can hear it shattering as the knife cuts through. There's an alluring smell of butter in the air too.
Cheese and spinach filling inside the spanakopita
The spanakopita has a hearty filling of cheese and spinach. The pastry shards are the best bit.
John's twice-cooked octopus, slow-roasted for four hours and then char-grilled
John had lavished plenty of tender loving care with the octopus, first boiling it, then roasting it at a low temperature for four hours the day before. To finish it off, the octopus is grilled on the mini Weber just before serving. It's incredibly tender, flecked with a smoky char from the barbecue, and served with dollops of homemade beetroot mayonnaise in hot pink.
Sara's Greek meatballs in tomato sauce
Sara's Greek meatballs are amazing too, super soft and tender in a chunky tomato sauce. The secret, I'm told, is the use of sliced bread soaked in red wine added to the beef mince. We devour them with gusto, soaking up the sauce with thick slices of fresh sourdough bread.
Amanda's cicerchiata ora, a traditional Italian dessert eaten during the February carnival
Amanda's brought dessert too, a cicerchiata ora which is a traditional Italian dessert she remembers her Mum making for her at Christmas. Usually this is eaten during the February carnival, but I can see why this would be ideal at Christmas with its wreath-like appearance and festive dusting of sprinkles.
Cicerchiata comes from the word cicerchie which are grass peas similar to chickpeas. Amanda tells us the dough is similar to pasta, sweetened with sugar and then rolled into balls and deep-fried until golden. The balls are then coated with warmed honey and shaped into a wreath.
I couldn't stop eating this. The balls are chewy in the middle, like a hybrid of a donut and a biscuit. The honey coating tastes like a gentle toffee, and the slivered almonds give an addictive crunch. What's even more impressive is that Amanda made this the weekend before and froze it. It's a common trick her mother does, she tells us, because "Italians have all kinds of tricks for mass catering." It's brilliant because it works. None of us can tell that this was frozen and then defrosted. Nonnas do know a thing or two!
My brutti ma buoni, or "ugly but good" Italian hazelnut biscuits
I also brought along brutti ma buoni, an Italian hazelnut biscuit that translates as "ugly but good". Essentially it's a hazelnut macaroon, a mixture of hazelnuts and egg white baked into a meringue that's crisp on the edge with a chewy middle.
Anna's cheese board with John's smoked grapes
Anna couldn't cook as she was tied up all weekend but she easily made amends with her impressive cheese board collection. We feast on potted blue Stilton, a gooey brie and a peppered cheddar, savoured with all kinds of variations that include oat cakes, quince paste and raw honeycomb.
John's smoked grapes
And then there were the smoked grapes! John confesses he doesn't know what prompted him to smoke grapes but I reckon there'll be all kinds of crazy smoking inventiveness at his place over the next month or so.
Raw honeycomb for the potted blue stilton
Recipe: White bean dip with crostini
Adapted from a recipe by Serious Eats
400g tin of cannellini beans
1/2 clove garlic, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to season
Extra virgin olive oil
- Pulse beans, garlic, rosemary and lemon in a food processor until smooth.
- While the motor is still running, slowly add the extra virgin olive oil through the food processor feed tube. If your food processor doesn't have (or you're using a stab mixer) add the evoo in small amounts and blend thoroughly between each addition.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Transfer to a covered air-tight container and store in the fridge for up to three days.
- Preheat your oven to 180C (160C if fan-forced).
- Slice the baguette into 5mm thick rounds.
- Place baguette rounds onto a lined baking tray and brush each side with extra virgin olive oil.
- Bake until a pale golden brown, and then turn the slices over to bake the other side. Total baking time should be about ten minutes.
- Allow to cool on the tray and then transfer to a covered air-tight container. They should keep in a cool dark place for about a week.
Recipe: Brutti ma buoni "ugly but good" Italian hazelnut biscuits
Adapted from a recipe by Dan Lepard
6 medium egg whites
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cocoa
- Roast the hazelnuts at 180C for about ten minutes and then rub them in a tea towel to remove their skins. Allow to cool.
- When ready to start baking, preheat the oven to 160C (140C if fan forced).
- Place the almonds, sugar and half the hazelnuts into a food processor and pulse until you have a coarse crumb. Random large pieces of nuts are fine.
- Add the egg whites, vanilla extract and cocoa and pulse again until evenly mixed.
- Transfer the contents of the food processor into a heavy saucepan. Cook over a high heat, stirring constantly, until the meringue thickens. It should be stiff enough so the mixture no longer collapses when stirred or moved.
- Chop the remaining hazelnuts in half and add to the saucepan mixture. Stir until well incorporated.
- Place tablespoons of mixture onto a lined baking tray. The mixture will be very sticky so use two spoons to help transfer the mixture.
- Bake for about 25-30 minutes or until the bottoms of the meringue feel dry and firm.
- Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
- These biscuits should be eaten cold and are best consumed within three days. They will keep for up to a week in a covered air-tight container but may dry out slowly.
12 comments - Add some comment love
10/23/2014 12:43:00 am