Bruschetta at Nico Osteria in Chicago

Cindy is a flight attendant with United Airlines and we met through mutual friends when we were all living in Paris, some 15 years ago. After a few years working out of Paris she moved back to Chicago and has been asking us to visit ever since.

At last we made it. On a balmy evening in September we walked out of the arrivals hall at Chicago’s O’Hare airport and there was Cindy, waving furiously from her open-top vintage BMW. With our luggage squashed into the boot and half of the back seat we set off on a Chicago-by-night city tour, on our way to Cindy’s centrally-located apartment.

Cindy has been just about everywhere and I don’t only just mean United Airlines destinations. I mean from Anchorage to Timbuktu. When she visits a city she leaves no stone unturned. Tuesdays the museums are free, she said, so the morning after we arrived we crossed the Museum of Contemporary Art off the long list of things we had to fit into our six days in Chicago.

What a fabulous city. Wonderful architecture, a great public transport system and lots of free concerts and shows. Cultural highlights included a free two and a half hour concert of operatic arias in Millennium Park, with a full orchestra and choir. And a free lunchtime piano and violin concert at the Chicago Cultural Centre, an amazing Art Deco building which we toured afterwards. Cindy had acquired free passes for me to join her pilates classes at the exclusive East Bank Club, which enjoyed the patronage of Obama and Oprah when they lived in Chicago. And if one of the bars was serving free cocktails you can be sure that Cindy knew about it.

Cindy

Culinary highlights included a lobster sandwich at the French Markets – simple but so good – a delicious lunch from one of the many restaurants at Eataly, dinner at Nico Osteria and the $25 three course lunch at one of Nico Osteria’s sister restaurant Blackbird.

At Nico Osteria we sat on bar stools looking into the kitchen and, by asking a few culinary questions, soon built up a rapport with the sous chef. The head chef, meticulously checking each dish before it left the kitchen, Gordon Ramsey-style, decided we were foodies and sent out some extra dishes for us to try. Baskets of colourful tomatoes, large and small adorned the bustling kitchen. They were at the tail end of a tomato-inspired menu, the chef explained, and in three days everything would change.

We decided to share some bruschetta and they were all delicious. Today’s recipe is inspired by Nico Osteria’s Bruschetta with Chicken Liver Mousse, Marinated Onion and Lemon Honey. Instead of the Lemon Honey I used Tomato Baharat Jam, which goes so well with all kinds of pâté. Their chicken liver mousse had a bit of a kick, but I decided not to add chilli to mine.

The following day we had lunch at Blackbird and told the Maitre d’ that their set price menu had been highly recommended by the chef at Nico Osteria. Say no more – we were treated like family, with complimentary champagne and an amazing Lyonnaise-type salad, served in a crispy potato basket with a soft-poached egg on top arriving before our three course meal.

If you’ve never been to Chicago I suggest you put it on your list.

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Bruschetta with Chicken Liver Pâté, Marinated Onion and Tomato Baharat Jam

Chicken liver pâté (see recipe)
Tomato Baharat Jam (see recipe)
1 onion, halved then very thinly sliced
2 Tbs white wine vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
2 Tbs hot water
2 tsp honey
Pinch of salt
1 baguette (French loaf)
Extra Virgin olive oil
1 large clove garlic, crushed
A few halved cocktail tomatoes
A few rocket leaves

Make the pâté and tomato jam – the day before serving if you like. Mix onion with vinegar, honey, hot water and salt and leave to marinate.

To serve, cut baguette in half horizontally, then cut into serving sizes about 10-12cm long. You should get 6 or 8 from a loaf. Discard the very ends of the loaf. Mix olive oil with garlic, brush over both sides of the bread then toast till golden on a griddle pan.

Arrange toasted baguette on serving plates. Spread each one liberally with chicken liver pâté then garnish with marinated onion (drained and dried with paper towels) and Tomato Baharat Jam. Finish with some lightly dressed baby tomato halves and rocket leaves.

Makes 6-8 bruschetta

The Best Guacamole

Many years ago I tried a fabulous Guacamole at the house of a Mexican diplomat. It’s so long ago I can’t even remember her name, but she gave me the recipe and I’ve been making it ever since. I guess you’d expect a Mexican to know how to make Guacamole.

I had been making my own version for years, but this authentic recipe taught me a couple of tricks. Firstly, don’t puree the avocados – mash them roughly with a fork so they remain a bit chunky. Secondly, a dash of cumin powder works wonders, although if you don’t like cumin you can always leave it out. Another tip is not to use overripe avocados as the dip will discolour very quickly if you do.

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2 large ripe but not overripe avocados, seeded and peeled
1 very small onion, grated (or ¼ medium onion)
½ clove garlic, crushed
2-3 tsp lime juice
2-3 tsp olive oil
2 Tbs chopped coriander
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp dried oregano
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded & diced (optional)
To serve:
Corn chips

Mash avocados roughly with a fork, then gently mix in remaining ingredients, except tomato. Cover with plastic wrap and chill. Fold in tomato just before serving. Garnish with extra chopped coriander or a few pieces of tomato and serve with corn chips.

Makes 1-2 cups

Note: instead of one large tomato use 3-4 baby ones (I used baby Roma). No need to peel, just remove seeds and dice.

Bring a Plate

Pot Luck lunches and dinners, where guests are asked to “bring a plate”, are popular in Australia, especially over summer which coincides with the festive season. Picnics, beach parties, Christmas, New Year and office parties – it’s hard to get through summer without being asked to bring a plate

A Greek friend arrived in Canberra from Athens in the 1960s with very little English. When he and his wife were invited for lunch and asked to bring a plate they were somewhat perplexed. If their hosts didn’t have enough plates, they thought, perhaps they were also short of glasses and cutlery. So they brought their own, never imagining they were expected to bring food.

Opera by Candlelight is held each year at the Albert Hall Canberra in late February. The ticket price includes a table complete with candelabras and chairs for each group. Guests bring their own food and beverages and enjoy an evening of opera arias. We usually get four or five couples together, then each couple brings one course – nibbles, starter, main, sides or dessert and of course a bottle or two! Oh yes and in this case you do also need to bring plates, cutlery and glasses! It’s fun to get dressed to kill and make a real occasion of it. Some people go to a lot of trouble to coordinate their outfits and table decorations and there’s a prize for the best dressed table. For more information and to book tickets contact Carl Rafferty: raffertycarl@internode.on.net

Opera by Candlelight

There are two types of plate you can take to these Pot Luck occasions. A large plate to place on a buffet or in the middle of the table, so guests can serve themselves. Or a plate of finger food which can be passed round without the need for individual plates and cutlery.

If you go to the Café Cat recipe index you will find lots of ideas, but here are a few suggestions. Sticky Chilli Chicken or Sticky Honey Chicken can both be made the day before and are delicious served at room temperature.

If you’re looking for an easy dip try Dukkah, Lemon Feta Dip or Smoked Trout Paté. For something slightly more snazzy try Watermelon and Feta Squares which are very refreshing in hot weather.

My favourite dishes for a buffet include Cucumber Salad, Ferne’s Roast Tomato Salad, Remar’s Broccoli, Nut and Bean Salad and if you like spinach then you can’t go wrong with either Spinach Salad with Red Dressing or Spinach Salad with Dates and Almonds which are both delicious. Take the dressing along separately in a jar with a lid.

Lemon Feta Dip

This recipe comes from a book called Sweet Paul Eat and Make by Paul Lowe who describes it as “the most blogged, tweeted and pinned recipe I have ever created.”

I made it this weekend and have to agree – it’s a keeper.

Following my grandmother’s rule of adding a little sugar to anything savoury and a little salt to anything sweet, to bring out the flavours, I added a touch of sugar to the original recipe. I also used some fresh red chilli to garnish as I have never seen red pepper flakes here.

Serve as a dip or as a spread in sandwiches or on bruschettas.

Lemon Feta Dip250g crumbled feta cheese (about 1 cup)
1 Tbs grated lemon rind
1-2 Tbs lemon juice (I used 2)
1 garlic clove, crushed
6 Tbs Extra Virgin olive oil
salt to taste
½ tsp sugar
To garnish:
Extra Virgin olive oil
Some finely chopped red chilli
A few cumin or fennel seeds
To serve:
Vegetable sticks, crackers or toasted baguette

Place feta in food processor with remaining ingredients and blitz until smooth. Scrape into serving dish and garnish with the oil, the chilli (or something else that’s red such as paprika powder or dried chilli flakes) and the cumin or fennel seeds.

Serve with vegetable sticks, crackers or toasted baguette.

Makes about 1 ¼ cups

Panko Prawn Balls

The QANTAS business class lounge in Bangkok is currently serving some delicious prawn balls. Light and crispy on the outside and soft and prawny in the middle, they are served with sweet chilli sauce for dipping. Very moreish.

Having read through a few similar recipes online I came up with the following version.

Panko Prawn Balls

3 spring onions
¼ cup drained canned water chestnuts
300g peeled and deveined raw shrimp or prawns
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp grated ginger
2 tsp cornflour
1 egg white
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
2 tsp Chinese rice wine or sherry
To finish:
Panko crumbs (see note below)
Vegetable oil
Sweet Chilli Sauce

Finely chop spring onions and water chestnuts in a food processor using the pulse button or by hand. Tip into a bowl. Finely chop the prawns – not too fine – you don’t want a puree, so leave a few chunky bits. Add to the bowl with remaining ingredients and mix well.

Place panko crumbs in a shallow bowl. Using damp hands, form prawn mixture into balls about 2cm in diameter, roll in panko crumbs, then place on a tray. Refrigerate until needed.

Heat 2-3 cm of vegetable oil in a frying pan or wok. When hot add the prawn balls, a few at a time and cook, turning so they cook both sides, for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.

Serve prawn balls warm on toothpicks with sweet chilli sauce for dipping.

Makes about 20 balls

Note: Panko crumbs are much lighter and crunchier than normal breadcrumbs. You can find them in most supermarkets.

Prawn Cakes with Corn Salsa

One of my foodie friends Karen sent me the link to this recipe for Seductive Little Shrimp Cakes. It comes from a book called Tacolicious by Sara Deseran and was recently reposted by Ruth Reichl. American-style, it calls for shrimp, which you can’t buy in Australia, so I used prawns and made a couple of other small adjustments.

Prawn Cakes with Corn Salsa750g cooked prawns (about 375g peeled)
1 egg
Juice of half a lime
1 stick celery
3 spring onions
Handful of parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp celery salt or garlic salt
3 Tbs mayonnaise
1 Tbs juice from a jar of jalapeño chillies
1 cup Panko crumbs + extra (see note below)
Oil for shallow frying
Corn Salsa:
3 cobs corn
2 large tomatoes
1 Lebanese cucumber
½ red onion
1 jalapeño chilli from a jar
Juice half a lime
1 tsp salt

Place peeled prawns in food processor and pulse briefly to chop but still leave some chunky bits. Scrape into a large bowl and mix in the egg and lime juice. Place celery and spring onions – cut into 3cm lengths – in food processor Add parsley and pulse to chop finely. Scrape into the bowl with prawns. Mix in celery or garlic salt, mayonnaise, jalapeño juice and Panko crumbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Place some extra Panko crumbs on a plate. Take about a heaped tablespoon of mixture and form into a small cake with your hands. Roll in the crumbs and place on a baking tray lined with baking paper. You should end up with 12-14 little cakes. Refrigerate for an hour or several hours. If only an hour, no need to cover, but if longer cover with plastic wrap.

Cut the kernels from the corn and place in a bowl. Quarter tomatoes, remove seeds and dice. Add to the bowl with the diced cucumber, red onion and chilli. Add lime juice and salt and leave to macerate. Taste before serving to see if it needs more salt.

Heat 1-2 tablespoons oil in a frying pan and cook the prawn cakes for about 3 minutes each side. Serve with the salsa.

Serves 4

Note: Panko crumbs are Japanese-style breadcrumbs. Very light and crunchy, they’re a good addition to your pantry. Sold in most supermarkets – ask if you can’t find them – or substitute ordinary dry breadcrumbs.

Syrian Pita Bread with Falafel

I’ve made some lifelong friends through chance encounters – on trains, planes, buses, in doggy parks and supermarket queues. The kids say “Mum talks to everyone”, but I like to think that when two lives cross there’s a reason.

Eva Rishan works as a doctor’s receptionist and we got chatting while I was waiting for my turn. Eva was born in Syria, emigrated to Australia in 1989 and has since been joined by her parents, several siblings and their families.

Eva invited me and my family to join her family for what she called a Syrian all day breakfast. Number one son James and I went early, so that Eva’s mother Renelle could show us how to make pita bread and falafel. Renelle’s English is limited but cooking is an international language and it wasn’t long before we were both busy chopping and mixing.

The large back verandah has been enclosed with a corrugated iron roof and roll-down plastic blinds, in order to accommodate big family gatherings and keep the smokers out of the main house. Smoking – both ordinary cigarettes and flavoured tobacco smoke, inhaled through a hookah pipe – is still very popular among Syrians.

The rest of our family (three) and the rest of Eva’s family (I lost count) arrived in time for lunch. There were over 30 of us altogether, including numerous kids. The mountain of pita bread was soon disappearing, filled with crispy warm falafel, hummus and a selection of pickles and salads. My contribution was an Apple Strudel which went down well for dessert with some strawberries and whipped cream.

It was great fun to be part of a Syrian family for a day.

Syrian Pita Bread with Felafel

Pita bread
3½ tsp dry yeast
¾ cup warm water
6 cups plain flour
1½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
1 Tbs olive oil
About 1½ cups warm milk

Mix yeast with warm water and put aside for 10 minutes. Place flour, salt and sugar in a bowl. Make a well in the middle and add  yeast mixture, gradually adding enough warm milk to hold the dough together. Knead dough until smooth and elastic but very slightly sticky, then leave in a bowl in a warm place – near a heater for example – covered with plastic wrap for an hour or two to rise, while you make the falafel.

Cut dough into 12 and roll into balls. Preheat oven to it’s highest setting and heat up a pizza stone in the oven if you have one. Roll out each ball to a circle about 20 cm in diameter, then bake for 5-10 mins or until puffed and slightly browned. This will result in pocket-style pita breads which you can fill with falafel and salad. If preferred, stretch the circles out into much thinner pita breads, about 40 cm in diameter, as you can see in the photos. There’s quite a knack to this, but Renelle can do it in her sleep! These are rolled around the fillings like a wrap.

Makes 12

Falafel
375g dry chick peas
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 cup chopped parsley
1 cup chopped coriander
1 tsp salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda, extra
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
¼ tsp each ground ginger, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg
2 Tbs olive oil
3 Tbs plain flour
Oil for frying (canola, sunflower or rice oil)
Sesame seeds

Place chickpeas in a bowl and cover generously with cold water. Mix in bicarbonate of soda and leave to soak overnight then drain. Using a food processor or a meat mincer, finely chop chick peas, onion, garlic, parsley and coriander. Add flour, salt, pepper, spices, extra bicarbonate of soda and oil. By hand or using a special gadget called a falafel scoop form mixture into small patties, dipping it into cold water between each.

Heat 4-6cm oil in a large deep frying pan or wok. When hot fry falafel on both sides until golden, remove and drain, then roll immediately in sesame seeds. Don’t overcrowd the pan – falafel should cook quite quickly otherwise they will be dry. Serve warm with pita bread, salads and hummus.

Makes about 50

Hummus

This recipe using canned chickpeas is quick to make and easy to halve.

2 cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tsp salt
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2/3 cup tahini paste, stirred
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup olive oil
Garnish: (optional)
Chopped parsley
Toasted pine nuts
Extra olive oil
Paprika

Place chick peas in food processor with remaining ingredients. Process, adding enough water to give the consistency of a dip. Keep in the fridge, covered, until needed. To serve, add a little water if Hummus has become too stiff, then spread onto a shallow dish and decorate with chopped parsley, toasted pine nuts, paprika and a drizzle of olive oil. The garnish is optional, but it looks and tastes great. Serve at room temperature with pita bread.

Makes about 3 cups

Mini Leek Quiches

As an Ambassador’s wife – an unpaid job I enjoyed for many years – I made food for more cocktail parties than I can remember.

Working on 10 per person, I used to reckon that a two hour cocktail party for 300 guests needed 3000 canapes. Some people eat less, but others definitely eat more and it’s always preferable to have a few left over than to run out. The trick is to start a week or two before the event and freeze anything which freezes well, which covers pretty much anything using pastry, such as mini quiches and empanadas. That just leaves the things that don’t freeze well – prawns, smoked salmon and so on – to be made on the day of the party. A chest freezer is essential in order to do this on a grand scale. I used to keep a running tally of how many items we had made so far – 200 of this, 300 of that – until the grand total came to however many we needed.

Nowadays our parties are much more normal in size, but I still like to plan ahead. These little quiches can be frozen and baked when needed so they are perfect. You can use various fillings, but leek or onion, spinach and feta and quiches lorraine are always popular.

Mini Leek Quiches

I’ve just made a few trays to have on hand over  the Christmas-New Year period and you can see them in the photo, all ready to go into the freezer. Having collected them from second hand shops over the years, I have enough patty tins to make about 200 mini quiches. I also have some smaller tins, which produce a one bite, elegant little morsel, but they’re very fiddly to make so I usually make these bigger ones, especially now that I have officially retired from diplomacy!

Shortcrust Pastry (make twice):
250g plain flour
125g butter
good pinch salt
3-4 Tbs cold water
Filling:
6 leeks, washed trimmed and chopped
50g butter
4 eggs
300 ml cream
150 ml milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp grated nutmeg
2 cups grated cheese (gruyere is best, but cheddar will do)

Pastry: Place flour, salt and butter in food processor and process until it looks like breadcrumbs. With the motor running gradually add about 3 Tbs cold water, stopping the motor as soon as the mixture satrts to form a ball. Tip out, form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed. Can be refrigerated for 3-4 days or frozen for a month or two. For this recipe you will need to make this recipe twice.

Filling: in a large frying pan melt butter and add leeks. Fry gently for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, or until soft. Do not allow to brown. Cool. In a large bowl beat eggs with cream, milk, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Add cooked leeks and grated cheese and mix well.

Roll out pastry thinly using a little plain flour to prevent sticking and cut circles to fit patty tins. Very lightly grease the tins, then line with pastry circles. Fill with leek mixture, level with the top of the pastry. Freeze tins uncovered until frozen, then cover each tin with a supermarket bag. Once frozen the plastic bags won’t stick to the quiches, so you can store them stacked one on top of the other.

To serve, remove plastic bag and bake from frozen for 30-40 mins at 180°C. If not frozen they will take 20-30 mins. Cool for 5-10 minutes, then remove from tins with a knife and serve warm.

Variation: for Mini Onion Quiches use 6 large onions instead of leeks

Makes 65-70 mini quiches

Chicken Liver Pâté with Figs and Walnuts

This recipe has evolved over many years, with slight adjustments and more recently with the addition of the nuts and figs.While they are optional I think the sweetness and crunch contrast beautifully with the silky smoothness of this savoury pâté. In fact it’s so smooth it’s almost like foie gras. As you can see in the photo I usually serve some extra figs and nuts in small bowls.

You can use any mold or dish for this pâté and it doesn’t have to be turned out. I have a triangular metal mold which is perfect. The pâté doesn’t fill it, but it doesn’t matter. If you prefer, use two smaller molds or small dishes.

Chicken Liver Pâté with Figs and Walnuts500g chicken livers, trimmed and rinsed
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tsp dried thyme or 4 tsp fresh
250g butter
2 Tbs brandy or cognac
Salt and pepper to taste
To garnish:
250g dried figs (choose soft plump ones)
About 1 cup red wine
1 cup walnut or pecan halves
To serve:
French bread stick, thinly sliced and toasted
Or crackers

Line a mold with plastic wrap. If it’s a bit wrinkled it doesn’t matter. Heat 50g of the butter in a frying pan and cook onion and garlic gently until soft, stirring often. Dry chicken livers on paper towels. Add to pan with thyme, turn up the heat and continue to stir fry for 3-5 minutes until chicken livers are browned but still a bit pink inside.

Tip contents of frying pan into food processor with the brandy and purée till smooth, adding remaining butter in pieces, a few at a time and stopping to scrape down the sides from time to time. Push paté through a metal sieve, discarding any which won’t pass through. This is not essential but results in a much smoother paté . Season to taste then scrape into mold and smooth the top. When cool, cover with overhang of plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Trim stalks from figs, place in a saucepan and cover with red wine. Bring wine to the boil and simmer until liquid has cooked away and figs are glazed. Stir often towards the end to prevent sticking or burning. Remove figs and cool on non-stick paper overnight. Toast nuts by stirring over moderate heat in a dry frying pan for a minute or so.

To serve, unmold pâté onto a serving dish. Decorate with the nuts and figs. Serve with the toast or crackers.

Serves 12 or more

Smoked Trout Pâté

A dip or pâté is nice to serve when friends come round for a drink or as a prelude to an informal lunch.

Most supermarkets carry a wide range of options, but something home-made is tastier, cheaper and you know exactly what’s in it. I was looking at a commercial crab dip in the supermarket the other day and was amazed to see that the crab content was only 17%. This recipe came from my mother-in-law and contains at least 50% smoked trout. It’s a real winner.

Last winter we planted a native Australian citrus shrub from Queensland called a Finger Lime. When Matthew reads this he will say “get your pronouns right”, so okay he planted the Finger Lime. The fruit is made up of tiny balls of lime juice, a bit like a pomegranate only smaller. Ours hasn’t produced any fruit yet but when it does I am looking forward to folding some little citrus balls into this pâté.

Smoked Trout Pâté

1 whole smoked trout (about 350g)
250g Philadelphia-style cream cheese (at room temp)
¼-½ cup cream or sour cream
Grated rind and juice of one lemon (see note)
salt, freshly ground black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste

Remove meat from trout, discarding skin and bones. Flake into chunks with fingers checking carefully for bones. With electric beaters or by hand beat cream cheese until smooth then gradually beat in enough cream to make it light and fluffy. Add lemon juice, rind, salt, pepper and a little cayenne pepper. Gently but thoroughly mix in the smoked trout. Pile roughly into serving dish, sprinkle with a little cayenne pepper and chill. Serve with crusty bread, toast or crackers as an appetizer. Can be refrigerated for up to a week and frozen for up to a month. For a low-carb option serve with vegetable sticks.

For a cocktail party: make toast triangles (four per slice of bread, crusts removed), and put some paté on each. Garnish with a tiny triangle cut from a thin slice of fresh lime with the skin left on. One slice will cut into many pieces. Top with a piece of dill.

Note: you can grate the rind or remove it with a vegetable peeler, then chop finely – this results in chunkier bits of rind which I prefer.

Variation: Smoked Salmon Pâté: use smoked salmon instead of trout.