On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

The collected works of Lana Brindley: writer, speaker, blogger


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Chicken Parmigiana

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for … another picture recipe! I had so much fun doing the last one, and had such a great response to it, that I’ve been trying to think up another recipe to try another one. And here it is: Chicken Parmigiana.

This is my own recipe, that I’ve developed over quite a few years now. It goes from scratch, so it’s a bit time consuming, but it really is very easy. Don’t get scared off by the crumbing and everything, it’s actually a lot of fun. Of course, this recipe does lend itself to cheating shortcuts quite easily. You could buy pre-crumbed chicken schnitzels from your butcher, or forget the crumbs and use grilled chicken breasts. I’ve also been known to do a quick and dirty oven-baked version (throw plain chicken breasts in a casserole dish, stick some cheese on top, and then drizzle a tin of tomatoes around the edges. Lid on and bake for 45 minutes at 180 degrees and it’s done). Whatever shortcuts work for you, I beg you to just try the long version once. You won’t regret it.

And so, on to the recipe …

Chicken breasts! I’m making three.

Trim off the white fat. If you got full chicken breasts from your butcher, then remove the little piece of cartiledge from in between as well. Also, if your butcher leaves the tenderloins attached to the breasts, chop them off now and put them aside. We’ll use them later.

Feed the scraps to the cat. This is Missy. She likes chicken parmigiana too, it seems.

Take the first breast, and cover it with a generous amount of plastic wrap. This is to stop little tiny pieces of chicken flying off in all directions and landing on the kitchen bench, the splashback, the cat, the kids, your partner …


Start pounding with the flat side of your meat mallet. You need to put a bit of force behind the mallet, but don’t bash the hell out of it. Start at the fattest part of the breast, and don’t hit in the same place twice in a row. Move the mallet around in circles, working your way out towards the thinner parts, then starting again in the middle.


As the breast gets thinner, you’re more likely to end up with holes in it if you bash too hard, so lighten up a little, and start working on getting it nice and even all over. Ideally, you want it about half to one centimetre thick all over.


Too thick and the crumbs will burn before the chicken is cooked, too thin and the chicken will be overdone before the crumbs are golden. There’s a bit of a knack to this, and practise is the only sure fire way to master it, unfortunately.


Let’s get ready to crumb! You will need two wide, shallow bowls. Pasta bowls are perfect. On the left, we have two eggs and some fresh pepper. On the right, we have breadcrumbs (fresh or dried, it’s up to you, dried will make a crisper crumb), parmesan cheese (not nice fresh cheese, either, that horrid dried out stuff that we used to put on our pasta as kids. Believe me, it’ll work), and some fresh parsley. You can also add a bit of paprika to the eggs, if you so desire.

Put the eggs and the pepper in the bowl …

And whisk it up until it’s well combined.

Now pour in a good amount of breadcrumbs, and a slightly lesser amount of stinky cheese. Chop up the herbs with your scissors, you can keep it pretty chunky. You could also use chives or basil at this point. I would grab whatever Italian-style herbs you have growing fresh. Dried herbs will not work well here, as it will spoil the look of the final product.

Stir it all up.


Now comes the messy part! Wash your hands, and then grab the first chicken breast. Dunk it into the egg, and then flip it over to cover the other side. We’re not bothering with flouring or any of that stuff, because we only want a light crumb. Besides, it’s way too much mucking around for my liking.

Let the excess drip off, but not too much. You need it nice and damp for the crumbs to stick.


Dump it into the crumbs.


And then flip it over. Use your fingers to cover the bits that got missed out. You might find that flipping it over a few times helps to get it all covered.


Gently shake off any excess.


And pop it aside while you crumb the remaining chicken.

Now here are our tenderloins again. I coat them in whatever crumbs are left. Doesn’t matter if they’re a bit patchy.


I like to use equal parts olive oil and rice bran oil for shallow frying. Rice bran oil has a low smoking point, so it’s perfect for this type of cooking. Extra virgin olive oil has that wonderful flavour that you expect from good Italian cooking.


Get your tongs out, and put some paper towel on a tray. You don’t need them yet, but when you do, you’re going to need them in a hurry. Make like a boy scout.


Back to the oil … this combination also makes a lovely colour blend in the frying pan. You’ll need your pan over a moderate heat. Don’t be afraid to adjust it slightly as you’re cooking if things seem to be a little cool (not browning properly) or too hot (skipping straight over golden brown and going straight to burnt umber).


Find a small piece of chicken to use as a temperature gauge, and drop it into the oil once it’s started to heat up. How long this takes has a lot to do with what type of cooktop you have, and how heavy your saucepan is. I’m using a heavy-based pan on an electric stovetop, so it’s gonna take a while. Standard caveat applies though – never walk away from oil on the stove. It’s nearly always a Very Bad Idea.

In this picture, we have a few very tiny bubbles forming on the base of the pan. Nowhere near hot enough yet. Keep watching …


OK, we’re starting to get more bubbles on the base of the pan, and a few little ones forming around the piece of meat.


Alright! Now we’ve got some lovely big bubbles around the meat, causing ripples across the surface of the oil. There’s also lots more little ones on the base. Flip over your test piece of chicken, give it a little sizzle on the other side, and then eat it while no one else is looking. I’ll just be over here while you do that.

Done? Right, let’s keep going then …


Use your hands, and gently drape the chicken into the hot oil.


Resist the temptation to shuffle it all about, and just wait for about 3-5 minutes.


Then you can get your spatula out and have a sneak peak underneath. If it’s a lovely golden brown colour, then loosen it off the bottom of the pan with your spatula (it should come easily). Slide the spatula underneath one end and grab those tongs (told you you would need them in a hurry, didn’t I?) to hang on to the other end and flip it over. Trust me, you need the tongs. When you lose the chicken breast off your spatula and it splashes back into the boiling oil, it’s not pretty. Trust me on this one, OK?


Cook it for a few minutes on the other side.


Once it’s cooked on both sides, do your spatula-and-tongs maneuver again, and place it gently on to the paper towel. Stand back and admire this thing of beauty. Just-done chicken, a lovely light crumb, flecks of fresh herbs, and a beautiful golden colour. Try not to eat it just yet.

Cook the rest of your breasts, and then throw those tenderloins in. I generally have people hovering around in the kitchen at this point. Warn the kids that they’re hot, and then watch them burn the roof of their mouths with them. Hours of entertainment!

You can leave your beautiful schnitzels aside for a while so you can get on with the sauce. Don’t worry about them getting cold, we haven’t finished with them yet.


And now, the sauce! Here’s the cast of characters: marjoram, basil (dried is fine, fresh is better of course), minced garlic (again, use fresh if you have the energy. A single clove roughly chopped is ideal), a tin of diced tomatoes, piri piri (or any other chilli you desire. I find the piri piri blend perfect for this though), and some tabasco for those who like it hot. Oh, and an onion. We’ll only be using half for this recipe. Pop the other half in a plastic bag and stick it in the fridge. It’ll keep up to about a week.


We want the onion as finely sliced as possible. Cut the onion in half from top to bottom, and then cut the top off. Leave the bottom on, and peel the skin back, this will give you something to hold on to. Use a very sharp paring knife to make as fine slices as you can, leaving the very bottom intact.


Grab your chef’s knife, and cut the onion crossways to create a fine dice.


You can cut across the onion a few more times if you want it a bit finer.


Put a small saucepan over a high heat, and slurp in some olive oil.


And the onion and stir, stir, stir.


When the onion is completely cooked, and the bottom of the pan has started to get some colour, add the herbs, the garlic, and the piri piri.


Stir it all around, until the herbs start to smell absolutely delicious.


Here it is … a lovely chunky herby oniony mess. It smells divine. And looks awful.


Throw in the tin of tomatoes.


And stir it all about.


Add as much as Tabasco as you dare.


Drop the heat to low, and put the lid on. Ignore it until you’re nearly ready to put it on the plates. The purpose of simmering it so long is to get the tomato pieces to break down as much as possible, and to get the flavours right through the sauce. If you don’t simmer it like this, you end up with big tomatoey chunks that taste particularly boring.


Chop up some carrots, or whatever veggies you like. I just gave these a quick steam in the microwave.


And here’s some rice! Magic!


Slice up some cheese.


For melting, you really can’t beat Colby. Having said that, you can use pretty much any hard, tasty cheese you like. The only thing I would categorically avoid is that horrid manufactured stuff that comes in slices. It’s really not suitable for anything other than putting in kids’ lunchboxes. Or throwing at people.


Transfer your chicken to the grill tray, and scatter the cheese all over it. Pop it under the grill on a high heat.


Our sauce is starting to look lovely. It’s been simmering for about 15-20 minutes now, while the rice was cooking.


Plate the rice and the veggies.


Is it done yet? Is it done yet?


Yay! It’s done! If we weren’t using Colby, I’d let it brown a little more than this. Colby, however, tends to dry out before it browns, and I like it to be a little more on the runny side. Take it to whatever point you feel happy with.


Throw the chicken on top of the rice …


Give the sauce a last minute stir …


And slop it liberally on top of it all! Now eat!

Go on … !

Pictures are also available in the Chicken Parmigiana Picasa album.

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Lamb Rendang

I’ve been reading the The Pioneer Woman Cooks for a little while now, and I am terrifically inspired by her photographic journeys through her recipes. So, today, when someone asked me for my Lamb Rendang recipe, I decided to try a Pioneer Woman-style rendition. My photography isn’t a patch on hers, but I’m hoping you’ll recognise this for what it is – a poor imitation. Anyway, here it is, please enjoy, and let me know what you think!


Chop the onion into wedges. A large brown onion works best, as the flavour is a bit sweeter and easier to take in large chunks.


Dice up some lamb. I prefer to use backstrap as it’s lean and easy to cut up, but I have also used a lamb leg in the past with a lot of success (it’s just more time consuming to get the meat off the bones). You can cut this into any size pieces you like, just remember that large pieces will take longer to get to that really good falling-apart stage, so if you’re in a hurry, keep it small.


Dice up some potatoes into the same (or slightly smaller) size pieces as the lamb.


And now for the fun part!


Put the tagine over a moderate heat, and drop in a slurp of olive oil. This may depend on your tagine. If your tagine can’t be heated too much, then use a frying pan for the next few steps, and transfer it to the tagine when it comes time to simmer everything. If you don’t have a tagine, sucked in! Oh. I mean, you can do the whole thing in a saucepan over a very low heat, as long as you stir it a lot during the process. It won’t get the same level of tenderness, but it will still be good (well, as good as you’ll get. Run down to House and buy a tagine. You won’t regret it!)


Chop up some coriander (fresh is best, but dried leaves will do in a pinch) straight into the oil.


Here’s what you’ll need from the spice drawer – minced garlic (I’m too lazy to chop up garlic, but if you’re keen, then you’ll need about two or three cloves, pressed and then finely chopped); turmeric; garam masala; chilli powder (a deseeded and finely sliced red banana chilli would work even better, but I didn’t have one this time around).


Drop a good amount of each into the oil with the coriander, and then add the onion wedges.


Stir it around until it starts to smell fantastic, and the onion is just starting to cook on the edges.


This is the Rendang paste I use (is it cheating to admit to this?!). It’s the “Home Asian Gourmet” brand and it is available from the Asian Food aisle in Woolworth’s. It is not stocked by Foodworks in Bungendore. So if you ever come to visit me out here from somewhere civilised, be sure to bring a packet or two.


Add in the curry paste and stir it all around. Smelling good? Yes, I think it is …


Transfer the onion and the herbs and spices into a bowl.


Without cleaning out the tagine, start browning the lamb in small batches. Again, this depends on being able to get your tagine quite warm – the lower the temperature, the smaller your batches will need to be.


Sizzle, sizzle. The lamb should be picking up some of the colour from the turmeric still in the pan. Don’t overbrown it, just make sure it has a bit of a tan.


Stash the lamb batches in the bowl with the onion while you work on cooking the rest of it (Why does this picture look like it was taken in a freezer? I assure you, it was sitting on my kitchen bench. Honest.)


Dump it all back into the tagine and stir it all around to get the curry paste all over the lamb.

Now you can add the potatoes in, and get them all coated in curry goodness too. I do this in two distinct steps, because otherwise it’s just too much to stir in and you end with an unholy mess. Well, I do, anyway.

If you’ve done the last few steps in a frying pan, now is the time to pour it all into your tagine. Everything from now on needs to be done on the lowest possible heat setting you have.


Now, as tempting as it may be, do not add any water. Or stock. Or anything else. Just put the lid on, turn the dial down as low as it goes, and walk away. Or, you can stay and admire my beautiful mismatched Emile Henry tagine on my amazingly modern stovetop! Or not. Fine.


Make yourself a cup of tea and go and sit down for 20 minutes or so.


Then come back to find …


Magic juice! No not really (sorry to disappoint you there). It’s because we only very lightly browned the lamb, so the liquid from it has drained out into the dish. We’re going to cook this very slowly over a few hours, so the potatoes will suck the liquid up and turn into lovely little soft balls of curryliciousness (is that a word? Ah well, it is now).

Pop the lid back on and go and do something else for a few hours. Write an opera, I’m told there’s good money for those in Europe …


You should come back to something like this. Mine was cooked for just over four hours, but anything longer than two should be good. Ideally, you’re now about half an hour away from when you want to be serving it up. Leave the heat on low, take the lid off, and let it simmer away to reduce any liquid down to nothing.


Look, Ma! No juice!


Add a dribble of coconut cream.


Stir it around, give it a taste, and add a little more if you like it runny. You might also decide to give it another hit of chilli at this point.


And it’s done! Now to serve it all up …


Here’s some rice I prepared earlier. I use Basmati rice, but that’s because I use Basmati rice for everything. I even make rice pudding with Basmati rice (but that’s another story …)


Slop it all on to the plates and put it in front of hungry people. Guaranteed not to last!

As a note, I like to steam a bunch of veggies to have with mine – I plate the rice, add the veggies, and then dribble the curry over the top. This is because I am the only vegetable eater in the house, and no one else will tolerate me putting it into the curry. Beans, julienned carrots, and little pieces of cauliflower works well. You can also add these in the last hour of simmering as well, that way they properly suck up the flavours of the curry.

You can see all these pictures (with slightly different captions) in my Lamb Rendang Picasa album

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Lasagne

Creating the meat component of a lasagne is similar, but not quite the same, as creating a bolognese sauce. You could probably quite happily use it on top of pasta and nobody would be any the wiser, but – when I cook it at least – it has slightly different components, and different final consistency. Here’s my method:

Here’s the cast of characters: basil, marjoram and oregano (dried is fine), chilli powder, minced garlic (as always, use two cloves of minced fresh garlic if you want), a small jar of tomato paste, a jar of diced tomatoes, a jar of passata sauce (we’ll only use about half), a brown onion, and hiding in the back there about a kilogram of mince.

Chop the onion in half and lop the top off. Peel back the skin and use your paring knife to slice it lengthways. No need to cut it too finely, just dice it up into squares.

Grab your chef’s knife to finish the job.

Heat some extra virgin olive oil in your saucepan, and throw the onion in.

Add the herbs and the garlic.

Stir it all around until the herbs start to smell good.

Push the onion out to the edges of the pan, and throw the mince in to the hole you’ve made in the middle. This is to make sure that the mince hits the pan and cooks before the onions start to burn.

Stab the mince with the end of your spatula to break it all up.

Then stir it all around to brown.

Once the mince is cooked, throw in the jar of tomato paste.

And slurp in about half the bottle of passata.

What’s the vegemite doing there? I know I didn’t list it in the cast of characters, but that’s because this is a secret ingredient. I don’t tend to use salt in cooking, and Vegemite is a great way of enhancing the flavour of rich sauces like this. It’s salty, but it also adds that beefy oomph that this type of sauce can really benefit from. But ssssshhhhh! Don’t tell anyone!

Dig out a good teaspoonful of the stuff.

And stick the spoon like that straight into the simmering mixture.

Leave it a second, and then pull the spoon out again. Gone! Magic! Give it a good stir around.

Then pop the lid on (or, if your saucepan doesn’t have a lid like mine, use some foil), and turn the heat way down low.

Leave it to simmer, and let’s move on to Phase 2: Bechamel Sauce!

Bechamel sauce is a basic white sauce. I like to add cheese, pepper, and some herbs to it for lasagne, otherwise it just tastes, well … white. And that’s not much fun. It’s a little fiddly if you’re doing it from scratch, but not too difficult. It does require a lot of stirring, and you really can’t walk away from it at any point, though. Make sure you have a good twenty minutes up your sleeve before you start.

Here’s our cast: butter (I always use unsalted), plain flour, cracked pepper, reduced fat cheese (I’ll tell you why in a second), milk (any kind is fine. I’m using reduced fat) and some fresh herbs – parsley and chives.

The amount of sauce you end up with is dependent on the amount of butter you start with. I don’t measure anything (you’ve probably already noticed that), but this is about 100g. I would use more rather than less if you’re unsure.

Put the saucepan over a very low heat, and chop the butter up a little to help it melt. Stir it around so that it melts evenly, you don’t want it to start bubbling if you can help it.

Once the butter is completely melted, grab a heaped tablespoon full of flour. It pays to have your flour right next to the stove, you can stir with one hand and grab flour with the other. You do need to work reasonably quickly, at least to start with.

Dump the flour into the butter.

Quickly stir it all up. I tend to use a wooden spoon for this, so that I can get in to the edges of the saucepan, and make sure it all gets incorporated. Don’t worry about any lumps at this stage. We can worry about those in good time later on.

Once the flour is all incorporated, the sauce should go smooth, and start to thicken almost immediately.

Get another spoonful of flour ready, and dump it in.

Stir it all in. Keep going on this process until all the melted butter has been completely incorporated, and the mixture is stiff.

Getting thicker. By adding the flour incrementally, we can be sure to get the right proportion (see my earlier comment about not measuring things!). By stirring it smooth after each addition, we also end up with a lovely smooth roux. A smooth roux is the key for a smooth sauce.

Like this! This took about four heaped tablespoons of flour. Now to make it liquid again …

Slosh in some milk …

And stir it all around. It will thicken up quite quickly, so move fast.

Add another slosh of milk, stir it in, and keep stirring while it thickens. This will take longer and longer each time you add the milk. Make sure you add small quantities at a time (it’s very tempting to add a lot, but it will slow the whole process down significantly, because you need to heat the whole lot again).

This is still a bit thin, but if you have a heavy-bottomed saucepan, it will continue to thicken as we go through the next few steps. The price you pay for a smooth sauce is eternal vigilance: you’ll only get lumps if you let it sit on the heat without stirring it. But, if you do have lumps at this stage, never fear! Add a little extra milk, and get your balloon whisk out. Give it a really vigorous beat to get the lumps out, and it should come good.

If your sauce is thick enough already, or if you have a heavy-based saucepan, turn the heat off. Then grab your herbs and those trusty scissors, and start snipping.

Don’t forget to keep stirring it, because it will continue to cook for a little while yet.

Dump in a good amount of grated cheese. I use low-fat so that the lasagne doesn’t end up swimming in grease when it’s cooked.

Add in a good dose of pepper, mix it all around, and then let it sit uncovered while you get started on Phase 3: Garlic Bread.

Garlic bread is dead easy, it really is quite hard to stuff up. You can use virtually any kind of bread, and just about any herbs. This is my version:

This is a Turkish loaf. And a gratuitous knife shot.

Use your bread knife to chop it into thick slices.

Then cut each slice in half along the length.

Here’s some butter that has been in the fridge.

I put this in the microwave for twenty seconds. The idea is to only half melt it.

Chop up some chives.

And chop up some parsley.

Add a huge dollop of garlic (or as many cloves as you could be bothered peeling and crushing).

Then stir it all up together. Because we didn’t completely melt the butter, it should be at a nice spreadable texture now.

Smear it all over the inside of the bread. Use it all up, you can’t have too much.

Reassemble the loaf on top of a good amount of foil, with the shiny side up.

Sprinkle some more chopped parsley over the top, then give it a good spray with whatever oil you have in a can. I used canola.

Wrap the short ends over the bread, they should only just meet in the middle.

Grab each long end, and roll them in towards the loaf.

The bread should just be peeping out from between the foil.

Now move on to Phase 4: Assembly. We’re nearly done!

And now for the exciting part! Putting it all together, and cooking it into something truly wonderful!

You will need a good sized baking dish (corningware works the best if you have one. Otherwise, any solid ceramic dish should be fine). Put it either on top of a biscuit tray, or sit it inside a larger baking dish. This is to catch drips because, if you’re anything like me, you’re going to fill that dish right up. Give the baking dish a good spray with some oil to stop the lasagne from sticking.

Fresh lasagne sheets. I really can’t recommend using anything other than these. If you do feel the need to use dry sheets, then slap yourself make sure you add extra liquid to the meat sauce, as they will suck it up. Nothing worse than dry lasagne.

There’s a knack to getting these lasagne sheets unstuck from each other without tearing them. Place the whole lot down on your board, and open each sheet as though it’s a page in a delicate book. Start at the top corner, and run your hand gently down the length, before peeling it back.

Rinse and repeat.

And then on to the other side.

It should now be pretty trivial to pull each sheet off the pile as you go.

Put a third of the mince in the bottom of the dish.

It should just cover the entire base. Feel free to use a little extra here if you need it. Use your spoon to push it right into the corners.

Put a sheet of lasagne on top, and use your set square to work out how how to fill up the rest.

Cut out any bits you need.

And then place them on top too. Try not to overlap them too much, but it’s important not to leave gaps.

Dribble a third of the bechamel over the top of the pasta. See how the corners are starting to curl up a little? That’s because of the heat in the meat.

Smear the bechamel all around, and push those curly edges back down. Make sure you don’t leave any holes.

Sprinkle some grated cheese over the sauce.

And add another layer of pasta.

Now for the second lot of meat.

Another layer of pasta.

Some more bechamel and cheese. Top this with another layer of pasta.

Then put the last of the meat on. Don’t stress if this layer is a bit short, just smear it around as evenly as you can. Top it with another sheet of pasta.

Then drizzle the rest of the bechamel over the top. Don’t put a layer of pasta on top of this one, though. If you have any lasagne sheets left, put them in a snap-lock bag and store them in the freezer. You can thaw them out on the bench and use them next time. Alternatively, you can slice them up into thin pieces, and use them as fettucine.

Whatever you do, don’t use pre-grated cheese for the top of the lasagne. It never melts properly. Get out whatever hard tasty cheese you have in the fridge (low fat is good, so that you don’t end up swimming in oil. I’ve used Colby here, though, as it’s what I had).

Be liberal, and completely cover the bechamel sauce with the grated cheese.

Sprinkle some more parsley on for some colour. You can also use cracked pepper, paprika, or just about any fresh herb here.

Very loosely put some foil over the top. If you put it on too tightly, then the cheese will end up sticking to the foil, and not on the top of the lasagne where we want it. Pop it in the oven at 180 degrees.

After 45 minutes to an hour, pull it out of the oven, and take the foil off. See the puddles of oil I have here? That’s because I used full-fat cheese on the top. You can use a paper towel to blot that off. Put it back in topless. Put the garlic bread in with it.

And after another thirty minutes … it’s ready!

The garlic bread should be nice and brown now too.

Pull open the foil and put it on the table.

And serve up the lasagne. Stand back and watch people make fools of themselves as they scramble for the plates.

Any leftovers? Put the individual pieces in plastic containers and freeze for up to three months.

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