Perfect steak, pizza, pavlova: Chef Karen Martini answers your cooking questions

Karen Martini in her home kitchen with some of her essentials including (from left) Woll pans, pink salt flakes, extra ...
Karen Martini in her home kitchen with some of her essentials including (from left) Woll pans, pink salt flakes, extra virgin olive oil and sharp knives. Photo: Margaret Gordon

Two weeks ago we put a call out to our Good Food Instagram community. "Do you have a question you have always wanted to ask Karen Martini?" The answer was a resounding yes, and the questions were excellent.

We picked our favourites and sent them to Karen. She not only answered them below, but also on camera in a video special coming to goodfood.com.au on Wednesday. Her answers will do no less than make you a better cook.

Chef Karen Martini is here to help make you a better cook.
Chef Karen Martini is here to help make you a better cook. Photo: Mark Chew

What should home cooks not be without? Either an appliance or something from the store cupboard? @__bridget.p_

A home cook will always be winning with a quality sharp knife in hand to cut things without hacking or bruising them. Cutting with ease adds to the joy of cooking and a brings a certain satisfaction because you feel more adept and confident. Global knives are a good brand. I have drawer full of knives but I don't use a different knife for every single job, I use a standard kitchen knife and a paring knife the most.

The other tool I love is a Microplane. It is such a gem for grating everything from hard cheese to garlic, ginger, chocolate and citrus zest to even occasionally fresh truffle. It is never far away from me when I am making simple sauces and dressings and, yes, I do tend to travel with one.

And from my pantry, I am never without lovely flakes of salt. I love Murray River Salt, it has a gentle saltiness, nowhere near as aggressive as table or cooking salts. It is an elegant flavour that caresses food beautifully. You always need lemons on hand as well. And extra virgin olive oil. I use Mount Zero.

Murray River Salt.

Murray River Salt "caresses food beautifully". Photo: iStock

I teach cooking at primary school. What's the best "kid recipe" you know of? @femme_caramel

Advertisement

I love to make an open crostata-style pie for my kids and, better still, I like getting them involved. Kids enjoy things more if they helped make them, I think.

Use a sheet of store-bought puff pastry – or make the simple olive oil pastry in my book – then get the kids to pile whatever they like on top of it. We love a ricotta and parmesan cheese mix with cooked vegetables like spinach and silverbeet or asparagus and peas draped over the top.

Roughly fold in the pastry edges to create a free-form crust and glaze with egg wash. Assemble and bake on a flat pizza tray. It's a choose-your-own adventure pie that I find kids love. You could dollop fresh pesto over it once it is cooked.

***EMBARGOED FOR GOOD WEEKEND, FEBRUARY 15/20 ISSUE***
Karen Martini recipe : Seared Scotch Fillet with Mozzarella, peas and cherry tomatoes
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions) Image rotated for Good Food online.

Karen Martini's seared scotch fillet with mozzarella, peas and cherry tomatoes (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem

How long do you leave a steak in the pan for it to become medium rare? @linus_dunne

Well, this really depends on the size and thickness of the steak you have. Let's say an average-sized steak is 350 grams. Season it well then sear it on a hot grill or hot pan for approximately 4 minutes on the first side and 3 minutes the second. Then rest it for 4 minutes. The juice will run out, but you can pour this back over the top when you serve it.

It is really important that you allow the meat to come to room temperature before you cook it – this will take at least half an hour – or this timing will not work at all because it will be too cold in the middle. A scotch fillet is my favourite cut, by the way.

How do chefs chop an onion?

Any cheffy secrets you have learned over the years to make cooking a bit simpler?

OK, here we go, the 101 of simple cooking:

  1. Use great produce when it is in season because it will taste better.
  2. Do not over-complicate things by combining too many flavours.
  3. Seasoning is king, don't season just at the end, season as you go during the cooking process and don't be shy with either salt or pepper.
  4. Be generous with extra virgin olive oil or butter, these add flavour.
  5. Finish with a great dressing or fresh herbs.
  6. Another thing to keep in mind is temperature – generally speaking, either cook low and slow or hot and fast.

What is the worst dish you've ever cooked? @mike_craig_melbourne

It was in the 1990s and I wanted to poach a chicken in a Chinese-style master stock. I did not have a recipe or any experience doing it, but that didn't stop me, I just winged it. It was a disaster: too salty and inedible and it just happened to be an important date. We went out for dinner instead (to Cafe Di Stasio in St Kilda). I am also really bad at curing olives. I have had quite a few failures because I lack patience.

***EMBARGOED FOR GOOD WEEKEND, JUNE 4/22 ISSUE***
Karen Martini recipe: Slow-roasted lamb forequarter with potatoes, lemon, garlic and oregano
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Karen Martini's slow-roasted lamb flavoured with garlic, fresh bay and dried Greek oregano (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem

How do I know when to throw out dried herbs? @kazmac01

Meh, a lot of dried herbs do not do it for me, except maybe thyme, Greek oregano and fenugreek. If you are talking about dried basil and chives and that sort of thing, I throw them out to begin with because I don't think they have much flavour. I might use dried bay leaves at a pinch, but fresh bay leaves are so much better.

Dried spices are different. I use those all the time but they do have a shelf life. I would say about six months, maybe a year. If they are too old, you will be disappointed in the flavour of your dishes. I transfer my spices into glass jars to help them keep better and then store them in a dark place like a drawer.

How do you get rid of excess oil after cooking? @bradleysimonarthur

My best tip – drag a sheet of paper towel quickly across the top of your soup, stew or stock and it will gather some of the fat instantly. You can also use a small ladle to skim the edges where the fat is pooling, although do remember fat is flavour and some fat is a good thing.

For instance, when bolognaise cools, the fat and olive oil will rise to the surface but it's important to stir this back through the sauce when serving with pasta – you want that flavour. Same goes for a lamb stew. You want to stir the fat back in to thicken and flavour the sauce.

If you mean how to dispose of the oil and fat left in a roasting tray after cooking, then what you can do is pour it into a recycled glass jar (making sure the oil is not too hot). If the oil is still pretty clean, you can actually use it again for roasting potatoes or something like that.

Karen Martini Fruit Recipes. 
Pavlova with roasted apricots, vanilla, blackberries and lemon curd.
Pictures by Marcel Aucar. Styling by Caroline Velik. To be used in upcoming Epicure/Good Food recipe spread.

Karen Martini's pavlova topped with vanilla-roasted apricots, blackberries and lemon curd (recipe here). Photo: Marcel Aucar

How can I successfully cook a pavlova in a tin so that it looks like the shop-bought pavlovas, without it collapsing? Jan Piromalli

Why would you want a shop-bought pavlova shape unless it's from a fancy bakery? Let your natural flair flow.

Always pile the beaten egg whites high to allow for it to slump as it cools. Always cool in the oven. See my recipe in the book – finely ground icing sugar is the secret to a well-formed pav.

And don't worry, perfectly whipped cream and mountains of berries or other fruit will hide almost any faults. If it is still too flat, bake another one and sandwich them together with cream.

Not a question, just a declaration of love for her recipes. Can't wait for the new book. @aproneer

Oh, how bloody sweet, so much love right back at you.

Pic shows the margherita pizza from Mr. Wolf Restaurant and Bar in St. Kilda for A2 review. 23 September 2004.
The Age A2. Pic by EDDIE JIM/ejz040923.003.003

Margherita pizza at Mr Wolf. Photo: Eddie Jim

I've never had a better pizza crust than at [Karen's former restaurant] Mr Wolf. How was it so perfect? @branners31

Luckily you will find the recipe in Cook! The secret is to let the dough rise for 24 hours. This matures it and adds flavour and texture as the gluten develops more slowly. A rushed dough will deliver less flavour and a scone or biscuit-like texture, not that beautiful chewy texture.

Why do some cake recipes ask for unsalted butter but then ask for salt to be added? @innaminka

Different butters have different salt levels and flavour. It is better to add your own "fresh salt" and adjust it precisely.

I'm looking for the best butter to bake with. What do you choose, Karen? @michellestandret6727

An unsalted, cultured butter is best for baking. The slight acidity and slight sweet flavour of the milk fat shines through when baking and tends to give you a more tender crumb. My favourite mainstream brand is Girgar, and my next choice is Western Star. Both are widely available.

Best and easiest way to make creamy garlic sauce? @gailobrienjohnson

  1. Finely dice 3 fat cloves of garlic then fry in a little pot over medium heat with about 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil until fragrant and a little golden crisp.
  2. Then add about 50 millilitres of dry white wine or verjuice and bubble, then add 150 millilitres of cream and bring to simmer, seasoning with salt and pepper.
  3. Finally, add about 50 grams of cold butter and swirl to melt and then bubble to thicken. At this stage you could add 1 or 2 teaspoons of Dijon mustard for extra kick or shaved truffle for a deluxe finish and then spoon this over steak, fish, chicken or cooked asparagus or spinach. Add double the amount of cream and butter and you can stir it through pasta with a sprinkling of fresh chopped parsley or chives.

There are lots of recipes for four serves. To make two serves, is it as simple as dividing by two? @trivateer

Mostly this is straightforward, like for a pasta sauce or something. But when it comes to baking sweet things or even savoury things, it is often not that simple. Half the liquid in a braise, for example, may not be enough to last the whole cooking time. It is often better to cook the portion for four, freeze what you don't eat and have it for next time.

I would like to know what the best non-stick pan out there is, please. Georgina Freeman

At the moment I am loving a German brand called Woll. It has a heavy base for even heat distribution and a handle you can take off, which is perfect for cooking on the stove stop and then transferring into an oven to finish the dish off.

What's a good replacement for almond meal in cooking? I'm allergic to almonds, and I seem to always struggle with finding a replacement. Mikayla Morabito

Does that mean you are allergic to all nuts? Hazelnuts or pistachios are good replacements. If you are allergic to all nuts, ground flaxseed or finely ground oats can be good substitutes.

Cook by Karen Martini, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $100, is available in stores nationally from August 8. Order now