Friday, March 1, 2024

Culinary secrets & shortcuts

Mel Alafaci shares some delicious recipes

From perfectly sexy stir fries to the little black book of culinary bling, Culinary Quickies is fun to read.

The culinary lingo with oodles of humour takes kitchen boredom and menu fatigue out and replaces it with shortcuts and hacks to transform everyday produce to show-stopping means.

Chef, author and cooking school teacher Mel Alafaci, who has been featured in the New York Times, LA Weekly and now in EastLife, shares tips on up-cycling food to restaurant quality, and the secret to living happily-ever-after in the kitchen.



  • 180g fish, skin on, per person
  • Salt and pepper to season
  • Half lemon or lime per serving
  • 4-6 strips Pancetta placed on a roasting tray and then baked until crispy in a hot oven of 200c!


This is my favourite recipe for when I am entertaining because it is practically stress free! A beautiful piece of fish or salmon needs little masking and if cooked perfectly, will simply shine!

The trick is to cook the fish properly and get the skin sexy and crispy. You need to get your pan or BBQ SWEAR WORD HOT and greased with about 5ml vegetable or rice bran oil in the pan just so that the fish doesn’t stick.

When the pan is hot, place the fish (not skin side) presentation side down, and use your tongs to make sure it doesn’t stick…I just give the piece a little wiggle to make sure it hasn’t stuck but will create a sexy crust of flavour and colour.

When the first side is brown (simply look underneath and lift with your tongs) turn it over to do the skin side too. After about a minute or two you should be able to remove the skin using the tongs. Don’t stress if it breaks or you have to strip-peel it off, it is all part of the rustic glamour of this dish! Place the skin aside and then turn the now skin-free side down to brown it off. When the fish is cooked (check by placing a fork or knife in the centre of the thickest part and if it flakes when you twist it is done!)

Remove from the pan and now lower the heat and fry the skin nice and hot but not so hot that it burns in a flash…this will dry and crisp up the skin and the best way is to remove the skin so you don’t over cook the fish!

NEVER serve soggy fish skin…it is just not glamorous and can be easily crisped up by just allowing it some alone time in the pan.

Serve with this amazingly versatile pea puree! Don’t like peas? Use butterbeans (drained out of a tin) instead!



  • 2 cups frozen peas
  • 1 onion finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • 150-250ml chicken or vegetable stock (depending on thickness required…please adjust)
  • 20g butter
  • 80-150ml cream


Place all the ingredients into a medium saucepan and boil over a medium heat for about 5 mins, until just hot and the peas are bright green and beautiful.

Remove from the heat and blend to a smooth puree with a stick blender or manual masher.

Adjust the seasoning and thickness and then serve.

To serve: Place the sexy seared salmon or fish and the pancetta on the pea puree, drizzle with olive oil, petals and micro herbs and fried carrot strips!

CHEFS MINCE NOTE: REMEMBER if there is grey liquid in you pan at any stage it is simply because the pan is too cold, you are stirring too much, and the mince is stewing. Scrape all the mince to the ONE side of the pan, leaving half the pan NAKED, put up the heat and back away from the pan. Eventually the grey liquid will cook back into the mince and VOILA, you have learnt to cook mince in the sexiest way! It really does mean FREE flavour.

You will now live happily ever after. Here’s how you do it.


INGREDIENTS | Serves 4-6

  • 2 squirts of a canola or rice bran cooking spray into a large nonstick pan
  • 800g lean beef mince (fluff this up with your hands so it’s all nice and loose and fluffy and not in one big block)
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 1 clove garlic crushed (optional)
  • 1 tbsp ras el hanout (you can make your own by using 1 tsp cumin powder, 1/2 tsp cardamom powder and 1/2 tsp coriander powder)
  • 1 tsp turmeric (most important ingredient other than good quality mince, this will add fabulous colour to your otherwise drab mince!)
  • 1/2 cup finely diced fennel or you could use grated carrot, zucchini or you choose!
  • 1 vegetable or beef stock cube crumbled to a powder
  • 1 cup chopped tomatoes or use one tin chopped tomato
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste or Passata
  • 1 tin chick peas, drained and rinsed
  • salt and pepper to season
  • 1 tsp of lemon zest

Pistachio and date gravel – mix together

  • 1-2 tbsp pistachios bashed or chopped to a nice coarse gravel
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped dates
  • I added some dried rose petals but if you don’t have that grate in some lemon zest (1/2 tsp) and 1 tbsp finely chopped parsley or coriander for colour


First thing you should do is heat and grease a large pan until just about smoking hot. The mince must sizzle when it hits the pan…
Now add the mince that you have broken up in the packaging or a bowl so it is loose and fluffy already. Put the mince into the pan…it should sizzle nice and loud and sexy.

Do not stir, I know you are worried about this burning and you are also worried about lumps, but let the mince brown and seal on the first side you put down first and let the pan heat up again and then you can stir ever so slightly just to get some more mince onto the base of the pan. My favourite mince ‘fluffer’ is one of those cheap plastic coated whisks you get at the supermarket that only have about 4 loops. If you don’t have one
of those use a strong plastic spoon or egg flip to break down the mince.

Once the mince is brown and fragrant and sexy all by itself, then and only then do you add the finely chopped onion and garlic. There should be enough oil out of the mince that you have rendered off during your amazing sizzle cooking of the mince at a nice high heat. You can stir as much as you like now by the way, that mince is sealed off!

Now add the spices, fennel, stock powder and seasoning and stir through. Amazing colour isn’t it!

Finally add the chopped tomatoes and passata and the chick peas and you’re practically done. Turn down the heat and let that all cook through and then add the lemon zest and it’s ready to serve.

This way of cooking will not only save you time, but it will add valuable flavour and vibrant personality to your otherwise boring mince.

I love to get creative with my mince and change the spices thus changing the flavour.

I served mine with a yogurt swirl and the pistachio and date gravel with just a twist of fresh peppery rocket leaves.

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