Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Raspberry and rosewater sorbet

Raspberries: fresh picked, sun ripened, deep crimson. They smell like fairy-floss, their sweetness giving only the merest hint of underlying tartness. I rarely cook with raspberries because it is far too satisfying to eat them in their natural state without interference. Their colour reminds me of sunburn and they taste like heaven and explode like midsummer in the mouth.

This year, like last year, Little Chocolate Flavoured P- arranged for a ridiculous quantity of fresh raspberries to be picked for Christmas lunch. My share – a half kilo of pure, uncut, just picked summer magic.

Like the roses to which they are related, rubus idaeus are not native to Australia, where this common European bramble is a luxury summer fruit (actually, there is a native Australian raspberry but it is not commercially grown and the fruit is not commonly available. Blackberries, on the other hand, are so abundant they are considered a noxious weed and cannot be harvested in the wild in case they have been subject to poison extermination spraying).

My childhood, which featured peaches and plums and apricots negligently and gluttonously consumed whilst perched in the branches of the respective trees was strictly limited on the berry front (with the notable exception of mulberries, as both my friend Louise and I had truly enormous mulberry trees, perfect for climbing and straining school uniforms).

And yet the mere mention of raspberries and I am four or five again, scrawny and corduroy-pinafore wearing, Strawberry-Shortcake knee-high socks and wispy never-neat hair.

The kitchens of Brambly Hedge were full of activity. Cool summer foods were being made. There was cold watercress soup, fresh dandelion salad, honey creams, syllabubs and meringues. The young mice had been up early to gather huge baskets of wild strawberries.*

It is the literature, not the reality, of my childhood that induces these flashbacks. With the iconic bramble borders, which shifted with the seasons – full-fruited or blossoming or bare and sprinkled with winter snow: Brambly Hedge. It is no real mystery that the books of Jill Barklem were so influential: cute and pink and floral, the beautifully illustrated stories of the little woodland dwelling community of mice, guided by Lord and Lady Woodmouse (and their slightly naughty daughter Primrose), with its dairy and flour mill, could not have been better targeted at small and dreamy little girls.

And most importantly: they featured meticulously researched exotic fairytale foods like roasted chestnuts and elderflower syrup and crabapples and sugared violets and bramble jelly and acorn coffee. Although all real (and apparently tested) traditional English recipes, they seem to me just as fantastic as the toffee pops of Enid Blyton’s The Magic Far Away Tree and the pepper-imps and chocolate frogs of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter. All these books shared nothing in common with what was normal in my childhood, like vegemite or kangaroos or summer bushfires or funnel web spiders.

In a blurring of make-believe, nostalgia and hard botanical fact, nothing is more obvious that the pairing of raspberry and roses, heady rosewater scented sugar syrup and pureed fresh raspberries, churned into a delicate and icy floral dessert.

* Jill Barklem Brambly Hedge Summer Story William Collins Sons & Co Ltd 1980

Raspberry and rosewater sorbet

1 cup castor sugar
1 ¾ water
Juice of one lemon
2 tsp rosewater
500 gm fresh (or frozen) raspberries

Heat the water and sugar together in a heavy bottom saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves.

Cool for half an hour or so, add the rosewater, lemon juice and raspberries and puree with a bar-mix (or decant into a blender and pulse).

Strain mixture into a bowl through a mesh strainer (to remove the raspberry seeds).

Leave to cool. Taste (if too sweet, add a little more lemon juice).

Decant mixture into an ice-cream machine and churn according to the machine’s instructions. Serve as soon as a soft sorbet consistency forms (or settle it he freezer for an hour or so until firm enough for your liking)

If you don’t have an ice-cream machine, you can freeze in a loaf tin in the freezer – take out every hour or so to break up the ice crystals forming by beating with a fork. Once the mixture hardens, scrape with a fork into a pile of shaved ice and serve as a granita (as it can be difficult to get the same smooth consistency as a sorbet without a ice-cream churn).

Scatter with mint or pistachios or sugared violets or rose petals to serve.

Makes 1.5 litres

Friday, December 24, 2010

Summer Christmas versus Winter Christmas (what my little brother is missing)

Last Christmas I made (amongst other things) gravlax. A side of salmon, cured in sugar and rock salt and dill and juniper berries and gin. My brother, who shares my affinity for Bombay Saphire, proceded to eat the gin soaked curing paste as I brushed it off, preparing to thinly slice the moist, sweet bright pink fish. Unsurprisingly, it made him ill.

I miss him.

Soon to be professor-doctor-clever-pants in the world's most obscure and impractical discipline, he lives in Oxford, where it is very cold and people ride bicycles. He was here, with me, last year for Christmas. This year is another year when we are not spending Christmas together.

I miss him.

Not that he is much help at Christmas (although his bacon-sandwich making capabilities, possibly his only real culinary triumph, are to be respected on Boxing Day and New Year's Day, when fried breakfast food is generally welcomed). He does have an eye for Christmas decorations (insisting on a real tree last year, and hence improving the Christmassy-ness of the whole occassion). And he does know the words to most carols, even if he doesn't always sing them in tune (an allegation he would no doubt deny).

Last year (for a number of reasons that now seem ridiculous) I experienced a severe case of 'being-overwhelmed-at-Christmas', which manifested in tears about two barbeequed chickens (best not to ask). My brother just being here, in all his goofy, idiotic, and vaguely dada-esque way made it just a bit easier to cope. (How this involved purchasing pale blue silk socks is a mystery). We ate half a kilo of fresh raspberries to help us deal with the whole situation.

I shouldn't worry that he'll be lonely at Christmas (he has more facebook friends than I have recipe clippings, which is to say, a great many). He will be having the white Christmas I can only ever dream about. But he isn't here, and he'll miss all the summer fruit, the cherries, the cold beer and the cricket in the backyard. He'll miss the sunburn and the gin and tonics and the pimms cups and the ice-cream from my new ice-cream machine. He'll miss having people around him who have known him forever. If he mopes unreasonably, I won't be there to tell him to stop being an idiot. He'll miss me.

Merry Christmas.

Christmas Salad: roquette, peaches, buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto

Slice two very ripe yellow peaches into thin wedges. Toss with two cups (ish) of wild roquette. tear six slices of prosciutto and toss through with the peaches and roquette. Arrange on a plate. Break one ball of fresh buffalo mozzarella over the top, drizzle with olive oil and eat in Australia at Christmas time.

Serves 2

Friday, December 17, 2010

Spicy almond biscuits to warm the coldest of hearts

There are bronze stars and red glitter-spangled baubles hanging from the ceiling above my desk at work. Silver stars and snowflakes and globes are strung from the banisters in my apartment and attached with paper clips to the small pine tree in the corner of one room. The house is filled with the scent of cinnamon and sugar.

Last night after yet another bellini* themed Christmas catch-up with yet another indispensible friend on my way to cook dinner for another different and equally valuable loved one, I stopped to buy a small Christmas gift for my mum. With a backpack full of dried fruit and nuts and Christmas cheer, a handbag containing frozen broadbeans, and an accumulation of several weeks worth of Champagne, I perhaps was not in the best frame of body or mind to browse in a crowded, tiny shop full of small gift type things.

A beautiful young man set aside a small something whilst I searched for additional perfect lovely things. I love Christmas, I hum carols, I adore that the world pretends to be shinier, more beautiful, more bearable for just the smallest window of time. To my very great shame, last night I got fed up and frustrated and walked out the shop before purchasing these gifts.

And the boy, who had so helpfully found the very last stocked item of a hard to find special something, ran out of the shop after me. He had already wrapped my pieces in Christmas paper. He was sorry it was so busy. He explained that it was Christmas. As if I didn’t know.

I couldn’t have felt more like Scrooge if I tried**. I walked back into the store.

This morning I made cookies. Something I have been meaning to do for weeks. To decorate the tree. To give as gifts. To just have the house smell like Christmas baking and holidays and love.

And this afternoon, I packed a brown paper bag with tissue paper and biscuits. I walked back up the street, intending to deliver them to the manager of the store I been so well and undeservedly served the night before. An anonymous gift. Except, the very same man who had been so patient the evening before was standing out the front of the shop. And he recognised me.

And there I was, with a bag of cookies. I explained that it was Christmas. As if he didn’t know. I couldn’t have felt more like Scrooge if I tried***. He walked back into the store. With the cookies.

* Fresh white peach puree, peach schnapps, prosecco.
** “He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.”
Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol
*** “And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol

Almond spice biscuits

200 gm raw almonds (no need to have blanched ones, the skins are fine)
1/3 cup icing sugar
1/3 cup castor sugar
¾ cup flour
2 egg whites
3 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 150ºc. Line several baking trays with greaseproof paper.

Put nuts in a food processors and pulse until the nuts are finely ground. Add everything else and pulse to combine.

Gather together into a ball. Roll out between sheets of plastic wrap (the egg white make it quite sticky).

Cut out with cookie cutters. Gather the scraps and roll out again, until no more dough is left.

Bake for about 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Decorate and share.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The rosemary thief, zucchini ribbons

Spilling over the footpaths through wrought-iron fences, overgrown with Austin roses and lavender: rosemary. It is unkempt, scraggly, rough, woody, never pruned or disciplined or watered. This time of year is filled with the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle and roses and the sharp, piney smell of crushed rosemary, oils released on the wind and as you brush past and step on the ambushing bushes.

Grown first on the Mediterranean coast, the name rosmarinus means dew (ros) of the sea (marinus)*. This refers to the fact that rosemary can get by on the smell of an oily rag**, that is, the moisture carried from the sea spray to the sandy soils it spreads its roots into.

Set against a backdrop of artful and not so artful graffiti and aerosol art, bluestone gutters, warehouse conversions and factories and done-up and not-done-up terrace houses, the square mile that is mine is a mixture of old bones and new money and no money, designer and vintage and plain old second-hand. Cottage gardens and lace curtains and polished floorboards and discarded syringes and nightclubs and a brothel on the corner. And in the tiny front gardens of rental houses and trendy laneway offices, the plants that thrive on neglect, that have been in the ground since Federation (or maybe the sixties or seventies) have become wild, the wiry odd drought loving plants of the Mediterranean. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

Clad for a break-and-enter or maybe just random street violence, I execute my vaudeville burglar impersonation. The conspiratorial glance over the shoulder. The nonchalant sidle against the corner of the apartment block. The overly innocent stroll ten, twenty metres down the street***. The exaggerated feigned dropped item. Then, quick as a flash, the snicker-snack. The mass of forest green reduced by inches. The softest, newest tips slipped deep into the pocket of an apron or handbag, or in one brazen instance of daylight robbery, discreted up inside the sleeve of my anorak.

* Ian Hempil, Spice Notes p. 338. I am slightly disappointed with the Larousse entry on rosemary which indicates the etymology of rosmarinus to be ‘rose of the sea’. I am hoping that some enterprising Classics scholar (cough,νωοφ, you know who you are) may adjudicate on the matter.
** This is a particularly, and quintessentially, Australian saying. To say that something runs on the smell of an oily rag means it can survive on a bare minimum. One could use the phrase to describe a particularly fuel efficient ute, for example.
*** I would innocently whistle, but alas, I am incapable. Of whistling. Not of innocence.

Rosemary zucchini ribbons

Serves four as a side

3 tbsp olive oil
2 anchovy fillets in oil (or more to taste)
1 tbsp garlic, finely chopped (about 4 cloves)
1 tbsp fresh rosemary finely chopped
3 medium sized zucchini (courgettes) sliced lengthways into thin ribbons (about 400 gm zucchini)
Sea salt
1 tsp soft tips of rosemary to serve

Heat the oil in a large fry pan. Add anchovy fillets and stir until dissolved. Add garlic and rosemary and stir until garlic is soft.

Lay the ribbons of zucchini in the pan, cover with a lid and cook for about 3 minutes, or until the ribbons are starting to brown. Turn over, and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Taste, and add sea salt if necessary.

Scatter with rosemary tips to serve. Good hot and at room temperature.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

What is a waldorf anyway, a walnut that’s gone off?*

New York city: the Waldorf Hotel. Circa 1893-1896. Oscar Tschirky. Swiss. Not a chef.

Apple. Celery. Mayonnaise. Later addition: walnuts.

The Waldorf Salad.

Its genius lies in its simplicity. Like coleslaw, so very, very dependent on the quality of the ingredients. Like coleslaw, so easily and so frequently the victim of grave injustice.

The key is crunch and bite. The crisp clean taste of very, very fresh celery. Inner stalks only, with the tender pale green leaves retained for garnishing. Tart apples, preferably peeled. Granny Smiths are perfect, that hint of sourness to their juicy sweetness. And walnuts. Toasted. Some puritans insist that they are also peeled. I have never found this necessary.

Nothing is more important than using fresh walnuts. Or conversely, nothing is more rank than the taste of rancid nuts, the oils sour and foul. My preference is to purchase mine from a specialist nut-purveyor at the market. I know that they will be correctly stored and have frequent turn over. In a pinch I will buy them in vacuum sealed packets, sold in the supermarket next to the dried herbs and spices and sugars and salts (understandably my favourite aisle in the dreaded supermarket).

And then there is mayonnaise. At which point I give up. I am overly sensitive to what I consider a crime against both condiments and salad dressing: the mayonnaise jar. How a sauce so beautiful has become something so unredeemably fetid I cannot comprehend. I can usually find it in me to be at least a little understanding of food choices that differ from my own, but mayonnaise? Like the ungodly offspring of cream and industrial solvent, industrialised, commercialised, commodofied, squeezy-bottle mayonnaise has no place in the hallowed grounds of the waldorf salad.

I find homemade mayonnaise gentler and richer than any store bought jar (and I do grudgingly admit, some are better than others, and indeed almost edible). It is easier too, to tailor one’s dressing to the salad. A hint of mustard, a little walnut oil, thicker rather than pourable, the better to bind the ingredients without drowning them. A good discipline to learn: a basic emulsification, the miracle whipping of eggs yolks and oil. Less recipe and more technique.

And like every canonical recipe, the Waldorf Salad suffers from the non-canonical reinterpretation. So my secret: soak the apples in apple-cider vinegar for 15 minutes to enhance the sweet-and-sour qualities. A hint of cream cheese in the dressing. And slivers of shaved mouse-tailed pink radishes, hot and peppery and a pop of colour.

* Faulty Towers “Waldorf Salad”, 1979

Waldorf-ish Salad

Serves four as a side or light lunch

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1 cm dice.
1 ½ cup celery, cut into 1 cm dice
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
¼ walnuts, toasted (roast in a moderate oven for about 6-8 minutes)
½ cup mayonnaise (approximately)
1 tsp cream cheese (optional)
6 breakfast radishes, thinly sliced or shaved.
1 tbsp small celery leaves
1 tbsp extra toasted walnuts

Mix the apple and celery with the apple cider vinegar in a non-reactive bowl (ie, not metal) and leave sit for about ten to fifteen minutes (meanwhile, make the mayonnaise).

Mix the cream cheese (if using) into a quarter cup of mayonnaise, then toss with the apples, celery shaved radishes and toasted walnuts. If necessary, add extra mayonnaise until the salad is coated but not drowning.

To serve, scatter with extra walnuts and celery leaves.

Great with chicken or turkey.

To make mayonnaise:

2 very fresh egg yolks (keep the eggwhites for macarons or meringue or soufflé or something equally delicious. They freeze well too).
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp vinegar (white wine vinegar or tarragon vinegar)
250 ml oil (any kind of oil is fine. I like olive oil, which can have a strong taste. Sunflower oil or canola oil also works just fine)
Sea salt and white pepper, to taste

Make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature.

In a large non reactive bowl (I use pyrex for just about everything) beat the egg yolks with the mustard and 1 teaspoon of vinegar. Beat until smooth and creamy looking.

Drizzle in 1 teaspoon of oil, and beat until fully incorporated. Drizzle other teaspoon, and beat until fully incorporated. Continue this process, drizzling and beating in tiny spoonfuls of oil until about half the oil is combined. Then, drizzle the remaining oil in a very thin steam, beat constantly until the mayonnaise is the desired consistency. Taste, and add salt and white pepper if needed.

Can be made with a wooden spoon or hand whisk or even electric beaters. The trick is the very slow incorporation of the oil into the egg yolks.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tacos. Grown up finger painting for the mouth

Growing up, tacos were always a big deal in our house.

My parents owned a particularly lovely carved serving platter, made, I think, from the wood of a coconut palm, in the shape of a leaf. The smooth deep bowl of it was divided in to four smaller hollows, a perfect home for keeping the various taco fillings separate and yet all together. It was used almost exclusively for taco nights.

Tacos-for-dinner was a production, a matter of great ceremony and extra fuss. Tacos were purchased as ready-made corn-chip shells in a taco-kit box, to be crisped in oven for ten minutes prior to eating. It was a great test of skill and nerve to neatly stand each shell vertical, fold-up, balanced on the curved edges like little clog-clad feet. Important not to forget to remove from the oven, lest the shells overcook (or as I remember once, start to smoke).

The boy child and I did not eat tomatoes, capsicum, avocado or coriander. What we did eat was grated Kraft cheese, grated carrot, shredded ice-berg lettuce, sour-cream, sweet (store bought!) salsa and pan fried beef mince. Taco night embodied semi-rural Australia, which is a long, long way from Mexico.

And there was an art to preparing the taco: an intricate and personalised order in which the ingredients were added. My preference: meat, salsa, cheese, carrot, lettuce, sour cream. This, for me, was the only and most logical way to construct the meal: the salsa seasoned the meat, the warm meat melted the cheese, and the carrot (a vegetable able to consumed with equal enjoyment cooked or raw) acted as a thermal buffer, protecting the lettuce from wilting. Sometimes, towards the end of a taco eating contest (a contest between my brother and I, a contest between my present and previous consumption record), the final taco was snapped in half, with the messily discarded jumble of previous taco fillings scooped up and sandwiched in between the broken shell.

Tacos were fun, gluttonous, sweet and salty and crunchy and cheesy. It was hands on, messy, full of sharing and hording. It was impossible to finish the meal with anything other than mess smeared across our faces and dripping down our elbows. Tacos always preceded rather than followed a bath.

The gap between the taco-kits of my childhood and the Mexican tacos which pre-date European arrival is immense. Perhaps the only commonality is the yellow-corn-colour of the cardboard textured hard-shells.

Real tacos, homemade soft corn or flour tortillas, salsa fresh with coriander and lime, smoky marinated chicken or fish, are a revelation. If anything, the evil glee that making a mess while eating inspired is multiplied exponentially, as is the pleasure of a riot of flavours and delight of assembling it just so. I have flour in my hair. I have somehow managed to spill the juice of half a lime directly into my right hand pocket. I have dough stuck to my knuckles and finger nails. Coriander-chilli-ginger-garlic-lime-zest paste smeared along the inside of one forearm. And that was before I even started eating.

Soft corn-and-flour-tacos with lime and coriander chicken, salsa and roasted tomatoes.

Serves four

16 corn and flour tortillas (see below)
Lime and coriander chicken (see below)
Salsa (see below)
Roasted tomatoes (see below)
Sour cream

To serve: add a spoonful of each component to the warm soft taco in the order that makes the most sense to you. Fold in half and make a mess.

Corn and flour tortillas:

I realise that I am a novice when it comes to tortillas, and that usually you make either corn or flour tortillas, not a combination of both. I understand that in taco-profilic countries like America and Mexico there are things such as tortilla presses and more than one brand of maize flour. People have practice and opportunity there. Still, this beats the pants off buying taco-kits, and adding wheat flour to the maize flour helps the dough keep its elasticity.

1 cup maize flour (not corn flour, and not polenta. Maize flour).
1 cup wholemeal plain flour
½ tsp salt
1 ¼ warm water
1 tsp oil

Mix the flours and salt together. Make a well, and add 1 cup of the water and the oil. Mixed with a hand, and as the dough starts to come together, add the remaining water (as needed) – you should end up with a soft, warm slightly sticky dough. Knead lightly until just smooth (not more than 5 minutes). Break the dough into 16 ball shaped pieces (keep them covered with plastic wrap whilst working each ball).

Place a ball of dough between two sheets of baking paper and roll out with a rolling pin until about 20 cm in diameter. Peel one piece of paper away from the tortilla, leaving the other attached. Repeat for the remaining balls.

Heat a non stick frying pan to hot, brush with a little oil.

Place the tortilla paper side up in the pan – as the tortilla starts to cook, the dough will dry and the paper will peel away (this takes about 1 minute). When the paper is removed, turn the tortilla over, and cook the other side for about 30 seconds. Repeat with remaining dough. Set aside and wrap in a clean tea-towel to keep warm.

Spiced Chicken

In her book Fire, Christine Mansfield gives a beautiful recipe for Mexican chicken and lime soup. This recipe draws on the ingredients that make that soup so fresh and vibrant.

500 gm chicken breasts, sliced into thin stir fry strips
1 tbsp oil
¼ cup fresh coriander stems or leaves
1 tbsp finely grated ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 long red chilli (medium heat)
1 tbsp chopped red onion
1 tbsp chopped green onion
1 very ripe tomato
1 tsp finely grated lime zest

Puree the garlic, ginger, chilli, coriander, tomato onions and lime zest until a thick paste forms. Heat the oil in a large fry pan, add the chicken strips and paste. Cook over a high heat until the chicken is cooked through the paste is thickened. Set aside.

Corn and Capsicum Salsa

1 cob corn, kernels removed and blanched.
½ red capsicum, cut into 1 cm dice
½ yellow capsicum, cut into 1 cm dice
1 avocado, cut into 1 cm dice
½ cucumber, cut into 1 cm dice
¼ cup green spring onions, cut into 1 cm lengths
1 tbsp red onion, cut into 1 cm dice
1 tsp finely grated lime zest
Juice of 1 lime
1 cup torn coriander leaves
½ tsp sea salt

Toss all ingredients together.

Roasted tomatoes

1 punnet cherry tomatoes
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp cracked black pepper
½ tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp castor sugar
1 tsp (approx) balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp olive oil

Heat the oven to 180ºc.

Cut the cherry tomatoes in half. Add all ingredient to a baking dish and toss to coat. Cook for about ½ hour or until the tomatoes are starting to caramelise but still retain their shape.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Artichoke, pimento, jamon and frozen pea salad. What junk food is not

Just around the corner from me is a fabulous Spanish / Latin grocery store. It is packed with all kinds of goodies imported from Spain, Portugal and South America. Tuna and sardines, anchovies, jars of artichokes in oil and tinned hearts-of-palm. Chorizo and legs of acorn-fed jamon hang from the ceiling. There are bags of arroz and sacks of gabanzo beans. Vats of olives and litres of olive oil. Paella tins and dozens of varieties of dried chillies and spices.

Dried and bottled and salted and cured and frozen and vinegared Iberican abundance. Making dinner a matter of throwing together a random selection of whatever catches the eye.

Is there a difference between my colourful Spanish salad and a Krispy Kreme doughnut or KFC?

When does the act of preparing a meal become home-cooking? When does food become processed? And when does food become junk food? And why junk? Why a word connoting such worthlessness?

‘Junk food’ continually appears as a culprit in public debate. From banning the sale of toys with Happy Meals to government mandated standards for the food in school canteens to lobby groups opposing the advertising of ‘junk food’ during prime-time children’s television to public health studies and nutritionalist advice: junk food is a core concept in the contemporary public debate about food.

Junk food is shorthand. It’s used to describe everything from production to consumption practices, method of processing, readiness of availability, caloric content and nutritional value (or valuelessness), (high) percentage fat/sugar, (un)naturalness, cheapness, and social context. All terms and concepts themselves that themselves are difficult to pin down and already laden with all kinds of assumptions about what is good and bad food.

Beyond this is a debate that too quickly seems to be shorthand for blaming someone. Blaming governments. Blaming the media. Blaming big corporations. Blaming society. Blaming parents. Blaming us. And then judging.

Rather than focusing on an item of food in terms of its health outcomes or nutritional inputs or even consumption context (all of which are important), I think junk food is perhaps something we can think about as our broad relationship to eating. Food does not, inherently, have a quality of junk or not-junk. But our broad approach to eating may turn our consumption practices in ones that are more or less valued by us and valuable to us. That is, the way we eat, the way we think about food, nutrition, sustenance, satisfaction, contentment, fulfilment, pleasure and flavour may position food as worthless and junk-ful or as valuable. So for me, junk food is thoughtless, mindless, directionless, irresponsible eating. It is eating that fails to take into account the singularity of eating this thing, here and now, as a unique and unrepeatable experience.

My salad may have too high a quantity of sodium or oil or fat. It may inhibit or replace my ability or willingness to ensure I have, that day, met my recommended daily intake of certain essential vitamins and minerals, fibres or proteins. It may be primarily pre-prepared.

But it makes me think of Spain. And I shared it with people I love. And I chose the items with a sense of wonder. The act of eating is also an act of ritual: the table was set and the time we ate was time set aside for eating together. It may not be healthy, but it is not junk.

Artichoke, pimento, jamon and frozen pea salad.

Serves 2 as a main meal

1 red onion, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup frozen peas, blanched and refreshed (of course, you could blanch fresh ones)
1 jar of roasted pimento in oil, drained, finely sliced, oil reserved (or you could roast your own capsicum – you’ll need two)
1 jar artichoke hearts in oil, drained and quartered
100 gm thinly sliced jamon, torn into strips
1 tbsp Spanish sherry vinegar or lemon juice

Heat a tablespoon of reserved oil in a fry pan. Add garlic and onion and sauté over a medium heat until soft. Add peas and toss until warmed through.

Remove from heat, toss through the remaining ingredients and vinegar.

Serve with crusty bread.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Jack and the beanstalk (warm bean salad)

Beans and peas are so ubiquitous that it can be hard to think of them as anything special. That is in fact a driving narrative force in the whole Jack and the Beanstalk story. His mum dismissed those beans and tossed them out the window. The rest is history (or fairytale). Beans, I believe are valourised by this story.* Same goes for peas, cf: The Princess and the Pea.

Beans are magic.

Broadbeans, green beans, peas and sugar-snaps, butter beans. And purple-pink speckled borlotti beans.** All freshly podded or top-and-tailed or de-stringed, according to phylum-order-family-genus-species.

Sweet and crunchy and soft and earthy, fresh legumes are one of the luxuries of spring, a verdant and humble apology for a winter’s age of dried pulses.

* Yeah, ok, arguably the beans are only vindicated by virtue of the access they provided to the golden goose or whatever was at the top of the beanstalk. The moral of the story, to my rather myopic view, is: vegetables are really, really good.
** Tragically, they lose their spots when cooked. And they must be cooked, for at least ten minutes or they might kill you. See magic. Seriously - some beans contain quanities of a lectin called phytohaemagglutinin, which can be quite harmful to humans. Cooking reduces the harmfulfulness. See

Warm spring bean salad

Serves 2

300 gm (unshelled) fresh borlotti beans (you should be left with about 100 gm of shelled beans)
300 gm (unshelled) fresh broad beans (you should be left with about 100 gm of shelled beans)
200 gm (unshelled) fresh peas-in-the-pod
1 bunch asparagus, cut into 5 cm lengths
100 gm green beans, cut into 5 cm lengths (or use a mix of butter beans and green beans)
2 tbsp olive oil
½ Spanish onion, finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tbps finely chopped parsley
Celery salt (or plain sea salt)
100g Soft goats cheese or curd or a goat’s milk fetta cheese.

Shell the borlotti beans. Boil in salted water for about 15 to 20 minutes, until tender but not mushy. Drain and reserve.

Shell the broad beans. Blanch in boiling water for about two minutes. Strain and remove the pale skins to reveal the bright green beans. Set aside with the borlotti beans.

Blanch the peas and beans for about three minutes, until just cooked. Strain and set aside with the other beans.

In a large fry pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions and garlic on a medium heat until translucent. Add the asparagus and cook for about three minutes or until the asparagus is just cooked through (but still has a nice crunch). Add the reserved vegetables, the parsley and celery salt and toss until all the vegetable are combined and warm through.

Serve with crumbled goats cheese.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Eating Aesop's Fables: or making a point about dieting through trout salad

"... like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths"*

The girls (Bird and Bean, specifically, but it could be anybody, really) are interested in healthy eating. And in looking fine (which they do). But not in boring eating. And dieting is boring. Health food is not fun.

And then my head explodes.

I am suspicious of thinking about losing weight. About how diets are always and necessarily antithetical to ‘normal eating’. About how becoming or being healthy is some kind of mortification of the flesh. About how, especially for women, there is this inherent judgement - self judgement and judgement of others – involved in how we think about ‘losing weight’ that carries a whole lot of unarticulated and often illogical and unfounded assumptions and conclusions – about the value of a person, morally, aesthetically and socially.

There is good food versus bad food and healthy food versus comfort food and lazy and blameworthy and ugly people versus fit and praiseworthy and attractive people.

Again and again we are reminded that in our Western, post industrial countries our problem is obesity: childhood obesity and obesity related diseases, the cost of this epidemic on our health care system, our health insurance. And certain bodies are idealised, not only or even as healthy but as desirable, as objects of desire. And it is easy to mistake a desire to be desirable for a desire to be healthy. And sometimes we use the language of health to disguise our longing to be desirable.** And this is damaging and dangerous: not necessarily or only to our health, but to our ability to see and create beauty and worthiness and desirability in an endless variety of people and bodies.

Bird and Bean recently expressed a certain amount of incredulity and a little bit of lust at the variety of food we eat at home.

What we eat in my kitchen is multiple and ever expanding varieties of food. And it is precisely this variety that makes the way we eat the object of covetousness.

It is mostly healthy – whatever that means. Fresh. Relatively unprocessed. Vegetable focused. But there’s cheese and olive oil and pasta and bread. There’s wine and sugar and butter – sometimes. Desserts (mostly fruit based, but not always). Mostly small meals, sometimes large meals. Occasional almond croissants. Pea and sherry soup. Bangers and mash. And everything changes – with my mood, my abrupt fascination with certain methods or regional cuisines, with the seasons.

It’s not endless possibility, but it is driven by a refusal to be bored and a refusal to be dictated to by routine. A willingness to make mistakes and a complete commitment to the hedonism and carnality of acquiring, preparing, eating – experiencing – food in all its messy, surprising, delicious uniqueness.

So the way I think about food runs alongside how I think about beauty. And diets. And desirability.

So I hesitate to say I eat ‘healthy’. I just eat. And it is all good.

* Attributed to Apollonius of Tyana, 1st century philosopher.

** I must, at this point, extract in full an account of this kind of thinking. Not my own, but sensibly, passionately, articulated by someone else inducing such a sense of familiarity that it must be repeated:

"I thought about this especially this weekend after getting into an intense (and cocktail-fueled) conversation about weight loss and body image with my closest girlfriends. These are precarious topics and my girlfriends all know me as “the feminist” (not that they’re not feminists, but it is not as all-encompassing for them, I think) and so they assume my stances on these things (like that I will be flat-out anti-diet). I tried to find a way to be supportive of what I was hearing while still encouraging them to see their struggle within the larger context of Shit That The World Does To Women. For example, one friend complained about how one reason she’d like to lose weight was so that she could fit into clothing at regular clothing stores. I have been there, and I could totally identify with that feeling, that awful “I’m not invited to the party” feeling. But it killed me to think about how she was turning this all inwards, as a moral failing of her own, rather than identifying the real culprits, i.e. the asshole industry that is so exclusionary, so normative, so hateful. In her language I also heard her equating a lot of very fair and serious concerns about her health with concerns about “fitting in” (see above), and I tried to gently point out that those are not the same things. Reorienting oneself to view things from a feminist angle certainly doesn’t solve the problem, but it does help one stop hating oneself, a goal which I think is pretty damn essential to being a functioning human being. And one that is hard for so many women I love, including myself". From the always amazing A of
Accordians and Lace

Steamed trout salad

Serves 2

½ bulb fennel, very thinly sliced
½ red onion, very thinly sliced
½ frissee lettuce
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
½ avocado, cut into small dice
2 tbsp toasted blanched almonds
1 tbsp fresh mint, finely shredded
1 navel orange*
300 g ocean trout fillets (salmon would work equally well)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp verjuice (or lemon juice)
Sea salt and cracked pepper to taste

To steam the trout (if like me, you don’t have a steamer, otherwise, just use the steamer). Chose a small deep plate or shallow bowl that can fit inside a lidded wok or large saucepan. Line with a piece of baking paper. Place the trout on the plate. Sit the plate in the wok, then gently pour water into the wok up to just below the level of the plate, taking care not to drown the fish. Cover with the lid and bring the water to a simmer. Once the water is bubbling, steam the fish for about 6 minutes. The fish is done when it flakes away easily.

Peel the orange with a knife, taking care to remove all the white pith. Cut into segments, avoiding the membranes.

Whisk the salad dressing ingredients in a large bowl until combined. Add the salad ingredients except for the trout and toss to coat. Season.

Break the steamed trout into flakes and gently scatter through the salad.


* I’ve been buying these insanely good hybrids called Caras – cross between a navel and ruby grapefruit. Slightly salmon coloured and just gorgeous.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Clear tomato soup

Abundance is a big, ripe, round word, almost onomatopoeic in its application to the mounds of more -than-ready-to-eat tomatoes tumbling into the market stalls as spring heats up.*

There is nothing I do not adore about the smell of tomatoes. Sugar and acid and that strange spicy scent of the stems and leaves.

There is a stall at the market which categorises tomatoes according to a range of juxtaposed and seemingly arbitrary taxomonies. Place of origin (Murray Bridge, Bacchus Marsh), variety (Aledaide*, roma, cherry, ‘field’), method of cultivation (field, trussed, hydroponic, magic), and ripeness (ready to eat, green).
And purpose: cooking. That is, soft, falling apart, two-days-past ripe, almost mushy with splitting skins. And at $2.50 per kilo, irresistible for someone whose winter stocks of passata and chutney and tomato sauce and paste are exhausted.

Tomatoes are sexy. Ther’s no denying the call to summer present in their lush, lush redness, like pouting lips, ready for the the hottest, wettest, tomatoiest kisses. Tomatoes are ‘come hither’. They’re anybody’s, everybody’s. They’re easy.

So in an effort to pour ice onto that tomato induced libido, chill. To make summer’s good-time gal an ice-queen, she has to strip. And strip she did*.

Blended, strained, frozen until the first ice crystles start to form, this blush-tinged tomato soup is a tomato flavoured slap in the face.

Still easy though ...

* Don’t be deceived. It snowed last Saturday. It snowed. It never snows but it snowed.

** which I thought was part of the ‘place of origin’ schema, but it turns out it is a variety of tomato – more pinkish than reddish, and very flavoursome, firm fleshed.

*** Note: the tomato, not me.

Clear tomato soup

Serves 4 as a light starter, or 2 for a meal with salad and bread.

1 kilo ripe, ripe, ripe tomatoes
1 cup fresh basil leaves
2 cloved garlic, peeled
2 ripe but firm tomatoes, de-seeded and peeled, cut into small diamonds
2 tbsp small basil leaves, to serve
Salt and pepper to taste

Place the tomatoes, basil and garlic in a blender and blend until smooth. Place a muslin lined strainer over a large bowl and pour in tomato pulp.

Place in the fridge to strain over night (at least eight hours). Do not press the mixture (this can make it cloudy).

The next day, taste the tomato ‘water’. Season with salt and pepper. (note – I reserve the left over pulp and add it to passata or baked beans or casserole – nothing goes to waste!)

Place in the freezer until ice crystals start to form at the edges. (you can also serve this hot – just heat until warmed through – wait until soup is hot to season it, as hot food generally needs less seasoning than chilled food).

Spoon into bowls or glasses, top with reserved tomato diamonds and basil leaves.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Choke on it, or, Not being perfect, as demonstrated by the artichoke

There are people – they know who they are, and, in all honesty, I know who they are too – who are very, very good at food. They know it all. It’s old hat. No surprises. Who’ve forgotten how to be intimidated.

I am not one of those cooks. I forget to sharpen my knives and I don’t measure things. I can’t pronounce half the fancy French things I like to eat. I once dropped a roast leg of lamb on the kitchen floor in front of guests before serving it. I have set fire to my own saucepans making soup. I tried to make stock from the carcass of a shop-bought barbequed chicken and ended up with a pot full of mushy artificial stuffing.

Artichokes scare me.

It is unfamiliar, strange, unique. A thistle (a thistle flower bud, I think), for goodness sake. Kind of stringy and tough-ish. With a reputation for fussiness of preparation and eating. (Wipe it immediately with lemon to stop it browning. Remove the ‘hairy choke’ – whatever that is! Dip each petal in butter then scrape with the teeth). Expensive. The first time I ever even touched, let alone cooked, a live, real, fresh one (as opposed to the delicious deli-bought variety) involved potential public humiliation. The kind with internet video footage (which sounds way worse than it actually is, I garuntee).

Artichokes scare me.

But in this fear is what food is for me: constant wonder, constant interrogation of the edible world, never quite being assured or certain as the eater, the preparer, the sharer, the host. I will never master the artichoke. I will never become a chef or kitchen wiz. But I will cook it, and eat it, and serve it – differently each time. Sometimes better, and sometimes undercooked or too mushy or oily or salty.

And the fear will be something a little bit like love: the bottom dropping out of my stomach when I realise that the possibility of everything going wrong is also the possibility of everything going right.

This spring has been the spring of the artichoke. Guided in these first heady weeks by Maggie Beer’s homey and casual advice, artichokes braised in verjuice and olive oil*. With more confidence, cooked in lemon juice and stock. Set aside and eaten cold. Minced and used as the stuffing for ravioli. Or omelettes.

Little by little a familiarity has crept in. A cautious letting down of my guard. Not enough for complacency, but definitely a budding romance.

* I am in love with Maggie Beer, AOM, in much the same way as I am obsessed with the J Cheese building. The J Cheese building is a private residence in an inner city suburb, remarkable for no other reason than that the words ‘J Cheese’ appear, moulded into it’s high, art-deco facade.

And I desire the J Cheese building for no other reason than the appearance of these words. To own a thing – be it a building or a name – that immediate evokes the presence of some desirable, edible, substance (Cheese, Beer) – is a concept of great attraction to me. And salivation. It’s Pavlovian. Which also makes me think of pavlova. Which also makes me salivate.

Artichokes with leeks and pasta

Serves 4

2 lemons, juiced
1 tbsp olive oil
¼ cup verjuice
1.5 litre (ish) water or vegetable stock
4 large artichokes (pick big ones with very tight petals and long stems).
2 garlic cloves
1 leek, cut into ½ cm wide, 10 cm long strips
400 gram very good quality dried pasta (I like filei calabresi for this. I am pretty fussy about pasta, and only dried, very, very dense duram wheat semolina pasta will work for this)
1 cup freshly podded peas

Parmesan cheese, to serve

In a large saucepan or deep pan heat the olive oil stock, verjuice and juice of one lemon.

Half fill a large bowl with water and add the juice of the remaining lemon.

Now – prepare the artichokes. First, start pulling off the outer most petals – peel and snap in a downward motion. Keep doing this until you are left with petals that are mostly a creamy yellow colour (about a third of the petals will be discarded). Then, with a very sharp knife or peeler, trim the stalk and broken petal stubs until the softer inner part of the stem is revealed. Rub any cut surface with the inner surface of the lemon peel (to stop it browning). Cut the top part of the petals off, at least a third of the way down. Cut in half lengthways, and with a teaspoon, remove the ‘hairy choke’ – that is, you’ll notice that at the base of the artichoke, before the petals start to become petal-y, a kind of fluffy soft looking crescent. Slip the curve of the spoon in under this, press back toward to top of the petals and then slip out. If you cut the petal off the top back enough, you can also scoop this out from the top, leaving the artichoke whole to cook.

Cut in half length ways again, and place in the bowl of lemon water, while you repeat with the remaining artichokes.

Add all artichoke quarters to the pan of stock and bring to a simmer. Cover with a lid and cook for about half an hour. The artichokes turn kind of grey-ish, which seems unappetising, except I’m pretty sure they are supposed to be this colour ...

After half an hour, remove the lid and add leek strips and pasta. The idea is to cook the pasta in this stock by reduction, a little like making risotto. If the liquid looks like running dry before the pasta is cooked, add a little more water. The pasta will take around half an hour to cook.

Meanwhile, cook the peas in a pan of simmering water until just cooked. Strain and set aside.

When the pasta is cook, taste and add salt as required (I find that this befits from a generous amount of sea salt) – stir through peas, and serve, topped with a little grated parmesan cheese.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mung beans and whole grains

I recently saw a picture in a magazine of toasted whole wheat with a slow cooked egg yolk. Something about the dark crunchiness of the wheat appealed – I could imagine it’s dense, chewy texture, subtly enhanced with the rich gooeyness of the egg yolk. It looked simple. Basic. Impossible to tell, from the picture, if it was enhanced with something extravagant like truffle oil or handpicked wild micro-herbs. No recipe, just a picture amongst many pictures.

Whole-gains seem the terrain of hippies and health nuts, the food of anaemic and fashionable vegans and ultra-fit protein obsessed gym junkies. It sounds like a diet, or an extreme life-style choice. Which immediately conjures a sense of deprivation. Dieting seems to evoke a sense of loss of more than just weight. A world without sugar and fat and carbs and sweets and treats. A world without flavour. A world of rabbit food and cardboard tasting meal-substitutes.

And in all honesty, at the end of a winter that I dealt with primarily through laziness and comfort food, a reassessment of the healthiness of what I eat is probably called for. Not ‘a diet’, not a fad or a quick fix. Just a subtle realignment, now that my hostility to the season can be set aside for another year.

But there is something about toasted unprocessed whole grains, nutty and caramel, crisp and yielding, with a taste like the smell of cooking toast, that is homey and satisfying and comforting. On close inspection, toasted grains have nothing in common with deprivation. Despite the indisputable health and environmental benefits, whole grains are an unexpected treat, and now, more than a little bit high-end. Hence their appearance in a glossy magazine devoted to the valorisation of the chef’s arts.

I could have gone out and bought some farro, the oh so cool grain of the moment, some kind of ancient and original variety of wheat. Or whole wheat kernals. Or mixed red and black quinoa with onions and garlic and spinach. But I have barley in the pantry, set aside for adding to rustic soups. And what better to match it with than mung beans, that other shared bastion of the hug-the-earth-cum-health-kick movement?

There is something so terribly retro about mung beans. Reserved for the super-health conscious and hippies, they’ve hung around in health food shops and food co-ops with an endless seventies vibe, kind of overlooked and forgotten.

With English mint and plenty of salt, this was fresh and earthy, and a little bit pretty. And ridiculously healthy.

Toasted barley and mung bean salad

Serves two

½ cup pearl barley
1 cup mixed bean shoots (ie, mung beans, pea shoots, chickpea shoots)
¼ cup fresh peas
½ cup torn mint leaves
½ cup snow pea shoots (green part only)
2 tbsp toasted pine nuts
1 tsp olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
Sea salt

In a large non stick fry pan heat the barley over a medium heat, shaking the pan or stirring to prevent the barley from burning. When the barely is a deep golden colour, add two cups of water or stock and lower the heat. Simmer for about half an hour, until the barley is soft and chewy (and most of the liquid is evaporated. Strain and add to a large bowl.

Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil, add peas and cook for about 5 minutes. In the last minute of cooking, add the mixed mung beans, just to soften a little. Add to the bowl with the barley and remaining ingredients and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cinderella moment: roast pumpkin and the pig

I am not all that fussed about pumpkin. I grew up relatively untouched by pumpkin. My father, a man who religiously grew choko vines for my entire childhood and expected me to eat them, boiled to a watery nothingness, was not all that fussed about pumpkin. If the stories are to be believed (and to be fair, few people remain available or willing to attest to their veracity) he grew up with an adamant refusal to eat pumpkin, boiled to a watery nothingness. And there is some indication that at some early stage he was most villainously deceived with ‘mashed yellow potato’.

We did not eat pumpkin in our house when I was a child. Lack of exposure led to lack of familiarity which in turn led to a benign neglect of pumpkin in my life.*

Halloween, harvest festivals and Cinderella also did not feature in my formative years, and so my lack of pumpkin exposure in the home was not challenged by a broader desensitisation via popular culture. A home-ec incident involving a Queensland blue pumpkin, a blunt knife and the tip of the middle finger on my left hand cemented my general impression that pumpkins and I moved in very different circles.

Had I , as a young child, seen the streets of Hoboken, New Jersey, in mid October, the steps of brown stone terraces artfully lined with bright orange spheres, here and there delicately and expertly carved into hobgoblin faces of glee and terror, I may have been more accommodating and more curious. I may even have been utterly charmed, as I was when well into adulthood I experienced the cultural grip of Halloween for the first time.

But as it was I came to pumpkin in a mechanical and mundane way. It was just another relatively common vegetable that is predicably very nutritious, cheap and colourful during the dreary winter months. It is good for you. Vitamin A and vitamin C. Potassium. Magnesium. Other technical sounding components. It’s a kind of melon, and like melons it has a ridiculously high water content (which makes it fabulous for soup, but certainly explains it’s tendency to become watery). It’s vaguely sweet, roasts nicely, purees well and looks a bit artistic in the middle of table. I made soup and curry and purees and even pies, sweet and savoury. And felt virtuous but never thrilled.

Then the inevitable occurred.

I wrapped it in bacon.

The home-cook’s fairy godmother.

* Which is utterly inconsistent with my near obsession with Brussels sprouts, another subject of childhood deprivation. I don’t get it either.

Prosciutto wrapped butternut pumpkin with thyme and honey

Serves 4-6 pumpkin eaters

1 whole butternut pumpkin, peeled, de-seeded and cut lengthways into wedges – between 10-12 wedges
1 tbsp melted butter
1 tbsp honey (use a good wild honey. It has more flavour)
1 tbsp boiling water
1 tsp thyme leaves, finely chopped
12 sprigs thyme,
12 slices prosciutto, each cut in half lengthways
Salt and pepper

Pre heat the oven to about 200ºc. Oil a baking tray.

Mix the honey with the butter and boiling water. Brush each pumpkin wedge with the honey mixture. Scatter with chopped thyme, salt and pepper. Wrap each wedge with strips of prosciutto, like a candy cane. Arrange on the baking tray.

Brush over any remaining honey. Arrange thyme sprigs over the pumpkin wedges.

Place in the oven and cook for about 30 minutes or until cooked (a tooth pick or skewer will insert easily when cooked). Cover with foil if the prosciutto starts to become too brown.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Moorish Stew (lamb tagine, by any other name)

Some years ago I jotted down my work-in-progress recipe for ‘Moroccan Stew’ (even then I hesitated to call it tagine). This recipe – a very loose term for a list of ingredients and questions regarding possible variations, without any indication as to method or cooking time – is accompanied by a note at the bottom of the page which states: ‘potato emporium. idea. Why not have a shop that sells nothing but potatoes and potato related items, ie, peelers, mashers et cetera’. This page is sandwiched between an idea for ‘asian flavoured’ chicken mince kebabs made with left over boiled rice, fish sauce and coriander and my thoughts regarding the perfect blueberry muffin (consisting again of a list of ingredient and the admonishment that ‘hot! hot! The oven must be hot’). There are oil stains, smears of chocolate and what looks like an old, dried onion ring on the page. My life is filled with notebooks, folders, randomly sized slips of paper and cuttings from newspapers and magazines. The creative process is, well, creative.

I have an odd soft spot for recipes that bear the name of the vessel in which they are cooked. I think this is part of a broader appreciation of dishes that have names for themselves, and not merely a description of what they contain. Modern recipes, modern restaurants, will list for you dishes such as ‘pan-seared butterflied quail, with smoked fig, and liquorish sorbet’. Such nomenclature certainly conveys meaning but it denies the meal any independence from its components. The sum, in such a naming convention, is not greater than its parts. Not so for beef wellington. Or my perennial favourite, bouillabaisse. Or fairy cakes. Or spotted dick. Or lamingtons. These names speak of an existence beyond the ingredients – these recipes have independent identity.

And so for those fabulous meals eponymously named for their containers. Casserole. Hoppers. Paella. Saganaki. And tagine. The tagine is a two piece earthen wear cooking vessel consisting of a rimmed flat-bottom shallow pan and topped by a lid in the shape of an inverted flower pot. The tagine is the cooking vessel of Morocco. Think Divo, but rocking the Kasbah.

The tagine is suited to certain methods of cooking. And certain kinds of foods and flavours are found and appreciated in Morocco. So it makes sense that there is an identifiable and unmistakable family of dishes known as ‘tagines’. Earthy and spicy and slow cooked. Studded with sweetness and balanced with bitterness. Dates and figs and preserved lemons. Enhanced with almonds or pistachios. Lamb or chicken or fish, but never pork. And when you can hold that perfect, ideal, image in your head, it is possible to lift the impression of the dish – the smoky, soft, spicy-sweet-ness – and create a meal that is, in every respect except the one that counts, a tagine.

And because it tastes so good you might describe it as more-ish (pun approaching).

Moorish stew then, not tagine.

Moroccan lamb and vegetable stew, tagine style, served with scorched almonds in burnt butter with sour yoghurt sauce

Serves 6
400 g lamb pieces, large dice
2 tbsp corn flour
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp sumac
2 tsp paprika
1 cinnamon stick (or 1 heaped tsp ground cinnamon)
2 red onions, peeled and cut into thin wedges
4 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 finely sliced red chilli (optional)
400 g tin of chickpeas
1 small red sweet potato, about 250 gm, cut into 1 inch cubes
400g tin of crushed tomatoes
1 Moroccan preserved lemon, finely sliced (otherwise, use the finely grated rind of a fresh lemon, lime or orange)
200 gm dried fruit (ie, pears, apricot, prunes, dates, figs or raisins – I like a mixtue of pears and prunes)
2 firm pears, peeled, cored and quartered
200 gm green beans,
1 red capsicum, cut into finger width strips
1 zucchini, cut into 1 cm rounds
(you could add cauliflower, eggplant, parsnip, spinach, carrot – pretty much anything)

Dust the lamb pieces with the corn flour.

Heat the oil in a very large heavy based saucepan. Add the spices and fry for about 1 minute. Add the lamb, and shake the pan occasionally until the lamb is brown on all sides.

Add the onion and garlic and chilli and cook until starting to soften (about 5 minutes), stirring to prevent the lamb or the onions from burning. Reduce the heat if necessary. Add the chickpeas and cook until starting to pop (you will hear them – sometimes they even jump out of the pan). Add the sweet potato and pear quarters and stir until coated in the oil and spices.

Add the tinned tomatoes and 2 cups of water. Bring to a gentle simmer. Add the dried fruit and preserved lemon and cook over a gentle heat for about40 minutes, or until the sweet potato is cooked and the lamb is soft.

Add the remaining vegetables and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked but still firm.

Serve with couscous and scorched almond and burnt butter and sour yoghurt sauce.

Scorched almonds and burnt butter and sour yoghurt sauce.

100 gm blanched almonds
50 gm butter
1 cup low fat natural yoghurt
Sea salt

In a small fry pan, toast the blanched almonds until they are starting to appear scorched (some parts will be very darkly toasted and some will appear raw). Add the butter and reduce the heat. Cook until the butter is foaming and starting to turn a rich golden colour. Don’t actually burn the butter – you want it to taste toasty but not smoky.

Pour over the yoghurt and sprinkle with sea salt.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nothing in the world quite like home-made scones, straight from the oven

Flour. Butter. Milk. Jam. Cream.

No need to complicate things. No need to buy a packet of biscuits in which the packaging probably cost more than the contents, and probably has fewer unappetising additives. No need to fuss for hours, turning out the most delicately shaped and flavoured colourful tiny petits fours. No need to worry about whether the sponge cake will rise or if the cheesecake will set.

Nothing compares to sitting down at the kitchen table and enjoying a mug of tea (not a cup, not a pot, a mug, preferably with tea-bag still in) and having a good chat and a hot, slightly misshapen scone. No high-tea or trendy cafe can ever replace the gentle satisfaction of doughy steam and flour streaked hair. The comfort of not caring, and just enjoying.

The perfect scone is light and fluffy, without a golden blush on the top. Less than ten minutes to get it into the oven and less than ten minutes in the oven. Unpretentious.

Best served with what is generically known as ‘little-old-lady-church-jam’ which can be procured from any country market or church fete, usually sold in jars of varying sizes that used to contain tomato paste or pickles, topped with gingham-checked circles of cloth, with each different coloured mop-top indicated a different flavour of jam (flavours will include passionfruit and tomato jam, grapefruit marmalade, peach and walnut jam, carrot and lemon marmalade and cherry chutney). Cream, whipped, is not optional.

Simple scones, no fuss

This recipe is remembered from the now fallen-apart Commonsense Cookery Book. The Book is still in print, although updated. Mine was published in the 50s.

2 cups self raising flour
50 gm butter, cold, diced
1 cup milk (curdled with 1 tbsp lemon juice, optional)

Preheat oven to hot – about 220ºc. Line a baking slide with greaseproof paper.

Sift flour into a bowl. Toss in cubed butter. Rub through the butter. This mean very lightly with your finger tips crush the butter cubes into the flour. Do not use your whole palm – you want the butter to be crumbled into the flour but not melted. Rub in under the mixture resembles very fine bread crumbs. Alternatively, put the flour and butter into a food processor and pulse until fine crumbs form.

Make a well and pour in three quarters of the milk. Mix together with a butter knife until a loose ball of dough forms – adding more milk as required.

Turn out onto a board or bench lightly floured (with self raising flour) and knead lightly until a smoothish dough forms.

Roll with a rolling pin until about 2cm thick. Cut with a scone cutter (do not twist the cutter as you cut – this will seal the scone edges and they won’t rise as well). (re-knead any dough after you have cut and roll and cut again, until the scone dough is used up)

Place the scones on to the baking slide, brush the tops with a little milk.

Bake in the hot oven for about 10 minutes, until puffed up and springy.

Serve immediately with whipped cream and your favourite jam.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Winter’s Tale: a pantomime of slow roasted garlic crusted lamb.

Act I

In which there are mistaken identities, long lost twins, virgin births, nativity celebrations, joyous nuptials, duels, mischief, tragic and mysterious deaths, feasting and nothing is explained.

Scene I: A kitchen, mid-winter.

Enter our heroine (me), carrying a quarter of a sheep. Or, as it were, a giant boned-out shoulder-leg-shank of lamb, weighing approximately 3.5 kilos. It is clear that some serious feasting will, at some time, in the not-too-distant-future, transpire. It is not clear, as this stage, whether the piece of meat will fit into the kitchen’s adequate and yet not giant oven.

The meat is set aside, and head after head of garlic are peeled and crushed. Soon a not-insignificantly sized bowl of garlic paste is amassed. Toasted cumin seeds and lemon rind and salt and sumac are added. The strong smelling paste is then applied to the surface and every crevice of the lamb. The lamb is then wrapped up and set aside.

Scene II: The same kitchen, several days later. Morning.

We observe our heroine placing the lamb into a very slow oven. Over the course of several hours she bastes the lamb with the juices spilling into the very crowed baking pan.

Much later, in the evening, she turns off the oven.

Scene III: The same kitchen, several days later. Evening.

Enter our heroine, carrying a large parcel wrapped in bright blue paper and tied with silver ribbon. Accompanying her are a Princess, a Vicar, an Officer and a Clerk of the Court. It is clear they have been at an ale house, and several of the party are carrying bottles of wine.

The heroine returns the lamb to the oven, along with potatoes. Various other items are set to cook including green beans in tomato and onion sauce and dried legumes and chard with garlic. The lack of olives is lamented, and wine is decanted.

As more wine is consumed the smell of cooking lamb wafts through the gathered party. Noses twitch and mouths water.

Finally the heroine presents the with a flourish the meltingly tender slow cooked marinaded lamb. The garlic crust is dark, dark brown and bitter and sweet from the long time in the oven. The meat is pink in the middle and so soft it falls apart at the touch of a spoon. The potatoes are golden and crunchy and nutty with oregano and thyme.

Later, pastries dripping with honey and filled with nuts are gluttonously consumed.

More than one birthday has been celebrated and all go to bed merry and sated.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Eats roots and leaves: nose-to-tail celery and celeriac soup*

Wastefulness. At one end of the input-output spectrum we throw away millions of tonnes of perfectly edible food every year.

At the other end of the spectrum, we limit, and therefore waste, the options available as food. Our environmental impact is such that species are become extinct at an alarmingly exponential rate (they ate dodos people. And don’t even get me started on the implications of bee extinction**). In terms of food production and consumption we are also voluntarily limiting the variety of species that we chose to eat***. And even more so, we are choosing only to consume a very small part of those species that we do choose to eat.

Homo sapiens, the smart men, need to eat smarter. Nose-to-tail eating is a brilliant slogan for us carnivores. ‘Eats roots and leaves’ captures this for the herbivores among us. It’s true that not every part of every plant is edible. Some are in fact harmful. But beetroot leaves, broccoli stalks, grape vine leaves, and pumpkin seeds – all edible. Orange rind and pineapple skins make beautiful marmalade. Watermelon rind can be turned into pickles.

And pretty much every part of celery can be devoured.

Most of us are familiar with the stalks – the crunchy light green part, great with hummus or peanut butter (that may be my particular fetish ...). Wash, cut, throw away the leaves, right?

Alternatively – eat it all. Young celery leaves are lovely in salad. Older leaves can be blanched like English spinach or oven dried as crunchy snacks or even powdered for a concentrated celery flavoured dust. Even the tiny seeds are edible. As is the root.

Celeriac is a knobbly, bulbous root of a variety of celery. It has a subtle celery flavour and can be eaten raw (for example, julienned in French remoulade, a kind of mustard mayonnaise salad), roasted or fried (a little like potato, but less starchy) or steamed and pureed (try: half potato, half celeriac, significant amounts of butter, delicious).

Which all leads to soup: with a light creamy texture and a fresh celery taste, it is all the comfort of winter with all the promise of spring. Using every part of the celery plant.

* For those with a one track mind, the incorrect insertion of a comma can make all the difference. See Lyn Truss’ excellent work on gramma, Eat, Roots and Leaves

** In a nutshell, bees fertilise flowers. Fertilised flowers grown into seed producing fruit. See producing fruit are a) edible, and b) the basis upon which other flower-producing plants grow. Fewer bees means reduced fertilisation, which impacts on crops. Bees are a big deal for the farming sector. And bees are very sensitive to environmental change.

*** This is more complicated, because on one level this is being limited for us by the agricultural and retail sectors, but en masse, we-the-human-race are limiting our choices.

Thick celery and celeriac soup

1 bunch celery
1 brown onion
1 garlic clove
100 gms finely chopped bacon (optional)
1 celeriac (about 500g), skin removed and roughly chopped
1 lt vegetable or chicken stock
2 small potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ cm dice
Salt and pepper to taste
Sour cream to serve

Celery powder (in advance)*

Preheat oven to 50ºc.

Remove celery leaves. Spread out on an oven tray, bake in oven for around 45 minutes, or until dehydrated. When completely dry, blend in a food processor until finely powdered. Remove any spiky bits of stalk. Store in an airtight container (as with other dried herbs and spices, usually good for about 6 months).

Celery and celeriac soup

Finely dice the onion and 3 celery stalks (eat remaining stalks as a snack with peanut butter or hummus or tzadziki) and mince the garlic.

Combine with bacon in a large heavy based saucepan, and cook over a low heat until the onion is starting to soften. The low heat will melt the bacon fat – if not using bacon, add a teaspoon of olive oil.

Meanwhile, in a separate pot, blanch the potato dice in boiling water until cooked through (about 5-10 minutes).

When the onion is soft, add the celeriac and half the stock. Bring to the boil. Once boiling, add half the remaining stock and continue to cook until the celeriac is soft enough to smash with the back of a spoon. This takes about 25 minutes.

Blend the soup in a food processor or with a bar mix until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Return to saucepan and add remaining stock. If the soup is too thick, add a little water. Stir in the cooked potato and heat through.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream and a generous sprinkling of celery powder.

* I started making celery salt and got side-tracked - and voila, celery powder.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

This porridge is just right. Food that your grandmamma would recognise

Porridge is immensely satisfying. Warming, sweet, sticky and filling: it is busting with the goodness of whole grains and fibre and yet it tastes like gooey breakfast pudding.

With dried and fresh fruit and nuts and natural yoghurt and honey and nutmeg and cinnamon - it is decadent and over the top and basically just really, really good for you. Unlike eggs and bacon or waffles or pancakes or coffee and a croissant, eating porridge for breakfast entitles me to walk around with a smug, self-satisfied look on my face. It’s ridiculously healthy and pretty basic yet in no way hints at any kind of deprivation.

Food doesn’t need to be complicated or sugary or buttery to taste good.

And food shouldn’t be boring or uninteresting or restrictively-limited in order to be good for us.

So, in the words of Michael Pollan, lets “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.

Like most things that are truly healthy, porridge is not overly processed (for rolled oats the oat-groats are hulled and rolled flat. ‘Quick oats’ are then also pre-steamed to hasten the cooking process). My deluxe version incorporates lots of fresh fruits. It has a variety of ingredients, all of which are pretty basic (that is, in or very close to their natural form). It is low in fat. Low in sugar, and most of the sugars are in their most natural, unprocessed form. It’s good and it’s good for you.

So when Pollan offers the nutritionally and environmentally sound advice that we “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise” this porridge rises to the challenge. It’s food that looks like food. But more than that – it’s food that conveys a certain sense of nourishment beyond the sustenance it offer. It’s nurturing, wholesome, culturally centring food.

It’s food that looks like home. Even if you’ve never seen a farmhouse, you know that this is what you’d have for breakfast there. It’s the food of childhood stories and winter mornings and the countryside. Even if, like me, you don’t have a grandmother to make it for you and share it with you, it’s food that the archetypal grandmamma would make.

This porridge is just right.

Porridge that is just right

For each serving:

½ cup rolled oats
1 cup water
½ tsp brown sugar
1 tbsp sultanas or chopped dried fruit
¼ tsp each of nutmeg and cinnamon. Ground ginger is also lovely.
1 cup chopped fresh fruit (or mix in with frozen berries) – ie, pear, apple, passionfruit (banana and mango is delicious in summer)
1 tbsp low fat natural yoghurt
1 tbsp nuts (ie, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pecans)
1 tsp honey
¼ cup low fat milk

Bring oats and water to a simmer in a small saucepan and cook until the porridge is thick and the oats are cooked (usually about 10 - 15 minutes).

Pour into a bowl. Sprinkle with sugar and dried fruit. Top with fresh fruit, then yoghurt and nuts. Drizzle the honey over, and pour milk around the edge of the bowl.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Oxtail ravioli: short cuts versus cheap cuts

Idiosyncratic is probably a good word to describe someone who lovingly and painstakingly slowly braises, strains, cools, shreds and portions two kilos of oxtails over seven hours, and then uses frozen wonton skins as ravioli wrapping.*

Idiosyncratic is also a pretty good description of someone who sees this same lengthy and messy exercise as a somehow saving time.

Idiosyncratic, too, to spend all this time and effort to create what is essentially oxtail soup despite having overwhelming memories of avoiding at all costs an offering of oxtail soup as a child.

Consistency is the sign of small mind.

On any animal, the harder working the muscle, the tougher it’s going to be. On a cow, the hardest working muscle is always going to be a tossup between the cheeks (constant chewing) and the tail (constant flicking).

The lazy muscles result in incredibly tender cuts of meat, the most well known being filet (aka tenderloin, fillet, eye fillet etc - which is taken from along the spine). Even in organically reared, grass-fed, happy cows, fillet is a little bland in flavour. Quick-cooking, oh-so-soft, brilliant raw for steak tartare and Carpaccio. It’s a trade-off: texture versus taste. It’s a premium cut. Very expensive.

Because people and supermarkets have rocks in their heads tender cuts are almost universally preferred (consistency, as I said, is the sign of a small mind). And yet the idea of their being ‘premium cuts’ strikes me as a bit silly. It’s all from a cow, right? If we’re going to kill the beast, we may as well eat more than the softest quarter of it.

Particularly when the real flavour is found in the hard working ‘economical cuts’. Bring on the skirt steak and the shin. Pork and lamb necks. Beef cheeks. Hocks and brisket. And oxtail.

It’s cheap. And packs a punch of flavour. But it is often sinuous. It’s attached to tendons and bones and often has marrow in its near vicinity. All good for flavour, if a little tough.

Time to work the magic of braising.

Any idiot can burn a fillet steak. But it takes an even bigger idiot to screw up braising. The genius of braising is that there is no genius required. At its most very basic, a braise is a cross between a poaching and a steaming process, with meat (or vegetables) first seared / browned and then partially covered in liquid, covered and cooked over a very low heat for a long time. And the beauty of it is that whilst you can undercook it, it’s almost impossible to overcook it. It takes a long time, but it’s not really time consuming. Mostly it’s just a matter of being vaguely around to make sure it doesn’t bubble over or run dry or that the gas doesn’t go out.**

Slow cooking oxtails results in a sticky, gelatinous mess of soft-as-butter dark fibrous meat. Rather than serving with equally rich creamy mashed potato or risotto, shredded, wrapped up in ravioli sheets and poached in consommé made from the left over strained braising liquid, wine, water and bottled tomatoes, sprinkled with a little gremolata, zesty and garlicly and fresh, the resultant soup is light and lavish, meaty and yet not too indulgent.

So the trade off for cheap and flavourful is that is takes forever. But the short cut is that you can make it all in advance, in bulk, and freeze it. Straight from the freezer? Cooks up in about ten minutes.

* The frozen wonton wrappers have as the listed ingredients: flour, eggs, salt. That’s it. This, I think, is pretty good. Plus they’re the right size, thinness and so terribly convenient. And I don’t have a pasta machine. Pasta dough is easy enough to make (it has flour, eggs and salt in it). But you try rolling it with a rolling pin.

** I’ve heard it’s even more foolproof with a kitchen gadget known as a crock-pot.

Oxtail ravioli* in tomato consommé

Serves 8

2 kg oxtail pieces (or other beef on the bone, like osso buco or short rib)

Plain flour (seasoned, for dusting the oxtail)
¼ cup oil olive (roughly)
2 brown onions, diced
2 large carrots, diced
375 ml dry red wine
500 ml veal or beef stock without salt (or water)
Herbs – 2 bay leaves, sprigs of rosemary, thyme, oregano and parley
2 pack frozen wonton wrappers or ½ kg fresh lasagne sheets (bought or homemade)
1 egg, lightly beaten

Dust oxtail pieces with flour (shake). Heat a couple of tablespoons of the oil in a very large saucepan, and cook the pieces in batches until brown all over.

Heat another few tablespoons of the oil and add the onions and carrots, cook until starting to brown.

Deglaze the pot with the wine, stirring to remove any pieces stuck to the sides of the pot. Bring to the boil and cook until the alcohol is cooked off (a couple of minutes).

Add the oxtail pieces back into the pot, add the herbs and stock (it should cover about ¾ of the meat and vegetables. Cover with a parchment lid, and then place the pots lid securely on top. Place over the very lowest heat and gently cook for about 4 hour (it should be just barely a simmer, remove the lid if it is cooking too rapidly). By this stage the meat should be falling off the bones (if not, cook a little longer).

Remove the oxtail pieces, and when cool enough to touch, shred the meat and discard the fat and bones.

Strain the braising liquid and reserve. Add the strained vegetables back in with the shredded meat (discard the herb stalks and bay leaves).

Taste the meat and vegetable ravioli filling, and add salt and pepper to taste.

Place 30 wonton wrappers on the bench, brush the edges lightly with egg wash. Place a small spoonful of filling in the centre of each, and then place another wrapper on top, pressing to seal. You can freeze, refrigerate or cook at this point.

To cook, add to consommé and cook until the wrappers are cooked and the filling is hot. When frozen I just throw then into boiling water frozen and cook.

Serve in a bowl of tomato consommé, sprinkled with gremolata and parmesan cheese.

Tomato consommé

Reserved strained braising liquid.

For each 250 ml braising liquid:

1 tin chopped tomatoes (no added salt or added anything is preferable)

500 mls water (or half water, half red wine)

Boil all ingredients together until reduced by half. Strain. Season. Pour over ravioli to serve.


Traditionally, this is made with equal parts finely chopped parsley, finely grated lemon zest and minced garlic.

I have been known to use grapefruit zest, minced olives, and capers as substitutes and enhancements ...

* Based on a recipe by Elizabeth Egan and Domenic Pipercelli of Becco restaurant in Melbourne published by Australian Gourmet Traveller.