Sunday, January 31, 2010

Miss Anne and the Giant Squid

Beginning preparation for a meal with a whole animal isn’t easy for an amateur. Or at least, it isn’t easy for me. In an age of pre-packaged, vacuum-sealed, pre-prepared cuts of meat, breaking down a carcass – be it a chicken or a cow or a fish – is uncharted territory for many of us.

There is a reluctance to wrap our minds around the connection between living creature and edible substance. A desire not to associate this meal with that animal.

This is the point at which many decide to become vegetarian. To escape this ethical dilemma of eating what we can identify with. (Of course, there are myriad reasons people make this choice. And many arguments, economical, ethical, environmental and political, to support it. Not my point here).

For the rest of us, this dilemma is overcome, mostly, when the animal arrives in a completely unidentifiable form. To all but the trained veterinary scientist there is little resemblance between steak and cow, bacon and pig, fillet and fish.

I think this is part of a wider disconnection between food production and food consumption. This disconnection, sensationalised by reporting of surveys such as “29% of Britains think oats grow on trees and 26% think bacon comes from sheep”*, is part and parcel of a post-industrial largely urban population well supplied by fast food franchises and supermarket chains. I think this disconnection leads in all kinds of directions – eating poorer quality food (as we no longer know what food is supposed to look and taste like, and when it is in season), having a more limited diet (due to foods being farmed en mass and cultivated for easy transportation and storage), eating less nutritional food (as more food is prepared, processed and packaged) and eating more wastefully (in not consuming the whole of something, be it the whole cow or the whole beetroot, bulb and leaves). We are poorer, in every sense, for this change in consumption.

There is another aspect to this (as least as far as I am concerned, but I suspect for others as well): lack of skill. Simple kitchen butchery is a skill that many modern cooks do not have. Where would we learn it? Most butchers themselves receive carcasses already stripped, and no longer even stock some cuts or parts of an animal (brawn, anyone?). They don’t supply it, we don’t demand it. Arguably, this is an immediate consequence of a systemic disconnection between where our food comes from and our home kitchens.

Personally, I like meat cooked on the bone (it tastes better), I am fascinated (as well, I admit, a little repulsed) by the process by which food goes from creature to cuisine. But I am also woefully clumsy, and the opportunities to improve are not easy to come by. Even when I roast a whole chicken perfectly, I tend to hack in an undisciplined manner, completely destroying for the plate what should be moist and sweet on the palate.

In the last three months, I have filleted whole fish for the first time. Shucked an oyster. Jointed a chicken. Watched a butcher strip a lamb carcass. I am making an effort – practicing and confronting my inhibitions.

There is also another reason that I struggle with animal-to-table cooking, one that I suspect is unique to me alone. And one that is unique to particular animal. Not squeamishness. Not incompetence. Fear of the beast itself.

Cephalopod are freaky, freaky things.

This fear did not begin, as you might imagine, reading 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea as a child. I had no great concern regarding the Kraken, frightful terror of the deep. Mostly I was impressed and fascinated by the idea that Captain Nemo created all meals aboard the Nautilus from the bounty of the ocean alone. A man truly committed to his immediate surroundings – and not willing to consume land-based produce as he wanted no and had no connection to the land.

No, the fear is more ordinary.

I have early memories of my eldest aunt looking after my brother and me when we were around 9 and 7.**

She had several hoods of calamari, cleaned and opened out. She had cut them into smaller rectangular pieces, about an inch wide and two inches long, and scored a cross-hatch pattern on the outer side. These she threw into a wok sizzling with olive oil. To my horror and slight fascination, the pieces sprang up and curled around, as if possessed and still alive. They were cooked in a flash and tossed onto a plate, sprinkled with a little salt and lemon. My brother wouldn’t touch them. I’m not sure I was much braver.***

Until then, I think my only experience of calamari was frozen and then deep fried calamari rings at the local fish and chips shop. This neither looked nor tasted like anything other than breadcrumbs, oil and salt.

Much later I had a flatmate who desperately wanted to have an octopus in a tank as a pet. The key selling point for him was a rumour he’d heard that an octopus can use its hood to create a bubble of water around its gills, lift off the lid of a tank and then roam around the house. Trust me when I say this was a key factor in my most emphatic refusal to entertain the idea.****

Not long after this aborted ‘should we get a pet octopus’ episode, we cooked an octopus (actually, only two tentacles, owing to slight disagreement between me and the fishmonger, in which I attempted to buy a whole octopus, and he refused to sell me more than two tentacles. He reckoned we would not eat the whole thing, and so limited my supply), something we certainly could never had done had we obtained one as a pet. The fact that the suckers of the severed arms suctioned onto my plastic cutting board and lifted it off the bench when I tried to put the damn things into a saucepan did nothing to cause me to reconsider my attitude of fear and suspicion.

I have a troubled history when it comes to cephalopodia.

In the last year, though, I have braved the preparation of whole fresh squid, struggling with the exploding ink sacks and slimy skin and tentacles and cartilage removal. Overcoming the guilt and revulsion of the big glassy eyes just staring at me. Time consuming, but in a very childish way: immensely fun.

To my surprise, it’s not all that difficult –just super, super messy. Given that the first step is: gently pull off head, taking care not to break the ink sack that comes away with the internal organs (you get the picture); this not for the squeamish. Next steps – insert fingers and scrap out remaining internal organs, slip fingers under thin skin and pull away, and then pull off wings, it is more like an episode of Dexter than an experience in cooking.

And like all seafood, the trick in cooking it is to not try too hard. Rings or strips of calamari will cook in about four minutes. Dust with corn or rice flour and fry in shallow hot oil, throw into salted boiling water or stock or tomato sauce, toss on a grill plate or barbeque. Just remove when it starts to change colour. Or moves like it’s alive.


** It’s worth noting she reminded me of David Bowie a la Labrynth (ie, slightly scary and Golbin-King-esque).

*** My mum tells a story of this same aunt, who, after a rather wild adolescence (ie, she secretly quit secretarial school and enrolled in art classes), toured the world, finding work as a sketch artist on an archaeological dig in Macedonia. Setting aside all the other extraordinary stories from her travels, she returned in the early sixties, and, after much coaxing, convinced their father that the calamari he caught, froze and used for bait when fishing was, in fact, edible. Not only edible, but delicious. Clearly, she has form when it comes to freaky squid-cooking antics.

**** The same flatmate also had this great idea that we could genetically engineer miniature elephants and ibex and giraffe and then turn our balcony into a miniature savannah for our ginger cat, AKA ‘the tiger’, to roam in. He is a brilliant thinker whose time will come.

Stuffed calamari

This is a little fiddly, but well worth the effort. For dinner, allow 1 – 2 small calamari per person.

3-4 calamari (approximately ½ kg – the smaller the calamari, the more tender they will be)
3/4 cup risotto rice (I use aborio - note that it is important to use a risotto rice, and not a long grain rice like jasmine)
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup frozen peas
2 tbsp chopped parsley
Rind and juice of 1 lemon
1 onion, finely diced
1 bulb fennel, finely diced
Olive oil

Prepare the calamari by removing the head, tentacles, skin and wings (see above) – and rinse the hoods. I finely chop the tentacles and wings and add to the risotto. Set aside.

For the risotto stuffing – bring a saucepan of water to a simmer. In another large heavy bottomed saucepan, sauté the onion and fennel in oil until translucent. Add the rice, stirring to prevent sticking. Cook for a minute or so, until the rice is coated. Add the white wine, stirring until absorbed. Add a small amount (about ¼ cup or a ladle full) of warmed water (you could use fish or vegetable stock, I tend not to bother) and stir. The idea with risotto is to keep the rice constantly moving, to loosen the starch in the rice – this is what makes risotto sticky and creamy. Continue to stir and add more water as the liquid evaporates until the rice is cooked (roughly between 15 and 20 minutes). Toss in the peas, parsley, lemon rind and juice (and chopped squid wings and tentacles, if you like). Season to taste.

Allow to cool a little (it needs to be cool enough to handle).

Taking a squid hood in one hand, stuff the rice mixture into the hood until the hood is firm. Use a toothpick to secure the opening.

Once all the hoods are stuffed, heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a pan and add the squid. Cook until golden on the outside (about 4-5 minutes). Splash in a little extra white wine to deglaze the pan, cook for a couple of minutes to burn off the alcohol.

Remove squid and slice into rounds. Serve with salad.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

No such thing as too much garlic

I’m going to smell for days.

I will have no fear of vampires, demons, werewolves, Satan, black magic, plague, small pox, the common cold or indeed, other people.

It’s good for you.

No, seriously. It’s really good for you.

Garlic is one of those miracle foods.

Everyone from the Bible to Louis Pasteur says so.

For thousands of years the medicinal effects of garlic have been observed and touted. In the 5th Century BC Hipprocates prescribed garlic for pretty much everything. In 1858 Louis Pasteur observed the anti-bacterial properties of garlic. Since then countless studies have been conducted on the efficaciousness of garlic for a variety of health concerns and enhancements. My personal favourite is one that essentially demonstrates that when combined with the Atkins diet, excessive garlic consumption increases testosterone levels (in, of course, rats).* See? Very useful stuff, garlic.

Garlic has two active compounds, which are, in a state of nature, contained in separate cells within each clove. The great and mighty alliim (a cysteine based and sulphur rich amino acid**) and the slight and dainty alliinase (a protein based enzyme***). Yeah, I don’t really get what that means either, except – crush or cut garlic and you start this chemical reaction between the two. The result? Allicin. Sharp, hot, spicy deliciousness. An aroma that it over-powering and rich and heady.

Also resulting: bad breath and garlic-infused sweat pores.

The supplement industry has rejoiced – pop a pill, avoid bad breath and garlic sweat. Take one, take two. Take more than you could ever chew. Which I think misses the point – if garlic is good for you, then we should be eating it. As part of a balanced diet. Things that garlic is delicious with: tomatoes, natural yogurt, ginger, seafood, chickpeas, leafy greens. Ie, other things that are also really good for you.

The whole ‘allicin reaction thing’ can be avoided if you cook the garlic. Heat treatment, particular the cooking of undamaged cloves, triggers a different chemical reaction – it effectively destroys the sharpness and smelliness associated with garlic. The result is surprisingly sweet and nutty. A bulb of garlic, wrapped in foil and cooked in a moderate over for about 40 minutes results in little squeezy tubes of garlic paste, delicious mixed with olive oil and salt as a spread for bread or a sauce for red meat. Or simmer unpeeled cloved in milk and salt for fifteen minutes – soft and lovely with sautéd spring vegetables.

It’s worth noting that amongst the many reputable studies on garlic out there, many suggest that the health-giving-benefits are greatest in raw garlic. Which, when you think about it, is the perfect excuse to eat bucket loads of spicy raw garlic with wild abandon.

I just eat it that way because it tastes fantastic.

* Oi Y, Imafuku M, Shishido C, Kominato Y, Nishimura S, Iwai K. (2001). "Garlic supplementation increases testicular testosterone and decreases plasma corticosterone in rats fed a high protein diet.". Journal of Nutrition 131 (8): 2150–6.
** Google it.
*** See above

Garlic and yoghurt chickpeas with garlic lamb kofta

Chickpeas in garlic yoghurt
1 tin chickpeas (or 1 cup dried, soaked and boiled chickpeas)
1 bulb garlic
1 cup natural yoghurt
2 pieces flat bread (pita bread or tortillas) – baked, grilled or fried until crispy
¼ cup chopped or slivered almonds
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp chopped parsley or mint
Spicy lamb kofta
½ kg minced lamb
1 onion, finely diced
1 heaped tsp ground cumin
1 heaped tsp ground coriander
1 heaped tsp turmeric
½ tsp chilli flakes

For the kofta – mix the lamb, onion, 5 minced cloves of garlic and spices together with tbsp yoghurt until well combined (you can put this in a food processor, but it will result in a stickier, smoother kofta). Refrigerate for about an hour (this helps firm it up).

To cook – roll kofta mixture with your hands into egg shapes. Heat oil in a non-stick pan and cook the kofta, turning gently when each side stops sticking to the pan. The kofta are ready when firm to press (about 10-15 minutes)

For the chickpeas – heat a little olive oil in a non stick pan, add the chickpeas. Cook on medium high until nutty and starting to brown. Whisk four minced cloves of garlic with the remaining yoghurt. Add a pinch of sea salt and the chopped parsley or mint. Heat the butter and almonds in a small pan until the nuts start to brown.

Toss the chickpeas with the yoghurt mixture. Break up the toasted flat bread and toss it through the yoghurt and chickpeas. Serve immediately with almonds and butter over the top.
Ward off vampires and the sniffles

Monday, January 25, 2010

Cycles of Cool

Like fashion, food has a varying cool factor. Giant plates, towering constructions, tiny servings, set menus, no menus, share plates. Like acid-wash denim and shoulder pads, what is ‘in’ comes and goes. Sun-dried tomatoes were the new black, then semi-dried, then fresh, then heirloom*. Tomato sorbet, tomato powder, tomato foam.

My aunt recently complained that you rarely see cheesecake for dessert in restaurants anymore. Sure, it’s in cafes and supermarket freezers, but somehow it’s just not cool enough for places with tablecloths. On the other hand, once considered the domain of the children’s table, selections of ice-creams and gelati are appearing back on menus, at adult prices.

The prosciutto melon antipasto staple of, well, Italy since the Roman Empire, and the early 1980s everywhere else, has experienced a long and unjustified exile from the tables of the cool. More justifiably shunned is the shrimp/mango combination of the 90s, pineapple and ham in any combination (yes, including on pizza), fish with passionfruit sauce. Possibly the direst example of this is any salad featuring tinned fruit and/or tinned fish/meat. Like acid wash denim and leggings, some things will never, ever be cool in my book. Pairing fruit with meat is a risky and slightly naff thing to do.

And then, resurgence – the Moroccan tagine (my favourite combinations include lamb with both dried and fresh pears), Vietnamese green papaya salad with mackerel, Indian curries with pickle and Thai green mango salad with prawns or pork or chicken. Never really on the agenda, and therefore never really off it, are the placeholders like roast pork and applesauce, turkey with cranberry, ham and chutney.

I think that one of the things I find difficult about fruit and meat combination is that the sweetness of fruit, especially when cooked, can be cloying – far too sugary for my tastebuds’ savoury expectations. So the sweetness would need to balance with salt and sour and sharp – which is what the Thai and Moroccan and Indian fruit/meat combinations achieve so well. Something also achieved so perfectly with the Italian melon wrapped in prosciutto served with dry prosecco. The problem is – whilst it tastes great, it still sounds so uncool**.

Which completes the cycle – can it ever be cool? Modern, European inspired cooking that features fruit alongside protein? The answer is yes - in the hands of the masters. One example – Thomas Keller, genius behind the French Laundry, includes on the current tasting menu combinations including foie gras with apple relish; clams with pomegranate and rabbit with apricots***.

So I think maybe it’s ok to experiment a little with meat and fruit (if Thomas Keller is doing it, it must be cool). Besides which, I adore fruit. Especially summer fruit. Especially stone fruit. I have a theory that if you stick to what is in season, then pretty much everything you pick will go with everything else (this is also kind of like my approach to fashion, which is: providing everything in your wardrobe would be worn by Audrey Hepburn, then everything will go with everything. Frequently not on trend, but always approaching stylish).

And since I’m rushing headlong into what might be the kitchen equivalent of being a fashion tragic, I might as well add the culinary leg-warmers to my ra-ra skirt, in the form of roasted red capsicum. The cycle is complete.

* on this, I have a theory that people in Italy laughed at us the whole way through this experience – sun-dried and semi dried tomatoes traditionally being a way to preserve the abundance of summer over winter. Necessity and commonsense, not a fad.

** Also, devils on horseback. Dried prunes, wrapped in bacon (bacon, not something fancy like jamon) and then grilled until crispy. I recently went to friend’s place to play cluedo and consumed an entire plate of these. Which probably firmly establishes once and for all where I sit on the cool-uncool scale.

*** The fruit / seafood combination is one that I expected would never, ever, be made to work (except in limited, Asian inspired combinations, where I think the presence of ginger and/or chilli makes everything magical). However, a restaurant I am remarkable fond of serves an entré of smoked trout and thinly sliced nectarine and salmon roe, which is sweet and salty and altogether lovely.

Turkey and peach salad with roasted red peppers*

Peaches and capsicums are abundant in the market at the moment – the fennel is
not properly in season yet, but I craved the aniseed crunch to complete this flavour combination. On reflection, finely shaved celery tossed with toasted fennel seeds would be an excellent substitute and would keep the ingredients to fruit and vegetables at the height of their summer perfection.

2 for main course or 4 as an appetiser

2 yellow peaches (note that slip-stone peaches will be easier)
2 white peaches
1 red onion
1 red capsicum
1 small bulb fennel
Balsamic vinegar
Olive oil
1 ½ cups shredded cooked turkey (I slowly braised a 1 kg rolled turkey breast in the oven in white wine and verjuice for about 45 minutes, then rested it for 15 minutes. Smoked chicken or roast duck would also work)

Cut the peaches in half, slip out the stone, and then slice finely. Finely mince half the red onion. Combine with the peaches, gently toss with olive oil and balsamic vinegar until coated, season with sea salt. Set aside to marinate.

Roast the capsicum whole at 180ºC for about half and hour, until the skin is starting to blacken. Remove and allow to cool. When cool enough to touch, pull out the stalk and slip the skin off. This is very messy. Finely slice the capsicum.

Finely mince the remaining ½ onion, toss with strips of capsicum, olive oil and balsamic vinegar and sea salt.

Finely slice the fennel (you could use a mandolin). Toss with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sea salt.

Arrange the peach slices on a plate, lay strips of capsicum on top, then place shredded turkey and carefully pile shaved fennel on top.

* With much drawn from Thomas Keller’s ‘Salad of Black Mission Figs with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Shaved Fennel’ in the French Laundry Cookbook

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chewing Thoughtfully

Despite my eclectic and occasionally odd up-bring there is no escaping that I am firmly middle class. I work an office job, have a university education, live in a lovely inner city apartment, drink caffe lattes and travel to exotic locations. I have the luxury of dining out, choosing between Asian-European fusion or traditional French or molecular gastronomy or Italian bistro or high-end hawker food or the local Vietnamese noodle dive. I am, by any measure, a privileged person.

This privilege is multiple – I have the resources and time to eat out. I can afford to be discerning about the quality of the ingredients I buy. I have easy access to speciality and hard to find tasty items. My pantry includes no fewer than seven different vinegars, handmade orecchiette, two kinds of polenta, unbleached organic flour, vino-cotto and verjuice, wakame, miso paste, 37 different jars of whole and ground spices*, three different types of salt, and my fridge has preserved lemons and Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh yoghurt.

I have time to source produce, to shop and to cook. Pork belly and fresh scallops and imported cheese and fresh, local organic vegetables are all within walking distance.

I have the experience and education – both formal and informal – to feel confident to explore different flavours, different food cultures and difference methods of cooking. I have the luxury to be passionate.

More often that not, I take all this for granted.

Eating well should not be difficult, I think, for anyone. Eating as well as I do? I am lucky.

And it is, I think, mostly a matter of luck.

According to the United Nations, 1.02 billion people do not have enough to eat. This includes millions of people whose lives are disrupted by war, drought, environmental and natural disaster. Who are homeless, landless, state-less, jobless and moneyless. According to the World Health Organisation, 1 billion people are overweight, with an estimated 300 million considered obese – the other end of the spectrum of malnutrition. Increasingly it is apparent that there is a connection between obesity and socioeconomic status – unsurprisingly, the higher your socio economic status the better your access to a fresher, wider variety of food. The more likely you are to be physically active and healthy. Eating well is political.

In developed and developing countries people are under-nourished and poorly nourished - not just because of reasons of starvation, but malnourished because of poor diet, underweight or overweight, healthy eating and eating well are, statistically speaking, the domain of the privileged.

Not only the ‘rich’ deserve to eat well. Everyone deserves to eat well. To know the pleasure of a meal, and not just hunger or necessity. Food is something fundamental about our humanity – not just as fuel, but as fulfilment. Feasting and fasting are central to so much religious practice, eating and drinking are so much a part of our cultural and secular celebrations (the Thanksgiving Turkey, the Christmas Ham, the birthday and wedding cake, the celebratory toast, the Burns’ Night Haggis, mooncakes). Food as symbolism - not always accessible to so many.

Fair-trade, organic farming, slow food, artisan produce, local sourcing, farmers’ markets – the domain of the wealthy. These same luxuries – small pieces of a movement toward more equitable access to resources. Which isn’t to diminish the role that large multinationals have in supplying and supporting the billions of the world’s hungry – but to acknowledge the importance of developing a structure whereby people cease to live hand to mouth and live, as it were, land to mouth. Sustainable living.

Yes, it is a little more complicated and a little bigger than this. International relations, trade policy, national economies, world peace. Options: do nothing or do something.

I am grateful for what I have.

I want the world to be different.

* Slight exaggeration (cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon, cloves, all-spice, coriander, cumin, cardamom, whole and ground nutmeg, mace, paprika, smoked paprika, saffron, ginger, juniper berries, star anise, nigella seeds, chilli flakes and ground chilli, pepper, turmeric, mustard seeds, caraway seeds, Chinese five spice, sumac and fennel seeds).

Chickpeas and silverbeet

Fancy food isn’t always the food that is nourishing for the soul.

1 tin or 1 cup dried organic chickpeas
6 cloves locally grown garlic, finely minced
1 brown onion, diced
1 bunch fresh silverbeet, thinly shredded
I lemon
Salt pepper
3 tbsp olive oil
If using dried chickpeas, soak overnight. Add chickpeas to a saucepan of boiling water and cook until tender. Drain.

For tinned chickpeas, drain and rub to remove the thin skin.
Heat olive oil in a large fry pan and sauté the onion and garlic until it starts to soften. Add chickpeas and cook for ten minutes, taking care not to brown the onion and garlic.

Add shredded silverbeet, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the silverbeet is soft, and starting to crisp at some edges. Squeeze over the juice of one lemon.
Serve hot or at room temperature with bread or brown rice.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

First Impressions

I was dressed as a pirate the first time I met the person I hope to spend the rest of my life with. It was not a fancy dress party.

I did not fall in love that night. Or on any of the half dozen dates we went on over the next few months. In fact, not long after we met I fell in love with someone else.

Over a year later, heart-broken, defeated, deflated and no longer dressed as a pirate, I did fall in love. With that person who always made me laugh, made me think, made me look forward to the next phone call or email or text message.

Despite the oddness of our first meeting, it is our second first date that is the more powerful memory. Drinking cava*, eating churros, deciding, on the spur of the moment to take a holiday to Ireland**, realising a comfort and comfortableness in just being my silly, off-beat, opinionated, passionate, intelligent self. I fell in love on our second first date.

Two moments, two chances.

I recently met my brother’s ‘new’ girlfriend for the first time.***

It turns out she is allergic to onions.

My brother, who has been dating her for nearly 18 months, forgot to tell me.

I have friends who are celiac and lactose intolerant. Who have nut allergies and egg allergies. Who are diabetic. Who get migraines from the moulds in blue cheeses. Vegetarian and vegan. Who eat kosher or halal.

It is not hard to cook for any of these people. It is a pleasure, maybe even more of a pleasure, because there is a challenge to creating beautiful food within restrictions. In not just preparing a ‘normal’ meal, minus some element, but in preparing something delicious, whole in itself, with nothing lacking.

It’s not hard, as long as you know. So the smoked salmon entre, laced with finely minced Spanish onion (not just large dice, able to be easily and politely picked out and set aside), could not have been a worse first impression for either of us. She, embarrassed and subtly scaping off the offending poison, and me, mortified that I should have served something so inedible.

It’s a beautiful salad, delicate and balanced (and very easy, a bonus for a working girl rushing to impress at a mid-week dinner party). Salmon, red onion, cucumber, avocado, lemon juice, pepper.

And it would have been just as easy to replace the onion. Coriander leaves. Torn basil leaves. Red chilli. Preserved lemon. Shaved fennel. Ruby grapefruit segments. The list goes on.

The meal wasn’t a complete disaster. Luckily, the main course was entirely allium-free, and I restrained myself from creating a delicious onion-y dessert.

* Spanish sparkling wine – like champagne. Just Spanish.
** We went, nine months later.
*** He’s been seeing her for a while. But on the other side of the world.

Poisson Salad*
Serves 4 as an entre

100 g smoked salmon, cut or torn into small pieces
½ avocado, diced into 1 cm cubes
1 Lebanese cucumber, peeled, de-seeded and diced into 1 cm cubes
Juice of 1 lemon
½ Spanish onion, very finely minced. Or non-poisonous ingredient of your choosing.
Crisp baby cos lettuce leaves, to serve.

Lightly toss all ingredients except the lettuce in a large bowl, with a splash of olive oil and a dash of cracked black pepper.
Spoon into lettuce leaves and serve.

* It’s a pun.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Five dollars a kilogram

Simple. Cheap. Easy. The fishmonger at my local market sells live black mussels at $5 per kilo. Even taking into account the fact that 1 kg of live mussels yields just over ½ kg mussel meat, that’s a pretty generous seafood meal for two people at a next to nothing cost.* And by lucky coincidence, locally farmed. And healthy. Brilliant.

Mussels have been a formative food experience for me. I love tinned smoked mussels (it’s my deep dark secret) – with a little lemon squeezed over, and fresh cracked pepper, I believe smoked mussels on water-crackers validly constitute a meal. The first time I ever tried a fresh mussel was in New Zealand, and I chose one so enormous that I nearly choked on it. I repeated this experience recently in an Italian restaurant, eventually tactfully spitting out the giant bivalvia mollusca into my napkin. That night I consumed a bowl of mussels that was bigger than my head.

Just after I finished high school I spent several weeks being a vaguely ineffectual volunteer at an children’s home in Fiji. During this Christmas period the orphanage received gifts to assist with care of the children – of particular note: barrel upon barrel of live fresh water mussels. We ate mussels every way imaginable and then some – raw, steamed, cooked in coconut milk, fried, curried, boiled. Every meal, every day for a week. It was years before I could bear to eat shellfish again.

Between the near-death-by-choking experience and the all-you-can-eat-and-then-some experience I am vaguely surprised how much I still love to eat mussels. And until recently, I was too intimidated to cook these at home, and paid instead for spaghetti pescatore and boullibaisse and moules et frites.

There is something inherently scary about cooking live seafood. Overcooking, undercooking, the possibility of ‘bad’ shellfish, complicated cleaning.

But really – it’s so easy. And so damn cheap!

*I’ve also noticed packets of vacuum sealed fresh mussels in the local supermarket (not nearly so well priced, but still much cheaper than the chicken/beef options otherwise available for protein choices).

Chilli mussels

1kg black mussels
2 small bulbs fennel
2 small brown onions
2 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, toasted
1 medium chilli (or more to taste) - minced
100ml dry white wine
½ kg very ripe tomatoes
Olive oil

To clean the mussels – most mussels you buy in fishmongers will be pre-cleaned – if not, using a very sharp knife, chip away any barnacles. To ‘beard’ a mussel – grab hold of the little fine ‘hairs’ sticking out and give a short, sharp yank.

Trim, halve and core the fennel bulbs, then finely slice. Finely slice the onions. Mince the garlic.

Roughly chop the tomatoes.*

Heat a generous slurp of olive oil in a very large deep fry pan or big pot (about 3 or 4 tablespoons). Sauté onions, fennel and garlic until translucent. Add fennel seeds and minced chilli/s. Cook for 1 minute.

Add tomatoes and wine, cook off alcohol (bring to a rapid simmer and cook for a few minutes, until the smell and taste of alcohol disappears).

Now – magic: add the mussels to the pan. Cover with lid and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until most of the mussels are opened. (If there are any un-opened mussels after this, I like to cook those ones just a little longer – about 2-3 minutes. Discard any un-opened after this). Spoon the opened mussels in deep plates or bowls with lots of the tomato sauce and a squeeze of lemon.

Serve with fresh crusty bread (for dipping) and really nice white wine. Or red wine. Or beer. Enjoy.

Note that I don’t add salt to this dish, as the mussels have a lovely ocean taste.

* You can use tinned tomatoes, same weight. When using fresh tomatoes, I prefer to peel and de-seed. This is fussy, and really won’t matter if you don’t.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Every story starts somewhere

I was sixteen before I realised that beetroot and asparagus also came in tins.

I grew up on an old subdivided orchard, eating peaches warm from the sun and making plum jam. My father grew tomatoes and corn and beans. I collected eggs freshly laid by brown chickens in straw-lined boxes.

Things I remember: being chased by geese*, toast soldiers with soft boiled eggs, not liking the outdoors, having a security guard**, making pancakes with stewed rhubarb, a refusal to eat sandwiches and being made fun of at school for eating samosas for lunch***.

Rumour has it that my first solid meal was Indonesian fried rice, laced with chilli, shrimp and tiny clams.

I grew up with raw ingredients. I made soufflé and pancakes and chocolate brownies and bottled peaches and apple crumble.

And I failed home-economics at high school. I don’t think I even tried. Food was something I did, not something I thought about. So I studied philosophy and then went to law school. I learnt to think and to argue (I had some natural flair vis-a-vis arguing ...).

Now, as an office-working, city dwelling, high-heel wearing woman I face the choice between convenience food and food miles. Balancing overtime and slow-cooking. Supporting local small industry on a budget. Food miles and imported artisan cheese. I think about food now.

I’m curious about what I eat. I’m interested in where things begin. But mostly, I just love to cook.

* Still terrified by geese to this day.

** My parents were both city-working office types (the farm was really just a bit of lifestyle choice). The guard was something to do with my father’s work, and is memorable mostly for the reason that my cat once crawled onto the roof of his car and he accidently drove away with it. The cat fell off some several miles down the road, was missing several days and returned with a broken leg. And lived to continue to terrorise the chickens from the roof of their coop.

***Indian curry puffs, which my mother learnt to make whilst living with an Indian community in Fiji. These, unsurprisingly, attracted significant attention from the other sandwich eating kids.