Friday, February 26, 2010

Sausage rolls at the football

There is this guy called Peter Coombe. Back in the eighties (which, I admit, is the decade of my childhood) he produced sing along kind of cassettes (yes, cassettes) for little kids. I guess he was kind of like “The Wiggles” in a lamer, eighties way. Weirdly, he now does concerts in pubs for adults reprising his old albums. And is kind of, well, cool, now. In an odd, art-house / ironic way.

Anyway (and yes, I really do remember all of this, even now, no visit to youtube necessary) one of his songs was “Chish and Fips” and the basic premise of the song was that there were these five guys, tall and lean (you could say string beans), whose names were Chish and Fips and Rossage Solls, Somato Tauce and Riko Cholls. And essentially, every Sunday, these thin, tall chaps go to a shop to buy fish and chips and sausage rolls with tomato sauce, and a chiko roll*. All in a catchy twelve bar blues minor key.

This is important, because I cannot ever think of sausage rolls without the riff from this song going through my head. My father, I think, cannot even say the words ‘sausage rolls’ any longer: any mention at all will have him say “Chish and Fips” (I don’t even know if he realises he does this, it is that ingrained).

Ever since I decided to make sausage rolls to take to the football this Saturday I have been driven insane by this song playing on repeat in my head.

A pie and a sausage roll at the footy are a quintessentially Australian thing to do. Proverbially, you haven’t had a complete football experience unless you have consumed at least 1 cold pie, 1 lukewarm but soggy sausage roll and 1 warm light beer whilst watching your team lose in the rain. The whole experience must cost more than a night at the opera. This is fun.

Wanting to capture this important cultural ethos without suffering the all too common culinary pain, I decided to pack a picnic to take to the pre-season practice match between Melbourne and Essendon on Saturday afternoon.** The thing about my home-made sausage rolls is that they taste better cold than hot (I’ve never worked out why this is), are deliciously packed with vegetables (a bit like a Cornish pasty) and cost as much to make 1 ½ kgs of sausage rolls as a single sausage roll will cost to buy at the ground. Plus, I have a little tub of onion jam left over that will be just the thing.

The weather forecast: showers.

* I have never eaten a chiko roll. A chiko roll is made of boned mutton, cabbage, rice, barley, celery, carrot (and possibly corn??) and spices in an edible tube which is deep-fried. I understand they are uniquely an Australian experience, but so are many poisonous snakes, so don’t get excited.

** FYI: Essendon 18.12: 120 beat Melbourne 11.14: 80

Sausage rolls
1 kg sausage mince
2 large carrots, grated
2 medium zucchini, grated
2 onions, grated or finely minced
1 ½ tbsp dried mixed herbs (and whatever fresh herbs you have going – I like rosemary and parsley)
1 tsp paprika
1 egg
Pepper, to taste

Six sheet frozen puff or shortcrust pastry, thawed.
1 egg, beaten with a dash of cold water (to glaze).

Preheat an oven to 200ºC. Line several baking trays with baking paper.

In a large bowl, using your hands, squelch together the sausage mince, vegetables, herbs and beaten eggs.

Slice each sheet of pastry in half. Brush edges with egg.

Form the sausage mixture into long logs and place down the centre of each strip of pastry. Wrap the pastry around and pinch and fold over to seal. Piece the sausage roll with a fork at regular intervals. (At this point the uncooked sausage rolls can be frozen.)

Cut the sausage rolls to the desired length, brush with egg wash and place on baking trays.

Cook for 25-30 minutes until golden and firm.

Cool and take on a picnic.

Good with chutney, relish and tomato sauce.

Pistachios, yoghurt soup and unchartered territory

Kitchen-wise, there are things I am good at. And there are areas in which I have, shall we say, room for improvement. Deep frying. Pastry making. Knife sharpening.

There are cuisines I am unfamiliar with, things I have never eaten before, ingredients I don’t use, techniques I haven’t mastered. For example: Turkish food, yoghurt soup, fresh pistachios, frying.

Cooking within the realm of the known creates a freedom to take risks. The basic flavours, structures, techniques are given. Garlic and olive oil for Italian, fish sauce and mint for Vietnamese, soy sauce and five spice for Chinese, butter and tarragon for French, paprika and tomatoes for Spanish. For me, comfortable innovation takes place within those pre-existing and familiar confines, like a variation on a theme.

The key is, of course, knowing what the parameters are. Being familiar enough with something to be able to define it, without slavishly recreating it.

I’d eaten a lot of Vietnamese food and never really enjoyed it and certainly never attempted to cook any at home. Until I took a holiday to Vietnam. And was utterly astounded by the flavours, the variety, the freshness. In situ, the food suddenly made sense. And tasted phenomenal. In Hanoi I took four days of cooking classes. I ate and actually enjoyed fried rice, of all things. I explored the produce markets with the teaching chef. I tasted, I questioned, I understood. I came home and cooked nothing but Vietnamese food for months.

Tonight I made what I think was perfectly acceptable yoghurt soup. I’m not sure that I enjoyed it. I am sure that I don’t understand it. I have no context for it, no benchmark, no sense of how it is supposed be consumed, what accompanies it. Despite a familiarity with the cuisines at the boarders of Turkey, I was surprised at how lost I felt.

The only things I know about Turkish food: eggplants, pistachios and orange blossom water.

Perhaps, a little ambitious then, to think I could just invent, out of this exceedingly low knowledge base, another little snack to bulk out the soup. And a little naive to expect that every new idea will always arrive, perfect and whole

I started with eggplant. Egg shaped striped pale mauve and cream and banana shaped dark purple eggplants. Originally I just planned to split them in halt, brush with oil and char grill. Then, I thought, stuffed eggplant. Genius. Which is where things started to unravel.

Genuine fresh pistachios, just picked from the tree, fleshy outer skin still soft and attached. Saffron. Orange rind. Mint. Dill. Fresh chilli. Toasted and ground fennel seeds. And shellfish – scallops and crayfish. Oh, I could have used ground lamb or goat. But the delicacy of the seafood to match the lightness of the yoghurt soup appealed.

This turned into a fiddly, messy and ultimately less than satisfying meal. Sticky filling that crumbled in the fry pan. Rounds of eggplant that started to burn before cooking through. The floral taste of saffron too sweet for the fresh sea water taste of the shellfish.

But in the remnants and debris spread across my kitchen is the possibility of improvement. I know now, a little more than I knew before. Bind the mince seafood with egg yoke. Where I shallow fried, I probably should have deep fried – this would have kept the parcels intact better, letting them float in bubbling oil whist they firmed. Eggplant takes longer than shellfish to cook – maybe slice the eggplant more thinly? Better next time, perhaps, to make little cigar shaped filo pasty rolls with the filling, and serve a separate plate of char grilled eggplant (which I adore with sea salt sprinkled over). Or stuff the eggplants with lamb, and cook in the oven until the lamb is cooked and the eggplant is soft?

I know more now than I did then.

Next time, however, I might follow a recipe. Just until I get the hang of it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

To market, to market

I do this all year round. In summer, when it’s sometimes like a sauna, even at seven in the morning. In winter when it’s still dark when I leave home and I wear a ski jacket and gloves and a hat and boots and a scarf. On days when we’re lucky enough to have rain and I get soaked and have to dry off and change when I’m done.

Before work. On the weekend. Sometimes I sneak out in my lunch break, for a quick fix.

The market* is both familiar and unexpected. Predicable in its seasonal rhythm, the static location of the Meat, Fish and Rabbit Building, the Deli Hall and the open air fruit and vegetable aisles, the familiar faces of the regular stall holders and providores**. Unpredictable in so far as the seasons are a little unpredictable – blink and I’ll miss the five week season of the cox’s orange pippin, my favourite apple in the whole world. Fickle in that stall holders will carry hot-housed out-of-season produce (oh the horror of mid-winter tomatoes). Surprising: the unusual and uncommon – salsify and purple Congo potatoes and fresh pistachios and rabbit and guinea fowl. Pine mushrooms and slippery jacks. Red wine washed manchego. Rabbit and prune ravioli.

When I first moved here, a little over four years ago, the market was first place I saw that little flash of recognition in someone’s eye. In an unfamiliar city full of strangers and new things, in a new house without even a coffee table, I felt at home at the trestle tables stacked with green things and the glass cases full of cheese and olives. The day my kitchen ceiling fell in, after the bathtub exploded (it was a serious leak) I went to the market before I called a plumber.

Shopping at the market makes some things easier. We hear about ‘eat local’ and ‘organic is better’ and ‘think about food miles’. Sure, not everything sold in markets is local or organic or ethically produced. And I’m not a slave to these principles. But if and when I do think about these things, the personal interaction between me and the stall owners makes it easier to make informed choices. I can ask where the tomato / cheese / garlic / lettuce is from and the person behind the cash box can tell me because they know. Chances are they bought it from the person who grew it. Unlike at the supermarket, where the person behind the cash register often can’t even identify the vegetables for the purpose of scanning it for price***.

Occasionally I go with an idea of what I want to make only to be completely flummoxed when whatever it is I want isn’t available (what, no watercress? But it was here last week! No zucchini flowers? Only on Saturdays? Dill? Just sold out...). But mostly I go without a shopping list, without an idea of what I’m going to cook. I’m really not a very methodical person. I walk there, I browse, I connect, relax, unwind and find inspiration. I buy enough food for the next few days, knitting together in my head a menu, mentally adding up the cost (much cheaper than the supermarket. And so fresh!)

When I get home from the market, I spread everything out on the bench, and survey my horde.

Today: a bunch of radishes, smallish and red; Italian flat leaf parsley and dill and mint; five very small zucchini; lemons; navel oranges; two bulbs of fennel; shallots; red pepper; small cucumbers; sheep’s milk feta cheese; a small chicken; natural yoghurt; unripe pears; six ripe tomatoes; mixed olives.


1. Finely slice zucchini into rounds. Pour over boiling water and then refresh in ice water. Drain. Finely chop parsley, dill and mint – about 1/3 cup in total. Toss zucchini with herbs, sea salt and a dash of olive oil and lemon juice. Pile into a shallow bowl and crumble over a little feta cheese.

2. Shave fennel, radishes and pears with a mandolin. Toss with olive oil and finely chopped dill. Season to taste and serve scattered with shaved parmesan or pecorino cheese and poached chicken.

3. Make Greek salad. Roughly chop into similar sized pieces: cucumber, tomatoes, capsicum and red onion. Toss with torn parsley, mint, dill, olives and crumbled feta. Drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil. Season. Eat.

And in a few days time, when the fridge and the fruit bowl are empty, I’ll walk back over and do it all again.

* It is always the market. I do live in a city of many open air and covered markets, but this particular market is my market, the closest and most familiar to me, therefore it is ‘the market’. I have been to other markets, including the giant pan-Asian markets that are half an hour away by bus and the posh more expensive ones south of the river. When I have serious cravings for Vietnamese food in particular I will stock up on dried lotus beans and Thai and Vietnamese herbs and green pawpaw and mango, banana flowers and other bits and pieces less easy to find at the market.

** I have a poulterer. I love that I have a poulterer. I have a cheesemonger. Cheesemonger is such an old fashioned word. Is it because there are hardly any cheesemongers anymore? Is there a better word that I have just forgotten?

*** I’m told I can be a little snipey with the checkout staff sometimes. But it’s not like the things they sell in supermarkets are even that exotic. It’s broccoli for goodness sake. BROCOLLI.

Pear and fennel salad

2 just-ripe Williams pears
1 1/2 bulbs fennel
4 small salad onions
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp verjuice (verjuice is a bit sweeter than vinegar and lemon juice)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup frozen peas
1 tbsp finely chopped dill
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
2 poached chicken breasts (I poached a whole chicken the day before*)
Pinch sea salt
Shaved parmesan cheese

Quarter pears , remove core and finely slice lengthways. Quarter fennel , remove core and finely slice lengthways (if you find the taste of raw fennel a little strong, blanch by pouring boiling water over and then drain). Halve onions and finely slice length ways. Toss in a large bowl with vinegar, verjuice and oil.

Cook frozen peas, drain and add to salad, along with the sliced poached chicken.

Toss through herbs and sea salt.

Serve, scattered with shaved parmesan. I finished mine off with a little parsley oil.

* To poach whole chicken, place chicken in a large saucepan and cover with water (you can add chopped onion, carrots, celery etc if you like, but not necessary. Do not add salt). Bring to the boil, and then lower to a slow simmer. Cook for about 20-25 minutes, then turn off heat and cover with lid. Cool until just warmer than room temperature – remove flesh from chicken. I retain the cooking liquid and carcass to make stock. Or just poach chicken breasts – simmer in water or stock until cooked, about 10 minutes.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fish on Friday

We eat for more reasons than just to fill our stomachs. In my world, food is about connection and family and friends. About slowing down, and becoming engrossed in an activity. About joy and creativity.

It’s bigger than what I put in my mouth (and don’t take that out of context).

The most obvious marker of this is the role feasting and fasting have in religion. Prescribed fasting. Prohibited foods. Ritualised feasting. Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Lent. Iftar and Eid, Sabbath, the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving, the Lord’s Supper. Bread and wine.

Fasting – not eating – is a remarkably powerful statement about connection and identity. The fasting, and death, of Bobby Sands. Gandhi’s passive resistance. Mia Farrow’s fast for Dafur. The forty hour famine.

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent – the first day of the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. A period marked, for those who observe it, by abstinence and reflection. Deprivation for the purpose of contemplation. Fasting as preparation for feasting (in both a mundane and sacramental sense). I don’t do it, but I kind of get it.

Lent, and Easter, are traditionally marked by a number of observances around food. Perhaps the most widely known (after the Easter Egg!) is the idea of ‘giving something up for Lent’ – chocolate or wine or meat for example. One of my favourites is Shrove Tuesday – the day before Lent, upon which pancakes are traditionally eaten. Roast spring lamb and Tsourekia. During Lent, Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting, which in the catholic and orthodox churches means abstinence from meat and dairy. Traditionally, the menu is fish.

Food is something that transcends mere sustenance.

Kosher and Halal both describe, respectively for Jewish and Islamic faith, foods and methods of food preparation that are clean and unclean, holy and not-holy. In the Christian catholic tradition, feast days and fast days are determined in the calendar of the church (the lectionary, great word).

And within these faith traditions, certain foods recur as both culturally and spiritually significant. Matzo, the replication of manna from heaven. Made into balls and poached as dumplings in chicken soup – the legendary cure-all. Asida, a kind of semolina porridge (plain or sweetened) traditionally served during Muslim holy days. And the ubiquitous fish-on-Fridays of the catholic tradition, anything from salt cod and mashed potato fritters to fish pie to simple grilled fish. Comfort food: soul food.

Whether it is Lent (as it is now, for many) or Ramadan or Yom Kippur or a hunger strike or countless other politics and faiths and times, I am curious about how food is so deeply and immediately part of our identity – what pulls us together and what sets us apart. Whether sacred or secular, this is how we celebrate and commiserate, how we remember and how we mark what and who we value.

On Wednesday, by pure coincidence, we ate fish for dinner.

In a modern world where meat is considered common and cheap (in comparison to a) what it used to cost, b) how much it costs to produce and c) how much other things cost), and seafood a bit fancy, deprivation starts to look like celebration.

Grilled Marlin steaks. With anchovy and olive sauce. And watercress salad with raspberry vinaigrette. Not exactly Lenten, by any definition*.

* It may have been karma, or divine retribution, but I just didn’t manage to char the fish. It still tasted fine, but no lovely smoky flavour, and no striking brown-black cross-hatch marking.

Raspberry Vinaigrette

½ cup fresh or thawed frozen raspberries
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp verjuice
½ teaspoon mustard (Dijon or Grain mustard)
1 tbsp oil
Pinch salt

Mash the raspberries through a sieve into a bowl. This creates a thickish liquid without any seeds. Whisk in the other ingredients and season to taste. Drizzle over watercress leaves that have been plucked off the stalks and shaved cucumber. I tossed in the left over borage flowers as well.

Great accompaniment to (char) grilled marlin, roast potatoes and anchovy and olive paste (for the paste: in a blender combined pitted black olives, parsley leaves and anchovies to taste (I used ½ dozen fillets for two, but I love them).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Love in the time of borage

I'm not into doing things because some consumerist zeitgeist dictates it.

For me Valentine's Day is just one of those days when I experience a general resentment of consumerism gone mad. I hate feeling like I’m expressing my deepest care and desire because a Hallmark marketing drive says so.

I ignore it, I dismiss it, and then am vaguely surprised when someone else suggests we do something a little bit special.

The suggestion was too, too seductive: no presents, not a candlelit restaurant table or a snugly little weekend away (I love all those things, I just get ridiculously resentful when it’s expected). Just a simple dinner at home. But a special one. Details were up to me.

So I went to market on Sunday to buy ingredients for the unplanned / hastily planned Valentine’s Day dinner. In my head (and indeed, requested of me) was an entré of chervil and Moreton Bay Bug salad (so sweet. so cheap).

But when you leave things until the last minute, and don't turn up to the market until closing time, your options are limited.

No bugs. No chervil. Some frozen crayfish tails, at $65 per kg. Not going to happen. At least I got hold of a couple of duck breasts for main course.

But what there was, at my favourite grocery stall which was packing up, was a $2 table. Including the last little box of borage flowers.

Sure it's a bit twee, a floral entre for St Valentine's Day. But also intriguing - I've never used borage before. You don't see it every day. And sometimes things that look a bit romantic are a bit romantic. And sometimes there's nothing wrong with being a bit romantic.

I’d seen a recipe that had borage flowers as a garnish for bug salad. Bugs weren’t on offer, but I thought maybe another kind of sea creature might marry well. The offerings were limited, but a mountain of tiny little whitebait caught my eye, much, much smaller than I’d ever seen. Each was half an inch long at best. So. Bait and weedy looking flowers for the day of love. It is, I guess, what you make of it that matters.

I came home and consulted the archives.

According to my herb and spice compendium*, the “whole plant is covered with fine bristly hairs, conjuring a ‘don’t touch me’ demeanour”. A nice irony for Valentine’s Day for the hostile.

The Welsh name for borage is ‘llanwenlys’ which means ‘herb of gladness’, and Pliny wrote that it eliminates sadness and makes a person glad to be alive. And it really is very pretty.

The book say it has a sweet slightly cucumber-like flavour. A quick rethink resulted in cucumber and borage flower salad with little crispy whitebait fritters**.

Sous vide duck breast with creamed corn and mushroom duck sauce***.

And dessert was a variation on a mille feuille - a stack a puff pastry with hazelnut, pistachio and almond cream and fresh raspberries.

With champagne of course.

* Spice Notes by Ian Hempill
** The whitebait fritters are simple (from February Australian Gourmet Traveller) - lemon rind, 50 corn flour, 250 g fresh whitebait. Mix. Smoosh into fritter shapes. Shallow fry in hot olive oil.
*** The duck was a recipe straight out of The French Laundry Cookbook (I substituted Swiss brown mushrooms for morels, morels being both unavailable and prohibitively expensive). Page 172 if you are interested.

Borage Salad

Julienne three very small whole cucumbers. Toss with salt, and a teaspoon each of olive oil and champagne vinegar, and half a tablespoon each of finely minced salad onion and finely chopped chives. Just before serving, toss through the borage flowers (about 1/4 cup).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

An abundance of tomatoes: pasta sauce

My mum has the most beautiful little vegetable garden. She just lives in a small suburban house, her backyard would be smaller than a tennis court. In amongst the camellias and gardenias she grows, depending on the seasons, cucumbers and tomatoes and kale and potatoes, garlic, leeks, cabbage, lettuce, chillies, basil, chard, celery, roquette, or carrots. She’s talking about planting kohlrabi and maybe even cardoons. She has a lemon tree and a lime tree, a bay laurel and olive trees in pots.

When mum moved into her house, just over a year ago, the yard was a lunar landscape. Uneven mounds of dirt, patches of grass. That was about it. The transformation in the last year has been magical.

One of her first crops out of the garden was little button squash. Picked when about the size of large strawberries, and served steamed with torn basil leaves, also from her garden, and a sprinkle of sea salt and olive oil, these were sweet and nothing at all like the bitter, soggy taste I used to associated with button squash. I couldn’t eat enough of her squash that first season.

She grows things just for the love of growing them, and as a result always has far too much all at once. This means that at least once a week I am given boxes of vegetables picked within the last hour. When her tomatoes started to grow fruit, and the spindly branches were heavy and unripe, she picked a selection of green tomatoes for me to play with (who could risk trying to make fried green tomatoes?). Now the tomatoes are ripening, and I have box after box of yellow grape tomatoes and green tiger stripes and black Russians and giant ox-heart looking ones she insists were called ‘mortgage busters’ on the seed packet.

I live in a shoe box city apartment. I don’t yet even have herbs in boxes on my coffee table sized balcony. A whole box of bright yellow and red and green smelling of summer, grown with love by someone who loves me? Pretty damn special, every time.

The latest harvest to arrive at my door was a box full of these tomatoes, chillies, tiny capsicum and basil. When we came home late, dinner was a matter of throwing the remanents of two different pastas into some boiling water, and then cooking down the tomatoes and capsicum and chillies with some chopped bacon (the only other thing in the fridge) and garlic. No water, no wine, no onions, just a little salt and pepper to help it along.

The bacon is cured a block away, by my wonderful old-school butcher. Everything else was fresh that day from the garden. It was not pretty or well-plated or delicate. It was sweet and spicy and fresh and thoroughly satisfying.

Pasta all'amatriciana

For 2

A dash of olive oil
6 short rashers of bacon, roughly chopped (or pancetta, about 10-12 thin slices)
3 clove minced garlic
½ kg super ripe tomatoes, any variety, roughly chopped
3 chillies, minced
1 small red capsicum, finely chopped
Handful chopped fresh basil
400 g dried pasta, any variety

Fry off the bacon in the olive for a few minutes, add garlic, stir and then add the tomato, capsicum and chillies. Cook for as long as it takes the pasta to cook to al dente.

Drain the pasta, and add to the sauce along with the chopped basil. Season to taste.

Serve with shaved parmesan. Scoff.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Pizza for breakfast

This morning before work I made pizza dough.

I meant to do it last night, but I came home late from boxing, and then we pulled dinner together.* And basically, after eating dinner and watching someone do the washing up and having a shower and watching Doctor Who, I just couldn't be bothered.

The pizza dough was my solution to being very busy. It made sense to me when I came up with it.

I had heaps of odds and ends in the fridge - a little left over choi sum in garlic, half a bunch of silver beet, a quarter of a cabbage. A handful of roquette. Half a bulb of fennel. onions and garlic in the pantry. I didn't want to go shopping for a whole new fridge full of vegetables - it seems so wasteful not to use what I have. And I'd planned a roof-top-bar-detour on the way home from work. I needed something that would come together quickly and didn't feel like a fuss to eat.

It made sense – sauté all the vegetables together with onions and garlic, throw in some toasted fennel seeds and a few sultanas, crumble in some fetta (which can bought from the supermarket on the way home), wrap it all in fresh pizza dough and voila: calzone. Tasty fresh green vegetably parcels just perfect after a few glasses of wine in the balmy summer evening.

On reflection it sounds a little complicated, but the advantages impressed me. Use up the left-overs, thus minimising additional shopping. Quick and easy just to throw together when I walk in the door (cut vegetables, sauté, roll dough - 10 minutes max. Bake for 20 minutes.). Good with a second glass of red wine.

Providing you make the pizza dough. And allow it to rise. And rest it.

The thing with calzone is you have to use fresh dough, not pre-made pizza bases, because you fold it over. It wraps around your pizza "topping", and it needs to be soft and pliable to do this. You can make the dough in advance. It can prove in the refrigerator over several hours, or even be stored in the freezer. And if you have a dough hook attachment for your beaters (which I do) it only needs to be kneaded for about 5 minutes. The night before.

Or in the morning, if you forget / can't be bothered.

*Just a warm salad. After boxing I'm more interested in speed and quantity than anything else. Which is just as well, given that the kitchen-helper took a scorched earth approach to the chicken.

Frugal Calzone

2 cups shredded silverbeet
2 cups shredded cabbage
½ fennel bulb, finely sliced
1 onion, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon toasted fennel seeds
2 tbsp sultanas
1 cup chopped roquette
200 g fetta cheese
1 quantity dough

Heat the oven to 180ºC.

Sauté onion and garlic in a large pan until softening, add silverbeet, cabbage, fennel and fennel seeds. Cook until collapsed and soft. Turn off the heat and add the sultanas and roquette. Cool (now is good time to roll out the pizza dough). Crumble the fetta cheese into the mixture and mix through. Season to taste.

Divide dough into four portions and roll into thin circles, about 25 cm diameter.

Brush the outer edge with a little water. Spread the filing onto one half, then fold over the dough to form a semi circle. Pinch the dough to seal. Place on an oven tray lined with baking paper and bake in a moderate oven for about 25 minutes, until crispy and brown.

Basic dough

2/3 cup luke-warm water
1 tsp dry yeast
Pinch sugar
2 cups plain / strong flour
¼ cup olive oil
Pinch sea salt

Mix the yeast, water and sugar together in a large bowl. Set aside until it is kind of frothy on the top.
Add the flour, oil, and sea salt. Mix with a dough hook for five minutes, or by knead by hand for about 20 minutes. Place in a light oiled clean bowl and leave to rise until doubled in size (or cover and refrigerate. To use, remove from fridge and bring dough back to room temperature).

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Panzanella, past and present

I am not very good at following recipes

I like ideas. I tend to treat recipes as a general guideline. Often I buy cookbooks just to look at the pictures. It’s an approach that has some draw backs when it comes to anything involving gelatine.

I struggle with the concept of ‘authentic’ food. That is, with the argument that unless a recipe is executed in a certain way it isn’t ‘really’ that food at all. I get very confused very quickly when I start down this line of thought.

It’s not that I dispute that certain foods have traditional execution, nor that certain foods have specific historical origins.
It’s more that I am uncomfortable with any tendency to essentialise culture. When we try to fix a food, really pin it down, deny change or innovation or variation, we are starting too, to essentialise the culture the food is connected to. In making the food absolute, we also start to separate the food from its immediate current cultural context (which changes), and fix it at a point in time, somewhere in that culture’s past. We are making all kinds of assumptions about what is real about a culture, about then being more real (and maybe even better) than now.

We may eat the same food our grandparents ate, but we eat it for a different reason, in a different time, sometimes in a different place.

Take this too far, however, and we run the risk of losing what is special and meaningful about food and its place in our cultures. We risk making what we eat empty of any symbolism at all – a thing completely independent of any context, other than flavour.

I think of recipes as being an expression of concept: the way of living in a certain culture, a certain time and place. To me, what is important about a recipe is the motivation, the story behind the ingredients and method, not the ingredients and the method themselves.

Some of my favourite ‘recipes’ originated as a direct response to the immediate local environment. Most are grounded in seasonality, availability and practicality. Abundant, fresh and diverse seafood? Make bouillabaisse. It doesn’t matter to me that I don’t have scorpion fish (the local fish of the port of Marseille, where the recipe originated). It will still be bouillabaisse for me. You prefer hard boiled eggs to poached eggs and don’t like anchovies? I think we can still make Caesar salad.

Yesterday’s bread and a basket full of ripe tomatoes? It can only be Panzanella, regardless of whether I have basil (I don’t), whether I toast and/or soak the bread or whether we’re in Tuscany (although this last one would certainly improve matters).

The recipe represents the past and the timeless. The act of cooking expresses the practical reality of what it is in the fridge right now. Somewhere in between the two we are creating, maintaining and continuing the cultures within which we eat.

In the following and the not following of a recipe we have an opportunity to remember the past and another place, and at the same time tell a story about how we, here and now, actively bring that past with us into the present.
Panzanella, as made for lunch today*
Serves 2
1/3 loaf left over bread. In this case, a green olive white flour loaf.
250 g cherry tomatoes
½ red onion, sliced into very thin wedges
½ bulb fennel, very thinly sliced
1 cucumber, peeled, de-seeded and thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
Juice ½ lemon
3 tbsp finely chopped parsley
Good slurp oil oil
About 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Sea salt

Tear the bread into largish chunks (about 1 ½ inch cubes). In a large fry pan, toast bread with a little olive oil until a bit crunchy on the outside but still soft-ish on the inside. Set aside.

Cut the cherry tomatoes in half, and squeeze the juice and the seeds of each half into a bowl. Throw the squished tomatoes into the (now empty) frypan and turn off the heat (I find the residual heat is enough to bring out the sugars of the tomatoes a bit more).

Add balsamic vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, garlic, onions, cucumber and fennel to the tomato juices and season with sea salt, allow to marinate for about 5 minutes. Toss the tomatoes and bread through and serve.

* Recipe may change next time I make it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Convenience food

I’m not a complete food snob. Or, more to the point, I’m less of a food snob than I was.

But I don’t really like ‘fast food’ from ‘restaurants’ that have iconic signage in bright colours.
You won’t find pre-made foil sealed cartons of stock in my pantry. No store bought ‘simmer sauces’ and salad dressings. No pre-packaged pizza bases or cake mix. No microwave pre-cooked rice and dehydrated macaroni cheese. But there’s tinned chickpeas and tomatoes. Cans of Italian tuna and sardines and a bottle of anchovies. We have jars of mayonnaise and mustard in the fridge. Sweet chilli sauce and tomato sauce. Capers. Olives. Plenty of fast food. Plenty of convenience. Plenty of processed food. Not everything is ‘from scratch’.

Not everything I cook is fancy. Not everything that looks fancy is that difficult.

Some nights dinner is just eggs on toast.

Sometimes I just need things to be easy.

Chicken. Easy. Quick.

This takes less than a minute to pull together – yes, then you have to wait half an hour for it to cook.

Chicken – marylands, drumsticks, thigh chops – as many as you want to eat.
1 tub / jar of olives (I used un-pitted green Sicilian olives – any good quality olives, black or green would be fine)
1 punnet cherry tomatoes (about 300g)
1 tbsp capers (I prefer in brine, but rinse capers-in-salt work too)
Lemon rind
Garlic cloves, skin on
Olive oil – about 2 tbsp

Throw everything in a baking dish and cook in a moderate oven until the chicken is cooked, about half an hour.

Serve with bread.

Or go all out and serve with roast potatoes and salad.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A tale of two meals: (over) indulgent butter sauce

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

‘We should order the salad’ .

I blink, innocently. I am of course trying my hardest to imply that it’s healthy, it’s light, refreshing. I have been to this restaurant before. I know what I like. It is healthy, it is light, it is refreshing. ‘And the pork belly and the duck and lychee coconut curry, some rice. Oo – and some ho mok to start. That should be enough for the two of us’.

The salad is healthy. This is not my primary motivation. The salad is gai larb, and this restaurant does not hold back on the chilli. In fact, all four dishes are heavily laced with chilli and measure around 9 on the Richter scale.

My dining companion finished the evening with sweat pouring down his face (yes, I did in fact order all that food for two people. And we ate it).
I have a fondness for very spicy food.

Gai larb is simple, fresh and deadly. A traditional Laotian dish that has migrated to Thailand – at its most basic, ground meat, chilli, mint, chilli, vegetables and chilli, with a lime and fish sauce dressing.
Sometimes when I make it, I remember to de-seed the chillies before I mince them. Sometimes I forget.

Last night I forgot.*

Rough justice.

Tonight, in an effort to atone for the eye-watering larb, I turned to the French, who have a far more peaceful culinary tradition. Blanched vegetables, boiled shellfish, beurre blanc sauce. To my peril, I made the same error as the French aristocracy, mistaking my desire for uninterrupted gentle richness for a protection against harm. Like a cross between Julia Childs and the Maquis de Sade I feel coated in butter (and not in a good way). This much butter is a long, slow walk to the guillotine. And there will be no mercy.

Despite my adoration of fancy food, I rarely cook or eat meals with lots of cream or butter or cheese. I just generally prefer my food light and fresh. And so I reaped the results of my decadence.** Even though I used less than half as much butter as the recipe said.

It is true that fat is a flavour carrier and a flavour enhancer. I often splash a little olive oil over steamed vegetables, or brush a little onto grilled meat after cooking. Not spoonfuls, but a tiny drop, enough that the flavour and the silkiness is present. The butter did enhance the sweetness of the Moreton Bay Bugs, the beurre blanc subtly cut through and heightened by the sourness of the wine and vinegar base. But for my palate, a single cube or two of butter, whisked into the wine and vinegar reduction, would have been just as flavour enhancing.*** And possibly more life-preserving.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.

* Sorry
** I was sopping it up with a piece of bread. After I finished eating. After I knew that I had reached the point of excess. I admit it. But it tastes so good.
*** The recipe originally called for 250 grams!! And I only used about 90 g.

Recipe: Summer vegetable and Moreton Bay Bug salad
500g Balmain or Moreton Bay Bugs (renders about 200-250 g meat – you could substitute crab or lobster)
6 baby yellow squash
10 spears asparagus
Bunch watercress
A handful of butter beans

Beurre Blanc Sauce
2 tablespoon salad onion very finely diced (I used spanish onion, which turned by sauce a little pink - nice against the bug meat - you could call it beurre rose sauce)
½ cup white wine
¼ cup white wine vinegar
Between 125 g butter, cut into ½ inch cubes and chilled in the freezer for ½ hour.

For the Salad –

Blanch the each kind of vegetable separately and refresh in iced water. Drain and pat dry. Toss with a drizzle of olive oil and a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, sprinkle with sea salt. Set aside.

Boil the bugs for about 8 minutes, until red. Refresh in ice water. Apply pressure to the joint between the tail and head, ease away the tail. Pick out the tail meat and shred with your fingers. Set aside in a bowl.

For the beurre blanc sauce –

Rapidly boil the wine, vinegar and salad onions together until reduce down to about 2 tablespoons of liquid. Reduce heat to lowest possible. With a metal whisk, briskly whisk in one or two cubes of chilled butter at a time, adding additional cubes as each is incorporated, until all butter is combined. For a lighter sauce, double the amount of wine and vinegar, reduce to about 1/3 cup, and add about 25g of butter.

To serve – arrange salad vegetables on a plate, drizzle the beurre blanc around the edge of the place and place the bug meat over the top.