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.