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.