Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Spinach Thing

On the weekend there was a warmth in the air that I haven't felt for months. I lay in the grass and soaked up rays like a lizard, and realised that spring is finally coming. We spent the first three months of this year in the northern hemisphere, so we've had two winters. And after ten months of grey skies and rain; after four months of niggling coughs and colds and two hefty bouts of gastro; after the death of two grandparents and after marking the tenth anniversary of my mother's death; well, it's time. Time for warm breezes, apple blossom, and a little sunlight on my face.

And time for an end to strong winter greens; this week, I saw bunches of soft sweet spinach appearing in the shops.

We often make a green pie – a filo pie packed with leafy greens and herbs. But when I want a less cluttered taste – just spinach, onions and chévre, the perfect trio layered in a simple filo envelope – this does the trick.

As it's not quite a pie, nor a tart, nor a slice, I call it a thing.

Spinach Thing

- 4 small or 2 large brown onions
- 1 bunch spinach, washed and trimmed of its stalks
- 150g soft cheese (Meredith Dairy's chévre is breathtakingly good, but you could also use a feta)
- ½ pkt filo
- 50g or so unsalted butter
- olive oil
- salt

Remove the filo from the fridge at least two hours before you want to use it. Check the instructions on the packet for exact times. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Halve the onions lengthwise, then continue slicing them lengthwise into reasonably wide crescents, about ½ cm wide.

Warm a good slosh of oil in a skillet and add the onions. Stir well, and cook briskly medium-high heat, stirring often, until they are a lovely golden colour but still have shape and form. Do not let them stick or brown. This method of cooking will render the onions sweet and fruity.

Tip the onions into a bowl. Turn down the heat, add the whole spinach leaves to the skillet, clap the lid on and let wilt.

Melt the butter in a small pan over the stove, or explode it in the microwave.

Brush a large flat tray (mine is 28cm x 44cm; 11" x 17") with melted butter. Lay two sheets of filo flat on the tray. Brush with butter, add two more layers, and so on until you have 8 layers. Scatter the onions over the filo. Drape the spinach over the onions, using your fingers to unfurl the leaves and spread them evenly. Crumble the chévre with your fingers as you scatter it over the spinach; different sized pieces make it interesting.

Gently place another two layers of filo over the cheese. Brush with butter, taking care not to rip the pastry as you pass over the bumps, and alternate double layers of filo with butter until you have another 8 layers. Brush the final layer with butter.

Slip into the oven and bake for 20 minutes or until the filo is golden. Let rest for five minutes, then cut into squares and serve warm.

Inspired by a spinach thing sold at Big Harvest in Elgin Street, Carlton. I think they call it 'pie'.

(Local: onions, spinach, chévre, olive oil. Made locally from unspecified ingredients: butter, filo. Not local: salt.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cauliflower Polonaise


When I was a very young pun-loving child*, I used to make flower soup. I'd put water in a bucket, add ferns tips and fuschias, dandelions and buttercups, and whatever else looked pretty, stir it up with a stout stick, and call it dinner.

One morning, a friend of my mother's came over and wandered into the garden to see what I was up to. "I'm making spaghetti pollenaise," I said gleefully. "Oh Alison," she smiled, "It's spaghetti bolognaise, not pollenaise." My mother said I looked over her friend's shoulder at her, rolled my eyes, then went on with what I was doing.

So imagine my delight when I discovered that there is a whole method of playing with vegetables called 'polonaise'. I have no idea if the Polish actually do this, but it's what you call a dish garnished with chopped boiled eggs, breadcrumbs and parsley.

Although I can rarely get enthusiastic about cauliflower (it is, to me, not cabbage with a college education a la Mark Twain, but cabbage rendered bland and distasteful), I find cauliflower polonaise an interesting, even attractive, dish.

And as it evokes happy memories of mud pies and buckets of fuschia petals stirred to a pulp, so much the better.

Cauliflower Polonaise

- 1 head cauliflower, kept whole
- 3 eggs, 4 if you're feeling lavish
- butter
- 1 very thick slice stale bread, grated into coarse breadcrumbs
- 5 stems flat-leaf parsley

Trim the cauliflower of its leaves, and level the stem. Place it stem down into a saucepan in about an inch of boiling water. Cover and steam for 15 minutes, or until a knife can be inserted into the stem easily, but before the florets go mushy.

Boil the eggs by slowly bringing them to the boil, then simmering for six minutes. Remove from the heat, peel under cool water, and chop them finely.

Warm a generous knob of butter in a skillet. When it has melted, add the breadcrumbs and stir and toss for 5 or so minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are golden brown and toasty. Remove from the heat.

Chop the parsley.

When the cauliflower is done, carefully remove it from the water and position it on a large plate. Sprinkle it with the egg, the parsley and the breadcrumbs, and drizzle with extra melted butter if you wish.

Adapted from a recipe in A Canon of Vegetables: 101 Classic Recipes by Raymond Sokolov.

(Local: cauliflower, egg, parsley. Made locally: bread. Somewhere in Victoria: butter)

*Actually, nothing has changed. Click here to check out my cryptic crossword published in Meanjin this month.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Cabbage and Apple Salad

Okay, so I am an apple freak. I eat them every day, in every way – but I haven't been to a doctor in years!

Cabbage and apple salad (what an American would call 'slaw') is lovely and bright. The cabbage, at times a self-effacing old thing ducking to the rear of the crisper, is here cheered up immensely by the juicy sweetness of the apples.

With its palate-cleansing properties, this salad goes well with the earthiness of lentils; or it would be a perfect match for pork.

Cabbage and Apple Salad (Slaw)

- 2 cups green cabbage, preferably Savoy, shredded
- 2 Granny Smith apples, or other large sharp variety
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- ½ - 1 cup walnuts, chopped (I like it very nutty)
- the juice of a lemon
- ½ tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 tbs apple cider vinegar
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 tbs apple sauce (which you have conveniently canned; use the rest of the jar in apple cake)
- salt, pepper

Place the mustard, vinegar, olive oil, apple sauce, salt and pepper in a jar. Screw the lid on tightly, and shake until emulsified. Taste, and adjust ratios if necessary.

Shred the cabbage. Grate the apples, peel and all, or julienne them if you're feeling refined. Place the apple into a salad bowl, and squeeze the juice of a lemon over it. Toss. Add the cabbage and mustard seeds, and toss again. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the salad, and mix gently but well.

Sprinkle the walnuts over the top, and serve.

The original recipes included a bunch of radishes, shredded; but that would make it too peppery for my young family.

Adapted from a recipe in The Wednesday Chef, who adapted it in turn from a recipe by Jeremy Fox.

(Local: cabbage, apple, walnuts, lemon, apple cider vinegar, apple sauce, olive oil. Not local: mustard seeds, Dijon mustard, salt.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

No Egg Apple Cake

My husband is a very intelligent man, yet sometimes he asks silly questions. Like, how many apple cake recipes do you have on your blog?

It was innocent enough, and the answer is, not many (yet). But from a man who adores apple cake in every way, shape and form, to a slightly defensive woman who likes to cook it for him and do the dishes afterwards, it was perhaps a question better left unsaid.

Lucky for him, my passion for apple cake obliterates any hint that I have too many recipes. After all, there is an apple cake for every eventuality. There is Kay's Apple Cake, dense with mixed spices and served with vanilla hard sauce, perfect after dinner. It tastes deeply American, and every time I bite into it I am taken right back to Kay's kitchen, where I revel in her conversation and bask in the most joyful, infectious laugh I have known.

There is my mother's Apfelkuchen, a simple cake topped with overlapping rings of apple, which brings back memories of childhood in a little house full of people and papers and orange carpet tiles.

There is also her Danish apple cake, a favourite with adults and especially my father. Mum poured half the cake batter into the tin, layered it with apples, walnuts and ground ginger, then spread the remaining batter over the top. It looks lovely when you slice it, and is heady with ginger; I made it last year for an anniversary picnic held in her memory.

There is the beautifully moist and failsafe apple cake in The Ultimate Cook Book, which I have made dozens of times in a dozen different ways: with white, brown or coconut sugar; with walnut or vegetable oil; with sultanas and without; with cinnamon, cloves, ginger or a mix. Its dense texture makes it very portable – a good one for a picnic – and its size, great for a group.

And then there's this cake, the unobtrusive cake which tells a Wednesday friend that I love them without being splashy; the cake that makes children smile and adults settle into their chairs and begin to tell stories. It's a morning cake, no big deal, just something to share over coffee; or to slip into a lunchbox near the end of term when kids are flagging and could use a little lift.

It happens to have no egg and no dairy, so it's handy for kinder parties and allergic children, not to mention those hairy vegan friends who could use a little sweetening.

No Egg Apple Cake/Vegan Apple Cake

- 150g sultanas (optional)    
- 350g apple sauce or apple purée (I use canned apples, and leave the chunks intact)
- 180g sugar
- 280g plain flour
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground cloves
- pinch of salt
- ½ cup unflavoured vegetable oil (NOT olive oil)
- 2 tbs golden syrup

If you are using sultanas, boil the kettle. Place the sultanas in a small bowl, and barely cover them with hot water. Leave to soak for at least 15 minutes, three days if you get sidetracked as happened to me recently.

Place the apple purée and sugar into a large bowl, stir well, and leave to macerate for 20 to 30 minutes.

While things are soaking and macerating, position the oven rack near the bottom of the oven. Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease and flour a ring tin.

Sift the flour, bicarb soda, cinnamon, cloves and salt into a bowl. Whisk to combine.

Add the oil and golden syrup to the apples, and mix well. Add the flour mixture and sultanas, including any dribbles of syrupy water*, and fold together quickly and gently, lifting up mixture from the bottom of the bowl as you stir.

Pour the mixture into the cake tin. Smooth it gently with a spatula, then quietly slide it into the oven. Close the oven door with dignity. Because the raising agent is bicarb soda, it begins to rise the instant the liquid hits the bicarb. If you bang it about, you will lose the bubbles and thus the rising. Be not afraid, but be quiet.

Bake for 50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Leave to cool in the tin for at least 15 minutes. Run a knife around the edge, invert over a cake plate, and serve.

*If you did not barely cover the sultanas with hot water, but instead drowned them, drain them before adding them to the mixture.

(Local: sultanas, apples,. Not local: sugar, flour, bicarb, spices, salt, oil, golden syrup.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Kohlrabi and Apple Salad

It looks like a satellite, or perhaps a friendly little alien with ruddy cheeks and wild antennae sprouting from its head – kohlrabi is an amusing vegetable.

It has a lovely fresh flavour, and a delightful crunch. Its name comes from the German 'cabbage-turnip', and eating kohlrabi is indeed like crunching into a lovely piece of cabbage stalk, or perhaps a broccoli stalk. Whether the skin is purple or lime green, the flavour is consistently mild.

I have roasted kohlrabi in the past, but I can't recommend it. Its strength lies in salad. Because of its light clean flavour, kohlrabi goes well with richer foods. I have recently enjoyed this particular salad beside smoked fish, white beans, and roast chicken; truth be told, I like it so much I have eaten it three days in a row. It would also go well with a nice pork sausage.

Kohlrabi and Apple Salad

- 1 kohlrabi, any colour
- 1 large Granny Smith apple, or two small red apples
- ½ a big lemon, to give 1 to 1½ tbs lemon juice
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 tsp wholegrain mustard
- salt, pepper

If the kohlrabi has its leaves attached, trim the leaves and set aside for a stir fry or to boost any leafy dish.

Peel the kohlrabi, using a sharp knife to pare the skin away. Grate it coarsely. Wash the apple, and julienne it finely, peel and all. Toss the apple and kohlrabi into a serving bowl.

Place the lemon juice, olive oil, mustard, salt and pepper into a small jar. Screw the lid on firmly, then shake vigorously until it emulsifies. Check the balance of lemon juice to oil, adjusting if necessary.

Pour the dressing over the kohlrabi and apple, and mix well to combine. Serve immediately.

(Local: kohlrabi, apple, lemon, olive oil. Not local: mustard, salt.)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Canned Apples

Question: What does a mother into seasonal eating do when she sees a basket of slightly wonky organic apples for $2 a kilo?

Answer: She buys 8 kilos. She spends the afternoon corralling kids to spin the apple machine – which peels, cores and slices all at once! – while she trims away a few bad bits. She then tosses the pieces into her enormous pasta pot set over low heat. When the apples are lightly stewed, she cans the lot, all the while gloating that next month's dessert is just minutes away!

In a family of five, with lots of visitors, dessert is a fairly regular event at our house. We eat apple cobbler and apple crumble; Apple Charlotte and apple dappy; apple pie and apple tart; and, on high holy days with family and friends, Amber Apple: a tart case filled with stewed apples and topped with a five-inch high cloud of meringue. Oh, it's good.

Each of these desserts starts with stewed apple – and most of these desserts takes just minutes to make if the apples are ready to go.

Whenever I stew, I use a mixture of apples. Some varieties collapse into puree; others hold their shape. By using several varieties, I end up with firm slices suspended in puree, which is, to my mind, ideal.

Sliced apples discolour quickly. However, by holding the saucepan at low heat, you can chop your apples and throw them straight into the pan over a 20 or 30 minute period. As they begin cooking straightaway, they don't discolour. Add a splash of water to the pot at the beginning, to keep everything moist, and stir regularly, lifting puree up from the bottom so that it doesn't stick and burn.

I don't sweeten the apples, as I usually find stewed apples quite sweet enough.

Incidental rhetorical question: Why do we call it 'canning' when what we are doing is putting them into glass jars?

Canned Apples

This makes 4 No. 31 jars in the Fowler's system. Always follow the instructions of your preserving method; these instructions are for the Fowler's Vacola system.

- 7 kg apples, in a mixture of varieties
- a lemon

Peel, core and chop the apples, throwing the pieces as they're prepared into a large pasta pot set over low heat. Early on, add a splash of water and the juice of a lemon.

Stir regularly, scraping up puree from the bottom of the pot to prevent it from sticking. When the apples are lightly stewed, take off the heat. Leave to cool.

From this point, you can freeze them or can them. Since freezing requires no instructions, I'll tell you how to can them instead. The advantage of canning over freezing is that the finished product is not affected by interruptions to the power supply; it lasts for years; and you don't have to defrost before you use the contents. Thus endeth the lesson.

Soak the rubber rings in warm water for 15 minutes or so.

While they are soaking, wash your jars in hot soapy water. 6 to 7 kilos of stewed apples, trimmed, fills four Fowler's No. 31 jars. Slip a rubber ring over the rim of each wet jar, ensuring it is not twisted. Fill the jars with apples, leaving a ½ inch gap between the apples and the top of the jar. Put the lid on (first checking that it has no rust), then slip the clip over the lid.

Place in your preserver. I have the Fowler's el cheapo but fantastic model, the Simple Natural Preserving Kit*; lucky you if you have the bigger deluxe model. My preserver fits four No. 31 jars, five if you're squishy. Cover with cold water, turn on, then turn off after an hour. If it comes to the boil during the hour, do not let it boil for longer than five minutes.

Remove the jars from the preserver, using those tricky tongs, and place onto a wooden board or a pile of newspapers. Press down in the centre of each lid to ensure a good seal.

Leave to stand for 12 to 18 hours, then remove the clips. Label the jars – include the date! – and put them into a low dark cupboard, preferably in a cool part of the house. (I fantasize about having a cellar, or at least a preserves cupboard.)

Preserves keep for a couple of years, but they are best used within one year. After a year, the colour and texture begin to deteriorate.

You can of course add spices to the jars. I don't, only because I never know until the day I use them whether I'm in the mood for cinnamon, ginger or cloves.

*Actually, this smaller preserver is just the right size for us as I tend to process 'small' batches ie only 8 kg at a time. When tomato season comes around and I want to process more, I just process several nights in a row to make the year's supply of canned tomatoes and tomato sauce. Incidentally, night time is a good time to run the preserver, as the kids are in bed so there is no danger of burns.

(Local: apples, lemon.)