Monday, December 27, 2010

Pasta with Chévre, Sun Dried Tomatoes and Walnuts

Years ago, we spent a couple of months in a farmhouse south of Florence. Every week or two we'd catch the bus to Florence and take in some culture – the Uffizi, the Duomo, perhaps a Medici palace; then we'd head for a little lunch bar which was nothing more than a counter overlooking the street selling warm rolls and red wine. The rolls were stuffed with braesola, rocket and olives; or the unctuously salty porchetta; or any other of thirty-odd fillings. One day, I ordered goats cheese and sun dried tomato, and the dark smoky flavour of the tomato melded so perfectly with the cheese that it became my staple.

We'd stand around on the cobblestones chewing, chatting and window shopping next door as we had our quick bite; wine finished, we'd slip our empty glasses into the wooden pigeonholes mounted on the wall next to the counter and wander off. It may not have been the fanciest lunch, but it was simple food done well, and it hit the spot every time.

Now I'm a million miles from Florence and no longer drinking wine for lunch. As Christmas loomed and we ran around like headless chooks, I relied heavily on quick store cupboard meals: pasta with canned tomatoes; tortillas with canned pulses; rice and canned beans; tuna pasta – in other words, a heap of tins from Italy and nothing very local at all. I found myself wondering how to make a quick meal from local food, that is, a meal in minutes that required no peeling and almost no cooking.

One evening, as I heated water for pasta, I thought about the half block of chévre in the fridge. I remembered with satisfaction the Florentine sandwich; and I also recalled a favourite little nibble in Maggie's Harvest, in which vine leaves are stuffed with goats cheese and walnuts. Being the sort of person who always has sun dried tomatoes and walnuts handy, I put them together with the chévre, added a little thyme from the garden, tossed it all through some pasta, and hey presto! dinner.

The heat of the pasta softened the chévre, while the sun dried tomatoes and thyme provided small explosions of flavour, countering the mildness of the cheese. Walnuts gave it a bit of crunch, and the earthy scent of walnut oil wafted up with every bite.

The whole thing was an absolute doddle to make. On the side I served lettuce drizzled with walnut oil and a splash of vinegar, and came away feeling like I'd eaten well without having had to cook. Simple food, done well: whether in Florence or in Melbourne, it will always hit the spot.

A note on walnuts: Pre-shelled walnuts in a plastic bag imported from overseas are almost always rancid: bitter on the tongue, and smelling like glue. Use only freshly cracked walnuts or this year's vacuum packed Victorian walnuts. They will be sweet, nutty and delicious with not a hint of sourness. To shell a walnut, use a hammer: hold the nut, pointy side down, on a brick or the back step, tap once or twice with the hammer, and the shell will fall away.

Pasta with Chévre, Sun Dried Tomatoes and Walnuts

- 75g chévre
- 5 sun dried tomatoes
- 10 to 12 freshly shelled walnuts
- walnut oil
- a sprig of fresh thyme, (optional)
- pasta for two

Heat water for the pasta. When it comes to the boil, salt and drop in the pasta. Stir, bring back to the boil, and cook until al dente.

Meanwhile, wash the thyme and spin dry. Pick the thyme leaves from the stems and leave whole. Chop the sun dried tomatoes into small pieces. Break the walnut meats into pieces.

When the pasta is cooked, drain and tip into a serving bowl. Sprinkle in the thyme leaves; add the sun dried tomatoes and walnuts. Crumble the chévre over the pasta. Drizzle with walnut oil (I put a nozzle on the bottle which keeps it to a very thin stream; a glug would be unpleasantly overpowering), and mix well to combine. Serve at once. Pass the parmesan, if you wish.

(Local: pasta, chévre, walnuts, walnut oil, thyme. Not local: sun dried tomatoes.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Orange and Saffron Scented Vegetables

So much of vegetarian cooking is about seeing an interesting meat dish, then working out if it could be done otherwise. But every now and then I have a vegetarian recipe, and I find myself thinking about adding a little flesh.

Deborah Madison provides a delicious recipe for what she cheerfully describes as a 'failed fisherman's soup'. Her recipe was inspired by a bouillabaisse which did, indeed, contain fish. And while her version is wonderful, a few mussels make it perfect.

Mussels or not, the bouillabaisse is accompanied by a garlicky mayonnaise. Madison suggests making rouille, that is, spicy garlic mayonnaise flecked with cayenne. However, the little people in my household don't like hot flavours, so I made plain old aioli – garlic mayonnaise – instead.

Orange and Saffron Scented Vegetables aka Not Bouillabaisse

- 1 kg potatoes
- 1 leek, chopped finely
- 1 onion, cut into wedges ½ inch thick
- 2 cloves garlic
- 3 pinches saffron threads
- the zest of half an orange, finely chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 large or 2 small bulbs fennel, halved lengthwise, then sliced into wedges joined at the root
- a handful of white mushrooms, quartered
- 1 can chopped tomatoes
- 10 stems flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 1-2 tbs fennel tops, finely chopped
- 15 black olives, pitted
- olive oil

Boil the kettle. While it is heating, peel the potatoes and halve them lengthwise. Slice the lengths into quarters or sixths, depending on their size. Pour the water into a pot, add the potatoes, and boil for five minutes. Drain.

Warm some olive oil in a wide skillet. Add the leek and the onion, along with a dash of salt. Sauté for a few minutes, then add the garlic, saffron, orange zest and bay leaves. Cook for a few minutes more, pushing it around with a wooden spoon to ensure the garlic doesn't catch and burn. When the leek and onion are beginning to soften, add the wine. Bring to a simmer, and let it reduce slightly.

Add the potatoes, the fennel, the mushrooms, the can of chopped tomatoes, half the parsley and the olives. Cover, reduce heat, and leave to stew for half an hour or until you can slip the point of a knife into the base of the fennel. Stir in the rest of the parsley and the fennel tops.

Remove from the heat, and serve with a bowl of aioli on the side. Best eaten tepid rather than hot.

Note: Near the end, you can throw in half a kilo of cleaned mussels. Clap on the lid, raise the heat, and let them steam for five minutes. Remove the lid, and, if many mussels remain closed, push them around with your spoon, replace the lid, and steam for another three minutes. Check again, and discard any that are still closed. Strew the parsley and fennel tops over the dish, and serve immediately. The mussels will have released a briny liquid into the stew, so go easy on the salt.

Tweaked from a recipe by Deborah Madison in The Savory Way.

(Local: potatoes, leek, onion, garlic, orange, bay leaf, wine, fennel, mushrooms, parsley, mussels if used. Not local: saffron, tomatoes (unless you canned your own last summer), olives, salt.)

Lazy Aioli

It's lovely to be married. The ties may bind, but they have a liberating effect: I have freedom to relax, to be myself, and to eat raw garlic.

One way we like to eat it, smelly old us, is in aioli. Last night we dropped great dollops into a vegetable stew, and swirled it through the potatoes, the fennel, and the sauce fragrant with saffron and orange. At the bottom of the dish, tomato and aioli surged together. I mopped them up with a bit of bread, and sighed with delight.

This morning I have the soft taste of garlic at the back of my throat and my skin is slightly fragrant. It makes me feel warmer, more sensual, less harried, less Protestant. And in the approaching madness of the holiday season, that, my friends, is wonderful.

Lazy Aioli

- 4 to 6 cloves garlic
- a generous pinch of coarse salt
- 1 egg
- ½ or so cup olive oil
- the juice of a lemon juice

Whack the garlic cloves with the flat of a knife and flick away the skins. Drop the cloves into a mortar along with a generous pinch of coarse salt. Grind the garlic and salt together until it has formed a paste.

Scrape the paste into the small bowl of a food processor. Add an egg, and whizz until well combined. Gradually add the olive oil, initially a little at a time and then in a thin stream, processing very thoroughly all the while. When the mixture is pale and thick, add the lemon juice, and whizz again. Taste, and add a little more olive oil or lemon juice if required, whizzing once more to amalgamate the ingredients.

Traditionally, aioli was made by hand. To do so, pound the garlic and salt together, then proceed using a whisk. Use only the yolk of the egg, and add the olive oil in tiny, tiny increments to ensure emulsification.

Serve aioli with potato wedges or grilled vegetables; stirred into white beans; dropped into soup; or drizzled liberally over a vegetable casserole.

(Local: garlic, egg, olive oil, lemon. Not local: salt.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Horta, or Cooked Green Salad



Three kids. One at school, one at kinder, one at childcare. I've come to think of their educational experience as three breeding grounds, since for months now we've been continually sick with colds, gastro, strep throat and other minor but annoying illnesses. As a result, I'm on the lookout for food that is simple to cook and bursting with vitamins; and a few weeks back, in the newspaper's gardening page, I stumbled across horta.

I learned that horta is Greek for wild greens. While horta may be used in pies and salads, the word most usually refers to greens stewed and served with olive oil and lemon juice. A flick round the internet suggests that many people primarily use spinach, but it was traditionally made with whatever was available: beet leaves, dandelion, chicory, sorrel, radicchio, rocket, endive and other greens both wild and cultivated. The gardeners in the article make horta out of amaranth, wild thistles and stinging nettles.

The concept is simple – just stew and dress the greens – but, while I already did this with beet leaves and rainbow chard, it never quite occurred to me to broaden the net. Now I've made horta using spinach, dandelion and warrigal greens, and I love it. Mature dandelion leaves are quite bitter, but young inner leaves stewed with beet leaves make a tasty lunch.

On one occasion I used coarser greens: a few leaves of black kale combined with rainbow chard and large turnip tops. Because the turnip leaves were very bitter I added a slosh of red wine from the open bottle on the bench and stewed it until the wine had been completely absorbed and all was tender. The final mix was still strong, but the wine had softened the flavours very pleasingly.

Taking my inspiration from the gardeners in the article, I've eaten horta alongside bread and olives, using the bread to soak up the juices at the bottom of the bowl; other times, I've made it more substantial with a bowl of cooked and dressed chickpeas on the side, or a couple of poached eggs.

Not only does it taste good; each bowl feels like a vitamin pill. Sad to say, for all the horta I've eaten I'm still pouring snot – but it could be worse! In any case, I feel healthier every time I eat it. What follows is not a precise recipe, nor do I claim authenticity; think of it, like the gardening article, as nothing more than a pointer in the right direction. A-tishoo!

Horta, or Cooked Green Salad
- greens (spinach, beet leaves, warrigal greens*, turnip tops, radish tops, stinging nettles, amaranth, sorrel, dandelion leaves, fat hen or whatever else grows in your garden. Use one type or a combination – experiment!**)
- herbs such as mint and parsley, if you wish, chopped
- olive oil
- lemon juice
- salt, pepper

Wash the greens well and remove any tough stalks. Warm a wide skillet, add a drizzle of olive oil, and drop the greens, water still clinging to the leaves, into the skillet. Cover, and allow to wilt. Spinach will take a few minutes; large beet leaves, ten minutes; tough kale, about half an hour. Keep an eye on things, and add extra water if necessary to prevent the horta from drying out and sticking. (For a completely inauthentic approach, add a slosh of red wine to coarse bitter greens to soften the flavours.)

When the greens are soft, tip them and any remaining cooking liquid into a bowl. Add chopped herbs, if you're using them, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to finish. Season if required. Serve with olives and sourdough for a light meal; or serve as a side dish to a larger meal.

*Warrigal greens (aka New Zealand spinach and tetragon) MUST BE BLANCHED before use. Drop them into a pot of boiling water, cook for a minute with the lid off, then drain well before adding to the horta. The leaves contain high levels of oxalates which can cause a tightening of the throat, nausea and worse when consumed in large quantities. Blanching breaks down the soluble oxalates and also some of the salts; leaving the lid off the saucepan prevents condensation from falling back into the saucepan. Discard the blanching liquid.

**If you're experimenting with combinations of leaves, think about flavours, textures and cooking times. For example, mustard greens will obliterate most other flavours, so are best kept separate. Kale will need far longer in the pot than soft baby spinach – either combine leaves of similar textures only, or cook the greens in stages, beginning with coarser leaves and adding more delicate greens near the end.

One final note: To point out the obvious, if you don't know it's edible, don't eat it. And if you're gleaning horta from a public space, be certain that the area hasn't been sprayed and wash it well. There are many dogs in Melbourne.

The recent Age article (by Denise Gadd, in the A2 on 27 November 2010) doesn't appear to be online, but you can read more about horta in Melbourne here. This all reminds me of an interview on Gardening Australia with Lolo Houbein, author of One Magic Square, about her experience as a famine survivor, organic vegetable gardener and voracious eater of leafy greens. The presenter asked her what happened if the leaves were attacked by insects. Lolo said, 'Then you get holes. And you can eat holes.' Terrific advice for a home gardener! Sadly the transcript doesn't do justice to her delightful gentle manner.

(Local: greens, herbs, olive oil, lemon juice.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Braised Turnips and Pasta

Once upon a time not so very long ago lived dreamy gardener. From time to time, she'd cast seeds upon the earth and sprinkle them with water; then she'd be distracted by the clouds drifting across the sky, or the sound of the wind whispering secrets to the sheoak, and forget about them.

One day, while wandering in the garden, the woman brushed against a forgotten turnip.

Left to itself in a quiet spot, it had grown and grown until the leaves were as high as her waist. Quivering with expectation, the woman felt around the base and discovered a root the size of a softball. She wrapped her hands around the stem, and heaved, and pulled, and as she thought of the little old man, the little old woman, the boy next door, the girl next door, the dog, the cat, the rat and the mouse, out it came.

Cackling, she carried it inside and placed it on the scales. The turnip weighed a kilo, the leaves another. She rubbed her hands together with glee, and started to cook.

When everything was ready, she called her husband and their three little girls to the table; and between the five of them, they ate it all up.


Turnip greens can be rather unattractive: a little bumpy, a little chewed, a little rough and hairy. Raw, they are bitter, and the hairs can irritate the skin. But blanched and stewed in butter, mellowed by sherry, tossed through pasta and gussied up with Parmesan, they become soothing and delicious, retaining their strength of character but becoming a little gentler, a little wiser, a little more generous, just as we ourselves might hope someday to become.

Braised Turnips and Pasta

- 3 bunches of baby turnips, or 6 normal sized turnips, or 1 gigantic turnip, with spritely greens attached (You absolutely do not need a kilo of turnip greens – although they are rather yummy – just as many as you can glean from the bunch.)
- 50g butter
- 1 tbs olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, whacked with the side of a knife so that they are split
- 1 tbs sugar
- ½ cup sherry
- ¼ cup water (you can substitute stock for the wine and water combo)
- salt
- enough pasta, say 375g to 500g depending on your household and whether you use wholemeal or white. Spaghetti is good here; the leaves enfold themselves around the strands and you can stab a piece of turnip onto the end of your bundle of pasta.
- freshly grated parmesan

Trim the turnips. Wash the leaves well and discard any that are yellowing. Trim the thickest part of the stem from the leaf and discard.

If you are using baby turnips, scrub them. If you are using larger turnips, peel them, halve them, chop them into wedges then halve the wedges crosswise so you have a pile of turnip chunks.

Warm the butter and oil in a wide skillet. Add the garlic and the turnips and stir. Sprinkle with sugar and stir again. Cook over medium heat until they turn golden, pushing them around with a wooden spoon from time to time to ensure they cook evenly and do not stick. This will take about twenty minutes.

Add the sherry and water (or the stock) and stir well, scraping up any bits of glaze off the bottom of the pan. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes more, or until a knife slips easily into the turnips.

While they are cooking, bring a large pot of water to the boil. Salt it, and drop in the turnip leaves. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon, and gently press them in a colander to drain. Chop the leaves roughly and add them to the turnip.

Bring the water back to the boil and add the pasta. Near the end of the cooking time, check that there is still some liquid in the turnip pan. If not, add about ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water so that you have enough sauce.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it and add it to the turnips. Gently mix the pasta and turnips together for a minute or two to combine, then serve.

Don't forget to pass the parmesan!

Developed from a recipe for braised and glazed turnips found in The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander.

(Local: turnips, olive oil, garlic, pasta. Not local: butter, sugar, salt, sherry, parmesan.)