Monday, November 29, 2010

Nice Salad, Flowers Optional

In her marvellous book The Savory Way, Deborah Madison includes broad suggestions for 'Celebration Salad with Blossom Confetti'. As the mother of three girls, all of whom adore bright colours and flowers, I have used this idea countless times to make them eat. My experience is that a girl who turns up her nose at a perfect green salad, delicately dressed, cannot resist the same green salad when it's scattered with ribbons of flower confetti. The girl who screams every time she sees a potato will quietly eat if it's garnished with a few bright strips of nasturtiums.

If the nasturtiums aren't flowering, I might use whole borage flowers – the tiny blue stars taste ever so faintly of cucumber – or perhaps rocket flowers for a bit of zing. Violets are beautiful; red pineapple sage adds a slightly tropical fragrance; tiny marjoram, basil and thyme flowers each have their own flavour and are delightful to look at. You can eat most if not all herb flowers, as well as calendulas and rose petals. Cut larger petals into strips, so they do not catch on one's tongue; and use a sharp pair of scissors or a good knife to slice them cleanly. Eat smaller flowers whole.

As well as paying attention to petals, I look for interesting leaves. Soft green mignonette, freckled lettuces, red oak leaf: all make a pretty salad base, especially if they are complemented by tiny little rainbow chard or beet leaves. Use chard or beet leaves no longer than two inches in length, before they become tough.

On a hot night last week, we ate salad for dinner. I used to shop to make a classic salade niçoise; but one day it occurred to me to use whatever fresh ingredients I had in the garden. Now my salad changes month in month out. Later in the summer I will use the more traditional generous handful of green beans instead of cucumber, blanched for a minute or two; and yellow and red cherry tomatoes off our vines.

The quantity of tuna makes it filling enough for our family of five – three of whom are quite little – to consider it dinner, especially if it's accompanied by a thick piece of sourdough brushed with olive oil and char grilled. If your household is smaller, use less tuna and fewer eggs.

We call this Nice Salad, because some days it's salade niçoise and other days, it's just nice. Flowers are, of course, optional.

Nice Salad

- a fancy lettuce
- a handful of tiny beet leaves and/or rainbow chard leaves, if you have them
- 8 to 10 new potatoes (those tiny little golf balls, fewer if your potatoes are large)
- 2 to 6 eggs (depending how hungry everyone is and how many people there are)
- a cucumber, preferably a sweet Lebanese cucumber, but an English one will do
- 425g tin tuna (packed in oil because it tastes approximately a thousand times better)
- 2 or 3 tomatoes
- a dozen black olives and in this house this means Kalamata (optional)
- 5 or 6 nasturtium flowers, as bright and fresh as possible (optional)
- a lemon (or some wine vinegar or even tarragon vinegar if you have it)
- olive oil, salt, pepper

Bring a pot of water to the boil, and cook the potatoes until they are done. Add the eggs for the last six minutes. Drain, and halve the potatoes. Place the eggs in a bowl of cold water, then peel and quarter them.*

Separate, wash and spin the salad leaves. Arrange on a large platter. Tumble the potatoes over the lettuce.

If your cucumber is English, peel it, halve it, slice out the seeds, cut each half into three or four lengths and chop them into pieces. If your cucumber is Lebanese, halve it lengthwise, quarter it lengthwise, and chop it into pieces. Scatter over the lettuce.

Cut the tomatoes into sixths or so – you want manageable wedges – and add them to the salad. Flake the tuna out of the can and onto the salad. Arrange the eggs over the top.

Press on the olives with the base of a heavy glass and remove the pip. Tear each olive into four or so pieces, and tuck them in.

Drizzle the lot with olive oil and a generous squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of tarragon or other light vinegar. Season if you wish, although I find the tuna and olives are enough seasoning for me.

Shake your nasturtium flowers to dislodge any ants. Snip the petals from all but one of the flowers. Holding the petals over the salad, snip them into pretty ribbons which will float down onto the salad. Place the last flower artfully in the centre, and serve.

*If, like us, your eggs are from the backyard and too fresh to peel without losing great chunks, poach them instead and gently lay the poached eggs on top of the salad – and throw in another couple of eggs because people will eat more when they're so delicious. A nice problem to have!

The idea of eating flower blossoms came from The Savory Way, an indispensable book for anyone learning to cook good food. Madison has a deep appreciation for vegetables, herbs, oils, vinegars and other flavours, and uses them to create wonderful dishes which are intelligent and delicious. She writes thoughtfully about ingredients, and in careful detail about technique. This book was my training ground – I worked my way from cover to cover, and have drawn from it ever since.

The photograph shows a version of this salad as requested and assembled by my four year old: lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, cucumber, tuna, and nasturtium and borage flowers.

(Local: salad leaves, potatoes, eggs, cucumber, tomatoes, nasturtium flowers, olive oil, lemon. Not local: tuna, olives.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tuna Hash and a Poached Egg

There are some things I just cannot do. Touch my toes, speak French, or make potato pancakes. When I make potato pancakes, they rarely form a nice cake at the bottom; or if they do, they collapse when I come to turn them. But in my defeat I've decided that I'm good at hash: chunky, messy, and crisply golden.

Another thing I'm not so good at is gardening. I like the idea; I keep giving it a shot. But then we get sick or busy, the weeds take over, and I lose hope. A few months ago I gave up on the potatoes, sure that they wouldn't amount to anything much. But this week, after I pulled out the broad beans – which this person of little faith planted on top of the tatie trench – I began digging out some intrusive couch grass. As I dug, to my surprise I discovered taties the size of my fist – sixty of them!

Unfortunately, because I didn't expect them, by the time they were discovered I had impaled a dozen of them on the gardening fork, further proof I'm a rotten gardener.

With a sack of stabbed potatoes, a carton of backyard eggs, and three hungry kids, I found myself dreaming of hash. In an American diner, they're usually cooked with beef or pork and topped with a fried egg. However, we don't cook red meat and I don't like fried eggs.

But in a funny little second hand cookbook, I found another idea. The book is the hilarious Take a Tin of Tuna (yes, it's slightly nauseating if you look at it too long), and includes a recipe for tuna hash. While it wasn't exactly what I was looking for, by the time I had fiddled with the proportions and changed a few ingredients, I ended up with something truly satisfying. The tuna met my need for something unctuous and meaty mixed in with the potatoes, and was even enough to get my four year old, who mostly hates taties, to eat a plateful.

Of course, if you're concerned about the overfishing of tuna and your four year old will eat another form of protein, you might make it not with tuna but with a few thick slices of bacon, chopped and fried with the onions. Or leave out the meat and stud it with salty feta or grilled haloumi just before serving.

Tuna Hash and a Poached Egg

- 1 kg potatoes
- several tablespoons olive oil
- 2 or 3 shallots, or 1 onion, sliced finely into half moons
- 3 spring onions, finely sliced including some green bits
- 1 cup peas
- 425g can tuna (or 2 thick rashers of bacon or a slab of haloumi or perhaps some feta...)
- 3 or so stalks flat-leaf parsley (optional), chopped
- 6 eggs, or however many your household needs

Peel the potatoes (or not) and cut into rough 1cm dice. Bring a pot of water to the boil. Blanch the peas for a minute, then scoop them out with a slotted spoon. Set aside. Add the potatoes to the boiling water, and boil for 5 to 7 minutes, or until barely cooked. Drain and set aside.

Warm several tablespoons of olive oil in a large heavy skillet. Add the shallots (or the onion), and cook over medium heat until tender. Add the spring onions, potatoes, peas and tuna and stir to combine. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, pressing down with a spatula from time to time to encourage golden bits.

While it's cooking, boil the kettle, pour the water into another wide skillet and bring to a very gentle simmer, that is, water in which a tiny bubble rises once or twice a second.

Run the spatula around the potatoes, turning them over and roughing them up. Cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, or until you have lots of golden crispy bits or you're just too hungry to wait any longer.

Meanwhile, poach your eggs* in the other skillet. To do this, break an egg into a shallow coffee cup. Gently slide it into the barely simmering water, and repeat until you have a ring of eggs. Poach for four to six minutes, or until the white is set but the yolk is deliciously runny. The time will depend on the size of your eggs.

Place a good helping of hash on each plate, and top with poached eggs. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and pass the pepper.

*Note: This method of poaching works perfectly with very fresh backyard eggs; pretty well with fresh organic eggs; but it's somewhat messy with stale supermarket eggs. You could always soft boil them instead.

Inspired by a recipe in Joie Warner's Take a Tin of Tuna.

(Backyard: potatoes, eggs, parsley. Local: olive oil, shallots, spring onions, peas, and possibly bacon. Not very eco or local: tuna.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Christmas Cake

My grandmother made Christmas cakes every year. She would mail one to us across the Nullarbor, or persuade a travelling relative to squeeze it into their suitcase. I loved the thought but, I must admit, not the cake. It was always a little dry; and I could never get enthusiastic about glacé cherries or mixed peel – but I'd eat it for my grandmother.

My mother had her own recipe, a hearty thing full of raisins, decorated with glacé cherries and brazil nuts, and glazed with apricot jam. It was pretty good, but even it lacked a certain something.

For the first ten years that I lived out of home, it didn't occur to me to make my own cake; yet my Christmases felt strangely bereft. Meanwhile my sister had an annual date to make fruit cake with a friend, and each year I'd taste the latest recipe: one year, a fruity cake made with pineapple; another year, something lighter. They were lovely enough, but a few years ago I realised that, with girls of my own, I wanted a recipe that I can make year after year and which will one day taste like home.

In homage, I tried my grandmother's recipe, and my mother's, but I wasn't entirely happy with either of them. So then I read and fiddled around until I found a cake that I like. It's based on Nigella's recipe in her fabulous book, Feast. Her cake is more moist than the cakes of my forebears, and more delicately fragrant.

As good as it is, I have altered it to suit my taste. Unlike Nigella's, our cake is studded with ruby red cranberries and, thanks to the addition of quince marmalade, it has the faintest aroma of quince. I've upped the orange zest, and once the cake is made I drizzle it with Cointreau to keep it moist.

Made in November, the cake cures for at least a month in the linen cupboard. I bring it out in late December, and enjoy a small slice in the afternoon with a piece of hard cheese, or a sliver late at night with a soothing cup of Rooibos.

As part of developing our own tradition, I've involved my girls in the making of the cake. This year's attempt was like a Buster Keaton scene. My six year old was in a grump; my two year old threw plastic measuring spoons into the mixture and fell sideways off her stool; and my four year old wandered in picking her nose, then plunged her hand into the mix.

Why, I cannot tell, but after the initial screaming I philosophically resolved that as the cake was going to bake for four hours, it made no difference. In any case, it's a good story, the very stuff of family tradition – and it has another advantage. I absolutely adore this cake, scented as it is with cranberries, orange and quince; and with the intrusion of my daughter's grubby finger perhaps this year I'll get it all to myself. Or will you want a slice?

Christmas Cake
(26 cm tin)

- 1 kg sultanas
- 375g raisins
- 175g currants
- 250g dried cranberries (good ones from the organic shop, not those nasty craisins)
- 180ml sherry
- 350g butter, slightly softened
- 300g brown sugar
- 4 tsp orange zest (zest of 2 oranges)
- 6 large eggs
- 4 tbs quince marmalade
- 525g plain flour
- 1 ½ tsp mixed spice
- ¼ tsp cinnamon
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 tbs Cointreau or other liqueur

Combine the fruit and the sherry in a large bowl and leave it to soak overnight. (I use an enormous ancient bowl that was my mother's; you may need to dash out and buy a large plastic tub.)

Preheat the oven to 150°C, and position a rack at the lowest rung. Wrap the tin in a double layer of brown paper extending to 10cm above the rim of the tin; you will need a child or friend to hold it steady while you tie it on. Line the tin with baking paper, also extending 10cm above the rim. This will prevent the top of the cake from catching or drying out during the long baking.

Cream the butter and sugar with the orange zest, then add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each egg. Add the quince marmalade and mix well. Fold in the dry ingredients, then gently stir the mixture into the fruit, scraping up fruit from the bottom until well combined. Use a very stout wooden spoon; a plastic spatula will snap.

Scoop the mixture into the tin, gently smoothing it to the edges. The batter will be very stiff.

Place into the oven and cook for an hour; then lower the heat to 140°C and cook for another three hours or until a tester comes out clean.

When it is done, brush the surface with two tablespoons of Cointreau or the liqueur of your choice. Wrap the entire cake, tin and all, with foil and leave to cool. When it is completely cold, remove the wrappings and the tin, and rewrap in foil. Place in a cake tin, if you have one big enough, and leave it to cure somewhere cool and quiet for a month or so.

Note: For an 18cm tin, use approximately one-third of the ingredients and cook at 150°C for 2 hours; for a 23cm tin, use two-thirds and cook at 150°C for 3 hours. For exact measures, or for a slightly different cake using other aromatics, see Feast.

(Local: sultanas, currants, orange zest, eggs, quince. Not local: raisins, cranberries, sherry, butter, sugar, flour, spices, salt.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Salsa Agresto

Every now and then, I experience a minor miracle: a food that my three children all like. Currently there are ten things on the list, and it is, indeed, a literal list, a dog-eared square of yellow card on our fridge naming the dinners my children have agreed to eat without fussing.

For the record, they are green pie, green tart, rice and lentils, pasta puttanesca (no chilli), pasta with olive and parsley sauce, pasta with tuna and peas, fried rice, tortillas with beans and guacamole, and couscous with chickpeas, cranberries and pine nuts. They will also eat homemade pizza they have topped themselves with olives and capers. It's not a very local list, and I struggle to find local foods that all three enjoy.

But this week, the miracle: salsa agresto! Salsa agresto is a sauce made from nuts, parsley and verjuice. It's principally used on meats and poultry, but I pretended it was a pasta sauce, tossed it through noodles and sprinkled it with parmesan. Boy, was it good.

It reminded me of a favourite salad I used to eat at a restaurant in DC made with fresh greens, and topped with homemade falafel balls, fresh grapes and toasted almonds. This was like eating the best bits of the salad in every mouthful.

At the base of the sauce lies verjuice*, which contributes a clear fruity flavour. Ordinarily I'd substitute something else; unlike lemons, verjuice doesn't grow on my neighbour's tree. However, the verjuice is what makes it. Its sweetness rounds out the flavours beautifully; straight lemon juice or vinegar would be too sharp. In any case, the word 'agresto' refers to grape juice, so without verjuice Salsa Agresto would have to be called something else.

The almonds were from our tree; the walnuts, local. If you are going to make this sauce, ensure you too are using fresh local almonds and walnuts. They're easy to find in the organic shops. Most imported nuts are rancid and will make your sauce sour and deeply unpleasant.

I based my sauce on a recipe in Maggie's Harvest. Maggie uses a combination of parsley and basil, but in my garden we don't see any basil until the parsley has well and truly gone to seed. In any case, I think the flavours of parsley, walnuts and almonds are quite enough, so I left the basil out.

Once the sauce was made, I reserved what we needed for one meal. The rest I placed in a very clean jar, covered it with a blanket of olive oil, and popped in the fridge. It should keep there for at least a week. We ate it with pasta; it would also go well with poultry, falafel or roasted root vegetables.

*Note: Verjuice contains sulphites; I realised this when I wandered around grumpily tight-chested for a couple of hours after the meal, then finally thought to check the bottle. If you, like me, are mildly sensitive to sulphites, consider warming the verjuice then simmering it uncovered for a few minutes. The heat will break down the sulphites into sulphur dioxide, which will evaporate (this is why you need to leave the lid of the saucepan off). Allow it to cool, then proceed with the recipe.

Of course, if you are highly sensitive to sulphites, cook something else; or try substituting half water, half lemon juice with a pinch of sugar, and adjust to taste; or even press your own grape juice from unripe grapes, which, in fact, is what I intend to do later this year as some of our grapes make a lovely juice, and the very thought of that delicate flavour as the base of this nutty sauce makes my mouth water even now.

Salsa Agresto

- ½ cup freshly shelled walnuts
- ½ cup freshly shelled almonds
- 1½ packed cups flat-leaf parsley
- 1 clove garlic
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ cup verjuice
- about ½ cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Roast the almonds and walnuts on a baking tray for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring from time to time. Remove from the oven when they smell lightly toasted. Rub any loose skins off the walnuts with a tea towel, and leave to cool.

Place the parsley, garlic, salt and nuts in a food processor and whizz. Slowly add the verjuice, then enough olive oil to loosen it up. Check for seasoning, and serve.

Adapted from a recipe in Maggie's Harvest by Maggie Beer.

(Local: walnuts, almonds, garlic, parsley, olive oil. Not too far away: verjuice. Not local: salt.)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Chicken with Marjoram

I am a sick woman. At least, that's what my husband says, because every time I see a cow I get hungry. A beautiful beast with soft eyes is gazing limpidly at me from a field, chewing the cud. My husband is ruminating on the idyllic pastoral scene, and I'm wondering aloud where I can find a good steak.

Other people understand. I met one such gentleman at Northcote Lake. He was feeding stale organic sourdough to the ducks (this is the inner north, after all), and we had a delightful time debating the merits of Duck a l'Orange, Peking Duck and duck with sour cherry sauce.

The lake at Malmsbury makes me hungry, too. It is populated by a flock of geese, and each time I see them my mind is flooded with an image of a perfectly golden roast goose surrounded by baked apples; my mouth fills with saliva. The day one goosed me, I was particularly tempted.

And now we have chickens. They are beautiful birds; they make me laugh; they have distinct personalities; I like to stroke them... and they are so plump.

I'm like some ravening beast from a cartoon show. Yet I have almost never cooked meat, testament to a long-standing commitment to consume less. I do eat meat when we're out and about, which is rare these days; but I don't cook it at home. We stick to eggs, pulses and fish.

But when we're not eating eggs, I've been wondering about the sustainability of this commitment. Sure, I soak Australian pulses, but when I'm in a rush, which is often, I reach for the cans from Italy. Yet buying canned vegetables from Europe feels environmentally insane – the food miles! – and ethically dubious. Those Albanian field workers aren't treated too well.

On the other hand, the more I read about overfishing and the working conditions of many fishing crews, the less keen I am on fish. Half the time I can't find anything from the sustainable fishing guide at the fish shop; and in any case my kids don't really like fish, except mackerel (unavailable in Australia), salmon (which is usually farmed, pumped full of antibiotics and fed ground up by-catch) and canned tuna (and the sustainable ones give them a rash. What is that about?).

I'm starting to think that eating local chicken might be better.

So last week, in a radical move for our household, I made my first tentative foray into cooking poultry. I bought some local free range drumsticks and roasted them with marjoram and lemons. They came out of the oven burnished gold. The marjoram lent sweetness and interest, and the lemons were lightly caramelized and syrupy.

The drumsticks disappeared quickly, and one child begged for more. She then spent the week telling friends in great detail about the delicious meal I made, and has asked me to cook it again.

Like her, I love to eat meat, but I have to admit that I'm no great evangelist. To me, it's more of a guilty secret because, no matter how thoughtful the farming method or how low the food miles, meat means the death of a sentient being with little or no acknowledgement or gratitude. All I can say is that I suspect a responsibly farmed local chicken is more sustainable than Italian pulses and most fish, it's easy to prepare, and it's tasty; and I can choose to give thanks before I eat.

Chicken with Marjoram

- 5 or 6 chicken drumsticks (they're easy for kids to hold, and amusing to play with)
- a lemon
- a big handful of marjoram
- salt
- olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Wash the marjoram, and check for bugs. I left mine on the stem, but you can pick the leaves off if you wish. Chop the lemons roughly and randomly, into perhaps a half-inch dice.

If necessary, trim the chicken of any dangly bits. Rub with a little salt. Place in a baking dish with the lemons and marjoram. Drizzle with olive oil, and use your hands to combine. Ensure the marjoram has a little oil on it; otherwise it will dry out and burn.

Roast at 200°C for 35 minutes. Turn the drumsticks over, and roast for another 20 minutes at 160°C or until they are golden.

Roasting temperatures from the very useful How to Eat by Nigella Lawson; the food porn photograph of a goose and apples is in her absolutely wonderful book Feast: Food that celebrates life. Photograph shows a piece of chicken which is clearly not a drumstick; sometimes I use drumsticks, other times, every part of a chicken I can get my hands on!

(Local: chicken, marjoram, lemons, olive oil. Not local: salt.)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How to eat an artichoke

I came to artichokes like I came to babies: ignorant, and full of trepidation.

The first time round, having a baby seemed like a nice idea, if a little weird. But as my belly grew and grew, I began to get anxious. I realised I didn't have a clue how to care for one. I didn't know anyone with a newborn; I didn't know who to ask. Until I had my own, I never held a baby, and I learned everything I needed to know from books and professionals. It was a bit hit and miss there for a while, but somehow we muddled through – and now I'm quite baby-mad!

Similarly, I never ate a fresh artichoke until I grew my own. There was a certain gap in the garden. The soil was dry; the other plants in the bed were silvery-grey; and I needed something that would grow quick and fast. So I planted an artichoke. It shot up and out and filled the space, just as I had hoped. But as for eating the things...

Well, last year, I felt anxious. I dithered, and picked the artichokes late; they were tough and tasteless and the choke was full of fluff.

This year I am better prepared, more confident. The other night I wandered out with a knife and cut seven tight buds from the plant, gloating all the while; then I cooked them up for dinner.

I served them with warm melted butter flecked with parsley. My husband and I ate our artichokes with gusto, dipping leaves into the butter, slurping and sucking, and letting the juice run down our chins. Had we not had three young squabbling children present, only one of whom would try their artichoke – the same child who later sent the other four members of the family berserk so that there was a great deal of screaming and no songs at bedtime – the experience might have been quite erotic. Alas, my friends, that is the story of my life.


O heart weighed down by so many wings

Quite so. Thank you, Joseph Hutchison (as quoted in Ted Kooser's delightful book The Poetry Home Repair Manual).

Just Artichokes

- artichokes
- a lemon
- a bay leaf
- salt
- a great knob of butter
- a few stalks of flat-leaf parsley

Bring a large nonreactive pot of water to the boil. (An aluminium pot will discolour the artichokes and itself.)

Prepare the artichokes by slicing off the top quarter or so of the head, and rubbing the cut surface with lemon juice. Remove the bottom two rows of leaves, and rub those surfaces with lemon, too. Leave at least 10 cm of stalk, as the inside of the stalk is delicious.

Salt the water and throw in a bay leaf or two. Drop the artichokes into the pot. Weigh down with a curved pot lid or plate to keep submerged, and boil for 20 minutes, or until tender.

Chop the parsley finely. Melt the butter, and stir in the parsley.

When the artichokes are done, remove from the pot and leave upside down for a minute to drain.

Serve. To eat, tear off the leaves one by one, dip them into the butter, and, using your front teeth, scrape the morsel of flesh from the base of the leaf into your mouth. Rip open the stalk, and pull out the tender strip. Dip it, and eat. When you get to the heart, peer at it. If it's hairy, discard it. If it's young and tight and smooth, as once were we all, demolish the lot, smacking your lips and sighing with pleasure from time to time.

Many books describe how to prepare an artichoke in great detail. See, for example, Maggie's Harvest by Maggie Beer, or The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander. Maggie suggests cooking the artichokes with bay leaves; Stephanie, serving them with parsley butter.

(Exceedingly local: artichokes, lemon, bay leaves, parsley. Not particularly local: butter, salt.)