Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Pea Pod Soup

My kids all love eating fresh raw peas straight out of the pods. When I was young and stupid, that is, a few years ago, I would get annoyed that they would eat half the peas or more that I had podded ready for dinner. Then I realized what an idiot I was. Now we eat green beans at dinner, and peas are an afternoon snack.

At least once a week at this time of year, I present them with a bagful at 4 o’clock. The deal is, if they pod them, they can eat them. It seems like a fair deal; at least, they seem think so as they are happily occupied for half an hour or more as they demolish a pound or two of peas.

They pod them by grabbing the top stem, where the pod was attached to the plant, and tearing the string completely off. When all is done, I am left with a pile of strings, a pile of pods, and three happy girls who have had their green vegetables for the afternoon.

Thanks to a lovely idea in Chocolate & Zucchini, I stash the pods in the freezer until I have a few bags full, then turn them into soup. One warning: although the soup is very frugal, being made of pea pods, homemade stock and all, it does take a bit of washing up: you need to use a food processor, bamix or blender, and a food mill, if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life pushing pea pods through a strainer.

Pea Pod Soup

- about 1 kg pea pods, strings removed
- 1 red onion, diced small
- a small handful of fennel tops or other herb (basil, parsley, chives)
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- 1 ½ litres stock (I use homemade chicken stock, but an all purpose veggie stock would also be good)
- olive oil
- salt
- tarragon vinegar (optional)

Warm some olive oil in a soup pot. Add the onion and a good pinch of salt, and cook until the onion is soft. Add the pea pods, and allow them to become glossy, then raise the heat, add the fennel tops and the wine, and cook until the wine has reduced to a syrupy consistency.

Add the stock, bring it to a simmer, and cook for half an hour. Allow to cool a little.

In three or so batches, whizz the soup in a food processor or blender (or use a bamix) until it looks like very wet grass clippings. Transfer the clippings I mean soup to a mouli (food mill) placed over a smaller pot, and grind away. (If you have a masochistic urge or a great deal of time on your hands, press them through a strainer instead.)

When it has all been processed and run through the mouli, dump the shredded pods in the compost and give the soup a good stir. Place it on the stove to warm up again, and serve.

My kids are especially fond of this soup when it has been enlivened by a dash of tarragon vinegar. Tarragon vinegar is made by shoving fresh clean dry tarragon into a bottle of white wine vinegar, and forgetting about it for a couple of weeks. It is perfect splashed over asparagus, dripped onto a green salad, or drizzled into this soup.

(Local: peas, onion, fennel tops (gleaned), white wine, olive oil. Various sources: chicken stock. Not so local: tarragon vinegar, salt.)

Chocolate & Zucchini  : Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Kale Crisps

Eat your greens! Well, I do love greens and I do eat a lot of them in salad, in horta and in pie. But every now and then I just don't feel like a great pile of leaves mounded on my plate, and that's when I fool about with kale.

Kale is such a sturdy vegetable that it can be, effectively, chipped. That is, it can be baked with oil and salt, and a bit of chilli perhaps, and turned into a delightfully flaky nutty flavoured thing. For this chips-not-chocolate girl, kale crisps are perfect for an afternoon snack, with an evening beer, or anytime really.

Sure, I can buy wildly expensive packages of kale chips, but why would I when they are a doddle to make and cheap as, well, chips?

Kale Crisps

- 1 bunch black kale aka cavolo nero or Tuscan kale
- olive oil
- chilli flakes (optional. I often do two batches, one with chilli for me, and one without for the kids.)
- salt

Preheat the oven to 180°. Position an oven shelf near the top of the oven.

Wash and dry the kale. Cut out the thick central stems, and chop the leaves into bite size pieces.

Drizzle olive oil into a large bowl. Sprinkle in chilli flakes to taste (start with about ¼ tsp) and a large pinch of salt. Throw the leaves into the bowl and toss with your hands until they have a slight sheen from the olive oil, and the salt and chilli flakes are evenly distributed.

Line a baking tray with silicon or baking paper, and place the leaves in a single layer on the tray.

Slide the tray into the top shelf of the oven. Check after 12 minutes; if they are not yet crisp and slightly golden, give them another couple of minutes in the oven.

Remove from the oven. Serve warm or cold.

Kale crisps do not stay crisp terribly long, so either eat them immediately or, as soon as they are cool, place them into an airtight container lined with paper towel or similar to absorb any residual moisture.

In lieu of chilli flakes you could use some sort of spice mix. Experiment!

(Local: kale, olive oil. Not so local: chilli flakes, salt.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cauliflower Salad

Sometimes it's the little things that make me so happy, like seeing a baby smile, smelling a soft yellow rose, or catching a tram the minute I get to the stop.

Or when I find a way to serve cauliflower that my children like.

Cauliflower has been a hitherto spurned vegetable in our house. I use it only every now and then, aiming for a very gradual sixteen presentations or however long it takes kids to like a vegetable. A year or so ago I did this with broccoli over the course of two weeks, but now I'm slower at these things.

I first made this cauliflower salad a month or so ago, much to my children's disgust. Yet my eight year old has learned that it is easier to eat the small portion required of her than to have a big argument and be made to eat the food anyway, so she looked at the cauliflower, sighed, picked up her fork, and et it – then looked up surprised and had a little more.

But her five year old sister has not yet learned that resistance is futile. As her father placed a small portion of cauliflower on her plate she, as usual, let out a big wail. It sounded like someone had just deliberately dropped an anvil on her foot – there was a clear note of betrayal amongst all the pain and anguish.

We offered our usual measured response ('hush now, just have a bite'), to which she responded with further wails at which point I, lovely mother that I am, snapped 'just eat the damn thing'. She gave one last sob, then took a tiny nibble, looked surprised, and et the lot. 'Delicious,' she said, serving herself some more; then she leapt from the table, ran to the kitchen, grabbed a small container and packed extra for her school lunch the next day while we all looked on speechless. Then she yelled at someone else for polishing the rest of the salad off.

At such a moment I am torn between exasperation and triumph. Why, I wonder, does she need to shriek like a steam train? – especially when it turns out she likes the food!

Anyway, I've made this cauliflower salad once or twice since then, just to consolidate, and each time it has been demolished at dinner, and extras taken for school lunch. It's the sort of salad that sits quite well in the fridge for a few days. You can always add a few more olives and capers, or a dash more vinegar, to sharpen the flavours.

While it's a bit late for cauliflower in Melbourne, there are still a few local ones floating around. See what you can find.

Cauliflower Salad

- 1 medium sized cauliflower
- 1 decent sized carrot
- 3 anchovies
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 tbs red wine vinegar or to taste
- 1 tbs capers, drained and rinsed
- 1 handful kalamata olives (about 20)
- 5 or so stems continental parsley
- salt

Put the kettle on to boil.

Peel the carrot and slice it into rounds about the thickness of an English pound coin, that is about ⅓ cm thick. Break or chop the cauliflower into roughly even sized florets, whatever size feels natural.

Pour the boiling water into a saucepan fitted with a steamer. Drop in the cauliflower and the carrot and steam for 6 minutes. Check to see whether they are done: you should be able to slip a knife into the thick part of the vegetable. If not, give them another minute or two. Remove them from the heat.

While the vegetables are cooking, chop the anchovies very finely. Now, using the flat of your knife, smoosh those finely chopped anchovies against the board until they are paste. Scrape up the paste and put it into a bowl. Add the olive oil, vinegar and a pinch of salt and mix very well; I use a small whisk.

Using the base of an espresso cup, press against each olive until it splits, then slip out the pit. Tear the olive into one or two pieces.

Chop the parsley.

Scrape the dressing into a shallow platter. Tumble the cauliflower and carrots on top of the dressing along with the olives, capers and parsley. Mix with your hands until the dressing has been well distributed and all is glistening.

Freely adapted from a recipe in Insalate: Authentic Italian Salads for All Seasons by Susan Simon.

(Local: cauliflower, parsley, olive oil. Not so local: carrot, olives, capers, anchovies, red wine vinegar, salt.)

Insalate: Authentic Italian Salads for All Seasons

Wednesday, November 16, 2011



My earliest memory is that of food. When I was a year and a half old, my parents went to Nepal for three months to have a few adventures and visit a few friends, and I tagged along. And if I let my mind slip sideways and approach the memory as I would a skittish stray cat, I can remember sitting on a stone wall, the roughness of the stones pressing into my thighs, and eating a mandarin. The mandarin is large in my baby hands, and beside me I can see the pattern of my beloved friend Gwen’s brown tweed skirt.

My second oldest memory is of swinging my legs from the neighbour’s kitchen bench and having olives popped into my mouth. My neighbours were Greek and I spent hours there every week watching George make endless tiny cups of thick black coffee and Tina cook up a storm. For a long time, my parents were puzzled by my birdlike appetite and burgeoning size until they realised quite how much the neighbours fed me.

There’s nothing like fresh Greek food. Eating it takes me right back to George and Tina’s vinyl chairs and seventies brown kitchen, and the view out to their grapevine. Behind the vine was a fire pit, dug into the lawn for the Paschal lamb; thinking of that lamb makes my mouth water even now.

Three decades later, I am drifting through old memories as I cook up a storm in my own kitchen and gaze out into our own grapevine. It’s the time of year when vines go a-roaming. New shoots sprawl abundantly, looking for something to catch on to, and so, before heat burns and fungi attack, it is time to make dolmades.

Dolmades are quite simply vine leaves stuffed with rice and other goodies. I fill mine with fresh herbs, and use the leaves from our vines. While you can certainly buy preserved vine leaves, fresh vine leaves are a whole ‘nother thing: they taste light and sweet and clean.

For this recipe, you need about fifty vine leaves the size of a Cornish woman’s hand, that is, my hand – or what is probably about the size of your palm. Obviously if your leaves are larger, you will need less; smaller, you will need more. Don’t strip the leaves off the vine one by one, as this will weaken the vine. Instead, remove a long unwanted shoot, then strip the leaves off that.

If you don’t have a grapevine of your own, there are plenty throwing two and three metre long shoots into the laneways. If you decide to glean such shoots, respect the vine and the owner. Take clippers, and cut a couple of good long stems to the fence line – don’t just shred the leaves off, don’t go over the fence line, and take only what you can use. When I'm out walking, I carry a stout pair of scissors in my bag to collect herbs and greens and no one has ever done anything but smile and nod as they see me carefully snipping fennel tops, parsley, bay leaves and all the other goodies that grow for free.

I may not be Greek, but George and Tina gave me an early education in food and I have taken on the mantle of gleaning and eating great quantities of herbs and bitter greens, vine leaves and fennel tops. And as I do so, I think of my old neighbours with gratitude.


- about 50 fresh vine leaves
- 150g long grain white rice
- about 350g brown onions
- ½ cup fennel tops
- ⅓ cup parsley, about 10 – 12 stalks
- ¼ cup mint
- 150ml olive oil
- a lemon
- salt

First, select your vine leaves. For the rolls, choose those which are whole. Reserve any torn leaves for lining the pan. With your thumbnail and forefinger, snip the stem from the base of the leaf. Wash well. Bring a pan of lightly salted water to the boil. (I use the same wide frypan that I will later use to cook the dolmades). In batches, drop in the leaves and hold them under the water for a bare minute, then fish them out and let them drain in a colander. They will change from bright green to khaki in that time. Place the rice in a medium sized bowl and cover with cold water. Let it soak for fifteen minutes, then drain it in a sieve and rinse well.

While the rice is soaking, chop the onions very finely. The onions hold the rice grains apart and give the dolmades a delicate lightness, so keep them small but do not grate them or pulverize them in a food processor. You do not want a mush! Chop the fennel, mint and parsley. Mix the rice with the onions, the herbs, 75ml olive oil and half the lemon juice.

Line the base of a wide heavy based frypan – you may as well use the same pan as was used for blanching – with vine leaves. Start with the holey ones.

Now take a blanched vine leaf and lay it flat. Place a heaped teaspoon of filling at the base of the leaf – and use a bit of common sense here: a large leaf may need more filling; a small one, less – and then form it into a rough tube. Roll the vine leaf once, fold in either side, and continue rolling to the end. Place it in the frypan.

Pack the dolmades tightly together. When you have run out of filling, drizzle the rest of the olive oil and lemon juice over the dolmades. Gently place a plate upside down on top of the dolmades to hold them in place, then pour 250ml hot water into the pan.

Cover and cook over very low heat. After 40 minutes, fish one out and test it. If it’s a bit crunchy, give it another five minutes, otherwise turn off the heat. Let them cool a little in the pan.

Take the dolmades out and arrange them on a plate. Serve warm or cold with slices of lemon. While they keep in the fridge for several days, they do lose some of their delicate texture and herbal sprightliness. They are best the same day – although even two days later they are far and away better than any commercial dolmades I’ve eaten!

Adapted from a recipe in the wonderful book, Greek Food, by Rena Salaman. Every recipe is preceded by a history of the dish and her fond memories of growing up in Greece. This is a lovely read, and the recipes are scrumptious! Sadly, it is out of print – but her later cookbooks may be worth a look.

(Backyard or gleaned locally: vine leaves, mint, fennel tops, parsley, lemon. Local: onions, olive oil. Somewhere in Australia: rice, salt.)

Healthy Mediterranean Cooking

Thursday, November 3, 2011



How delightful it is to discover a new comfort food! I had always thought comfort foods were those carbohydrates first eaten during early childhood, with their deeply familiar flavours and their taste of home, like good bread with salted butter; or really fresh stretchy pita; or burning hot chips, crisp and salty on the outside, soft and mealy within. These are pleasure enough – but one of the joys of being an adult is that I keep finding new foods to add to the list!

I’ve always liked Lebanese pastries, but when I first bit into the spelt version of the haloumi pie at Mankoushe on Lygon Street, I knew I had discovered the perfect dish. Hot, salty, cheesy, with the deep slaty taste of spelt, heat blistered, and brushed with olive oil: this is comfort food at its best – and is, perhaps, why the Mankoushe boys, dishes themselves, wave whenever we go by: we are their best customers.

Even more recently, I discovered farinata. Farinata is a thick chickpea flour pancake flecked with salt and rosemary. It is that perfect combination of hot and crisp at the edges and mealy inside; and it is savoury, filling, and flavourful. Even better, it is so quick and simple to make that it is a wonder it is not more widely known; the only step that takes any time at all is leaving it to soak for a couple of hours.

I’m so enamoured with farinata that I’ve been making it twice a week for dinner, with a couple of hefty salads on the side. It’s best served hot straight from the pan; but even eaten the next day, whether cold or warmed in the microwave, it is still good.

Farinata doesn’t have to be eaten at dinner. According to Skye Gyngell in her lovely book My Favourite Ingredients, farinata is the traditional breakfast food for Genoese fisherman. I, however, struggle to eat breakfast any later than the time it takes me to shuffle down the hall to the kitchen, so I am yet to find out whether it’s good just then. However, like all salty foods farinata cries out for beer, and I’m looking forward to warmer weather and drinkies in our complete mess of a garden with a slice of farinata in one hand, and a cold beer in the other.

The ingredients are not quite local (I am not sure which bit of Australia provides the chickpea flour in the organic shop), but it is so good that I can’t help but include it in this blog. If you need an excuse to cook a non-local food, farinata is gluten free, sugar free, vegan, and economical. And because pricing completely fails to take into account the distance food has travelled, if you use an imported chickpea flour (also known as besan flour, and readily available in Indian and Pakistani shops), it will be even cheaper.

In Liguria, farinata is made in a large zinc lined copper pan. As I am not Ligurian and don’t have a great pile of specialist cooking equipment, I have adapted the recipe for my thick bottomed stainless steel frying pan 30cm (12”) in diameter. Whatever pan you use, make sure it can go into the oven.


- 150g chickpea flour (also sold as besan flour)
- 500ml lukewarm water
- a very hefty pinch of sea salt
- ¼ cup plus a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
- a long stem of rosemary

Place the chickpea flour and a pinch of salt into a large bowl. If the flour is very lumpy, sieve it; otherwise press out any lumps with a whisk. Make a well in the centre. Gradually add the water, whisking constantly as you slowly incorporate the flour; you should end up with a runny yellow batter.

Leave it to sit for 2 to 4 hours. (I have eaten farinata under the guise of chickpea fritters at several bars and been left with an unpleasant grainy texture on the back of my teeth, like a scone that lacks the necessary pinch of sugar. Leaving it to sit and very slightly ferment seems to fix this problem.)

Pick the leaves from the rosemary.

Place an oven rack in the top half of the oven (not the topmost row, but the one below it), and preheat the oven to 225°C (450°F).

Stir ¼ cup olive oil into the batter.

Place the frying pan on the stovetop, and heat the tablespoon of oil until it is just beginning to smoke. Pour in the batter – it will frill up at the sides like a frittata – and scatter it with rosemary. Gently slide the pan into the oven.

Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, until the edges are crisp, the top is golden, and the middle is perfectly mealy. Sprinkle with extra salt flakes, and serve immediately. This makes enough for a bunch of people to have a taste, four or five people to eat with other things, or for two hungry greedy people to demolish with gusto. Gyngell recommends eating farinata topped with flecks of sweet gorgonzola... sounds good, but I haven’t tried it! She also has a recipe for farinata, but I prefer the thinner batter used above.

From a recipe in the The River Cafe Cook Book Green, adapted to home cooking conditions and equipment.

(Backyard: rosemary. Local: olive oil. Somewhere in Australia: chickpea flour. Not so local: salt.)

The River Cafe Green Cook book My Favourite Ingredients

Monday, October 24, 2011

Das's Chickpea Salad

I never meant to threaten my housemate with a knife.

I was living at the time with a couple of Anglo women who studied too hard, and a Pakistani man named Das. Das had very regular habits. Every morning, he left for work in his little white car; every evening, he came home, parked in the driveway, stayed for an hour or two then, while we women headed back to our desks, he went to put in a few hours at a friend’s restaurant. On weekends, if we were lucky, he cooked.

One weekday I came home to what should have been an empty house. The driveway was empty, but to my alarm the front door was swinging open. I peeked in, and called ‘hello?’. There was no answer, so I called louder. Again, silence. Heart pounding, I stepped softly into the hallway, tiptoed to the kitchen and, being a silly young thing, grabbed a long knife. Then I crept around the house, checking each and every room – behind the doors, under the beds, the works – until I came, at last, to Das’s room. He wasn’t home; his car wasn’t in the driveway; he was at work.

But I thought I heard the sound of breathing.

So I crept in, knife raised high, only to find Das dozing on the bed. I shrieked, he opened his eyes and yelled, and I collapsed in hysterical giggles.

It turned out he’d felt sick at work. He’d left in a daze early, parked his car randomly up the street, staggered in the front door, and collapsed into bed, only to be woken by the knife wielding maniac that was me.

These days I’m older and wiser; I figure I’m the only person likely to be injured in a knife fight. So I keep my kitchen knives where they belong, and use them to chop vegetables and think of Das.

He was a terrific cook. I particularly remember eating industrial quantities of his chickpea salad, served warm. I still dream of it; mine, sadly, is never as good.

Chickpea salad is very simple, but it depends on two things. For one, I have never eaten a canned chickpea that hasn’t tasted tinny, so I cook my own from dried. If you don’t mind the tinny taste, you are welcome to use canned chickpeas, but for mealy chickpea perfection, cook them yourself.

The other is to chop the other vegetables neatly, chickpea sized or smaller. It makes the salad visually appealing, and it means that each mouthful is an explosion of different flavours.

Chaat masala is a spice mix for salads. Dried green mango and asafoetida give it sourness; and then about a dozen other spices just make it taste good! You can buy it at any Indian or Pakistani grocery store. It’s worth having a packet in your pantry just for this salad; I certainly do.

Das’s Chickpea Salad (Very Easily Multiplied!)

- 1 cup cooked chickpeas. If they are warm, so much the better.
- 2 medium carrots, diced small
- 1 celery heart, or 2 stalks celery
- 1 long cucumber
- a small bunch of coriander, chopped
- a hefty pinch of chaat masala
- the juice of a lemon

If you are using the celery heart, shred it crossways right up into the yellow leaves. If you are using celery stalks, dice them as small as the carrot.

Peel the cucumber entirely if the skin is coarse. Halve it lengthways. Cut out the seeds by slicing a shallow V and scraping them out. Dice the remaining flesh nice and small.

Chop the coriander coarsely.

Combine the chickpeas with the vegetables and the coriander. Dress with a generous amount of lemon juice, and sprinkle with a little chaat masala to taste. Mix well.

This makes enough for two or three lunches. In lieu of my mother’s chappatis – how I miss them! – I eat it with homemade unleavened bread made with buckwheat flour and sprinkled with nigella, or with fresh pita.

(Localish: chickpeas from Horsham area; carrots, coriander, lemons. Not so local: celery, salt, chaat masala.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Clove Scented Onions


My two favourite restaurant names are the New Wind, which serves Thai and Vietnamese food to its lucky patrons in Windsor; and the Sha Tin, serving up quality Chinese takeaway in Heathmont. Lately, after a spate of particularly bad cooking, I thought of the latter; it felt like more than one meal originated in the Sha Tin kitchen.

I admit this only because three people who really should know better have told me recently that they think cooking for me is intimidating. So I'd like to share some home truths.

I started this blog partly because churning out countless meals day after day for largely ungrateful small children had robbed me of any joy in the act of cooking. I thought that writing about the good things we ate might help sustain me through the infuriating claim I hear most days: 'no like it'.

There are still many times when I am careless, misguided or just plain uninspired in the kitchen. Last week was particularly bad, like something out of a fairy tale. I suspect I offended an evil spirit, because everything I touched turned to sand.

One night, dinner was well underway. The kids were bickering and generally so annoying that I hid in the laundry with the laptop and checked my emails while dinner cooked. I was returned to earth by the smell of burning. I managed to salvage a third of the beans, which I served as 'smoky'; but all the vegies, even the mustard greens I had picked earlier from the garden, had to go to the great compost heap in the sky.

A day or two later, I bought 'cheap' bananas to make smoothies. We had some rice milk in the fridge, so I whizzed it up with the bananas, some cocoa and a little almond meal, and poured each child a lovely foaming cup. Each child took a great gulp... each angelic face contorted demonically, and each pair of legs hotfooted it to the bathroom where I heard a frenzy of spitting, gargling, and tooth brushing. And that is how I learned that rice milk doesn't last more than three days in the refrigerator, and when it goes off, it seems to smell fine. It just tastes absolutely mouth-searingly gut-wrenchingly disgusting.

I also served up mouldy hommus; chicory so bitter it turned my stomach; and rocks of undercooked beetroot. Even the meals that weren't unmitigated disasters were largely uninspired, consisting of, for the most part, what one friend calls 'adulterated beans'.

Yet there have been glimmers of hope. The other day I had potatoes and sweet red onions from a local farm in the pantry. So I decided on an easy meal: baked potatoes and caramelized onions, with salad and adulterated beans on the side.

I wanted the onions to be rich, so I cooked them in a good slosh of olive oil and flavoured them with cloves. The result was unctuous and deeply flavoured, a perfect match for the mealy potatoes.

How is it that something so absolutely simple can be so incredibly delicious?, I wondered – and it was so easy, even I didn't stuff it up.

And yet in the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that, in the long run, even this meal wasn't entirely successful. It may have been delicious; it may have been easy; it may have been economical, but eating a multitude of fried onions has some after effects: this is not the thing for date night. Rather, it's a meal to be enjoyed in the privacy of one's own home, without guests, and preferably when you're happy to leave a few windows open. While it's not Sha Tin, New Wind just about covers it.

Potatoes Stuffed with Clove Scented Onions

- 4 baking potatoes
- 4 large red onions
- ½ tsp ground cloves, or more to taste
- 4 tbs olive oil
- good salt

Heat the oven to 200°C. Scrub the potatoes, dry them and prick them with a fork. Place them directly onto the oven rack. Leave to bake for 1 to 1½ hours, or until the skins are papery and the insides perfectly cooked.

Halve the onions stem to stern, then slice them into half moons ½ cm wide.

Warm the oil in a wide heavy based skillet set over medium heat. Add the cloves, the onions, and a hefty pinch of salt and stir well to ensure the onions are evenly coated. Turn down the heat and leave them to cook for thirty minutes or so, until they are a dark golden brown. Do not let them dry out. You may need to shove them around with a wooden spoon from time to time to prevent them from sticking.

Serve piled into the baked potatoes, or tossed through pasta, draped over steak or anywhere else you can think of. A tangle of peppery rocket on the side is a nice complement.

(Local: potatoes, onions, olive oil. Not so local: cloves, salt.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Grilled Chicken with Lavender Herbs

Our across-the-road neighbour is good Wimmera stock. As a little girl, she rode five miles every morning with her siblings to the neighbour's house. He drove them another ten miles to meet the town taxi; and the taxi took them the last leg to school. In the afternoon they'd do it all in reverse. She tells the story with a twinkle and a grin; to her credit, she has never used it against me and my soft daughters when we grizzle about the walk to school.

As an adult, she trained as a midwife and spent years delivering babies under palm trees in the Middle East. After that, she came back to work as a nurse on the children's hospital helicopter ambulance. Nothing fazes her.

Now actively retired, she lives in urban Brunswick and loves it. But every now and then, even after so many years and adventures, the country girl peeps out.

The other night she was leaning against the doorjamb, gazing at our pet hens and reminiscing about the taste of roast chicken. 'It's been years,' she said, 'since I had a proper roast chicken. Let me know when one of them stops laying and I'll show you how to kill it properly.'

My daughters looked at her, eyes and mouths rounded in shock, as she went on to explain how to chop right through the neck and hold the body down until it had stopped twitching, how to gut and pluck it, and how to let it rest a day before roasting. 'There's nothing like it,' she said. 'Except maybe rabbit – have you ever thought of keeping rabbits in your front garden? They're easy to keep, good breeders of course, and absolutely delicious.'

I thought of her lush green lawn across the street, untouched by rabbits or chickens or any other livestock except the multitude of young children who come to visit, and thought to myself, You keep rabbits, then! – and I grinned as I reflected how my grumpier neighbours would respond if I turned the garden into a slaughterhouse. Tempting, yes.

As delicious as roast chicken and rabbit casserole may be, we rarely cook meat; and when we do, it's on the grill alongside slabs of marinated tofu for the vegetarians. A cast-iron grill is a fantastic piece of kitchen equipment and should be at the top of your Christmas list. There is a certain sort of man who buys fancy kitchen equipment for his wife to emphasise that she should continue to cook for him. Well, I turned that one on its head: I bought a grill for my husband's birthday several years ago. He loves the taste of grilled fish and sourdough, and it was a promise that I would make them at home for him – and so I have.

A grill is very easy to use. Heat it over a medium flame until it is evenly hot (sudden high heat can crack it). Brush your food with a little oil and pop it on. Don't fiddle, but leave the food to develop those no doubt carcinogenic char lines. If you fancy neat diagonals, rotate it 90° once and once only; any more, and you'll just have a brown mess. When the food looks halfway cooked, flip it and let it cook through. The time it takes will of course depend on the thickness and type of food and how hot you have set the burners under the grill – use your eyes, your nose and your brain.

Serve bruschetta or grilled cheese sandwiches as soon as they are cooked. Grilled vegetables are best tepid; and meat particularly benefits from a short rest so place it on a board, wipe down the grill with a paper towel or a more sustainable alternative, then serve.

Don't ever scrub the grill. The blackening seasons the metal and stops food from sticking. If you feel you absolutely must clean it – say, you cooked salmon on it then didn't wipe it down properly and you don't want your grilled cheese sandwich to taste of fish – wash the grill gently, not vigorously, in hot soapy water to remove the smell, replace it on the stove, warm it until it is absolutely dry, then rub it with a little oil before putting it away.

It may not be freshly slaughtered and roasted, but chicken on the grill is very good: tender, juicy and richly flavoured. It's one of our simple standbys when we have visitors. The easiest way is to marinate it with lemon juice, garlic, marjoram and olive oil, but I also love to herb it up.

The second marinade, with lavender, rosemary and lemon thyme, is spectacularly good. The lavender gives it a floral sweetness, the thyme provides an earthy base note, and the lemon zest sings. One bite of this is like a little party in your mouth: absolutely delicious.

Grilled Chicken with Lavender Herbs

- some boned chicken pieces. Thigh fillets are my preference as they are much thinner than the breast, so they absorb the marinade better; also, they are slightly and deliciously fattier. However, breast pieces grill well, look prettier and may be sliced very elegantly along the grain which makes it easy to serve small people who want only a sliver or two.

- olive oil - good salt

And either: - a squeeze of lemon juice

- a few cloves of garlic, bashed with the side of a knife and the papery bits flicked off

- a handful of fresh marjoram or thyme or whichever herb that takes your fancy, leaves picked and coarsely chopped

Or: - equal quantities of lavender blossoms, rosemary needles and thyme (lemon thyme for preference but any thyme is good), about 1 tablespoon of each

- the zest and juice of a lemon

- ¼ cup olive oil

- a good pinch of salt

If you are using the first marinade, just toss the ingredients in with the chicken pieces, cover and refrigerate.

If you are using the lavender herbs, chop the lavender, rosemary, thyme and lemon zest, then combine them with the salt, the olive oil, and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.

Remove a tablespoon of the marinade, squeeze in an extra tablespoon of lemon juice, and reserve. Toss the rest of the marinade with the chicken pieces and refrigerate for many hours. I usually put this together after breakfast, so it sits all day; the longer the meat marinates, the better it tastes.

Close to dinnertime, heat the grill. Place the chicken on the grill and cook for five minutes or so, then rotate it by 90°; chicken looks best with diagonals. Cook without fiddling again until the flesh has whitened halfway up the piece.

Flip the chicken and repeat the process until it's cooked, which can take up to 15 minutes. To check, slip a knife into the thickest part and ensure there is no sign of pink.

Place the meat on a board to rest while you wipe down the grill. Drizzle the reserved marinade – or some extra herbs – over the chicken, and serve. You might continue the floral theme and serve it alongside a blossom salad, sans tuna!

Adapted from a recipe by Jerry Traunfeld in The Herbal Kitchen.

(Local: olive oil, all the herbs, and occasionally even the chicken. Not so local: salt.)

The Herbal Kitchen

Monday, September 12, 2011

Pear and Almond Cake

Last week started out so well. I spent the weekend away with a group of women performing a rite of passage for a cherished thirteen year old; I found a snakes head fritillary at a country market; I bought the most beautiful tea cosy in the world; then I came home.

And the world went to pieces. I learned that a friend’s mother died; she needs her mother more than most people need their mothers; this death is appalling and not to be borne; and yet it must be borne. Meanwhile, it was the anniversary of my own mother’s death; I heard some difficult news from an old friend; the kids had threadworm; and a few other things went so deeply, sharply wrong that I was given Veuve Cliquot and sent flowers from Berlin. The extraordinary extravagance of these actions suggests just how pear-shaped my week turned: believe me, I am not in the habit of drinking French champagne nor of indulging in massive bunches of tulips.

But I’m tired of illness and death and worry and care; I’ve had too much of it. So instead of wallowing, I shed a few tears then turned my attention to cake. When life feels impossible, I figure one may as well have something decent to nibble on.

I needed an easy cake that could be whizzed in the food processor with very little effort from me. Preferably it would use up more than a few eggs since our chooks just won’t stop laying (do Isa Browns ever moult?!), and possibly too the pears from our tree that I stewed back in January with a good shake of cinnamon and which have been gathering permafrost in our freezer ever since.

So I went to the recipe books and flicked until I found what I was hoping for. And what a beauty it is! I varied Nigella's recipe for damp apple and almond cake, itself a variation on Claudia Roden’s classic orange and almond cake, by changing the fruit once more from apples to pears. And when I took a bite I realised instantly that it was quite possibly the best cake I have made in a long lifetime of baking. All this for a new recipe on a Tuesday afternoon, shoved carelessly in the oven while I crooked a phone on my shoulder and wept.

Tulips and champagne; pear cake and pain; and a bucketload of tears. What a week.

Pear and Almond Cake

- 8 eggs
- 325g ground almonds
- 375g or so stewed pears with cinnamon
- 275g golden caster sugar
- a squeeze of lemon
- 40g flaked almonds

Grease and line a 25cm spring form pan. Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Place everything bar the flaked almonds into a food processor, and whizz until you have a batter. Pour the resulting goop into the pan. Sprinkle with flaked almonds. Slip into the oven.

Bake for 40 minutes or until golden and a cake tester comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin on a baking rack. Eat plain for afternoon tea or any time you need; it is also lovely with double cream.

Adapted from a recipe by Nigella Lawson in her terrific book, Feast: Food that celebrates life, itself a variation on Claudia Roden’s orange and almond cake in her classic, The Book of Middle Eastern Food. Incidentally, between eggs, pears and almonds from our garden, and lemons from over the road, this could be a very economical cake; sadly, I was too lazy to grind my own almonds.

(Local: almonds, pears, eggs, lemon. Not so local: cinnamon, sugar (fair trade).)

Feast: Food that celebrates life The New Book of Middle Eastern Food

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Celeriac, Chickpea and Cabbage Soup

I grew up gleaning food. We had different walks home from school depending whether it was the season for loquats, feijoas or cherry plums, or whether mum needed us to grab a few bay leaves. Even now, thirty years later, I still get an enormous kick out of finding food in public spaces; it's an even bigger kick in a built-up suburb like Brunswick.

This week, I've nipped bay leaves off a hedge a few blocks away; fennel seeds from an empty lot near the railway line; and parsley from garden escapees in the lanes near our house. It may not be enough to knit body and soul together, but it is more than enough to flavour soup.

And while spring may have sprung, today it is cold again, and we are promised more delightfully wintry weather for the weekend. As much as I cherish the wintry weather, even I must admit that it won't last forever; the season for soup is drawing to a close. This cold snap may be soup's last hurrah for a while; and so soup is what I have made.

Yet again, I have used celeriac to flavour the soup. It seems to have snuck its way into everything this year, possibly because it has been cheaper than potatoes at the organic shop. Here, it features with cabbage and chickpeas, its soft clean flavour lending brightness to what otherwise might have a cabbage-y boarding-house tendency. The soup is flavoured with the herbal gleanings and homemade stock; it is very economical, yet absolutely delicious. A nice piece of sourdough on the side, and you have a complete meal.

Celeriac, Chickpea and Cabbage Soup

- 4 tbs olive oil
- 5 anchovies (optional)
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
- 1 brown onion, chopped
- 800g celeriac
- 200g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight then cooked until soft
- 400g Savoy cabbage, shredded
- 1 litre hot chicken stock (recipe here)
- salt, pepper
- parsley, chopped
- parmesan (optional)

Warm the olive oil in a large soup pot. Add the anchovies and push them around with a wooden spoon for a minute or two, or until they have turned to paste. Add the bay leaves and fennel seeds, and cook for another minute. Add the onion and celeriac, turn the heat down, and cook until soft.

Add the cooked chickpeas, the cabbage, and the chicken stock, and season. Cover and simmer for half an hour or until the celeriac is cooked through.

Check for seasoning, sprinkle with parsley, and pass the parmesan.

Simplified from a recipe in the fantastic River Cafe Cookbook Green.

(Local: celeriac, chickpeas, cabbage, bay leaves (nipped from an overhanging tree a few blocks away), fennel seeds (scrounged from the railway line), parsley (picked from a garden escapee in a laneway since our chickens got to ours), olive oil. Victorian: onions, salt. Various provenances which I can't be bothered to list: chicken stock ingredients, anchovies (sustainably fished). La bella Italia: parmesan.)

The River Cafe Cookbook Green

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Unleavened Bread

When I was in the States last year, I noticed a line of breads and cereals called Ezekiel 4:9. Ezekiel 4:9 reads 'Take also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and spelt, and put them in one vessel, and make bread of it' – and so, millennia later, they did, sealed it up tight with plastic wrap, and slapped on a trademark.

Well, I thought. Those crazy Americans will make a niche brand out of anything.

Then last week I noticed a similar line at my local organic shop; it appears that we are susceptible to crazy niche brands, too. Yet I can't laugh too hard at food with Biblical references: lately I've been enjoying A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land by Kitty Morse. I picked it up to use with the kids at church, and to my delight I have found it to be packed with deeply satisfying recipes. Lentil, watercress and goats' cheese salad; millet with saffron and walnuts; toasted almond and sesame seed dip; pomegranate honey-glazed grilled fish; and all sorts of other good things to eat.

Much of it feels like it's come straight from the earth. For some reason, I never get this sense from root vegetables; instead, it's lentils, goats' cheese, olives and herbs which are, for me, the staff of life. Unleavened bread, in particular, feels healing; I make it when I'm feeling fragile or melancholy and it goes a long way towards setting me to rights.

Unleavened bread exists in many cultures and is known by many names. Fundamentally, though, it's bread made without yeast which sits for only a little while before it is cooked. Thus not only does it have no yeast added; it has very little to no opportunity to gather in wild yeasts from the atmosphere.

Such a bread comes out flat and chewy; it feels real in a way that even the best baguette never will. It can be made from pretty much any flour, but I make mine from a combination of spelt and rye. I love spelt, an ancient form of wheat, for its deep slaty flavour. It tastes strongly present, in the here and now, and yet also like something you'd be served in a stone hut; this is food from the ages. Meanwhile, rye lends a hint of molasses and depth of colour.

However, the bread can also be made with plain wheat flour, or whatever else is to hand. The whole point of peasant food is that it is made with what is available. Run out of spelt? Use a combination of ground millet and rye. Rats got into the millet and the rye is causing mass hallucinations? Grind up oats and barley, and you will still have bread; starvation can wait for another day.

And so, while I cannot imagine buying a shrink wrapped bread with a Biblical verse emblazoned on the side, I can see why people are interested in such breads, crazy niche cook that I am. I eat this bread for a light dinner with my largely unsuccessful homemade olives (too soft, too salty, maybe I'll have better luck next year when I'll try the recipes from this book); homemade dips for the adults; bland supermarket dips for the Philistines; a bit of goats' cheese; and maybe a salad of strong herbs.

Unleavened Bread

- 2 cups spelt flour
- 1 cup rye flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbs nigella seeds
- olive oil

Whisk together the flours with the salt. Make a well, and add about 1 cup of water. Mix in gradually, bringing in flour from the sides of the well, until you have a stringy dough.

Flour the bench and your hands, and place the dough on the bench. Knead for eight to ten minutes – and if you don't know how to knead, this means to fold the dough down from top to bottom with the heel of your hand, make a quarter turn, and repeat – until it feels like a baby's thigh or, if you don't have much contact with babies, like your earlobe. Spelt needs less kneading than regular flour; if you are using regular flour, knead for a few extra minutes. Form it into a ball.

Lightly film a ceramic bowl with oil. Place the dough into the bowl and roll it around so that it is glossy with oil. Drape a tea towel over the top of the bowl, and leave it to rest for anywhere between fifteen and thirty minutes. It will not rise.

Knead it again for a minute or two. Cut the dough into eight pieces (cut in half, then each half in half so that you have quarters, then each quarter in half again so that you get eighths, which is a useful way to teach your kids the square root of four and the cube root of eight, and how denominators work, and what happens when you multiply fractions). Flour the bench again, and a rolling pin. Roll each ball into a pancake about ¼ cm thick; wonky shapes taste better than perfect rounds. Sprinkle with nigella seeds, and roll over the round lightly once again to squish the nigella into the dough.

Warm a drizzle of olive oil in a thick-bottomed skillet over medium heat. When it is pretty warm (but not smoking hot), place a round of bread in the pan. Shake it once or twice to make sure it doesn't stick, and let it cook for two to three minutes. Turn it over; it should be dotted with a round brown circles.

Cook on the second side for another two minutes or so. It will puff up in places; if you want to maximise the puff, take a rolled tea towel and gently press around the edges of the round as it is cooking.

When it is done, loosely wrap it in a clean tea towel while you cook the rest, stacking them as they are done with the first; eat warm.

(This all seems rather a palaver when spelled out in a recipe, but you will quickly develop a rhythm whereby you cook one while you roll out the next or even, like me, have two kids rolling and two skillets on the go, in which case it only takes about fifteen minutes to cook them all. And it's fun.)

Adapted from a recipe in A Biblical Feast by Kitty Morse.

(Local: spelt (Powlett Hill), olive oil. Mysterious provenance: rye, nigella, salt.)

A Biblical Feast: Food from Biblical Times to Today

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Kale Soup, Winter 2011

I once frequented a hairdresser in a trendy strip. He told me that, despite specialising in dreadlocks and mohawks and very short haircuts for girls, a tiny older woman came in once a month to have a blue rinse. That particular shopfront had been a hair salon for more than forty years, and she saw no reason to go somewhere else just because the owners had changed and the ethos shifted. So my hairdresser kept a supply of blue rinse chemicals on hand for her, and hoped and prayed that nobody else ever found out that he did them.

Being someone who is fairly oblivious to fashion, I found it rather touching. I loved the idea of my hairdresser, a muscular skinhead, carefully tinting a tight white perm to the perfect shade of blue. After all, I am probably going the same way as his customer, insisting that my current hairdresser keep my hair in a certain edgy crop years about a decade after it has lost its edge. Apparently I am now supposed to have it thick and top heavy, but having done that in my early twenties, I'm comfortably past that. In fact, I keep finding myself wanting to compliment young waiters and bartenders on their pinching high-waisted acid wash jeans and rolled brim hats; after all, I wore all that that when I was a teenager. Their clothes makes me happy in a sentimental sort of way.

As much as I am no longer au fait with current fashions, or at least choose to ignore them, I do have trends when it comes to cooking. The silhouette of my trousers may be fairly constant, and my hair has barely changed since 2003, but I have changed my preferences for soup. Last year I enjoyed my version of the ribollita served by our landlady in Tuscany many years ago, a sort of wet compost. But this year my tastes have changed. I no longer want a blended soup thickened with bread; instead, I yearn for kale soup with firm vegetables, separate and distinct. I've also become a purist, wanting only cavolo nero, or Tuscan black kale. When cooked, black kale has a rich sweet flavour that I love.

So this is what I'm eating in the winter of 2011. It draws from Skye Gyngell's recipe in her lovely book, My Favourite Ingredients, but as usual I make my own departures.

Kale Soup, Winter 2011

-200g dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight
- 3 small brown onions, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, flattened with the side of a knife and roughly chopped
- 2 large potatoes, peeled and chopped
- 1 bulb celeriac
- 4 smallish carrots
- 1 can tomatoes
- a big bunch of cavolo nero (that long skinny black kale)
- 150g stellini (tiny star shaped pasta; I used wholemeal spelt stellini, but use whatever makes you happy)
- salt, pepper
- parmesan (totally optional)

Drain the soaked beans in a colander. Place them into a big saucepan and cover them well with cold water. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 1 to 1½ hours, or until they are soft but not falling apart. Salt, and set aside.

Warm a good slosh of olive oil in a soup pot. Add the onions and a pinch of salt, and cook over medium heat until translucent. Add the garlic and the celeriac, carrots and potatoes. Cook until the vegetables turn glossy, then add the tomatoes. Mix well, turn the heat right down, clap the lid on and leave to cook for twenty minutes.

Remove the thick stems of the kale and chop the leaves coarsely. When the other vegetables are done, add the kale, the cannellini beans and about a litre of water – just enough to cover. Replace the lid, and cook gently for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the vegetables are really soft.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to the boil (I used the bean pot to save on washing up). Salt, throw in the stellini and cook until barely done, perhaps a minute less than the instructions say. Drain and toss the stellini with a drizzle of olive oil and set aside.

When the soup veggies are soft and you are ready to eat, throw the stellini into the soup, warm them, and serve. A bit of parmesan grated over the top is nice, as is an extra drizzle of bright green olive oil and some freshly ground pepper.

(Local: kale, potatoes, onions, celeriac, carrots. Victorian: salt. From infuriatingly many miles away: parmesan, pepper, dried white beans, canned tomatoes (I never did get round to canning tomatoes last summer dammit, and could someone please tell me why is it so hard to get organically grown dried white beans and canned tomatoes from Victoria?)

My Favourite Ingredients

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Drink your garden

Every sustainability expert says to eat your garden, but on wintry days, I mostly drink it. As much as we're all supposed to consume endless glasses of water, I can't stand that greasy cold lump sitting sluggishly in my stomach, so I turn to herbal teas. Yet most commercial preparations taste like stale grass; and anyway, the packaging gets me down. It's an exercise in how not to be sustainable: first, strip off the plastic wrap, then open the cardboard box, then unwrap the paper cover and only then will you get to the tea – which is in a bag. How ridiculous.

But a while ago I worked out that I can drink my garden. Food miles: zero. Packaging: nil. Even better, unlike even the fanciest dried herbal teas, my garden really does taste fresh. When I want a hot caffeine-free drink, I put on the kettle and head outside with a pair of scissors; it's ready in minutes.

Here are my four favourite infusions. All are very simple, and none have more than one ingredient. Think of them not so much as recipes as reminders that even in the depths of winter, good things grow.

Cumquat Infusion

The problem with cumquats is that their skins are delicious and their insides, horrid. One way to get around this is to ignore the insides altogether. This is our favourite after-dinner drink: it's delicious, soothing, and aids digestion.

Take five or six whole cumquats and place them in a pot. (Do not prick them, as you want to extract the flavour from the oils in the skin, not the from the bitter insides.) Cover them with boiling water and leave to infuse for five or six minutes, then pour.

Pineapple Sage Tisane

Pineapple sage is a delightful herb. It has the grace to flower in the winter, when things are bleak, and sends great sprays of hot pink flowers into the air. The flowers, when sucked, have a small drop of sweet nectar which children (and I) love; my daughters all spend long minutes at the bush plucking and sucking, sucking and plucking, savouring the experience of drinking flowers as much as the rush of nectar. Even the leaves are highly scented, and they make a refreshing tisane. The drink is fragrant with a light, sweet flavour and the faint aroma of pineapple; this is not a savoury sage.

Take a small stem of leaves, about 15cm long; if there are flowers attached, so much the better. Shake it well to dislodge any insects from the flowers, then pop the stem into a pot and cover with boiling water. Leave it to draw for five minutes. If there are flowers in the pot and your pot is glass, you can watch them leach colour, a quietly meditative activity. Serve.

Canary Tea

Canarino tea is served in Florence; canarino means 'canary', and when you make this tea you will see why it has this name. The cynical among us might call it something else – wee tea comes to mind – but the yellow really is so bright, so clear, and so strongly reminiscent of canaries, that the cynics can go make themselves a cup of coffee and keep their mouths shut for once. This lovely idea comes from Lora Zarubin's luxurious book I am Almost Always Hungry.

Zarubin's book is a great favourite in our household for its oyster shooters; and yet, of course, I don't follow even that recipe. Zarubin recommends infusing vodka with ginger, then making oyster shooters from the flavoured vodka. We, however, have a passion for cucumber vodka – it's so crisp! and so cold! – so we infuse our vodka thus; and several years ago, at my husband's 40th birthday party, we threw a party featuring an outrageous number of cucumber oyster shooters. Lucky guests finished off with a highly alcoholic slice of cucumber, and I was followed around the kitchen by desperate adults begging for more vegetables. It was a memorable event. Or unable to be remembered, depending, of course, on how many oysters one consumed.

Canary tea is a whole different kettle of fish. Unlike vodka shooters, it won't give you a headache the next day, and won't be talked about years later. In fact, it is non-alcoholic, caffeine free, organic, vegan, non-GMO and fair trade: my across-the-street neighbour gives me lemons and we give her eggs, which seems a fair enough trade to me!

Using a veggie peeler, peel away the skins of two lemons, taking as little pith as possible. Place the peel into a teapot, cover it with boiling water, and let it steep for five minutes. Serve immediately. You can add herbs if you like, but I enjoy the pure taste of lemon.

(Many people drink lemon juice in hot water these days. My dentist goes pale when I say such things: the lemon juice strips tooth enamel. This infusion has a gentler flavour and lacks the acidity of lemon juice; it's a lovely and less damaging alternative.)

Rosemary Tisane

Many years ago, when my mother was slowly dying and I was frantic, my husband and I went to a conference. We wound up in a fancy hotel, and I felt trapped by the plane ride, the hotel, the city; I just wanted to go home. I couldn't eat or rest, so we went for a walk while I raged and wept – and then we came across a godsend: great swathes of rosemary in an urban planting scheme. Long tendrils sprawled out of planter boxes, and the air was filled with its healing scent. I picked several long branches and took them back to the hotel. There I switched on the kettle, laid the sprigs in a basin, poured boiling water over them and inhaled. Finally, I relaxed; finally I felt hungry. We left the rosemary to steep while we went out for dinner at last. When we came back, the room smelled safe and I was, just for a little while, whole again.

I have always found rosemary to be a great healing herb when it comes to matters of the heart; more practically, it aids digestion after a heavy meal. Take a good sprig of fresh rosemary, maybe 15cm long, and place it in the pot; you will, of course, need to snip it into a few pieces to fit. Cover with boiling water and leave to infuse for five minutes, then serve.

There are many other herbs you can drink with more or less success – for example, lemon verbena is delicious, while lemon balm tastes soapy – but always check an herbal to ensure that it is safe to drink. The Complete Book of Herbs and Herb Gardening, while not exhaustive, is fairly comprehensive. My next project is to plant out Greek Mountain Tea, also known as ironwort; it is said that a cup a day will chase away all ills and with three sicky snotty kids in the house who mostly give their ills to me, I could use any sort of immune boost I can find! With any luck – that is, if the chickens don't escape and dig it up – I'll be able to report back in the spring.

No teapots were harmed during the writing of this post.
I am Almost Always Hungry: Seasonal Menus and Memorable Recipes The Complete Book of Herbs and Herb Gardening

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Homemade Lärabars

I've had my winter break, and now I'm back. I feel I should be reporting on some great food revelation, but it's just been a month of simple food eaten with very little fuss. I polished off the last of the persimmons from a friend's tree, and have come to love them. I left them to blet, that is, go extremely soft; and when they felt like nothing more than a fragile bag of heaviness – sadly, the only descriptive word that comes to mind is 'testicular' – I ate them with a spoon; they were deliciously jammy and fragrant. We've also demolished mountains of apples, potatoes, celeriac, lentils, walnuts and kale. I was delighted to find Victorian hazelnuts at CERES, and we've thrown them into the mix of nuts eaten at our house.

It's been a good break. Over the holidays, my schoolgirls got back into the habit of making their own lunches; and when they went back to school, decided that it was a habit they wanted to keep. When they announced this, I thought carefully for about three milliseconds – then I frowned deeply, sighed heavily, and said 'I suppose so. Yes.'

Internally, I flipped cartwheels and held a parade; to them I said sternly, 'Now this will take some planning. I'll plan on the weekend. You can start Monday.'

I thought it would be good to start on a high note, so over the weekend I found all the school food odds and ends and grouped them in the pantry at kid height: dried fruit and nuts; small cans of tuna; their favourite crackers; corn cakes; and some fancy healthy treats. I bought squishy white bread, their preferred sandwich option, alas; punnets of cherry tomatoes even though it's July; sliced ham; and anything else that might tickle their fancy. And I made a version of Lärabars.

Lärabars are, I gather, a high energy and reasonably healthy bar available in the States. I make no claim for originality here; I only know about them since a fabulous French food blogger provided a recipe and, once I tweaked the method so that the nuts were chunkier and the spices more evenly distributed, my girls thought the results were really something special. Fundamentally, they are nothing more than date paste combined with cocoa, raw cacoa nibs, and a heap of nuts and/or dried fruit. This month, the Victorian hazelnuts combined nicely with the almonds from our tree; and the local combination outweighed any air mile guilt I felt about buying date paste from Syria.

We cut them not into bars, but into chunks: thick inch-wide squares chock full of dried fruit and nuts, enough to keep a young girl going at playtime. And so the school lunch experiment began.

It's been fascinating. I've quietly lurked beside the refrigerator and watched my five-year-old, who 'hates' any sort of fruit, cheerfully choose a kiwifruit and pack it into a box with a fancy spoon; and bring home the skin scraped clean. This is the same child who has wailed whenever I have suggested such a thing; who has, in fact, rejected any fruit except organic raspberries when they are $14 a punnet, which naturally I refuse to buy.

She also 'hates' tuna, but has happily packed and devoured several cans now she thinks I'm not looking. My seven-year-old can't stand it when I use salted butter, but in her own lunch it appears to be a necessity, along with a small tub of olives and tomatoes, and perhaps some gooseberries from our shrub. I've decided that I will turn a blind eye to whatever they pack, although I may choose not to replenish certain supplies for a while; and I noticed one girl pack four dill pickles for her lunch one day. None came home. Perhaps they are currency in the schoolyard, just as, a couple of months ago, I discovered my seven-year-old was swapping tamarillos from our tree for untold junk food.

Who can fathom the ways of children? Not I. All I can do is provide a few recipes that might make them happy; and in this spirit, here's my interpretation of Chocolate & Zucchini's interpretation of Lärabars.

Homemade Lärabars

- 150g date paste
- 100g hazelnuts and/or almonds and/or other dried fruit or nuts
- 3 tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
- ½ tsp cardamom
- ¼ tsp cinnamon
- pinch salt
- 1 tbs cacao nibs

Lightly oil a dish about 11cm x 18cm (4½" x 7") with unflavoured vegetable oil (not olive oil).

Whizz the date paste with the cocoa, cardamom, cinnamon and salt in a food processor until it resembles tiny moist pebbles. Throw in the cacao nibs and nuts, and pulse chop until all is roughly combined.

Scrape the mixture into the oiled dish, then cover with grease proof paper. Using the back of a metal spoon and a rocking motion, compress the mixture through the paper until it has compacted nicely.

Seal the container, and place in the fridge overnight to firm up. The next day, slice it into chunks or bars or whatever shape makes you happy.

Note: First I tried using a takeaway container, but the pressure needed to compress the bar split the plastic. So I sought and found a suitably sized dish in the op shop; I am sure you will too!

(Victorian: almonds, hazelnuts, salt. Not local but fair trade: cocoa, cacao nibs. From many, many miles away: date paste, cardamom, cinnamon.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Lying Fallow

I've been writing this food blog for over a year now, and it's time for a break. I'm well into my run of winter colds; the school holidays are approaching; and in my limited time away from the kids I need to stop writing about food for a while and instead read books, go on blustery walks, and maybe stick my nose into op shops and sniff out a few pretty plates: in short, dig in some manure, lie fallow, and rest for a month or two.

But all is not lost! The nature of seasonal eating is that it is, indeed, seasonal, and the year has come round. I have been making lots of my favourite dishes from the blog, and you can go back to them. I've been cooking my way through the pantheon of soups – pumpkin, beet, root vegetable, lentil and celeriac; I've stewed up a heap of pulses and greens; I've been making our all time staple, green pie; and, of course, we've eaten lots of potatoes!

Cold weather and hot pudding go hand in hand, so I've dug out the bottled plums and made crumbles and, for Sunday breakfasts, clafouti with plums in place of the blueberries. Our canned apples are almost finished, having been used in apple dappy and vegan apple cake, usually less a tablespoon which found its way into cabbage and apple salad or cabbage with chestnuts and apples.

So go back to 2010 and check out May, June, July and August: they'll be just as seasonal now as they were then. Remember, too, that you can always search a particular ingredient: click on 'ingredient search' in the sidebar, and it will come up with a list of produce. Click on an item, and you will get a list of all recipes that use that ingredient.

If you like to read about food, you may want to check out my lists of favourite food books on the side of the blog. One declaration: I love libraries and local bookstores and encourage you to use them too. However, if you already buy books online and you click through to fishpond from a book listed on my blog, I'll get a little cut. I currently earn enough via click throughs to buy about a book each month; I won't get rich, but if you like what you read here, it's a nice way you can support my blog!

When I started the blog, I chose not to have pictures; I'm no photographer and I don't need pictures when I read a recipe. But a few friends told me that they can't imagine what they're aiming for without an image, so I've slowly learned to photograph our dinner – some times more successfully than others – and my kids have learned to wait just one minute while I get another angle. I'm going back and adding photos to older recipes, and I may do a bit more of that in the next month or so.

In the meantime, though, while I rest and we all cook and eat, may you shop thoughtfully, cook joyfully, and share abundantly.

And when you sit down to your meal, perhaps pause for a moment, as I do, and take the time to feel a little gratitude: for the good earth which grew the food; for the water which made the land fertile and washed the produce clean; for the farmers who rarely get the chance to rest; for the labour of love which prepared your meal; and for those you are privileged to feed.

Take a moment to remember, too, those who are hungry. For a world in which everyone knows the pleasure of a full belly, let us work, hope and pray.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Chilean Guava Choc Chip Banana Muffins

I hate waste. That's one reason I love my chickens so much: they turn that flabby uneaten lunchtime sandwich, squished into the yogurt container and kept in a warm schoolbag for the last six hours, into fresh eggs. They also eat buckets of compost from our local organic veggie store: outside leaves of cauliflowers, slightly wilted stalks of rainbow chard, bruised avocadoes and other goodies. The veggie store saves on garbage disposal costs, and my chickens stay happy.

My aversion to waste also means that, although we try to eat a significant proportion of food from local sources, when I see squishy brown bananas going cheap at that same veggie store, I buy them. They're terrific for after-school smoothies and, of course, muffins. Unlike Barbara Kingsolver's household, which had a total banana ban during their year of local food (see their fascinating book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), I tell myself that squishy brown bananas are waste to be used up, and I can save them from the trash for only a dollar or two. It's kind of like dumpster diving, only a day earlier and slightly more expensive.

Our latest squishy banana muffin experiment has involved the Chilean guava, also known as the myrtus berry. Here I must admit that, a few years ago, I bought a Chilean guava bush then promptly forgot to water it the first summer; predictably, it died. But Chilean guavas do grow well in Melbourne; we've devoured a few punnets from Coburg, and they pop up at farmer's markets from time to time. You can also buy the less local Tazziberry, which is the Chilean guava carefully bred, and re-named and re-branded as a Tasmanian fruit.

Chilean guavas taste like, well, guavas. That is, they are a bit pineapple-y, a bit apple-y, a bit strawberry-y, with a hint of vanilla. They are headily fragrant, and a punnet will send tendrils of fragrance through your kitchen.

The fruit look like little red blueberries. Because they are so small, Chilean guavas are eaten whole. They can be a bit rough in your mouth, slightly grainy but not unpleasant; however, where they really shine is in muffins. The fruit soften and swell, retaining their scent, so that muffins come out sweetly fragrant and studded with little explosions of juicy fruit.

What follows is a straightforward recipe, very easy and very delicious. As with all baking, muffins come out lightest when the ingredients are at room temperature. If you have a little milk in your fridge starting to go sour, even better; your muffins will come out ethereal. Between sour milk and squishy bananas, what follows is a brilliant way to use up leftovers.

Chilean Guava Choc Chip Banana Muffins

- 2 squishy bananas
- 125g brown sugar
- 1 egg
- ¾ cup slightly sour milk, or buttermilk
- ¾ cup vegetable oil
- 250g self raising flour
- pinch salt
- 1 punnet Chilean guavas (aka Tazziberry or myrtus berry)
- ½ cup choc chips (optional)

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease or line a muffin pan.

Mash the bananas with a fork. Mix in the brown sugar. In another bowl, lightly beat the egg, then mix in the milk and oil, and add this to the bananas.

Place the flour and salt into a large bowl and whisk them together. Make a well, and add all the banana glop at once. Quickly mix with the fork, then add in the Chilean guavas and the choc chips. Combine quickly but gently. The batter is very wet.

Slop it into muffin pans – I get 15 small muffins, but a sensible person with larger children would make 12 big ones. Slip them into the oven for 25 minutes. The muffins are done when their tops are slightly springy to the touch.

Incidentally, the photo shows my waste-not muffin on a waste-not plate – discovered on the side of the road during a hard rubbish collection. It leads me to ask what sort of maniac puts eight English willow side plates, dusty but unchipped, out in the rubbish?! You're crazy, whoever you are, but thanks anyway. I think I'll take my muffin and eat it on my waste-not bench.

(Local: Chilean guavas, egg. Saved from the bin: squishy bananas, souring milk. Not local but fair trade: choc chips (can you believe it?! I must admit they are not as large nor as deliciously melting as other choc chips, but that's a sacrifice I'm prepared to make for fair trade.). Mysterious provenance: flour, brown sugar, vegetable oil, salt.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pasta with Caramelized Onions and Walnuts

Seven years ago, we spent a few months in Italy. My lasting impression is that the entire country has been turned into an enormous food garden. I am sure this is a terrible loss for eco-diversity – even the woods feel groomed – and yet wherever we went, we found food in public places. Whether it was juniper berries growing in the local woods, figs on a hillside next to a public path, or chestnuts falling onto the main road, food grew everywhere.

My daughter loved it. At nine months, she had developed a passion for figs; while we rested under a favourite tree, admiring the distant towers of San Gimignano and dreaming of the gelati shop in its town square, she'd reach from the baby backpack, pick figs and messily gorge herself, smearing pink glop all over her face, her hair, her father and the backpack.

Our hosts certainly treated the world as a food garden. They grew, baked or cured most of their food, and gathered or hunted much of the rest, driving miles to the best chestnut groves. The local variety, which we gathered by the roadside and found to be astonishingly plump and succulent compared to the meagre specimens we had had in Melbourne, were disdained.

On the first day of hunting season we were shocked awake by gunfire at dawn. A few hours later, I walked into the garage and came eye to eye with a skinned hare almost as long as my body hanging from the rafters; it was dripping blood into a bucket. At least it wasn't a boar. While walking home through the woods one night by the light of the mobile phone, we came across a young boar. We froze while it stared at us appraisingly, took a few menacing steps, then turned its tusks and snuffled away. It made me look at restaurant menus a little differently; for such deliciousness, boar was astonishingly ugly.

And the walnuts! A small car park at the top end of town was shaded by a spreading walnut tree. In the autumn, we noticed nuts all over the ground, many pulverized by car tyres. We filled our pockets – delizioso!

If you need a reason to like early winter, perhaps walnuts could be it. At this time of year, the walnuts are delicious: soft, mealy, sweet and fragrant. I buy them in their shell; it's a natural preservative and keeps the nut from turning rancid. It takes about five minutes to crack a cupful – hardly a chore – and I do this sitting outside, holding each nut pointy-side down on a brick or old tile, tapping it once or twice with a hammer, then flicking away the shell to reveal the caramel coloured kernel. It gets easier with practice; you only need to obliterate one or two nuts to learn exactly how much force to send pounding down!

Despite the pasta, the following recipe is not particularly Italian. Instead, think of it as homage to happy memories, and the soft warm flavours of winter.

Pasta with Caramelised Onions and Walnuts

- 400g brown onions, give or take
- 1 cup freshly shelled walnuts
- a walnut sized knob of unsalted butter
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 2 long stems fresh rosemary
- ½ cup sherry
- ½ cup water
- 1 tbs walnut oil
- ¼ cup double cream
- 1 pack spaghetti or linguine (ie 1 lb / 500g white, 375g wholemeal if you're using the local and very filling Powlett's Hill)
- freshly grated parmesan

Warm a wide skillet and throw in the walnuts. Toast them in the skillet, tossing and shaking, for a few minutes until they are aromatic. Tip onto a plate, and wipe the pan. When the walnuts are cool, use your fingers to break them into small pieces.

Slice the onions into thin half-moons. Warm the butter and oil in a wide pan with the thyme and one stem of rosemary. Add the onions and a very generous pinch of salt, and cook over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until the onions have caramelized. This will take 20 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to the boil.

When the onions are completely soft and succulent, turn up the heat and add the sherry. Reduce until it is syrupy. Add half a cup of water and the walnut oil, and reduce the heat again. Add the pasta and the other stem of rosemary to the pasta pot; while the pasta is cooking, allow the sauce to reduce again. You may need to add a little more liquid to ensure it doesn't stick; if so, scoop ¼ cup of water out of the pasta pot and add it to the onions. You want to end up with a small amount of liquid in the pan, just enough to coat the noodles.

When the pasta is cooked, drain it, discard the rosemary stalk, and tip the noodles into the onions. Add the cream, and gently mix until all is combined. Remove the other rosemary stalk and discard.

Slide the noodles into a large serving bowl, and sprinkle with the walnuts. Serve immediately, and pass the parmesan.

Adapted from a recipe in the indispensable Greens Cookbook by Deborah Madison.

(Local: onions, walnuts, olive oil, rosemary, thyme, walnut oil, cream. Not local: pasta (this time), butter, sherry, parmesan.)