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.)