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