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.)