Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gluten Free Sugar Free Lamington Bars


Back in the 50's, an older friend of mine used to visit the prisoners at the Fremantle Jail with her school; the girls were to cheer up the prisoners. They'd sing and put on plays, and then serve afternoon tea. And they'd play terrible pranks. One regarded lamingtons. The girls would cut up bathroom sponges, bind them together with shaving cream, and ice them as usual. An unsuspecting prisoner would take a big rubbery bite, pause... then roar with laughter. What good sports they were, says my friend.

These days it's very hard to imagine a school sending a group of girls to visit a men's prison bearing cake; and even harder to imagine prisoners roaring with laughter when the best looking bit of food they've seen all year turns out to be a sham. But perhaps it didn't really matter. The 'lamingtons' were iced and coconutted as usual – and as everyone knows, the outside is the only part of the lamington worth eating. The sponge is invariably dry, something to politely mumble one's way through rather than actively enjoy.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me to fiddle around with the date-paste-bar idea and turn it into the outside of a lamington. I admit it's not a local seasonal food, but my justification for putting the recipe on this blog is two-fold. One, it's an incredibly quick, easy and healthy snack food that requires no packaging, very useful for lunchboxes. Two, we are about to move house and I'm cooking my way through the depths of the pantry; this is a great way to use up dried coconut, and date paste!

Unapologetically, then, I present to you: lamington bars. Lovely in a lunch box; delightful cut into squares and served with a short black or a hot tea; and not a bathroom sponge or shred of gluten in sight.

Gluten Free Sugar Free Lamington Bars

- 180g date paste
- 4 tbs unsweetened cocoa
- 2 tbs cacao nibs
- 60g coconut shreds
- pinch of salt
- water, as needed

The date paste should be moist enough to work with; however, if it seems dry and hard, soak it in water for an hour before using. You can use the soaking water to sweeten a smoothie.

Combine the first five ingredients in the large bowl of a food processor. Whizz for several minutes, until it forms small glossy pebbles. If the mixture is struggling to come together, slowly dribble in up to a tablespoon of water, a drop at a time, until it has combined.

Tip half the mixture into a small dish; I use a ceramic dish 10cm x 18cm (4" x 7") bought at an op shop for just this purpose. Using the back of a metal spoon, press the mixture firmly into the dish. Tip in the rest of the mixture, and press the whole into a solid smooth slab.

Cover with gladwrap and place in the fridge for several hours to harden up.

When you are ready to serve, cut using a heavy knife. I slice mine crosswise into ten narrow bars ready for school lunches; or into squares for a sweet little something to share.

(Ingredients from all over the world, but a bought bar would be similar, only with more chemicals and packaging.)

Possum Magic(aka Australian Food Magic)

Friday, November 9, 2012

People's Food Plan

In response to the Federal Government’s proposed National Food Plan, the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance is drawing up a People’s Food Plan. You are invited to contribute by hosting a Kitchen Table Talk with your friends and neighbours!

The National Food Plan is most likely to increase our dependency on GM crops, corporate farms and free-trade imports; the duopoly that already has a stranglehold over our groceries will only increase its power; and family farms and rural communities are at risk of even further decline.

If you value small farms, sustainable growing methods, local food, seasonal eating and anything else that means real food, contribute!

You can find out much more at the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance. There you can download a draft policy document for your consideration and comment; or, if you have less time, you can use the following list of questions as a jumping off point. The AFSA also welcomes your own policy ideas and personal stories.

So get some friends round your kitchen table, serve them a cup of tea and something yummy from the garden, and have a good chat.

If you would like more information, you can contact a member of the steering team; find the reps for your state here. Return your comments no later than early December to Nick Rose at the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance at info@foodsovereigntyalliance.org, or by snail mail to PO Box 3349, St Pauls NSW 2031.


10 Policy Ideas for a People’s Food Plan

Please determine whether your forum agrees, disagrees or is indifferent / undecided about the following statements. Please also indicate which three of these you would rank as the top priorities. If your forum decides that there are other priorities not on this list, please write them down and send them.

• Should agriculture and food policy in Australia support sustainable food sources, by subsidising farmers / growers / processors / distributors of locally grown and raised, seasonal fresh and preserved produce?

• Should Australian citizens have a strong and effective voice in the creation of food and agriculture policy?

• Should Australian governments support young, new and small farmers to ensure a future for family farming?

• Should Australian governments – federal, state and local – support people’s rights as citizens to a healthy and nutritious diet?

• Should the Australian National Preventive Health Agency develop a national health and climate change plan, and resource a national public health campaign with localised food as its focus?

• Should Australia’s prime agricultural land be fully audited and protected from alternative uses, e.g. suburban sprawl, coal-seam gas and other mining?

• Should Australian governments – Federal and State – support Australia’s family farmers by reintroducing publicly-funded extension officers, and publicly-funded agricultural research and development?

• Should Australian governments implement the right to food by ensuring that every Australian has good access to healthy, affordable food; and no Australian has to rely on emergency food sources?

• Should Australia prohibit the patenting of living organisms?

(The People’s Food Plan is supported by many fantastic people, including the very trustworthy Lolo Houbein, author of the fantastic One Magic Square, a call to straightforward backyard gardening and sustainable living. You can read my review of her book here.)

One Magic Square

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Smoked Trout, Orange and Quinoa Salad


Some Tuesdays, eating last night's leftovers with the floor crunchy underfoot, the washing nagging at me, and the four year old chatting, just won't cut it. You see, my partner looks after her for a few hours while I read with schoolkids, study and write. Lunch, then, is an early pit stop between volunteer work and Deep Thoughts – but our four year old wants to play with me. So some Tuesdays, as much as I love her, I stay out and have a bit of peace and quiet instead.

Sometimes I'll go downtown, grab sushi then head to the State Library – although it can be rather difficult to (a) find a desk and (b) read, since always one or two people are chatting and in the otherwise studious silence that lone conversation drives me crazy.

Other times I seek peace and quiet in the bustle of a coffee shop, and in the general din am able to eat, read and write. Just around the corner from our house is 'the red door place'. More properly known as l'atelier de Monsieur Truffe (351 Lygon Street, East Brunswick) it's a chocolate shop and café rolled into one. My partner will do anything for one of their hot chocolates; my kids will do anything for their toasted brioche served with grated chocolate and salt; and I think their salads are wonderful.

L'atelier recently had a smoked trout, orange and quinoa salad on the menu, and after inhaling it one lunch time I've been playing with the combination at home. I've made it bigger, simpler, and just the thing for a one-dish dinner on a warm night. The most fiddly aspect is collecting and cleaning the salad greens – and if you buy washed greens (gasp!), then it will be quicker still.

Most quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) comes from South America; however, some Tasmanian farmers are now growing it. Tasmania may not be quite local for Melbourne but it's pretty close, and quinoa is, they say, a superfood.

It's only a fairly recent addition to the domestic kitchen, as evidenced by a scene in Offspring. A character is trying a host of new things. She does yoga in the park; she tweets; she shoves a great forkful of quinoa into her mouth... then spits out the lot in a great disgusted puff across the room.* It's pretty much what I did the first time, too.

So a couple of notes. One, quinoa has a bitter coating on the surface of the grain, so it must be rinsed very well before cooking. Rinse, rinse, rinse, and only then put it into the pan to cook. You can cook it in a saucepan like rice; or even use a rice cooker if you don't want to pay it any mind.

Two, unlike rice quinoa doesn't taste inoffensively bland by itself; eaten plain, it is not delicious. So don't cook it and serve it in a great mound on the side of the plate. Quinoa should be eaten with other things. It absorbs flavours beautifully, so always serve it with a stew or in a salad with a good dressing.

As to why you'd serve a grain that requires rinsing and isn't delicious alone? Well, it's very high in protein, iron and magnesium; high in fibre; gluten free; and fun to look at. The grains puff into little spirals which I think are very cute! And it has a strength of flavour which goes well with a juicy melange, and can form the backbone of a substantial salad.

Between the quinoa and the smoked trout, this salad is certainly substantial. And why nasturtiums? The bright petals echo the orange segments and make it look like a party, so pretty that even my kids will eat it. They also give the salad a slight peppery tang. Nasturtiums are flowering all over Melbourne this month. If you don't have any in your garden, ask your neighbours or, better, go for a stroll along a creek. You'll find some soon enough and, if you're lucky, a little peace and quiet too.

Smoked Trout, Orange and Quinoa Salad

- 1 cup quinoa
- 1 smoked trout
- 2 oranges
- 1 small salad onion
- 4-6 cups loosely packed baby salad greens (I use a combination of rocket (arugula), baby mallow, baby rainbow chard and salad burnet; but you can make it with just lettuces if you wish.)
- 4-6 nasturtium flowers, if you have them
- a few stems of mint
- pinch of salt, pepper
- olive oil

First, prepare the quinoa. Rinse it very thoroughly in a fine sieve, drain it, then place it in a saucepan with 2 cups of water. Cover, bring to the boil, then turn down and simmer for 10 minutes or until it is cooked but still has a little bite. Remove the lid, fluff the quinoa with a fork, and allow it to cool a little while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Flake the trout. I find it easiest to use my fingers, but if you wish to be more refined, use two forks to gently pull the flesh from the bones.

Zest the oranges – easiest with a Microplane. Sorry for the product placement, but nothing else does the job half so well. Finely chop the salad onion, then fork it and the zest through the quinoa.

Juice one of the oranges. Combine the juice with two tablespoons of olive oil, a good pinch of salt, and pepper if you wish. Taste. If it requires more zing, add the juice of half of the remaining orange.

Remove the pith from what remains of that latter orange (a half or a whole, depending on how juicy the first orange was), then cut the flesh into little segments.

Pull the mint leaves from their stems, and tear into smaller pieces. Gently pull the nasturtium petals from the base. Either use them whole, or slice them into ribbons using a very sharp knife. Keep one or two flowers for garnish.

Tip the quinoa mixture into a large salad bowl. Drizzle with half the dressing, and mix and toss with a fork to combine. Now add everything else bar the whole nasturtiums. Using your hands, lightly mix and toss the salad until all is thoroughly combined. Lick your fingers, wash your hands, then garnish the salad with the nasturtium flowers and serve.

(*Thanks to Chris who told me about this scene, and tested the salad first.)

(Backyard: salad leaves, salad onion, nasturtium flowers, mint. Yarra Valley: smoked trout. From the local food box: oranges. Grampians: olive oil. Northern Victoria: salt. Interstate (Tasmania): quinoa.)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Simple Orange Cake


Fridays mornings are ‘time off’. My four year old is at kinder for three! whole! hours!, and I, in theory, write – but life usually intervenes. Last week I spent the time doing laundry; working my way through a backlog of mail, bills and paperwork; washing the dishes; admiring the crab apple tree just about to bloom; and baking a couple of cakes, muttering all the while.

Kinder fetes, school afternoon teas: when will they learn that modern families rarely bake? A friend of mine told me that her brother-in-law always bought cakes or biccies from the supermarket to give to the school cake stalls. Late at night, he’d unwrap them and carefully arrange them on the plastic plate. Then, labelling laws being what they are even for a community cake stall, he’d painstakingly write out all the ingredients including the food additives thus: ‘flour, sugar, cocoa, vegetable oil, emulsifier 471, preservative 282’. Not the sort of thing I’d be falling over myself to buy, I must say!

Then again, I’ve talked to other parents who recommend particular brands of cookies as having no artificial additives; thus, when copied out on the cake stall label, they appear homemade and perfectly pure. Oh, the illusions we live by.

I haven’t quite come to that; I still bake, if with a sigh. And with the glut of oranges at winter’s end, I made the easiest orange cake recipe I know, Stephanie Alexander’s Afternoon Tea Orange Cake. I need to substitute gluten free flour for the wheat flour; I always add a pinch of salt to my cakes; and I cook it in a loaf pan. Otherwise, I follow her recipe. It’s just the thing for early spring, when the fruit bowl is full of oranges and the view out the window is of blossom.

Simple Orange Cake

- 1 orange
- 2 eggs
- 125g softened unsalted butter
- ¼ cup caster sugar
- 225g self raising flour(real or gluten free)
- pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 190°C. Line a loaf tin with baking paper.

Zest then juice the orange. Place all ingredients into a food processor and whizz until thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 40 minutes or until a cake tester comes out with a few minuscule crumbs attached.

Let cool for five to ten minutes in the tin, then remove to a cake rack to cool completely - although it is absolutely superb served warm!

Alexander recommends an orange icing, but it’s not something I can be bothered with, myself. If you want the recipe for that, buy the book; it’s the modern Australian kitchen bible.

(Backyard: eggs. Local: oranges. Victoria: butter, salt. Queensland: sugar. General supermarket mystery: GF flour.

The Cook's Companion [2004 Ed.]

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bracken Fiddleheads with Butter and Truffle Salt

Life was a little dull, and I wanted a thrill. So I went to a friend’s country block to pick young bracken, a food I have never sampled and have read about only on the internet. As you can see, I get my thrills quite easily these days.

The day was magnificent. We sat at the top of the hill and watched the weather sweep in hour after hour: sun, rain, hail, sleet, wet snow, dry powder – we got the lot. Great bands of clouds rushed across the sky; snow fell through a rainbow; and every form of precipitation dumped down on us.

Between showers, we picked juvenile bracken. We chose firm fresh looking stems, some still bent like a horseshoe, others upright but not yet unfurled. And when the next bout of weather swept in, we dashed back to the partial shelter of the tumbledown shack, warmed our tootsies by the roaring fire, and admired the show through the broken windows.

A day or so later, in a house with a complete roof and intact glazing, I prepared the bracken. I was slightly nervous, as bracken contains a known carcinogen; then again, so does red meat. So I washed it, blanched it, dumped it in an ice bath, soaked it, sautéd it, and served it up with a hint of truffles, as instructed. And then I discovered that none of us like it much. It was strong, nutty, but really not that great. Unusually for our family, we didn’t even finish the plateful. Meh.

As we have never eaten bracken before, I have no idea where the problem lies. Is Australian bracken unsavoury? Did I cook it badly? Or do we, quite simply, not like bracken? One day, I will travel overseas and sample bracken abroad. Until then, I will ponder these mysteries, and get my thrills via the weather instead.

If you want to try bracken yourself, click here. The link has a balanced discussion regarding bracken’s carcinogenic properties, and describes how to prepare it to minimise them. I followed the instructions and recipe in the link, but in place of truffle butter I used unsalted butter and truffle salt (a birthday present). I didn’t like it much, but perhaps you’ll fare better. If you have tried Australian bracken, please let me know how you cooked it, and what you think!


Friday, September 21, 2012

Nettle Soup


Once in a moment of supreme confidence, the sun warming my back and a light breeze whispering in my ear, I grasped a nettle firmly with my bare hand. As the old English rhyme goes,

Tender-handed stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains;
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains

'Tis the same with common natures:
Use 'em kindly, they rebel;
But be rough as nutmeg-graters,
And the rogues obey you well.

  • Aaron Hill (1685-1750)

Perhaps this rhyme holds true for soft, often rained-upon English nettles; or perhaps I, quite simply, lacked mettle. Either way, I'm sorry to report that I yelped, and spent the next half hour picking practically invisible stinging hairs out of my palm. So much for English folklore.

Another piece of folklore is that dock leaves will calm a nettle's sting; and where nettles grow, so will you find dock. I'm not sure, however, that English dock grows in Australia, and indigenous dock is rarely to be seen near a nettle patch; - and I don't think it works anyway.

Thus I advise you to pick your nettles carefully, with rubber gloves. At this time of year, when I'm going near my favourite nettle patch (that is, at kinder drop off), I have been known to slip my gardening gloves into my bag ready to glean. I may look eccentric, but picking nettles in a public place has certainly led to many interesting conversations; most recently, such a chat led someone to refer me to a prolific prickly pear cactus leaning over a nearby laneway, which I will check out this summer with gratitude.

As I was preparing this, I left a bowl of dusty nettles soaking in the sink. My cousin wandered in and plucked some out for a nibble, unaware. I gasped but, lucky her, she picked out young shoots and felt the sting only as a little heat in her mouth. The stings dissolve with cooking, but if you are making this soup, you would do well to advise any visiting cousins to keep their hands to themselves until all is cooked.

As for why you would make it, let me list the reasons: local, sustainable, economical, useful; also, nutritional. Nettles are so full of vitamins and minerals that several saints – Celtic Christian and Tibetan Buddhist – survived on nothing but nettle soup for many years; you might as well get some of that goodness for yourself.

Nettles do have a very strong green flavour, which I and my cousin rather like, but others may find it a little challenging. I have discovered, however, that if there is a fresh banana coconut cake cooling on the bench, young children will demolish their bowl of soup with scarcely a demurral, so desperate are they for some cakey goodness. A word to the wise...

Nettle Soup

- at least 500g stinging nettles
- 3 fist-sized potatoes (I used Dutch cream)
- 2 tbs butter (or use all olive oil if you prefer)
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 onion
- 3 sticks celery
- 3 cloves garlic
- 750ml stock (chicken or vegetable)
- extra virgin olive oil or yogurt, to serve
- salt

Don a pair of rubber gloves, and strip the nettle leaves from the stalks. Wash well in several changes of water.

Peel and chop the potatoes. Place them into a bowl containing a cup of water so that (a) they don't brown and (b) you get a starchy water to thicken the soup.

Warm the olive oil in a soup pot. Add the onion, and cook gently until it is translucent. Add the celery and garlic, and cook until soft. Throw in the potatoes and their starchy water, and the stock. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are very soft. Add the nettles and cook for a few more minutes.

Remove the soup from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Blend in batches until it is velvety. Check for salt. Serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, or a dollop of yogurt, or just as is.

Most recipes for nettle and potato soup follow similar lines. I adapted this from a recipe in Tobie Puttock's Italian Local, which includes the excellent suggestion of using the potato water to thicken the soup.

(Melbourne region: nettles, potatoes, celery. Geelong: onion. Grampians: olive oil. Gippsland: yogurt. No more specific than Victoria: garlic, butter, salt. Mixed sources: chicken stock.)

Italian Local

Friday, September 14, 2012

Plum Clafouti with Almond Meal


Ah, the British. We take what we want, we twist it out of all recognition, then we claim it as our own. As genocidal as this pattern has been for other cultures, on the plus side it has led to some great food. Kedgeree is one classic example; chicken tikka masala is quite probably another, although there is some debate over whether it was invented in Glasgow or Delhi.

The recipe which follows is a third. Made with cherries and white flour, we could call it 'clafoutis', or, more commonly in English, 'clafouti'. Made with other fruit and white flour, we'd properly call it a 'flaugnarde'. But gluten intolerant arrogant English bastardiser that I am, I make it with plums and almond meal – and I have no idea what I should call the resultant dish! Yet like a typically imperious colonialist, and because many of you are at least vaguely familiar with clafouti and will get a general idea of the nature of the dish from the use of the word, I will continue to refer to it as such. It certainly sounds better than 'soft eggy plum pudding thingy'.

Whatever it should be called, this dish is perfect for a sunny Sunday breakfast in the early spring when the chickens are back on the lay, and a few bottles of plums remain in the preserves cupboard. I've used much more fruit than is usually indicated because I wanted every bite to drip with plums; the batter does little more than bind the plums together.

Almond meal replaces regular flour, as almonds and plums are a delightful match. Between the extra fruit and the almond meal, the dish is much more moist than a regular clafouti, but the resulting heaviness is very satisfying: it will ward off any winter chills which still wreath through the morning air. If, however, you want a lighter clafouti, reduce the amount of fruit and replace some of the almond meal with coconut flour; click here for a more standard recipe.

Plum Clafouti with Almond Meal

- unsalted butter
- approximately 2 cups quartered bottled plums, or fresh plums quartered and lightly stewed (this is the equivalent of a Fowlers #20 Jar; for notes on bottling plums, click here
- 4 eggs
- 1¼ cups almond meal
- 1¼ cups milk (low fat is fine)
- 1 tbs sugar
- 1/2 tsp proper vanilla essence (none of that thin chemical stuff)
- a pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease a 24cm porcelain tart dish.

Drain the fruit well. Drink the juice if you like; it's rather yummy.

Place the other ingredients into a food processor or blender. Whizz until all is light and frothy. Pour the batter into the greased dish, then gently spoon the plums over the batter. Slip into the oven, and bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until it is golden. Serve warm or cold.

Adapted from a formula by Mollie Katzen in the now out of print Still Life with Menu.

(Local: plums, eggs, milk. Not local: butter, sugar, almond meal, vanilla essence, salt.)

Still Life with Menu Cookbook: Fifty New Meatless Menus with Original Art

Monday, September 10, 2012

Cashew Cream with Rosewater and Pistachios


One of the most scrumptious treats you can possibly eat is znoud el sit: a blob of clotted cream wrapped in filo pastry, deep fried, drowned in rosewater and sugar syrup, and sprinkled with pistachios. It’s just the thing for a mid afternoon pick me up when partnered with a very strong short black, or three.

Arabic speaking friends told me the name translates to ‘ladies’ arm muscle’ which I understood to be some sexy little bicep, and I have spent many a lazy afternoon downing pastries and coffee, dreaming of Scheherazade and marble screens, the buzz of the harem, and scented orange groves alive with elegant fountains.

However, in the interests of this post I have just spent a few disillusioning minutes on the internet, discovering that znoud el sit might more properly be translated as ‘fat ladies’ arms’ or even ‘underarm of the grandmother’. So much for toned biceps. Yet on mature reflection I must admit that, in texture, znoud el sit do in fact somewhat evoke the droopy bit that dangles under one’s arm, commonly known in these parts as a fedoobedah – and so this ultimate comfort food, a soft yielding pastry scented with rosewater, is indeed remarkably reminiscent of a powdery old lady who might just give you a hug.

You can buy these evil delectable treats at Balha’s, 761 Sydney Road, Brunswick. Balha’s was once a tiny hole in the wall kind of shop; now it is a temple to Lebanese pastry stocking pistachio barma, ma’mul maad (dates in semolina) and dozens of other spectacular treats. If you’re not too worried about your waistline, you absolutely must visit. Just don’t go during Ramadan or Eid, or you’ll be in line for hours.

I live way too close to Balha’s for safety; like a drowning woman, I hold fast to the idea that resisting temptation makes one stronger. And as I have no wish to become the sort of woman whose fedoobedahs remind everyone of pastry, whether by their appearance or by their suggestion of how much pastry I have in fact eaten, I resist the siren call, and instead have looked for a way to pay homage to znoud el sit, indulgence in which won’t require open heart surgery.

One night recently, as we were eating cashew cream piled over bottled fruit, I found myself thinking about the texture of the cream in znoud el sit... and inspiration struck.

The next evening, I made a cashew cream flavoured with rosewater and chopped pistachios, and we demolished it in minutes. It was spectacular. Understand, this is not mock clotted cream; it is, however, a Very Good Thing in itself, and my kind of homage. Even better, this cream is gluten free, lactose free, sugar free and vegan – about the opposite end of the food spectrum to znoud el sit. It’s not, alas, local or seasonal; but I’ve been serving it with last year’s bottled plums from the tree, both those in red wine and those in a light sugar syrup, and I figure that’s a good enough excuse to post it here.

Cashew Cream with Rosewater and Pistachios

- 1 1/2 cups raw cashews
- 2 tbs agave syrup
- sea salt
- rosewater, to taste
- a small handful of raw unsalted pistachios, chopped, to serve

Place the cashews into a bowl and cover them with water. Leave to soak for two or so hours. Drain and rinse.

Place the cashews into a blender with the agave syrup, a good pinch of salt, and 1/4 cup water and whizz like billy-o, or until it is completely smooth. Add the rosewater. Start with half a teaspoon, and add more little by little until it tastes good to you. Add a little more water if you want a thinner cream.

Scrape into a bowl or dish. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios.

(Local: salt. Fair trade: agave syrup. Organic: cashews. Nothing too ethical, but you don’t need much: rosewater, pistachios.)

Background image of roses from Botanica's Roses.
Botanica's Roses (Inc CD)

Friday, August 31, 2012


No one
but me in a quiet

that empty square
between fence and curb and

grows just weeds and dirt but

whispers, Dinner.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Stinging Nettle and Borage Tart


One of our most memorable meals came about spontaneously. We were at the Vic Markets with a friend when we saw big bunches of borage. ‘I once saw a recipe for borage and stinging nettle ravioli,’ I said. 'Oh?' said my friend, 'There are lots of stinging nettles at the property...' - his country block about an hour's drive out of Melbourne. There was a moment’s pause, then we looked at each other and grinned.

It was time for a day trip. We bought the borage and some ricotta; we bought provisions for a picnic; and then we headed up to North Blackwood, sat ourselves atop our favourite ridge, and ate lunch. After a necessary snooze, we wandered down the hill with rubber gloves and shopping bags and picked stinging nettles.

Much, much later, we drove back to Melbourne. There, we whipped up our ravioli in a matter of hours, and sat down to a spectacular and quite possibly very drunken dinner some time close to midnight.

The things you do when you have no kids.

And yet last week, as I was walking between kinder and school, I found a patch of stinging nettles growing on a verge in a quiet street. The shoots were vibrantly green, bursting with health, and I remembered our long-ago dinner with a smile.

Despite having no gloves I grasped the nettle, so to speak. I always carry a bag for spontaneous gleaning, and so I carefully wrapped the young tips of the nettles in the fabric of the bag and pinched them off, clump by clump. One or two stings were enough to remind me I was alive; bag full, I headed off to school with the makings of dinner, a happy memory and a whistle.

Stinging Nettle and Borage Tart

For the pastry
- 120g plain flour (I used spelt; I’ve also used White Wings GF flour which has turned out good enough for ordinary mortals, if not for a French pastry chef.)
- 60g unsalted butter
- 3 tbs cold water
- pinch salt

For the filling
- 200g stinging nettle tops (before they have gone to seed)
- 200g borage leaves
- a handful of sweet marjoram, if it grows in your garden
- 150g cheddar cheese
- 6 eggs
- 1 ½ cups milk (low fat is fine)
- a sprinkling of pine nuts (optional, but good)
- 100g sea salt, pepper

Make the pastry: (This is exactly the same base as Onion Tart.) Place the flour, a pinch of salt and the butter in a food processor. Process for 30 seconds, or until the butter and flour are incorporated; there will be no loose flour flying around. Add the water a tablespoon at a time, and process for another 30 seconds to a minute or until the mixture resembles tiny soft pebbles.

Flour the bench and a rolling pin. Tip the pastry onto the bench, and gently form into a flat disc with your hands. Roll it out, rolling from the centre to the edge and turning 90 degrees between each roll, until it fits your dish. (Mine is 25cm in diameter.) Drape the pastry over the rolling pin and lift it carefully into the dish. Pat into place. Trim the edges. Place the dish into the freezer, and leave it there until you need it.

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Use kitchen scissors to snip the nettle leaves from their stems. Cut the thick stems from the borage.

Boil a pot of water. Wash your greens well, and chop coarsely. Blanch the greens in several batches, cooking each batch for a minute then scooping it out to drain in a colander. Leave to cool.

Grate the cheese. Beat the eggs lightly, then whisk in the milk and marjoram. Season. Remove the tart shell from the freezer. Spread the grated cheese over the base. Spoon the greens over the cheese, then gently pour in the egg mixture. Strew pine nuts over the top, if you wish, then slip the tart into the oven for 45 minutes or until the top is puffy and there is just a very slight wobble in the centre.

Leave to cool for at least ten minutes, during which time it will set further. Serve with a crunchy sort of salad on the side.

I am indebted to Jamie Oliver for the particular combination of stinging nettles, borage leaves and marjoram, which features in a ravioli recipe in The Naked Chef.

(Backyard: borage, eggs, marjoram. Gleaned locally: stinging nettles. Locally sourced: milk. Not particularly local: flour, butter, cheese, pine nuts, salt, pepper.)

The Naked Chef

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Salad of Underutilised Greens (Borage Flower, Salad Burnet and Mallow)


Winter is drawing to a close and things are fairly quiet in the garden – and yet we have stars in our eyes. Small, blue, velvety stars: they are, of course, borage flowers.

Borage self-seeds around my garden; there is always some on the go. At the end of winter, the plants go to seed, erupting in grey hairy fireworks. At the end of each stem is a spray of blue stars; and the stars are alive with honeybees.

I don’t see borage much, except in my garden; and I don’t know why it is so underused. It is attractive, whether in its young green structural phase or its grey and shabby flowering, and all parts are good eating. Perhaps it does not transport well; thus it is a special delight for the home gardener. Perhaps, too, the name ‘borage’ is too earthy, and lands with too much of a thump? It certainly has none of the grace of ‘angelica’ or ‘fritillary’, whose names roll off the tongue. The leaves are strong, thick and hairy; they can hold the name – but the flowers need another, a name which evokes shooting stars, the morning sky the other side of dawn, the colour of my husband’s eyes.

At winter’s end, after too many long grey days, I recommend borage. It is a mediaeval cure for melancholy and will give a girl courage. Eat the leaves lightly steamed or Indian style. Float the flowers in a cup of white wine and let yourself be enchanted.

To pick the flowers, grasp a petal and gently tug; the whole flower will pop right off the plant. Gather a small bowlful and serve within an hour, before the blossoms wilt. Like the leaves, the flowers impart the mildest whiff of cucumber; and their whimsy charms all diners, whether apian, romantic, or childlike.

I like to sprinkle borage flowers over salad. I serve them with another underutilised green, salad burnet, a perennial which grows in winter shade; we have it as a groundcover under a large pear tree where it spreads quickly. I also use microgreens allowed to grow two inches tall: Siberian kale, beet leaves, mizuna and little lettuces; baby rocket leaves; and baby mallow. Tossed gently in a bowl with local lemon juice, a little Victorian flake salt, and some olive oil from the Grampians this is food which needs no recipe and gladdens the heart: it is simple, sustainable, perfect.

Pictures show, top to bottom, The Salad of Underutilised Greens, borage in its shabby stage, and salad burnet.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Gluten Free Quick and Easy Concentrated Veggie Stock


What, you might well ask, is that jar of disgusting khaki paste in the photograph?

Is it some sort of slop fed to babies, or the results that come out several hours later? Is it a particularly ugly parsley pesto? Is it a raw vegan punishment for those who ate too much meat in a previous life?

No, my friends, it is none of these things. Instead, it is pure genius: concentrated veggie stock.

I often make my own liquid veggie stock, a golden brew simmered for hours and stored in the freezer in cup-sized portions for later use. But there are times when I need flavour without liquid; and that’s when I turn to this concentrated stock.

It has none of the metallic overtones of commercial veggie stocks, none of the gluten, and no MSG. It’s just veggies and herbs cooked to a paste and preserved with a bucket of salt. Start with a tablespoon or so, added to curries, soups or stews, then add more if needed.

Thanks to Mandi who told me about it, and her brother Simon who had the flash of pure genius. I should add that they both put a tomato in their stock, but at this time of the year, when tomatoes come from Whoop-Whoop, I leave it out.

Gluten Free Quick and Easy Concentrated Veggie Stock

- 2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 4 or 5 sticks of celery, leaves and all, roughly chopped
- 1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 clove garlic, peeled
- 5 mushrooms, roughly chopped
- a big bunch of parsley, including the smaller stems, roughly chopped
- an inch or so of rosemary, needles stripped from the stem
- a sprig of thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- olive oil
- 100g sea salt

Place all the veggies and herbs into a food processor or blender. Pulse-chop until it looks like pesto.

Warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan. Scrape the whizzed veggies into the pan, and bring to a slow boil. Let it simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or longer if you like (the longer you cook it, the deeper the flavour). Stir regularly to ensure it doesn’t stick. When it no longer smells like raw carrot juice and most of the liquid has evaporated, add the salt.

Cook for a few more minutes, stirring constantly, until the salt has dissolved.

Scrape it into a jar, and store it in your fridge. It keeps for weeks. Use a tablespoon or so where you would otherwise use a stock cube.

(Miss Cleverpants (ie me) thought she’d turn it into stock cubes via an ice cube tray, but the salt prevents it from freezing. So keep it in a jar in the fridge as instructed. The salt will preserve it.)

(Backyard: parsley, rosemary, thyme, bay. Melbourne outskirts: celery, garlic, mushrooms. Victoria: olive oil, salt. Somewhere in Australia: onion, carrots.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Grapefruit and Green Leaf Smoothie


The simplest things in life are often the best. A raindrop glistening in a spider's web. The snap of clean washing hung out to dry. An comfortable old story, heard for the hundredth time. The sharp tang of grapefruit on a sunny winter's morning. The thrill of gleaning food in the city. Watching your kids eat green leaves for breakfast.

A mile or so from our house is a grapefruit tree. Its laden branches dangle into an old bluestone laneway. The first time I spotted it, I filled up my bag with fallen fruit. The pith was so thick that nothing was bruised and the flesh inside was perfect: explosively juicy, sweet and tart in equal measure. A week or so later, I sent my tall husband; he picked another bag. And this week, we dropped by on our way somewhere else, stood on the towbar of our car, and filled a third. The tree is now picked as clean as we can reach without a ladder; but there are still hundreds of fruits fallen on the garage roof and all over the garden. Were I a braver soul, I would knock on the door and ask if I could come in and take them, but so far I have proven myself a coward.

Ripe grapefruit need nothing to make them delicious; I eat them plain at any time of the day. But I also like to fiddle, and while I have not jumped wholeheartedly on the green smoothie bandwagon, I do like my greens. I like them in salad, in soup, in horta; I like them for lunch and tea; and lately I've been eating greens blended with fruit for breakfast. Grapefruit and kale and grapefruit and celery leaves are my favourite combinations. When blended with kale, the strong flavour of grapefruit hits the middle of your tongue, but the edges tingle with the kale's iron-y taste. It's delicious in a bracing way. Celery leaves, on the other hand, unify with the grapefruit so that, instead of being aware of two flavours, one instead savours a single refreshing taste – and it's just the thing to chase away the winter sniffles.

You do need a good blender to whizz the leaves into a smooth drink. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that we have shoved so much money through a particular credit card that I was able to order a whizz-bang blender (K********d) on the basis of our credit card points alone. It is an evil system: the rich get richer and are rewarded for having spent so much money, while the poor just fall into credit card debt. The fact that I am using the blender to make breakfast out of gleaned foods – and that my children will consume whizzed greens for breakfast – is my pathetic justification for participating in such a system.

Ahem. Now that we've tiptoed to the edge of a moral quagmire and peeked in, let us carefully edge our way back to the recipe. I don't tolerate dairy or banana very well, so I use ice to make the smoothie good and thick. However, if you want something a bit sweeter, you can always chuck in a banana – out of your greengrocer's seconds box, of course; the squishier the better.

Wednesday: Addendum: I spent this morning at a friend's house and noticed her blender on the kitchen sink with a greenish tinge. She too is drinking green smoothies. But in our conversation I realised there is something she didn't know, and that I ought to add here: if you are regularly consuming a heap of greens, make sure you vary them. As well as being packed with nutrients, each leafy green has developed a unique defence mechanism against being eaten - low levels of slightly toxic chemicals eg oxalates - that your body needs time to break down. So have spinach one day, then perhaps celery leaves the next, then maybe kale, or mint, or whatever takes your fancy. By circulating your greens, you vary both nutrients and toxins, maximising the health benefits and minimising any toxic build ups.

Grapefruit and Green Leaf Smoothie

- 1 - 2 ripe yellow grapefruit
- 3 leaves of kale or the leaves of 2 stems of celery
- 6 ice cubes
- ½ cup water
- 1 banana (optional)

Put everything into a whizz bang blender and combine.

Pour into the cups which make you most happy, and drink immediately. Enough for 2 to 3 people, or one person doing the green smoothie thing.

If the leaves are too strong for your taste, use less or throw in another grapefruit. To sweeten, add a banana. This is not an endurance test. I like things strong and sharp, but your tastes may be quite different.

If the smoothie sits in the fridge, the flavour becomes dull and metallic and the texture slightly floury. So drink it right away.

(Backyard: black kale. Brunswick: grapefruit. Melbourne outskirts: celery. Even better, celery leaves are usually thrown away, so it's nice to find a delicious use for them.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Kale Soup, 2012


Every year about this time, when the winter sky is grey and my hands are too cold to type, I feel like things should be quiet in the garden. I’ve read too many English gardening books which talk about winter as a time of planning and rest. Yet I live in a temperate climate, and outside my kitchen window kale and chard are tall and strong. Large self-sown borage plants are dotted here and there; their hairy leaves have the slight taste of cucumber. Parsley, rocket, sorrel, cress, salad burnet, lettuces, even microgreens – everything is growing, growing, growing, and I am hungry, and my thoughts turn, as always, to soup.

I eat soup every day, for lunch and often dinner too. It was not always thus. Good soup requires maturity, patience, kindness, generosity and self-control, virtues I lacked in my twenties. Then, I cooked little stir fries, quick and fast, and gobbled them up in minutes; or grabbed a sandwich on the run. But I am older now, and don’t need the immediate fix. I am able to cook extra, plan for tomorrow, let things simmer for an hour or two, and make enough for friends.

I look for a steaming green stew, thick with kale and other good things, and reminiscent of the goodness of compost; and pile it in a matte bowl which I nestle in my hands in momentary pause as I give thanks for warmth and nourishment.

Every year my kale soup takes a slightly different turn. Here is this year’s incarnation. Black kale forms the backbone, with its strong dark flavours. It’s leavened by chard and borage, and the bite of celery leaves, just the thing to chase away the winter blues. The trick is to cook everything slowly so that the soup develops great depth of flavour, brightened at the end with a few greens more lightly cooked and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. A bowlful is a complete meal for lunch or dinner. I know the quantities seem enormous, but this soup went quickly at our house. Six of us ate it for dinner one night; and three finished it off at lunch the next day – just the thing for sharing.

Kale Soup, 2012

- 4 tbs olive oil
- 3 red onions
- 5 carrots
- 1 entire head of celery, including the leaves
- 2 heads garlic, cloves peeled
- 1 can crushed tomatoes
- 2 kg silver beet (aka Swiss chard. You can substitute up to 1 kg with rainbow chard and/or beet leaves, but no more because the silver beet stalks form part of the soup. Rainbow chard stalks and beet stalks are too thin and stringy.)
- 1½ kg cavolo nero (black kale)
- 3 cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained (or 250g dried cannellini beans, soaked and cooked)
- 1 litre chicken stock or water
- ½ kg borage (or use 2 kg cavolo nero)
- a bunch of parsley
- a small bunch of thyme
- salt, pepper
- parmesan, to serve
- extra virgin olive oil, to serve

Peel and chop the onions. Warm the olive oil in a large pot, and add the onions. While they are cooking, peel and chop the carrots roughly; and chop the celery – every bit, including the leaves. Add them to the soup pot, and cook over low heat, stirring from time to time, until they are beginning to brown. This will take up to half an hour.

Add the garlic and cook for a few minutes; then add the tomatoes, and cook until the liquid has reduced down.

Remove the stalks of the silver beet and chop them. Add them to the soup. Shred the leaves of the silver beet and cavolo nero. Throw all the cavolo nero and two thirds of the silver beet into the pot. You may have to do this in batches, mixing and stirring as the leaves collapse.

Add the cannellini beans and the stock or water. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a gentle simmer and leave to cook for half an hour, stirring from time to time to ensure it doesn’t stick.

Shred the borage leaves. Chop the parsley and thyme. Throw them in along with the reserved silver beet, and cook for a few minutes or until the borage has lost its hairiness. You want some of the leaves to retain their colour and crunch.

Check for seasoning. Serve drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan. Pass the pepper mill.

A note on the greens: kale, especially black kale, should form the backbone of the soup because it holds its shape well; you don’t want the soup to be an unidentifiable sludge of miscellaneous greens. However, there is some flexibility in the other greens. I use chard and borage because I grow great quantities in my garden, and chard also holds its shape well; but if you don’t mind a more collapsed soup you might substitute in perhaps half a kilo of wilder greens for some of the chard or borage: nettles, perhaps, or amaranth, fat hen or mallow.

Adapted from a recipe in The River Cafe Cookbook, which I cannot praise highly enough.

(Backyard: cavolo nero, silver beet, rainbow chard, borage, parsley, thyme. Localish: onions, celery, garlic, olive oil, salt. Can’t remember: carrots. Way away: cannellini beans, canned tomatoes unless you canned your own, parmesan.)

The River Cafe Cookbook

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Almond Coconut Bars


For a short time, my sister shared a house with a model. Skinny as a rake, the woman subsisted on boiled eggs, coconut oil and vitamin pills. It's not the sort of diet I would recommend; for one, I can't imagine the state of her bowels.

Which reminds me of a conversation I had a few months ago. My marriage was going through an arid patch, as relationships well into their second decade sometimes do, and I said to a friend rather airily, 'I could imagine having an affair, except of course for my vows.'

My friend looked at me wide-eyed, then collapsed laughing. She had heard, you see, not 'vows' but 'bowels' and had been overwhelmed momentarily by appalling thoughts regarding the state of mine.

Ghastly. But let us return to the model housemate, so to speak, and the coconut oil. According to many foodie types, when eaten in conjunction with more than boiled eggs it is actually good for you; and, in moderation, can help you lose weight. That is, I suppose, why she ate it. The arguments go on for pages, so I won't bore you with them here; suffice it to say that I was mulling over the purported health properties of coconut oil when I saw this jar of the stuff at my local shop:

Years ago, I wrote a column in which I suggested that the reason many people make consumer choices which keep others in slave-like conditions is that they do not connect the dots between a woman in a special economic zone in China, who works and lives in appalling conditions, and the t-shirt hanging on a rack at the local mall. Yet here was a jar of coconut oil showing, I presume, the sort of person who benefits when I buy fair trade. It connects the dots.

So I bought the coconut oil and sat it on a shelf in my pantry so that it catches my eye every time I open the door – and every time I see it, ten times a day, I find myself grinning. The woman's face makes me happy, and if that isn't an advertisement for fair trade socially sustainable products, even if they are from regions afar, then I don't know what is!

I left it there for a while, just to keep smiling, but I hadn't quite worked out what to do with it when my investigations took a surprising turn. Rather unexpectedly, I fell in love. Nothing to do with the long relationship; instead, I fell in love with, rather disastrously, a six dollar chocolate bar. It is one of those things free of everything: sugar, gluten, dairy – EXCEPT TASTE. It contains mostly almonds and various forms of coconut (coconut oil, shredded coconut), and is coated with cacao sweetened with coconut sugar. Even writing about it makes me drool.

Eco it is not. It is made in the US, and I shudder to think of the air miles of the coconut from somewhere tropical being shunted somewhere north, formulated into bars, then sent over the Pacific to Australia. It is clearly over-packaged. And it is, rather obviously, insanely expensive. A late-night google revealed that I can buy a box of 72 bars for a heavily discounted rate, but I prefer not to look like the side of a house before I turn 40 and thus I have restrained myself. But oh! that bar. It is not oversweet; instead, it is very, very satisfying and keeps me going for hours. From time to time I lash out and buy a single bar, hoovering it up in seconds – but then it occurred to me to try and make something similar.

So I looked around a bit more, and found these almond power bars (or words to that effect). They are nothing like the commercial bar, nor are they trying to be, but they have the same effect. Being choc-full of nuts and, if one believes the rhetoric about coconut oil, healthy fats, one of these keeps me on an even keel for hours. I eat one just before school pick up, and the slow steady release of energy helps me stay calm with the kids right up until dinner time.

I may not look like my sister's former housemate, and nor would I ever want to; yet this is the sort of food that helps me feel like a model mum: on an even keel, energetic, and happy.


Almond Coconut Bars

- 1 cup almonds
- 1 cup brazil nuts
- ½ cup LSA
- ½ cup shredded coconut
- ½ cup almond butter
- a good pinch of salt
- ½ cup coconut oil
- 1 tbs honey
- 2 tsp proper vanilla essence (none of that nasty chemical stuff)
- about 75g dark chocolate, optional

Put the nuts, LSA, shredded coconut, almond butter and salt into a food processor. Pulse it to combine.

Melt the coconut oil over low heat. Add the honey and vanilla to the oil, and stir together, then drizzle it all into the nut mixture. Pulse again until you have a coarse paste.

The easiest thing here is to tip it all into a baking dish about 10cm x 10cm, pressing down with the back of a metal spoon to pack it in. Refrigerate for an hour or so. Slice with a warm knife into bars / squares / whatever takes your fancy. Store in the fridge.

If, however, you like fiddling around, drop the mixture into silicon cups. I use a dozen silicon cupcake cups, filled less than a half (a full cupcake of this mix is enough to go crusading) plus a silicon ice cube tray in the shape of hearts. Keep the cups in a muffin tray so they retain their shape while being formed. Drop some mixture into each shape, then press down with the back of a metal spoon to pack it in. Place in the fridge for an hour to harden. You can pop the little shapes out of the ice cube tray and into a container for storage; and just place the cupcake shapes, silicon wrappers and all, into the container too. Store in the fridge.

Optional: When the mix has set, melt the chocolate over very low heat. Stir constantly to ensure it doesn't catch and burn. Drizzle the chocolate over the bars / patties / whatever, then return them to the fridge to harden the chocolate.

These make a great lunchbox snack, and they chase away the mid afternoon doldrums a treat. Of course, you can play with the nuts and the nut butter – macadamias, hazelnuts and pure almonds are all delicious.

Tweaked from a recipe found here, which is based on a recipe found here which is in turn based on a recipe found here.

(Backyard: almonds. Brunswick: honey. Way away, but apparently organic, shade grown and preserving both the Amazonian rainforest and a traditional way of life: brazil nuts. Wimmera: salt. Sumatra: coconut oil in an eco peco fair trade post-tsunami project. Organic but afar: shredded coconut, almond butter (must make my own one of these days). Organic fair trade: chocolate. Australian sourced but no more specific: LSA.)

Going Against the Grain: How Reducing and Avoiding Grains Can Revitalize Your Health

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mrs Brown and Olivia

Once, in a doodling around sort of conversation with a four-year-old, I asked where milk came from. ‘The supermarket,’ he said. ‘Before that,’ I prompted. ‘The supermarket,’ he said firmly. ‘Before that,’ I said, ‘milk comes from cows.’ ‘Oh, gross!’ he cried. ‘And I don't believe you. It comes from the supermarket, silly.’


To read more, click on the embedded link below and flick to page 53; or click here and follow the link to download the issue to your iPad.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lentil, Chévre and Walnut Salad


We were invited to a housewarming barbie on Saturday night, and I said I’d take salad. But the weather was so wet and miserable that, when it came to cooking time, I really couldn’t come at anything cold and green. Instead, I threw together an earthy lentil salad using ingredients from the store cupboard, gussied it up with herbs from the garden, and served it in a wooden bowl made by Keith, a much-missed family friend.

Eschewing gladwrap, I balanced the bowl on my knee as my husband rather sadistically drove through the backstreets, thus ensuring he hit every speed bump in Brunswick. Each time I shrieked, raised the bowl, and prayed the lentils wouldn’t spray out at me, he sniggered in the driver’s seat. Perhaps there are times a bit of plastic wrap is called for – or perhaps I should look for a less sadistic husband.

Yet the salad and our marriage arrived all in one piece, and the party was a goodie. It had just the right proportion of old friends, interesting acquaintances and new people – and was ever so suitable to our life stage. My kids were absorbed into a tribe of children while I rocked someone else’s baby to sleep, caught up with half a dozen people, and met a few more. Four hours later, we headed home, tucked in the kids, read a book and were still in bed by ten. Now that’s my sort of party – kids and babies everywhere, lots of conversation, and a nice early night!

Lentil, Chévre and Walnut Salad
- 3 cups lentils, green French-style (Puy) work best
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 3 carrots
- 2 stalks celery
- 1 bay leaf
- 150g chévre or other soft goats cheese
- 1 cup freshly shelled walnuts
- a bunch of fresh parsley and/or thyme
- red wine vinegar
- a hefty pinch of salt
- extra virgin olive oil, to serve

Place the lentils in a bowl. Boil the kettle, and cover the lentils with a generous amount of boiling water. Leave to sit for ten minutes.

Chop the carrots and celery small. Ideally, you want them to be not so very much bigger than the lentils, yet with each piece having individual form. Warm the olive oil in a deep pan with the bay leaf and add the carrots and celery. Cook gently, stirring from time to time, until they begin to glisten.

Add the lentils and their soaking water to the pot; add a little more water if necessary to just cover the lentils. Simmer for 15 minutes, add salt, then cook for another 5 to 15 minutes, checking every five minutes until the lentils are cooked through but still have some firmness. Remove from the heat, and take out the bay leaf. A guy I know almost died choking on a bay leaf, so I insist on this point!

Drain the lentils, and pour them into a large bowl. Drizzle them with olive oil and the tiniest splash of red wine vinegar, just enough to sharpen the flavours but not enough to dominate.

Chop the herbs (parsley and thyme, separately or together, are a lovely match for lentils) and toss them through. Crumble the chévre over the salad, then sprinkle the walnuts over the chévre. Add cracked black pepper, if you wish, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, also if you wish. Serve warm or at room temperature (but definitely not cold).

Notes: This is a very loose recipe. You can add a finely chopped onion and/or garlic, warmed in the olive oil before the carrots and celery, if you wish; and the proportions of lentils to veggies are just a guide. Also, this makes Quantity. Halve it if it’s just you and a friend; or eat the top half, then turn the bottom half sans chévre into soup the next day by adding stock and heating it through.

(Backyard/gleaned: bay leaf, parsley, thyme. Wimmera: lentils, olive oil, salt. Gembrook: walnuts. Meredith: goats cheese. Mystery: carrots, celery, red wine vinegar. Ah well.)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Steak with Thyme Sauce


When I left home at 17, my father gave me some good advice. ‘When you’re feeling melancholy,’ he said, ‘play a hard game of squash, eat a steak, and go to bed. You’ll be right as rain in the morning.’

I adopted his advice to much success; and years later, when I read The Worried Well, the Quarterly Essay by Gail Bell, found it largely vindicated. Bell is a pharmacist and writer who is concerned by the explosion in antidepressant usage in Australia. While there is no doubt in her mind that there are some people who need medication in order to cope, she raises good questions about why depression is now so common, why talk and other therapies are so rarely employed, and why traditional remedies for melancholy have all but disappeared.

She closes the essay with a cure for melancholy from a medieval text: a meal with friends eaten al fresco, with borage flowers floating in wine, followed by a long restorative sleep. Good digestion also played a part in the remedy.

I am someone who has repeatedly been offered the diagnosis of depression and, had I gone with it, I am sure a prescription for antidepressants would have followed. Each time, however, I resisted the diagnosis, believing instead that I was experiencing sadness, a natural consequence of a lifetime of moving cities, the deaths of many loved ones including the very slow and cruel death of my mother, and general growing pains.

Instead, I have managed my melancholia using my father’s method and found that exercise, red meat and a good sleep were about all I needed to feel that life is tolerable. And so, although I was mostly vegetarian for many years, there were always times when a good steak was indicated.

All this comes to mind because, over the last few months, three different people have asked me how to cook a steak. It is so simple that I feel a bit silly for posting instructions; and it will be, shock horror, the first time red meat has featured on this blog. However, I always said this blog was about uncomplicated home cooking, so I will bow to popular demand.

The thyme sauce is an optional addition. It’s absolutely delicious, and I love to make it; but I also find a steak served with a bright green mixed salad, the bloody juices drizzled over the leaves, can be enormously satisfying in its simplicity.

Personally, I like my steaks disgustingly bloody, a bit of caveman raw meat on the plate, but I will give the times for a longer cooking if you prefer to eat your food like a civilized being.

Steak with Thyme Sauce
The Steak
- 1 steak (grass fed rump steak for best flavour, no namby pamby environmental terrorist grain fed meat here), at room temperature, about an inch thick
- a teeny tiny bit of olive oil

Thyme Sauce
- 2 tbs thyme leaves, picked from the stems
- 2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 tbs olive oil
- a hefty pinch of sea salt
Put a heavy based frying pan or, better, a grill pan, on to heat. While it is heating, ready the sauce ingredients.

When the pan is smoking hot, massage your steak with a drop of olive oil and place it on the cooking surface. Do not move it, but leave it to cook on one side for the allotted time (below); then turn it and leave it to cook on the other side. Remove it to a plate or wooden board, cover it with a sheet of tinfoil and leave it to rest as specified.

Rare: 2 minutes a side, then rest for 6 minutes
Medium: 2 ½ minutes a side, then rest for 5 minutes
Well done: (for people who only pretend to like steak): 5 minutes a side, no rest

Meanwhile, make the thyme sauce. (If you are not making the sauce, the steak must still rest; it is part of the cooking process.) Pound the thyme with the salt in a mortar. Once it has formed a thick green paste, slowly drizzle in the lemon juice then the olive oil, whisking away. You will end up with a thin green gloop.

Serve the steak drizzled with green gloop and a spicy green salad dressed with lemon juice and olive oil; think rocket and/or watercress. Delicious.

I buy meat direct from a farm less than 100 miles from my home; if you are inclined to do the same, have a quick search on the internet. There are a few options, and you should be able to find a balance between how you want your beef to be raised versus what you’re prepared to pay. Heavy marble mortars and pestles are readily available at Asian food stores. I use the steak times from Tamasin's Kitchen Bible (out of print); and the thyme sauce is tweaked from a recipe in The River Cafe Cookbook. The Worried Well (QE18) should be available from here. Which reminds me, do you have my copy? It’s gone walkies.

(Backyard: thyme, salad, lemon. Wimmera: olive oil, salt. Gippsland: steak.)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Response: The 100-Mile Diet

The 100-mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating

Very belatedly for one who is interested in local food, I have finally picked up The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by Alisa Smith and JB McKinnon (published in the US under the title, Plenty). I admit I avoided it for a long time. I had already read a book on similar themes, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating by Barbara Kingsolver; the thought of a whole book about what a couple ate for a year seemed too boring for words; and anyway, I know the theory of why we should eat locally and didn't see the need to be told all over again. Of course, my assumptions were completely wrong; this is a fine book. Richer than a food diary and more engaging than a polemic – and much funnier than Kingsolver – here is an intimate portrait of a Vancouver couple. The story is structured around the year they ate only food grown within 100 miles of their home, but it is much more than a story about dinner.

The book certainly has aspects of a food log, telling where and how they found local produce. They write nicely of the satisfaction of a successful run to the farmer's market, or finding an unexpected farm gate. They learn the intricacies of honey and squash; gorge on blueberries; pick strawberries; meet local fishermen; and learn how to cook, preserve and eat all sorts of new things.

It is also a fascinating history of a local area, charting the shifts in agriculture over the last few centuries. From an abundant food region for the Salish and other coastal tribes, to a self-sufficient colony feeding itself and exporting crops, to an area which imports most of its food while shipping out monocrops, the use of the land has changed dramatically. In that time, the stocks of wild foods, particularly fish, have also plummeted, so that an area which was once unimaginably abundant with seafood now enforces fishing controls to try and preserve what is left. Most sad are the devastating effects industrial accidents have had on the area; during their year of eating locally, half a million river fish were killed by a caustic soda spill. In the face of such devastation, however, the authors refuse to despair; instead, they choose to live responsibly and orient themselves towards hope.

These stories of shopping, eating and growing are interesting. Even more engaging, however, is Alisa's story. Alisa and James wrote alternate chapters, interweaving their views into one story. James's chapters are more finessed, but Alisa's are more personal; and I found her writing moving. She has suffered from cyclical depression since childhood, and although she doesn't dwell on the depression, it certainly has an impact on their year. She writes of what is, to me, a very familiar way of life, that is, living with one eye always on the alternatives, obsessing about real estate, other places, other houses, other lives, and that which might have been. The key to the book, and what is for me the key to local eating, is found in the pages where Alisa argues that eating locally has helped ground her into her particular existence, her particular time and place, in a way that is deeply and psychically healing; so much so that once the year was up, she (and they) decided to maintain, in large part, the diet.

I resonate very deeply with this part of the story, recognising myself in her description of living with one eye always fixed on the alternatives. I don't really know why I feel this way. It may be the curse of colonialism: I am the descendant of colonists; I live two thousand miles from the city of my grandparents; I have no long family history which links me to this place. It may be the curse of third culture kids: I lived in a couple different countries as a child, and all and none of them feel like home. It may just be a pervasive sense of saudade.

Whatever it is, I find this rootlessness and its corresponding restlessness corrosive. It's exhausting; I long for somewhere to relax and belong. I look at other cities, other houses, other lives, with the illusion that somewhere I may find my rest; but deep down I know that the answer does not lie elsewhere. Wherever I live, I will soon feel the same way.

Instead, what matters is that I work towards making whichever place I am in home. This takes learning: learning the seasons, learning the weather patterns, learning the annual changes of particular trees and the visits of particular birds. It's noticing small things: our May visitor, the thrush, which turns up for a week or two every year; the almond, which always blossoms in July.

And a crucial aspect of this project of rooting myself to this place is to learn the food – the people who grow it, the places it is grown, the seasons when it is ripe. Food is so primal, and so intimately linked to the land and our bodies, that it has the potential to locate us firmly in the present.

My family is by no means fully committed to local eating. By the time we factor in our family's multiple food allergies, intolerances and ethical choices, we'd just about starve eating solely local foods; and anyway, I'm not cooking potatoes for breakfast. However, over the last few years, as I have made an effort to source and feed my family with as much local food as reasonably manageable, I have found myself feeling correspondingly more grounded. The delight I take in knowing that in Koo Wee Rup, asparagus is growing its way towards spring; that fresh potatoes from Gembrook have skins so thin they are translucent; that Brunswick honey is at the base of my lip gloss is profound, more than just pleasure: it's the deep slow rooting of my life to the here and now.

The authors of The 100-Mile Diet, with their insights into place and belonging, clearly articulate what I have been fumbling towards on the other side of the world. They do this in between simple recipes for often overlooked foods; hilarious stories of separating grain from mouse poop with a credit card; and rollcalls of species and varieties that are now but a memory: the fish, the wheat, the potatoes, the apples that once stocked the region around Vancouver.

It is an engaging book, clear and well written, gentle and self-mocking even as it is inspiring. We might not all be freelance writers with the time to cook every meal, even breakfast, for a year; but in telling their story, the authors encourage us to think about how we might reconnect with our own locality and give us reasons beyond ethics. In short, in their view and mine, eating local food feeds more than the stomach: it is deeply grounding nourishment for the soul.

'We felt like pioneers setting foot on a strange place called home.' (James, on eating an indigenous camas bulb for the first time).

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Local suburbs, local food


I was invited to be on a panel of bloggers at the Darebin Homemade Food & Wine Festival on the weekend, where I was asked, How do seasonal, sustainable and ethical food practices define local suburbs and strengthen local communities? This is my response.


First, to clarify. Seasonal food is local food, food which grows at a particular time of the year in a particular location close to home; and eating locally seems quite clearly to be the most ethical and sustainable way to eat.

Anyway, I've been asked to talk about how our food practices define local suburbs. But I'd like to turn the question on its head, and talk about how local suburbs define our food practices. To do so, I'll talk about two places I have lived.

When I was a teenager, my family moved to Washington, DC. We moved from a quarter acre block to an apartment in a planned development. No property had a garden, let alone a veggie patch; and there were no corner stores. One of the hardest things to become accustomed to was the absolute domination of the supermarkets. There were no greengrocers, no butchers, no delis, no markets, no milk bars and, except for a chain of bagel bakeries, nowhere to get bread.

Of course, with no local shops we learned to do our shopping once a week at the supermarket, like everybody else; and to carry that amount of shopping we needed to use the car, like everybody else. Anyway, a walk in that suburb often meant someone yelled at you as they drove past; being a pedestrian was and still is a highly suspicious activity in many parts of the US.

Driving thus defined the landscape; the county was crisscrossed by highways and freeways. Even more, driving to and shopping at big stores defined how people interacted. We never bumped into anyone at the shops or on the street; we never had casual conversations with people we didn't already know; we never knew anything about the check out chicks who whisked our groceries into brown paper bags and took our money.

Life was pretty anonymous in that suburb, and so was our food. Because we had to buy all our groceries from the supermarket, we bought the same groceries as everybody else. Choices were limited to what the big corporations could buy in bulk; there was no variation store to store or season to season. Fresh Californian strawberries and Dominican bananas were available year round, even when there was snow on the ground outside; and except for these broad regions, it was impossible to discover where most of our food came from.

Then I moved back to Australia, to the northern suburbs of Melbourne – talk about Kraft and camembert!

It's easy to make local, seasonal, sustainable choices here; and it has a great deal to do with the built environment. I don't have to shop at supermarkets; instead, I can go to the local shops. We know our local shopkeepers, so we can ask them questions and tell them what we want. You can't get that level of response in a big supermarket. Even better, by shopping locally and talking with the people who sell our food, we help the local shops survive. It's a positive feedback loop.

Sourcing local food often relies on, and builds, good relationships, which you can't form with a supermarket. We've been involved in a CSA, which is community supported agriculture. This means that a group of people commit to buying the produce from one local farm direct from the farmer, in our case a guy named Rod from Captains Creek. We've bought lots of taties from Jack Taters, who comes down regularly from Gembrook in his white ute with his taties and onions and peaches; you might have heard him driving through the suburbs calling 'fresh new potatoes' through his megaphone. We get Brunswick honey and lip balm from Robert at Bee Sustainable, at the top end of Lygon Street. We occasionally order meat from Maria and Jeff in Gippsland, and chicken from Shane in Tarwin Lower. We buy veggies from CERES, which sells stuff grown at their Coburg market garden, and labels the origin of most of its produce. We were involved in an Urban Orchard project, swapping fruit and herbs with other local residents; less formally, we swap eggs for lemons with our neighbour across the road. And, of course, we drop in on farmer's markets from time to time.

These relationships with the retailers and producers of our food are important. They help us remember that food is always the result of somebody's labour. It makes it easier to make ethical choices when you can put a face to the process and know that your food choices affect this person, or that; this landscape, or that. Even better, these relationships give us all a strong sense of belonging to a particular city and the farms which service it.

Our sense of belonging is also strengthened by how we shop: when we're not ordering directly from the Strzelecki Ranges or Captain's Creek, we shop daily, and on foot. It helps our suburb maintain its character as a great place to walk, with lots of little shops and cafes dotted round the place; and we bump into people we know all the time.

Local eating isn't just about shopping and swapping, though. It's also about growing and gleaning. Unlike my apartment in the US, we have a garden here, and it's planted to permaculture principles. But I wasn't born a gardener. I saw only one veggie patch in the US; and I came home and spent years admiring front gardens thickly planted with chicory and rapa before I summoned up the courage to try growing food myself. I learned to keep hens by living with friends who had chooks; it wasn't something that came naturally to me. And in watching older residents carrying bunches of strange herbs, I discovered edible weeds, and now wander the streets myself finding amaranth, lamb's quarters, fennel tops and other good things to eat. Gardening and gleaning are learned skills, which I picked up by observing friends and neighbours, and asking questions.

So the built environment and existing culture of the northern suburbs encouraged my interest in eating locally; and the more interested I became, the more relationships I formed and the more I fed back into the culture of eating locally. This is the opposite of my experience in the US, where I, and my food, were anonymous.

Instead, my life is now woven into a particular time, a particular place and a particular group of people in a dynamic suburb known for its food, its shopping, its street life, and its sense of neighbourhood. And the best way I know to sustain this all, to feed back into the loop and make this lively and life-giving culture stronger, is to keep on blogging and talking and writing about the ways we eat and drink.

(Photo shows the epitome of local eating, one of our backyard egg producers; keeping chickens was impossible where we lived in the US.)