Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lentil and Leaf Amaranth Soup


Once upon a time there was a family with three little girls who spent their days running and jumping and climbing and skipping and swinging and riding and arguing and telling jokes; and so they were always hungry.

Their chickens laid four eggs a day, but it wasn't enough. Their father brought home bread from the market, but still it wasn't enough. Their mother went for long walks and came home with armfuls of greens, but even still it wasn't enough.

So their mother scratched her head and had a think; then she built a garden. She heaped it up with compost and mulched it heavily; and in that garden she planted every leafy green she could think of: rocket and kale, Swiss chard and rainbow chard, lettuces freckled and plain, land cress and watercress, fat hen, leaf amaranth, warrigal greens and lovage. In a sunny patch she planted herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme; summer savory and winter savory; coriander and chervil and chives; perilla and purslane; basil and borage and salad burnet. And the sun shone down and the rain fell and those leaves grew and grew.

Every evening just before the sun went down, out went the mother with a sharp knife and a basket, and brought in greens for dinner.

One afternoon, as she stood at the kitchen sink, the leaf amaranth caught her eye. Green leaves edged in pink, it was a delirious sight. Bright arches of seeds swayed in the gentle breeze, beckoning to her. Ah, thought the mother, it's time.

So she gathered up her knife and basket and out she went. On her way through the garden she pulled up an onion and popped it in her basket. She pulled a couple of carrots and threw them in, too. Finally, she came to the amaranth. She cut the stems and trimmed off the seeds, which she threw to the chooks. She laid the stems gently in her basket, and carried everything inside.

There she warmed the onion in a swirl of olive oil, then added the carrots, some celery, a handful of lentils and stock; and she left it bubbling on the stove. Just before dinner, she threw in the amaranth leaves and let them wilt.

She brought the soup to the table where the three girls were waiting, spoons in hands, hungry eyes burning. The smallest girl ate two bowls full; the middle sized girl ate one bowlful; but the biggest girl ate six bowls full, then asked for some more!

Lentil and Leaf Amaranth Soup

- a bunch of leaf amaranth (or spinach or fat hen or turnip tops or silverbeet or rainbow chard or any other tasty edible green), washed and stems removed
- 1 onion, chopped small
- 2 carrots, chopped small
- 2 sticks of celery, chopped small
- 2 tbs or so olive oil
- 150g brown lentils (I used Spanish brown lentils, grown in the Wimmera.)
- 1 litre chicken stock or vegetable stock
- a pinch of salt
- extra peppery green olive oil, to serve

Warm the olive oil in a small soup pot. Add the onions, the carrot and the celery and cook gently until they have softened, ten minutes or so. Add the lentils and stir, then add the stock.

Bring to a simmer, and cook for fifteen minutes. Add salt to taste, then cook until the lentils are quite soft. Add the greens, and let wilt. Serve as is, or pulse-chop in the food processor until it is a rough consistency.

Serve with a drizzle of peppery extra virgin olive oil and a bit of black pepper.

Photograph shows soup with unleavened bread, made with buckwheat and two tablespoons of olive oil.

(Victoria: leaf amaranth, carrots, onions, olive oil, lentils. Mixed sources: homemade stock. Mystery location: celery.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fat Hen, Indian Style

To keep a marriage fresh, I recommend spending a weekend without children every once in a while. We have just had our second such weekend since our oldest daughter was born eight and a half years ago, so clearly I am no great practitioner of what I preach; but a weekend spent eating, drinking and lolling around with one’s husband has done wonders for my attitude to marriage.

I am, however, not just a newly rediscovered sex goddess but also and always a cook and mother of three, and so I couldn’t resist heading out on the Saturday morning to a local organic market. When their parents go away for the weekend, some kids get souvenir t-shirts; ours got goats cheese dusted with ash, raspberry jam, a bag of tiny nectarines, some local bacon, and an enormous bunch of fat hen.

Fat hen, which is also known as lamb’s quarters or goosefoot, is a mild and slightly sweet green. The leaves contain vitamin A and C, and have been eaten since prehistoric times. Use the leaves wherever you would spinach, either raw or cooked. Many people also recommend eating the nutritious seeds, which are packed with protein, calcium, potassium and other goodies, but I haven’t tried them, myself.

You often see fat hen growing on wasteland, which tells you it’s a weedy plant. If you grow it in your garden and want to control it, cut off all flowering spikes before they set seed and throw them to the chooks; if you let it set seed, you will have fat hen in your garden forever. Pull up any unwanted descendents and eat them, or give them to your feathered friends.

Weedy it may be, but with a name like fat hen, who could resist? The bush forms a lovely soft grey-green mound which grows to one and a half metres or even taller. It has large arrow shaped leaves, and one or two bushes provide plenty of leaves for humans and poultry alike.

As for fat hen Indian style, it is not, alas, a large chicken in a sari, but leafy greens simply dressed with a few Indian flavourings. This is an easy dish to serve alongside rice, dahl and perhaps some pappadams.

Fat Hen, Indian Style

- a bunch of fat hen (or spinach or leaf amaranth or baby passionfruit leaves or turnip tops or any other tasty edible green)
- a small onion
- ½ tsp turmeric
- flavourless vegetable oil (I used non-GMO canola)
- ¼ cup flaked or desecrated sorry dessicated coconut (Don't use the standard dusty brand; look for good thick threads.)
- the juice of a lemon
- a pinch of salt

Wash the fat hen well. Warm a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil in a wide frypan with a lid. Add the onions and a good pinch of salt, and fry gently until the onions begin to soften. Add the turmeric and stir for a few seconds; then throw in the fat hen. Squawk!

Clap on the lid and leave for three or four minutes or until the fat hen has wilted. Add the coconut and the lemon juice, and toss and stir until the liquid has been absorbed into the coconut. Serve!

Adapted from a recipe in Charmaine Solomon’s Vegetarian Food, a slender volume now well and truly out of print. One of these days I plan to check out her acclaimed Complete Vegetarian Cookbook; perhaps the recipe is in there too.

(Victoria: fat hen, onion, lemon, salt, and, I hope, the canola oil. From many miles away: turmeric. And also from many miles away, but fair trade and organic: coconut.)

Complete Vegetarian Cookbook

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cereal Topping

I love Paul. And not only Paul, but Araucaria, Arachne, Tramp, Chifonie, and all the other great cryptic crossword setters. They regularly outfox me, but that makes me even more ardent in my devotion. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I take the crossword to bed every night and, like a faithful lover, carry it down the hall in the morning to continue my enjoyment over breakfast.

With such a start to the day, I need a little brain food. Having been on a diet largely devoid of gluten, sugar, fruit and dairy for some months now, I am experimenting with quick but sustaining breakfast options. I can find gluten free fruit free, or fruit free sugar free, or gluten free sugar free breakfast cereals – but a tasty cereal free from gluten, sugar or fruit? Well, it seems this combination is yet to come.

So I buy sugar free multi puffs (Australian sourced buckwheat, rice and sorghum) and to this fairly tasteless bowl of air (which, sadly, fails to snap crackle or pop) I add a heaping dessertspoon of my homemade nut and seed mix, drown the lot in rice milk, and hey presto! it suddenly becomes a tasty brekky, with enough protein to last me through the morning.

Good premixed cereal toppings are certainly available commercially. The advantage of making your own is that you can choose which seeds and nuts go into it; you can make your own choices regarding food miles and growing methods; and you can vary the proportions to taste. I have played with chia seeds (which produce a slightly gelatinous blob in the milk, not lovely), LSA (too dusty), various nut combinations and different spices. The recipe below is my favourite combination, heavy on the crunch and very very simple.

And while such breakfast fare may lack the sensuous decadence of a chocolate croissant, it’s certainly enough to solve a few clues of the cryptic crossword.

Cereal Topping

- 1 ½ cups almonds
- ½ cup brazil nuts
- ⅔ cup sunflower seeds
- ½ cup sesame seeds
- ¼ cup flax seeds (linseeds)

Chop the nuts roughly – you want them in chunks not itty bitty pieces. Don’t use a food processor as you’ll end up with meal.

Mix the nuts with the other ingredients, and store in an airtight container – that’s it!

The topping can be sprinkled over cereals, yogurt or fresh fruit; mixed with oats and turned into crumble; or used in anything else you can think of.

(Victoria: almonds. Australia not China: sunflower seeds, flax seeds. Mexico, dammit: sesame seeds. From many miles away but, if we believe the label, canopy grown and hand harvested, thus preserving both the rainforest and a traditional way of life: brazil nuts. Besides, they’re delicious.)

Cracking Cryptic Crosswords Puzzled: Secrets and Clues from a Life Lost in Words