Sunday, April 29, 2012

Darebin Homemade Food & Wine Festival - Talking Food

Come hear me chat about food, family and sustainable eating with Ed Charles of Tomato Melbourne and Anh Nguyen of A Food Lover's Journey, then check out the homemade tomato sauces, wines and beers at the rest of the festival! See you there!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Chestnut and Lentil Soup


I recently had a piece published about the act of peeling chestnuts which came out, ironically, just as I missed the annual chestnut harvest day at a friend's property in Gembrook. Thanks be, other friends made it and came back with an extra bag they had collected just for me.

I'm sorry to have missed the harvest, but I must admit I'm also a little relieved. Collecting chestnuts is not unmitigated fun. They drop from the tree in prickly bundles, which you must roll with a sturdy boot to open up and then, with gardening gloves, you fish the nuts out. Spines slip through the weak points in your gloves, leading to much sucking of fingers. One child or another always manages to fall in the chestnut grove and land knees first on the prickles and, cold hearted mother that I am, I find the annual screams a little tedious.

Meanwhile, there are so many chestnuts lying around that I find it difficult to collect only what I can reasonably cook. Some years I come back with a long labour of peeling chestnuts ahead of me, too many to be enjoyable.

But this year, thanks to my friends, I have a couple of kilos, just enough to eat this week. No little kids have had to shout about the prickles in their knees, and my fingers are unscathed. Next year, my kids will be older, my gloves will be thicker, and we will go again.

Chestnut and lentil soup is one of our favourites. The sweetness of the chestnuts is beautifully balanced by the earthiness of the lentils; the result is simple, nourishing and deeply satisfying. I like to keep the elements separate, so that one experiences little explosions of sweet chestnut; but it is also good as a purée, if rather unfortunate in appearance.

Chestnut and Lentil Soup

- 1 kg chestnuts in their shells
- 1 cup brown lentils
- 1 tbs olive oil
- 1 brown onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 stalk celery, chopped
- 2 medium sized carrots, chopped small
- 2 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock, or water
- 1 cup extra water
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ tsp salt
- 4 or 5 stalks parsley
- extra virgin olive oil to finish

Prepare the chestnuts. To do this, using a small sharp knife cut a cross in the rounded side of each chestnut. Drop the chestnuts into a pan of boiling water. Simmer for fifteen minutes, then turn off the heat. Remove the chestnuts from the water a few at a time, and peel them. Do not let them cool down too much, as in cooling the skin adheres to the nut. Discard any hard or discoloured bits as these will be bitter. Chop roughly.

Soak the lentils in hot water for ten minutes.

Warm the olive oil, then add the onion. Cook over medium heat for ten minutes, but do not let it brown. Add the garlic and celery, and cook for another minute. Add the carrot, and cook for a few more minutes or until the vegetables look shiny.

Drain the lentils and add them to the pan. Add the stock or water, plus an extra cup of water, the bay leaf and the chestnuts. Cook for 15 minutes with the lid on.

Test a lentil. If it is soft, salt and turn down the heat; if it is still hard, give it a few more minutes before salting. Cook for another 5 to 10 minutes then turn off the heat. Let it sit for an hour or so for the flavours to meld. You may need to add a little more boiling water to get the consistency you like. (I like it very thick, more stew than soup.)

Remove the bay leaf. Chop the parsley and throw that in. Serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

(Backyard / gleaned: bay leaves, parsley. Gembrook: chestnuts. Wimmera: lentils, olive oil, salt. Other bits of Victoria: onion, celery, carrot. Mixed sources: homemade stock. Can't remember but it might have been Colac: garlic.)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Peeling Chestnuts / Mindful Parenting Magazine

[P]eeling chestnuts has unlooked-for gifts. Ours come from a friend’s place in Gembrook. As I sit in my inner-city kitchen, peeling and listening to the traffic, I recall the gently rolling fields, the way the chestnut trees are tucked into a valley below a slope of proteas. I remember picnics under their dappled shade, and relive the stroll across a meadow to persimmons aflame with colour. Our neighbourhood may be dominated by traffic, but the glossy brown nuts, so smooth in my hand, remind me of a quieter landscape. Memories of trees and green shadows descend.


To read more, follow the link and flick to page 60, or click on the embedded magazine below - and don't miss the other fantastic articles on mindfulness, creativity, and children!

If you feel inspired to cook with chestnuts, check out my recipes here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hot Cross Buns

When I was a child, we’d go to church first thing on Good Friday, and then the entire congregation would descend on Dawn’s house. Dawn had been up since the crack of, well, dawn, making hot cross buns for a hundred people. Endless steaming trays came out of the oven; then the buns were slathered in butter and passed around. I’d normally knock off six or seven – I have never met a hot cross bun the equal of Dawn’s and there were always more than enough.

Sometime during the Easter festival, my family also dyed eggs, drawing on them with wax crayons then dipping them in bright Greek egg dye. But very early one Easter morning, I had an idea. I’d read how you could dye eggs by boiling them in onion skins, and decorate them with the image of parsley by tying a sprig tightly against the egg with a stocking. My parents were still sleeping; my sister and I were bored; so we found some old stockings, picked parsley from the garden, then peeled all the onions in the pantry. We tied the parsley against the eggs, and set them to boil in a small saucepan with the brown onion skins.

Being children, we left the ends of the stockings dangling out and so, of course, they eventually touched the gas flame and caught alight. After flapping our hands around for a while, I thought to turn off the gas, and happily for everyone the flames soon went out.

When everything had cooled down, we fished the eggs out, and they were so pretty. But the ends of the stockings had melted to the saucepan and when my parents finally woke, we got into Deep Trouble. It is one of the times that I felt that I had done something terribly, terribly stupid.

Now I am an adult and developing traditions of my own. When it comes to eggs, I can’t be bothered fiddling around with stockings and onion skins. Well, I can be bothered but that memory of fire at six o’clock in the morning is enough to make me a bit anxious even now, and so I have gone back to using the Greek dyes when we meet with friends every Good Friday to dye eggs and make hot cross buns.

Meanwhile, I have engaged on a decade-long search for buns as good as the ones from my childhood. This year I tried Nigella Lawson’s recipe from Feast. The buns are scented with orange peel and cardamom, making kneading the dough a heady exercise as fragrant wisps of cardamom curl up with every push. They were delicious, not quite as good as Dawn’s perhaps – but then, I suspect a thirty year old memory will always taste better than reality. The recipe is available here.

Our kids breathlessly anticipate Easter. Between dyeing eggs, baking buns and staying up for Saturday night’s church service – which is followed by champagne and a midnight feast – there’s lots for them to think about. I hope that one day they will look back fondly on their Easter traditions and tell stories about them, too. Feast: Food that celebrates life

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Vine Leaf Bhaji (Pakorhas)


I would have grown up in a boring suburban home but for the influence of the church over my mother. She was a bright girl; and in the fifties, as every conservative Christian knew, bright girls didn’t marry. Instead, they because missionaries. My mother showed no interest in nursing but quickly proved herself a linguist, and so it was clear to all and sundry that she would go translate bibles somewhere. I never worked out whether she herself had really wanted to do this; all I know is that she told me she used to kneel every night and pray, ‘Anywhere but Africa, God, anywhere but Africa.’ Why Africa didn’t appeal is a mystery to me; but there you go.

When she was nineteen, as part of her discernment process she travelled to India to visit missionary friends. In her bag she smuggled boxes and boxes of tampons, then unavailable in India; and under the tampons, a replacement fender for a small van. The van belonged to the missionaries, who had inadvertently collided with, and killed, a holy cow. It was a hit and run. Nobody but the missionaries knew who had done it – to hit a cow in those parts at those times meant your life was forfeit.

My mother’s friends didn’t really want to give up their lives for a pagan cow that had been sitting in the middle of the road just around a sharp bend, but there were telltale marks on their fender. So the van was in hiding until they could replace the fender; there was nowhere they could get a new fender without exciting comment; and so my mother was smuggling one in from Australia.

She was stopped at customs and asked to open her very large and surprisingly heavy bag. The first things to be questioned were the tampons. The customs officer opened a box, pulled one out, unwrapped it, and held it aloft. Clearly mystified, he asked her, in sign language, what it was; and in sign language, the terribly shy girl of nineteen communicated by pointing at the moon, at women, crossing out men, and finally miming the insertion of a tampon. The customs official turned bright pink, zipped up her bag, and urgently waved her through. Thus the fender was delivered safely and the missionaries lived happily ever after.


My mother never became a missionary. Instead, she married, had kids, and fought her way to become a minister (priest), one of the first Baptist women in Australia to be so ordained. But she did extend her cooking repertoire to Indian food. Chappatis, bhaji (also known as pakorhas), rice and dal, aloo gobi, brinjal bartha, chicken curry, banana pickle, various chatnis – all these appeared regularly at the family dinner table.

When I cook them now, they taste of home, perhaps even more than the standard fare of the early 80’s that she also served: lamb chops, tuna mornay, beef stews.

And now it’s early April. The larger leaves on the grapevine are turning red even as the smaller leaves at the ends of the stems are still soft, fresh, and bright lime green. It’s our last chance for vine leaves, so this week I pruned back some of the long straggly stems, picked off the young leaves, dipped them in bhaji batter and shallow fried them. The leaves cooked in seconds, the batter puffed and golden around them. Each hot crisp bite melted in the mouth; the kids loved them; and I remembered these stories about my mother.

Vine Leaf Bhaji (Pakorhas)

- ¼ cup chickpea (besan) flour
- ¼ cup rice flour
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- 1/8 tsp bicarb soda
- ½ tsp salt
- 20 or so fresh young vine leaves
- flavourless vegetable oil (not olive oil; enough to shallow fry)

Pick the vine leaves and pinch out the base of the stem. Wash if necessary, and pat dry very carefully as any drops of water left on the leaf can cause the oil to spit.

Sift the flours, turmeric, bicarb and salt together. Make a well, and add the water in a thin trickle, whisking all the time to ensure a smooth batter. Gradually incorporate all the flour from the sides of the bowl into the batter. It should have the consistency of thin cream.

Warm a couple of inches of canola or other flavourless vegetable oil (not olive) in a deep pan. It is ready when a mustard seed added to the oil pops.

Dip a leaf into the batter, dab it against the side of the bowl to remove any excess batter, and drop it into the oil. It will float. Cook for about ten seconds, or until the underside is puffed and golden. Flip and cook for another few seconds, then remove.

Drain on scrunched up paper bags. Don’t use paper towel, as that will render your lovely crispy bites soggy. Sprinkle with extra salt if you wish, and demolish. Don’t burn your tongue! Very good with beer (or more properly with some sort of dal and rice).

If you wish to save the oil, I find that letting it cool then running it through a paper coffee filter placed in a funnel cleans it enough for a second use.

Adapted from a recipe in Madhur Jaffrey’s magnificent tour of regional Indian cooking, A Taste of India. Sadly, it is out of print, but her Ultimate Curry Bible looks very tempting! Recipe easily doubled or quadrupled; there is just a limit to how much fried food I will make, and that limit is very low.

Incidentally, I also tried baby chard leaves, but while they were still good, they were so juicy that they lacked the requisite crispiness. I’d recommend you stick to vine or other thin leaves: sorrel, or baby spinach perhaps. You can also use this batter for thinly sliced vegetables: potatoes and potato skins, pumpkin, cauliflower, eggplant, zucchini, and even squash flowers. But I like it best with leaves.

(Backyard: vine leaves. Victoria: canola oil (non GMO). Somewhere in Australia: chickpea flour, salt. From many miles away: brown rice flour, turmeric. A complete mystery: bicarb soda.)

Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Potatoes Za’tar


The people in this house form a very complicated Venn diagram when it comes to food preferences. One will eat fish, but not meat; one will eat chicken, but no other meat or fish bar canned tuna. One will eat potatoes; two scream if anything like a potato appears on the table. Four will eat bread and pasta, but one (me) has discovered that gluten is at the root of all her health problems. And so it goes.

Which is why I am so grateful for small things, like za'tar. It is one of the few foods that every person in the house absolutely loves. Spelled zatar, za'tar, za'atar and goodness knows how many other ways, it can refer to a herb (variously oregano, marjoram, thyme, hyssop or another herb) and also to a spice mix made with one or a combination of those herbs. The spice mix, which is what we love, contains za'tar herbs, toasted sesame seeds and salt; and sometimes also sumac.

If you've ever eaten Lebanese pizza crusted with oregano and sesame, that's za'tar. We buy the mix by the scoop out of a bin at the local middle eastern importers. The easiest way to eat it is to dip bread in olive oil, then in the za'tar, rather as one eats dukkah.

It's also a great way to spice up leftover pita. I mix one part zatar with one part olive oil, smear the paste on pita triangles, then pop them in the oven for a few minutes or until the zatar is bubbling. Eaten warm or cold, it makes a great snack for hungry kids. Za'tar is rumoured to be brain food, so bread and za'tar is a good choice for breakfast on a school day, or just before doing homework!

Lately, too, I've been eating za'tar on potatoes. Smearing potatoes with olive oil and za'tar, then baking them, has proved to be very simple and delicious. And if the potatoes are served alongside pita za'tar for the kids then, in an unusual feeling of unity necessary for my sense of family wellbeing, our Venn circles do, in a small way, very slightly overlap.

Potatoes Za'tar

- six medium sized potatoes
- 2 tbs za'tar
- 2 tbs olive oil

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

Wash the potatoes and peel if necessary. Halve the potatoes lengthwise, or slice them into inch thick rounds. Place the potatoes into a steamer basket. Steam for seven to eight minutes or until a knife slips in easily. Remove from the heat.

Mix the za'tar and olive oil in a small bowl. Place the potatoes on a baking tray, then smear them with the za'tar mix.

Pop them in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the edges of the potatoes are turning golden and the za'tar is well and truly bubbling.

(Victoria: potatoes, olive oil. From many miles away but you don't need much: za'tar.)