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.)