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)