Monday, April 22, 2013

Dandelion Greens with Bacon


When I was fourteen, we moved to the States. My mother was offered a job in Washington, DC, and so we decamped from suburban Melbourne to Arlington, Virginia. We very quickly learned that we lived in the South; and as such we were duly introduced to barbecue, sweet potato, and chitlins (aka chitterlings). (As a sidenote, chitlins are pig intestines. What more can I say? Well, they stink. They made even my extremely dignified and polite mother gag at the table. Every recipe includes stringent cleaning instructions and warnings about bacteria. And even afficionados describe their flavour as ‘interesting’. Surprisingly, the Brunswick IGA has started stocking fried chitlins – a high protein on-the-run snack food, apparently – so if you live in the northern suburbs of Melbourne and you need some protein, now you know where to go.)

What else did we learn? We discovered that fruit salad was not a dessert. When we brought it to potlucks, we were gently chided for failing to bring something sweet, as requested, and our ‘salad’ was placed on the salad table, to be eaten with the meat. As mind-boggling as that seemed to us – who eats fruit salad with their main course? –, next to the other ‘vegetable’ offerings – a congealed salad, perhaps, of sweet Jell-O, in which grated carrot, dried coconut and mini-marshmallows were suspended, or sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows and brown sugar – our modest offering of chopped bananas and grapes looked positively savoury.

Yet there was good food, too, even if it was hard to come by. I remember spicy Cajun catfish; pulled pork and beans; apples ciders hard and soft; deep fried sweet Georgia onions; and the mountains of greens in traditional African American cooking. But these foods were never cooked in our milieu; we had to seek them out. Now I wonder why. Was the food disdained – in favour of Jell-O salads, I might add – because it had been the food of poor blacks, and lingering racism made such food unpalatable? Or was it simply that processed food had won out in a frantically busy society? After all, down home cooking does require someone to actually be home and puttering around the kitchen.

Leaving the mysteries of American food unresolved, let me tell you about this dish. One of my favourite southern foods is bitter greens (edible weeds) cooked down with a little pork: full of flavour, vitamins, and minerals. And at this time of year, when rains are heavy after a long hot summer and the dandelions are shooting up everywhere, bitter greens are in plentiful supply. Now, I have a lovely book of African-American cooking, chock full of family stories and photographs, which includes a recipe for a wilted dandelion leaf salad. But in this chilly weather I want to eat something a bit warmer, so I have turned it into a dish of lightly cooked greens, and serve it alongside hunks of sweet potato cornbread. ‘This,’ I announce to my sceptical children, ‘is part of my personal heritage!’. I am sorry to say they eat only a few greens and then go fishing for the bacon; but more mature people find it delicious. Eaten with cornpone, it forms a balanced meal with complex flavours – sweet, salt, sharp, mellow – which deeply satisfy.

Dandelion Greens with Bacon

- 200g fresh dandelion greens, picked either from your garden or from a local park; if the latter, wash especially well. The inside leaves are more tender in both flavour and texture, but you can also eat unblemished fresh (lighter green) outside leaves if you like a bit of a kick to your greens.
- 5 rashers of happy free range compassionately killed nitrate free bacon, well, good bacon
- 1 tbs olive oil
- 1 red onion
- 1 tbs brown sugar
- 1 tbs apple cider vinegar

Wash the dandelion leaves very well, dislodging any dirt or small insects. Chop roughly but do not spin dry, as you need a little moisture clinging to the leaves when they cook.

Warm the olive oil in a wide frying pan, then lay the bacon rashers in the pan. Cook them over medium heat, pushing and turning them from time to time, until they have passed from flaccid to crispy. Remove the bacon to a board (and drain on a scrumpled paper bag if you’re squeamish about eating too much pig fat).

Peel the onion, halve from stem to stern, and slice into thin half-moons. Throw the onion into the pan and cook over a brisk heat until shiny and just starting to soften; you want your onions juicy here.

While the onion is cooking, break, tear or chop the bacon into little pieces about half a centimetre square. Think bacon bits, but big, rough and homemade, and with no artificial colours or flavours.

When the onion has softened, throw the dandelion greens into the pan. Clap on the lid, and cook for a few minutes or until the greens are wilted. Remove the greens with a slotted spoon and combine them with the bacon. Turn up the heat, and add the brown sugar and apple cider vinegar to the pan. Bubble away for a minute or two, scraping madly at all the delicious little brown bits stuck to the bottom, then pour this thick syrup over the greens. Mix gently, and serve.

Adapted from a recipe in the currently out-of-print The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking by Jessica B Harris. A recipe for a delicious, pudding-y gluten free sweet potato corn bread (cornpone) can be found in Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook's Companion; click here for the recipe.

(Backyard: dandelion greens. Gippsland: some reasonably happy pig. Grampians: olive oil. Local veggie box: red onion. NSW: apple cider vinegar. Queensland: brown sugar.)

The Cook's Companion [2004 Ed.]

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fig and Almond Smoothie

There is a delightful chill in the air. Our longest, hottest summer is drawing to an end and autumn is, I hope, finally here – if a little late. We moved to this house just a few months ago and, until this weekend, did almost nothing to the garden; we’ve been busy, and it’s been too damn hot. But at last we had no birthday parties or young children’s engagements and it was cool enough to potter. We grubbed out the dead shrubs that greeted us when we moved in; we dug out couch grass from the overgrown beds; we forked compost through the veggie patch and under the roses; and we picked zucchini and olives and the last of the figs.

Each of my three daughters had asked for their own garden bed, and so we also marked those areas out. I had put it off, ostensibly because of the heat, but really out of fear. You see, when I was a child I had a small garden bed. I planted gladioli (shudder) and, to my parents’ horror, a lemon scented gum tree. They had said I could plant whatever I wanted – but they certainly didn’t expect me to choose a tree which would grow 30 metres tall! And grow it did; after a few years of being munched down by caterpillars, it suddenly took off. On wet days, our yard was filled with the sweet fresh scent; that particular fragrance is still one of my favourite things.

A couple of years ago, I went back to visit that house. The new owners very graciously invited me in, gave me a cup of tea, and chatted all things house. The gum was gone, and I mentioned it. They told me they had removed it only recently, as it was starting to die. However, it had lasted a good thirty years and was truly enormous by the time the end came, and I felt very proud.

But with that in mind, I was reluctant to give my kids autonomy over any part of my garden. (Yes, it’s mine.) I didn’t want it overshadowed by another gum (we already have two) or, worse, an oak. So I asked my kids what they had in mind. My seven-year-old yelled ‘herbs!’ ‘What?’ I asked, a little taken aback. ‘You know,’ she said, sighing like I’m an idiot, ‘more parsley – we don’t have nearly enough – lots of different types of thyme, sage, marjoram, and whatever else I like…’ I reflected that whenever I look out of the window she’s munching on something green; more parsley would certainly be on her wish list. Relieved, I nodded and turned to the four-year-old. ‘What about you?’ I asked, ‘What would you want in your garden?’ ‘Poppies!’ she said, ‘and maybe some other flowers.’ And the nine-year-old? ‘Veggies, nothing else. Particularly carrots.’

Clearly my kids are weird; what other children want to plant a thyme garden and carrots? But I’m not complaining: no gladioli, no eucalyptus trees, no oaks – we can do that! And so we did: we (they) planted carrots, fennel, poppies, johnny-jump-ups, thyme (three types), marjoram, sage, dill, and salad greens. And some comfrey and wormwood for the chooks.

After all that industry, we needed a treat. We had a bowl heaped with the last of the figs. Some were green, and needed to be poached; but the ripe ones I turned into smoothies.

My kids are not overly fond of figs; they find the texture alarming. It’s too sensual for them. But like Lola, they can’t resist a pink drink! So I whizzed figs with bananas and almond meal, and a drizzle of honey to make it even sweeter and hey presto! pink drink. You can make it with any type of milk, or even yoghurt. If you use yoghurt, either reduce the ice, or be prepared to eat it with a spoon: it’s very thick as it is – almost like a thick shake, only without the sugar or pig fat. Figs not pigs, that’s what I say. Mmm-mmm.

Fig and Almond Smoothie (GF, DF, SF, V*)

- 4 fat black figs
- 1 squishy banana, preferably frozen in chunks
- 3 tbs ground almonds
- ½ c rice milk, or yoghurt or moo juice if you prefer
- 1 tbs honey
- 1 c ice cubes, ie 6-8 cubes

Clean the figs and trim the stalks. Break up the banana. Throw the lot into your super-duper blender and whizz until you have a lovely smoothie. Share.

*Yeah, yeah, yeah: it’s gluten free, dairy free, sugar free, and vegetarian. You could omit the honey and make it vegan, if you want; throw in a pitted date for extra vegan sweetness.

(Backyard: figs. St Kilda: honey. Victoria: almonds. From afar: bananas, rice milk.)

I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato (Charlie and Lola)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Slow Cooked Tomato Sauce

When I think of preserving tomatoes, I always come back to the idea of sauce. I imagine an extended Italian family gathered together to cook down tomatoes, tell stories, sing songs and crack bad jokes, the older women wearing frumpy aprons, the young men a little flirtatious, a little cheeky, and everything a bit like the saccharine sugo scene in Looking For Alibrandi . But that’s not my reality, nor, I suspect, that of many Italian sauce-makers). I’m not Italian, I don’t have a big vat bubbling away with tomatoes or family and friends who seem interested in making an event of sauce making, and I’m not even sure I want it. I’m happy with just me and the kids fooling around in our kitchen, making small batches of sauce when we feel like it.

So I don’t make big batches. Instead, I preserve whole tomatoes; then, if I feel like a slow cooked tomato sauce later in the year, I use the bottled tomatoes to make a batch. But I do buy 15kg boxes of tomatoes for preserving. A 15kg box of tomatoes yields 24 Fowlers Vacola #20 jars of plum tomatoes, plus 2 to 2 ½ kilos of tomatoes left over. It’s not enough to bother bottling and running the processor again, but it’s a good amount to make sauce in a frying pan. Two kilos of fresh tomatoes cooks down to about a litre of sauce – enough for two meals in our family: one for dinner, and one in the freezer for some time next week.

Note: You will need to use a food mill or do some serious work with a sieve for this recipe.

Slow Cooked Tomato Sauce

- 2 to 2 ½ kg ripe Roma tomatoes (the sauce is all about the tomatoes, so ensure they are ripe to begin with – and Roma, or sauce, tomatoes make the best sauce, surprise surprise, because they have lots of flesh and very little juice or seeds)
- 1 red onion
- olive oil
- rosemary (or if you prefer, thyme or basil)
- salt

Warm a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a wide deep frying pan over low heat. Peel the onion and halve it lengthwise. Slice it into very thin half moons. Drop the onion in the pan and sprinkle it with a good pinch of salt. Cook it for a few minutes, or until it softens, but do not let it colour.

Take a sprig of rosemary a couple of inches long. Strip the needles from the stem and chop them very finely. Add them to the pan.

Quarter the tomatoes – no need to peel or core – and throw them in the pan. Cook over a gentle heat, stirring from time to time to ensure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. The tomatoes will collapse and the skins will loosen. Keep cooking for two to two and a half hours, or until most of the moisture has disappeared.

Remove from the heat. Scrape the tomato mixture into a food mill and press through. (Or rub it through a sieve, much harder work!) You will be left with a rich red sauce; discard the skins. Test the sauce. If it is thick enough, well and good; otherwise, return it to the pan and cook down until it is the consistency you long for. Half a batch is enough for a packet of pasta for our family – but if you like your pasta to swim in the sauce, use the entire batch! Serve with grated parmesan.

Notes: Of course, you can also make this sauce with two or three Fowlers Vacola #20 bottles of whole tomatoes. Because the tomatoes have been processed, you can reduce the cooking time: first check the thickness at 1 hour, and then cook until it's as you like it.

This sauce is also good as a pizza topper, and it freezes well. It is not, however, suitable for preserving via the Fowlers Vacola system as the addition of onions can lower the acidity to a point where little nasty microbes are able to breed.

If you want to see how real Italian Australians make sauce, click here. 34 boxes of tomatoes? Eight hours of boiling? Very impressive – but not my cup of tea! And I see that a neighbour and fellow blogger just posted on her never-to-be repeated childhood experience of sauce; now she opts for small batches, too.

(Backyard: rosemary. Grampians: olive oil. Local veg box: onion. Northern Victoria: tomatoes, salt.)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Bottled Tomatoes

Yet another post about bottling! Preserving is clearly on my mind, and this is the time, in early autumn, when tomatoes are cheap and plentiful. But why would a busy girl bottle?

All eating, in fact all decisions, are a question of values. We all have lots of values jostling for primacy; our decisions bear out which values are foremost. And with food, the value equation is sometimes very difficult to calculate. Organic? Not organic? Local? Imported? Cheap? Expensive? Fair trade? Sustainable? Delicious? – well, duh!

For me, deciding which type of canned tomato to use requires lots of value juggling. My preference would be for cheap, local, organic, sustainable canned tomatoes delivered to my door. In an ideal world, they’d be bottled in glass, which I would then return to the distributor for re-use. But this does not exist, at least not in my neighbourhood.

Mostly, then, we have bought Italian organic canned tomatoes. I cringe at the air miles, but I also cringe at Australian canned tomatoes: the open irrigation channels that water tomato crops in the desert; the sprays used; and the flavour. So often Australian canned tomatoes are watery and tasteless, and an unappetising pink. People, ripe Roma tomatoes are deep red! So I’ve used Italian organic tomatoes. Then an Italian friend came over, glanced at a can, and muttered something about the Albanians. ‘What?’ I asked. She told me all about the illegal immigrants who work in the Italian tomato fields in slave-like conditions and said she’d never buy tomatoes from Italy. She is a wise and gentle woman and I trust her. But sheesh!

I looked at other options. In years past I’ve bottled organic Victorian tomatoes, but now I’m feeding a family of five plus lots of guests the cost is prohibitive. $15 a kilo for organic tomatoes which then need to be processed vs $3 a kilo for Italian imported canned tomatoes that require no further work?! I’m not doing that anymore.

I decided ‘organic’ had to go. I bought Victorian grown conventional tomatoes from my Italian greengrocer. At $12 per ruby-red 15 kilo box, they satisfy my values of local, cheap and delicious. Then my daughters and I canned them, which satisfied a whole bunch of other values: educational, as I teach my kids how to do useful stuff; familial, as we work together to produce something nourishing for the family; and aesthetic, as a dark cupboard glinting with row upon row of bottled tomatoes is a sight to behold. My neighbours walked in and admired, with the result that I’ll make a batch for them – so now a communal value is also being satisfied.

The last value is perhaps the simplest: a busy girl might preserve because she enjoys it. There is nothing quite like the deep satisfaction that comes from doing good work. We live in such an age of leisure that it’s taken me a long time to recognise that working at something I love, especially when it’s easy and productive and repetitious, is much more fun than being idle. When I’ve finished a batch of preserves or jam, I float on air. I gloat, wandering in and out of the kitchen to look and look again. I leave things on my tiny bench for an extra day just so anyone who walks in the house notices; then I am casually off-hand about preserving – but inside, a little child is jigging about singing ‘Look what I can do!’. It’s satisfying in a way almost nothing else is.

So those are all the reasons why I bottle; maybe one or two of those reasons might inspire you to bottle, too! So let’s get down to the nuts and bolts. In the past, I used Fowlers Vacola’s suggested method, which is to can whole tomatoes in water. They were okay but not great. This year I’ve followed the suggestion of Food in Jars: to place whole peeled tomatoes in the jars with some serious squishing action, which results in tomatoes canned in their own juice. Beautiful to behold, they are also absolutely delicious. So all kudos to Food in Jars for the method. I provide instructions below for Australians using Fowlers Vacola jars; if you use Mason jars or want to see descriptive photos, click here.

For the most part, I use a Fowlers Vacola #20 jar for tomatoes. I can’t tell you how many individual tomatoes per jar because the tomatoes in the boxes I get vary enormously in size and weight, but it’s about 600g of tomatoes. Eight #20 jars fit in the Simple Natural Preserving Kit; so five kilos of tomatoes makes eight jars plus a few over for lunch or the next round. I buy 15 kilo boxes, then fill and process 24 jars over two days (ie three runs through the kit); the remaining two or so kilos of tomatoes I turn into a slow cooked tomato sauce.

Bottled Tomatoes

- ripe Roma tomatoes, red inside and out. Roma, because they have an excellent flesh to juice ratio. Note that preserving them will not make them ripe. You do need to source properly ripened tomatoes.
- commercially made lemon juice (you need lemon juice to acidify the tomatoes, thus rendering them safe; use a commercial product to ensure the acidity is consistent, unlike the acidity of backyard lemons)

Soak the rubber rings in hot water for 15 minutes. Wash the jars and lids in hot soapy water. Fit the rings onto the wet jars, being careful that there are no bends or kinks in the rings.

Place 2 tsp lemon juice into each #20 jar; 1 tbs lemon juice into each #31 jar; check the Fowlers Vacola instruction book for all other jar sizes.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Ready a bowl of cold water beside the stove. Using the tip of a small paring knife, core the tomatoes in one deft twist of the knife. Slice a cross in the base of each tomato. Drop five or six tomatoes at a time into the boiling water and leave for one to two minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drop into the cold water.

Get a four-year-old to fish out the wet tomatoes and slide the skin off in one easy motion. She can also pack the jars. Drop tomatoes into the jars, jiggling a little to get a firm pack. You may need to use either your four-year-old’s little hand or a wooden spoon to pack the tomatoes firmly. Squish them a bit as you pack so that the juices ooze out. Keep packing and squishing until you have a jar full of tomatoes and juice. Ease out any air bubbles with a packing stick.

Leave a 12mm headspace. Wipe the rim free of any pulp or juice, place the lid on the jar and fit the clip. When eight jars are ready, load up your preserving kit and process for an hour.

My preserving kit comes to the boil quite early. I turn it off at the forty minute mark for ten minutes, then turn it on again until the time is up. The water stays stinking hot during that time, and that way you get an hour at the correct temperature without it boiling away.

As soon as the hour is up, remove the jars and place them on a wooden board or a pile of old newspapers. Leave them to cool for eighteen hours. Remove the clips. Label each jar clearly with the date and batch number, and hide away in the hall cupboard or somewhere else cool and dark. They will keep for several years, but are best eaten within twelve months.

These tomatoes are terrific in stews and casseroles, or cooked down into pasta sauce. Yum!

(Victoria: tomatoes. No idea (‘local and imported ingredients’, sigh): lemon juice.)