Thursday, December 12, 2013

Raw Living Sauerkraut with Caraway and Dill


Fermented foods scare me. I'm totally happy to eat them when prepared by other people, but I'm terrified of making them myself. What if I get it wrong? What if they go off? What if we all get botulism and end up in hospital and, you know, die?

Sure they're traditional, and 'everyone' used to make them – but my mother didn't, and nor did either of my grandmothers. In fact, I don't know anyone who has ever fermented foods, outside the usual group house refrigerator disasters. So I have no knack, no sense of how to do it, and no confidence.

But I eat mountains of living foods, particularly sauerkraut, and they're not cheap: my favourite sauerkraut costs $13.95 a jar. Worse, it comes from Byron Bay in a refrigerated truck – hardly local, sustainable eating for this Melburnian.

So the combination of my cheapness and my desire to eat locally led me to look up recipes for sauerkraut. I concluded that it isn't actually difficult – no expertise required - so I gave it a go. It took ten minutes, then five days of resting. At the end of that time, I had a slightly funky kitchen and a big jar of perfectly fermented local sauerkraut, made by me! What's not to like?

Sauerkraut is delicious with grilled chicken, sausages, or tossed through a quinoa salad. It's also fantastically healthy, but talking about nutrition bores me. If you want to learn about how eating sauerkraut tends your sacred inner garden (sigh), click here!

Sauerkraut with Caraway and Dill

- 1 green cabbage
- a bunch of dill
- 1 tsp caraway seeds
- sea salt (scant 3 tsp per kilo of cabbage)
- brine made from boiling 1 tbs salt with 1 cup water and leaving to cool

Slice the cabbage as thinly as possible. It's easiest to shove it through the shredding attachment of a food processor; otherwise, use a big sharp knife. Chop the dill. Combine the cabbage with the dill and caraway seeds.

Gently rub the salt into the mixture. Discover any open cuts, and suck your finger. Liquid will begin to seep out of the cabbage.

Firmly pack everything into a large glass or ceramic jar. Place a weight on the cabbage to hold it down. You can use a small plate with a clean stone on it, a smaller glass jar full of water, rolled cabbage leaves etc. Top up with brine, until the cabbage and the weight are submerged.

Leave in a cool place for five to seven days – check it every day and watch it change. It's fascinating! If any mould appears, skim it off with a spoon.

When the cabbage looks and smells right – kind of sour, but not gross – refrigerate. The longer you leave it, the softer its texture and the stronger and sourer its flavour. I prefer mine slightly crunchy and not too sour, which takes about five days of fermentation. It will keep for at least six weeks in the fridge.

To use: I am reluctant to use less than the standard ratio of salt to cabbage as the salt is the preservative; however, I find it a bit salty to eat straight from the jar. Therefore, before serving the sauerkraut I place it in a colander and give it a rinse, then leave it to drain while I prepare the rest of dinner.

(Local: cabbage. Garden: dill. Imported organic: caraway seeds. Northern Victoria: salt.)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Apple Butter


Deep in me is a little piece of Virginia. I lived there back in the dark ages, that is, when I was a teenager, but there's still a part of me that misses those heavily-forested mountains blazing with autumn colour; the red brick houses tucked among oaks and azaleas; the occasional glimpses of deer and bear. And I miss the roadside apple stands.

Ah, apple stands. If you're thinking of a charming tumbledown Tasmanian shed with a few bags of apples and an honesty box, think again. This is America, home of free enterprise and mind-blowing kitsch. Imagine instead a road, wending its way above the clouds through glorious mountains. Turn a corner, and be confronted by an enormous parking lot ablaze with the red, white and blue, if not the Confederate flag. There's probably music blasting, country or western – we like all types. The lot contains Ford Broncos and big Toyota trucks; the people wear jeans and flannelette shirts. You might see lank hair protruding from a battered baseball cap, or frizzy-haired women in tight jeans and full make up.

And there you buy God's gift to Virginia: apples. You can also buy cider, hard (alcoholic) or soft; apple butter; apple jelly; and maybe even salt-water taffy. You might also find cinnamon-scented candles, battery-operated plastic things, soft toys, t-shirts, flags, and a range of other tat.

The gallon jugs of cider are awesome, like nothing I've found in Australia. The apple jelly, a clear preserve, is sweetly quivering; and the apple butter smooth and unctuous.

At this time of year, in a Melbourne winter, the cool crisp air reminds me of a Virginian autumn. I go for brisk rides around town, looking for red bricks and deciduous trees, then come home and make apple butter.

I haven't seen apple butter for sale here. I don't know why, because it's simple to make, and delicious. It doesn't contain butter. Instead, it's just apples cooked down with sugar and spices until they form a glossy spreadable purée, just the thing to liven up a slice of toast or, better, pancakes. Apple butter pairs especially well with God's other gift to Virginia, the hog. Thanks to its climate, which makes it ideal for raising and curing hogs, Virginia is the capital of salty pork products.

Apple butter and bacon: cool hot, sweet salty, smooth crisp… the combination proves that there is a God, and she wants us to be happy. On a Sunday, my nine-year-old makes buckwheat pancakes while I frazzle up some bacon. We spread our pancakes thickly with apple butter, and load bacon on the side. Here's happiness on a plate, and something I owe to Virginia.

Two methods for apple butter are given below. If you have a food mill, you don't need to peel or core the apples, which makes for maximum flavour and pectin. If you don't have a food mill, peel and core the apples, expect to cook the butter longer, and use either a blender or an immersion blender to make a smooth purée.

Apple Butter

- 2 kg apples, any type, any combination (whatever's going off in the fruit bowl/whatever's cheap)
- 2 cups sugar
- the juice of a lemon
- 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground cloves
- a pinch of salt

If you have a food mill, fantastic. Chop the apples randomly – don't peel or core them – and throw them into a big bowl. As you go, layer the apples with the sugar. Cover the bowl and leave all day or overnight to macerate.

If you don't have a food mill, peel and core the apples, then chop, layer, cover and leave as above.

Scrape the apples, leached juice and sugar into a large deep pot. Throw in the other ingredients. Cook over medium heat until the apples are completely soft, at least thirty minutes. Turn off the heat and leave to cool for a little while, then purée either by putting it all through the finest screen of a food mill, or using a blender of some sort.

Return the purée to the pot, and turn the heat back on. With the heat medium-low, keep stirring and scraping the purée, ensuring nothing sticks to the pan. If you stop stirring, it will spit like crazy – think quince paste. You have been warned. You will need to stir it for about an hour, or a bit more if you have excluded the peels and cores; it depends on the pectin levels of your apples.

Meanwhile – and this is the trick – wash five 300g jam jars. Sterilise the jars and lids using your chosen method (baby bottle steam steriliser / boiling water in deep pot), remove, and place on a tray in a low oven. Somehow, you will do all this about halfway through stirring the apple butter – either resign yourself to some butter spitting onto the wall while you flit between sink and stove, or enlist help! I recommend the latter.

After about an hour, the butter will begin to firm up. When a wooden spoon scraped across the bottom of the pot leaves a bit of a path, the butter will have attained a nice spreadable consistency (see picture below). Turn off the heat.

WEARING GLOVES, remove the jars from the oven and place on a wooden surface. If you don't have a wooden bench top, use a wooden board or even a stack of newspapers on the bench. Fill the jars, screw on the lids, and invert. Leave on the bench, undisturbed, for twenty-four hours. After this time, turn the jars right-side-up, label clearly with the contents and date, and store in a cool dark cupboard.

Important comment: Every government agency insists that the only safe way to preserve food is to run it through a boiling water preserver. They are right. You can find complete instructions here. The fact that I choose to use a traditional French method to seal jars is a matter of preference; if you try it and get botulism, don't blame me!

(Local: apples, lemon. Northern Victoria: salt. Not local: sugar, cinnamon, cloves.)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Cabbage, Potato, White Bean and Caraway Soup


Does every postgraduate student have a fantasy other life in which they imagine the path not taken? While writing her PhD, my sister pondered opening a shop of gifts for men, called The Thinking Man's Crumpet. She'd sell astrolabes and pipes and vintage magnifying glasses; detective novels and squashy cushions in muted, masculine colours; cufflinks, ties and very nice socks; select old records and CDs; and other things for the sort of intelligent and gentle man she finds attractive.

My fantasy is to open a soup shop. I imagine a tiny hole in the wall that seats six to ten people, with another half dozen seats outside. Every day, I'd make two or three soups, and that's it. Maybe you could get a bread roll or an apple, too – but nothing more complicated. In winter, I'd go heavy on the lentils and roast vegetables; in summer, light minestrones and gazpacho would feature strongly. People could come in and eat a bowlful, or buy a container for their supper.

I'd also sell stocks: good homemade veal and chicken and vegetable stocks for people to take home. I've yet to find a commercial stock that doesn't taste horrible; I think there's a market for proper stocks for the home cook.

I only drink wine and water with my meals, so see no reason to serve anything else. In my fantasy, you'd be able to buy a bistro glass of jug wine (red or white) to have with your soup; or perhaps some mineral water. Many years ago we lunched on bread rolls and glasses of vin ordinaire from a hole in the wall in Florence. The premises consisted of a counter facing the street, behind which three men filled the warm rolls and poured out wine. There was no seating, so everyone stood in the street munching and sipping. I wonder whether Australian licensing laws have caught up.

Because I've always wanted a small bookshop, I might also stock a few random books: favourite cookbooks, children's story books, and cosy detective novels – all good to read over soup. Or perhaps I'd just have them there for customers to thumb through; I haven't quite decided. While having books to read would make it the sort of place I'd want to go, it would also make people linger, and with such a small shop that might be a problem.

As for décor, perhaps I'd paint the interior the colour of rich pumpkin soup. And I'd want a few herb boxes on the footpath, overflowing with parsley and marjoram and thyme; the mingled scents would make everything eaten there taste better. I could put up a few soupy quotes around the place, preferably cross-stitched – I'm not afraid of kitsch – and the crockery would really need to be that heavy brown English stoneware from the 1970's.

Such a shop would almost certainly run at a loss, but since my husband owns a business, we could set my losses against his profits and pay less tax.

You see? So many things to think about – and so much easier than writing a literature review!

What follows is a winter soup, good to eat on a cold night. A slice of heavy rye bread, thickly buttered, would go nicely on the side.

Cabbage, Potato, White Bean and Caraway Soup

- 125g bacon rashers, chopped into little squares
- a big knob of unsalted butter
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 tsp caraway seeds
- ½ tsp dried thyme or a few sprigs of fresh thyme
- 500g white cabbage, shredded
- 750g yellow potatoes, chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
- 5 cups chicken stock or water
- sea salt

Warm the butter in a large soup pot. Cook the bacon until it is crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve.

Throw the onion into the pot, and cook until soft. Add the caraway seeds and thyme and cook for a few minutes. Add the cabbage and cook until it has wilted. Add the potatoes, cannellini beans, bacon and enough stock or water to just cover the other ingredients.

Bring to a simmer. Cover slightly, and cook for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the potatoes are tender. Check for seasoning. Serve.

Note: For a vegetarian version, omit the bacon, use vegetable stock (preferable one made with dried mushrooms) and add a second can of cannellini beans.

Adapted from a recipe found in the very useful Ultimate Cook Book.

(Local: potatoes, cabbage, bacon, thyme, onion. Not local: butter, caraway seeds, cannellini beans.)


The Ultimate Cook Book: 900 New Recipes, Thousands of Ideas

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Gluten Free Peanut Butter Cookies

One thing leads to another – and most things lead to food. I have just read The Women in Black, a perfectly observed gem set in 1950’s Sydney. Young Lisa is a bright girl from a working class family. We meet her here poised between high school and the possibility of the great unknown, university. While she waits for her matriculation results, she takes a summer job in a department store. Through her work there, we glimpse the lives of the women in the department, from the drab Miss Jacobs to the moody and imperious Slovenian refugee, Magda, who decides to take Lisa under her wing.

Magda introduces Lisa to a lively Eastern European intellectual community, which she takes to like a duck to water, and the story of her coming-of-age, or at least a coming-just-a-little-bit-older, unfolds. One is left feeling grateful for the kindness of strangers who take an active interest in a young girl as she takes her first steps into womanhood. The story is gently comic and beautifully observed, from how different married couples converse to why people are attracted to each other to how the wealthy shop. A novel of quiet exchanges and small things, the parts hang together perfectly like an exquisitely-tailored dress.

Reading this poised, kind, insightful novel, I found myself remembering a poised, kind, insightful recipe book, Mrs Harvey's Sister in Law: And Other Tasty Dishes. I believe the author, Margaret Dunn, first wrote it for her daughters, but it was later published so that others could benefit from her stories, good humour and straightforward recipes. It’s the book your own grandmother never wrote. One of the recipes is for peanut cookies which, Mrs Dunn tells us, she ate while working in a department store during the war; they were brought to work by the lovely Winsome, who sat on a stool in the art department sucking a paintbrush.

Remembering these details (yes, my brain is stuffed full of the most useless facts), I got to thinking about peanut butter cookies, which I love… and so you can see how a quiet evening devouring a novel leads to a quiet morning baking with my four-year-old and a quiet afternoon devouring cookies. It’s true: reading can change your life, or at least your waistline.

I hope it’s not just me who cooks as a response to reading fiction; most novels lead me to the kitchen. Anything set in China (most recently, Brian Castro’s dream-like Birds of Passage; more often, a Judge Dee mystery) and I’m hungering for silken tofu or a perfect bowl of white rice. A lazy 1920’s romp, and I’m shaking a cocktail. Something set in Latin America and I’m making rice and beans for the next three weeks. The links aren’t always obvious: Magda introduces Lisa to salami with great success; and although I love salami, I wasn’t haring off to buy smoked sausage. Instead, because I already associated mid-century department stores with peanut cookies, I got busy with my grandmother’s mix-master.

Yet I like my cookies to have more texture than Winsome’s biscuits, so although she provided the department store – peanut cookie association, I used a favourite recipe from Canteen. Of course I made a few changes; what follows is my version, tweaked in several ways including but not limited to using quinoa flakes in place of oats, and a homemade gluten free flour mix.

To make gluten free flour, I follow gluten free girl’s formula, using 60% starch and 40% whole grains. For an excellent discussion of the merits of different flours in different uses, check out her page. It is enough here to say that I make up a batch of flour every couple of weeks, varying the grains and starches each time so that we eat a wider variety of foods than we would if we used proprietary blends. This week, our flour is 20% red sorghum, 20% amaranth, 30% corn starch and 30% tapioca starch and it’s been great. For these cookies, make up your own mix, use a proprietary gluten free flour, or even, shock horror, use regular wholemeal flour made from wheat which would, of course, render the cookies gluten free no more. Just to state the obvious.

(Below: Everybody needs a helper in the kitchen.)

Gluten Free Peanut Butter Cookies

- 75g soft unsalted butter
- 100g coconut sugar
- 100g caster sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp real vanilla essence
- 120g crunchy peanut butter (I use a roasted sugar free salt free style.)
- 75g quinoa flakes
- 80g roasted peanuts (if you use salted peanuts, you won't need to add salt)
- 60g gluten free plain flour
- 1 tsp bicarb soda
- sea salt

Preheat the oven to 165°C. Line three cookie sheets with baking paper or silicon baking sheets. Chop the peanuts.

Cream the butter and sugars. Add the egg and vanilla and mix well. Fold in everything else. The dough will be fairly stiff. (At this point, you can refrigerate the dough for half an hour – but I can never wait. I suspect this is why my cookies are always slightly flat.)

Gently form the dough into medium-sized balls, about the size of walnuts. Flatten very slightly with the back of a fork. Bake for 8 minutes, or until the edges are turning golden.

Remove from the oven. Leave to cool on the trays for another quarter hour, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Store in an air-tight container. I’m not sure how long they last; I can’t ever leave them long enough to find out! Makes about two dozen cookies.

(Sorry folks, this ain't local. At least most of the books mentioned are home-grown!)

The Women in Black Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates (A Phryne Fisher Mystery) Canteen: Great British Food

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Chilli and Parsley Condiment


One of the things I have found gastronomically annoying about having children – and there's been more than a few – has been the absence of chillies in our diet. I was never a huge chilli eater, and during pregnancy and breastfeeding I couldn't stomach them at all. But when I was ready to introduce a little heat back into my diet, I realised my kids couldn't tolerate the things. Damn.

Other friends facing the same dilemma came up with different solutions. Mark chops a chilli and puts it on a saucer at the dining table, then sprinkles it on his dinner, but that's too raw for me. Naomi often prepares two or even three variations on a meal (one spicy); but I'm way too lazy. Marty gets a lot of takeaway, but our household has so many food intolerances and fussinesses that takeaway usually feels too hard for us. I resigned myself to the idea that I wasn't going to be eating many chillies for a long, long time.

Then earlier this year I spotted a most excellent chilli and garlic condiment. I had tried variations on this theme, and none were quite what I was looking for, but this was fantastic! I blobbed it on my lunchtime scrambled eggs while my four year old had hers plain; I dumped it in my leftover minestrone; I stirred it through pasta sauce to give it a lift; I scraped a little on quesadillas to cut through the cheese.

Within days I had finished the jar; and I faced a dilemma. While I was willing to buy it once and give it a go, this sauce came from Calabria. I didn't really want to keep purchasing an expensive product which had travelled over land and sea; the cost! the air miles! But then I was given a bag of home grown chillies. I got to wondering just how hard it was to make a chilli and garlic condiment; with a bag of free chillies, I had no excuse not to give it a go. So I whizzed up the chillies with garlic and covered them with olive oil; I did another batch with parsley and garlic, and it's great stuff. The condiment takes no time to make, keeps in the fridge for weeks, has a zillion uses, and if it's made with chillies from the garden and a local olive oil, requires no air miles at all.

While it feels a little late to be writing about chillies from the garden – it's almost winter – I notice three neighbours have ripe chillies in their front yards this week. I take this as a sign that they are still in season, and so with no further ado, I offer you… chilli condiment.

Chilli and Parsley Condiment

- 6 fresh long red chillies
- 6 big stems of lovely flat leaf parsley
- 2 cloves garlic
- sea salt
- olive oil

How you make this depends on your tolerance for heat. For everyday food, I prefer things warm, not blazingly hot. Therefore, I top the chillies, slit them open, and scrape out the seeds and membranes. If you prefer numb lips and the back of your head blown off, leave the seeds and membranes intact.

Throw the chillies, parsley, garlic and a hefty pinch of salt into a food processor and pulse-chop until you have a rough sauce. The parsley should still be in tiny squares; the chillies in teeny-tiny dice; and it should all be studded with little lumps of garlic.

Scrape it into a very clean glass jar, and cover with olive oil. Gently ease out any air bubbles with a flexible knife or a small spatula; add more olive oil if necessary to cover the surface.

Screw on the lid, pop it in the fridge, and you're ready to jazz up absolutely anything. Well, maybe not breakfast cereal.

Version two: Omit the parsley, and up the garlic to 6 cloves. It has more heat, and is also very good!

(Backyard: chillies, parsley. Local: garlic, olive oil. Northern Victoria: salt.)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Lebanese Style Chopped Salad with Sumac (and how to turn it into Fattoush)


Who wouldn't love living here? We've been at our new house just a few months, and already the neighbours are handing food over the fence. On a recent Saturday afternoon I was knee-deep in dirt, happily digging out couch grass. I still had bed hair. And then my reverie was interrupted by a deep 'yo!'. I looked up and saw a great hand waggling a loaf of pita at me; the pita was wrapped around a dozen kefta skewers. 'My mum said your kids like these,' said the unidentifiable eyes barely skimming the fence.

When one's neighbours have eight adult sons, all married with children, and most who come to eat at mum's at least one night a week, one tends to lose track of who has come to visit and whose eyes might be attached to the kefta-holding-hand. But the eyes grinned at me; so I smoothed down my bed hair to no effect, grinned back, and whisked the kefta out of his hands while they were still hot. They were fragrant with cinnamon and parsley, flecked with tomato, warm and juicy, and delicious. Lucky kids. They wolfed them down in seconds.

My fussy daughter – there's always one – has now added Fatima's kefta to the list of meats she will eat. This list consists, in its entirety, of plain sausages 'if they're the ones I like' (the organic GF ones from our local butcher meet her standard, thank god, but nothing too greasy or too thick or too thin or too spicy or too dry); bacon 'if it's not too crispy and not too soft, just a little bit please, and only from that farm' (yes, she can taste if the bacon is from a particular farm which will make her useful in the food industry in fifteen years' time, but makes it expensive to keep her now); sausage rolls 'but only Viv's' (Viv lives 70 miles away, somewhat inconvenient); and Fatima's kefta.

Given she also loathes eggs and fish and is not convinced about chicken (she only likes the skin, and only when roasted), and we have soy and shellfish allergies in the house (good grief!) I have latched onto kefta as a refreshing change from expensive sausages, very expensive bacon, chickpeas, and lentils. But my neighbours offers them only sporadically, and I don't know them well enough to beg for more, so I've been trying to make my own.

So far, I'm told, the results have been 'too bland, not like Fatima's'. I pointed out to my seven year old that Fatima has probably been making kefta once a week for forty years, which would mean she's practiced some 2,000 times; I've made it twice in two months. My daughter has to give me a few more goes to get it right before she can criticise. And bland? Huh.

My kefta isn't bad, but I agree that it's nowhere near Fatima's. I'll keep practicing. In the meantime, I can report that I've come up with the perfect salad to go with it, and now is the time to make it, what with those very end of season capsicums, cucumbers and tomatoes. The vegetables are chopped small and dressed with lemon juice and sumac. Juicy, sour, fragrant: it goes down a treat. Although my seven year old would prefer it had no green capsicum.

Lebanese Style Chopped Salad with Sumac (and how to turn it into Fattoush)

- 2 green capsicums (bell peppers)
- 4 Lebanese cucumbers
- 2 tomatoes
- 2 spring onions
- generous bunch of mint
- a bunch of Italian flat-leaf parsley (a good 10 stalks)
- 2 tbs olive oil
- the juice of a lemon
- 3 tsp sumac
- sea salt

Sprinkle a good pinch of sea salt in the base of a salad bowl, then squeeze in the lemon. The juice will dissolve the salt. Add the olive oil.

If the cucumbers are Lebanese, chop them. If they're home grown and the seeds have grown a bit large, deseed them. And if you're substituting English cucumbers, peel and deseed them before chopping. Phew.

Chop the other vegetables into small even dice, about a centimetre square. Throw them into the bowl. Chop the herbs coarsely; make sure you still have nice bits of mint and parsley identifiable. Throw them into the bowl, too.

Sprinkle in the sumac, then toss gently but well. Serve immediately, while everything is still crunchy.

You can turn this into fattoush merely by adding some stale pita bread, cut into small wedges, at the last minute. If you like your bread crisp, brush it with olive oil, sprinkle it with sumac, and toast it in a moderate oven for one to two minutes. Break it up, sprinkle it over the salad, and eat immediately.

(Garden: parsley, mint. A friend of a friend's garden – thanks Jen and Raheem! – tomatoes, cucumbers. A neighbour's tree: lemons. Local veg box: green capsicum (bell peppers). Grampians: olive oil. Northern Victoria: salt. Imported, but it's small and flavourful: sumac.)

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.]