Catering for a Celtic Birthday Party

I was tempted to call this post,”Let the Winds Blow High”, as most of the ‘lads’ were keen to get kilted up for the Celtic birthday party.  Prior to the event, there was much talk about free- balling it, always a wonderful tease for the ladies. Sadly these were vain threats, tales “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. There were no Bravehearts on the day.

Getting kilted up.
Getting kilted up. Promises, Promises!

The anticipation of a themed party is as much fun as the event itself. The opportunity shops ( charity shops) were thoroughly scoured in the weeks leading up to the party, in search of kilts, tartan cloth, scarves and rugs, green clothing, Celtic knotted jewellery, Scottish bonnets and hats, and anything quirkily Celtic. It’s amazing what you can find. I wanted to come as Grace O’Malley ( Gráinne Ní Mháille ),¹ my Irish heroine, or wear a T-shirt printed with the label, “If lost, return to Jamie Fraser”, but the latter, with its Outlander reference, would have been lost on all the other party goers.

Irish Yoga
Irish Yoga T- shirt.

Our Celtic party happily coincided with the weeks leading up to St Patrick’s Day so the local $2 shops provided green kitsch galore. Online shops are a great source for Scottish flags and hanging four leaf clover strings. And red wigs were popular too.

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Lassie draped in Scottish flag

Decor and dress ups were the easy part of the theme. The finger food proved far more difficult, especially given the balmy afternoon, the lack of good cooking facilities, and the general preference for Celtic style drinking on the day. I had planned to cook up some local Mt Martha mussels and stuff them with spinach, cheese and crumbs as my token nod to Brittany, but the day just disappeared. The Cornish Celts were represented with some mini Cornish pasties that I made before the event, based on this recipe. Other finger foods came in the form of sausage rolls and filled pastries. My sister whipped up some potato pancakes topped with smoked salmon, a fitting cross -Celtic food. Green coloured cocktails were popular, say no more!

Picture file below can be opened separately for a costume and decor guide to a Celtic themed party.

¹https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_O’Malley

Chatuchak Market, Bangkok. A Good Match.

A trip to the weekend Chatuchuk market is one of the highlights of a Bangkok visit. The 35-acre market site is home to more than 8,000 market stalls. The market seems overwhelming at first and it’s easy to get lost. Make a plan before you go and stick to the areas that are appealing rather than wasting time in the general furniture, hardware or pet sections. Below are a few scenes from the market, included in this week’s wordpress photographic challenge, A Good Match. I have chosen these photos mostly due to colour matching or the juxtaposition of coordinated elements in the displays.

Beautiful matching blue and white ceramics.
Beautiful matching blue and white ceramics. Boring alone, great when massed together.
more antique matching cermanics
More antique matching porcelain.

You can get to the market by taking the sky train. Hop on at BTS and get off at Mo Chit station, then take exit no. 1 and follow the crowd until you see rows of canvas stalls selling clothes. Turn right while continuing to follow the crowd and you will see a small entrance that leads into the market (clothing section). You can also get there by taxi. It’s a great day out, with plenty of interesting options for resting when you get tired. Little cafes are sprinkled among the stalls and good restaurants can be found around the perimeter of the market, as well as fast food within it.

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Stalls dedicated to home dyed indigo scarves and clothing. I love Indigo.
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Matching Indigo dyed cloth, hand-woven and expensive.
some well matched deep fried items ready to go.
Some well- matched deep fried items ready to go.Not so appealing to eat, but visually well balanced.
A chance for a quiet drink within the bowels of the market.
A chance for a quiet drink within the bowels of the market. Nicely matched decor.

Plum and Semolina Cream Tart

Have you noticed that filo pastry sheets tend to deteriorate once you have opened that skinny little plastic sleeve? I often find myself carefully rolling left over sheets back into their bag and box, only to find them dry and brittle a week later. After making a large Spanokopita for our Greek themed night for the weekend beach camp, I was determined to use the remaining 6 sheets quickly. Waste really annoys me.

Yes, more plums
Yes, more plums. now joined by their dark friends, the blackberries.

This simple plum and semolina tart tastes surprisingly light and not unlike a Plum Danish. The filo pastry sheets are layered into a rectangular baking dish, brushed with butter between each slice, filled with semolina cream, then perfectly ripe blood or Satsuma plums are laid on top. It can be thrown together in minutes. As the amount of sugar in the recipe is minimal, I found myself hoovering down two slices for morning tea. It is lovely served warm with cream. A little crunch, a taste of comfortable custard, and the sharp-sweet rush of juicy ripe plum, this dish is not cloying or rich.

Torta con Crema di Semolino e Prugne. Plum and Semolina Cream Tart.

The filo pastry base

  • Melt a small amount of butter, around 150 gr should be enough.
  • Choose a suitable rectangular baking dish and butter it liberally. Layer your left over filo pastry sheets into the base of the dish, brushing with melted butter between each layer. Aim for a rustic look- no need to trim the ends too carefully, though the overhanging ends should be buttered.

The Semolina Cream

  • 1 ½ cups milk
  • 60 gr caster sugar
  • 50 gr semolina
  • 3 egg yolks

Add the milk, sugar and semolina to a medium-sized saucepan. Heat over medium heat and whisk until smooth. Cook for a few more minutes until thick. This will occur quickly so don’t move away from the stove. Remove from the stove when thickened, then whisk the mixture again, then add in the yolks. Cool the cream, covered with plastic wrap on the surface to prevent it forming a skin. When cool, add to the prepared filo pastry lined baking dish, smoothing out the surface.

The plums.

Choose perfectly ripe plums for this dish. Red fleshed plums such as blood plums or Japanese plums are ideal as they ooze their ruby juice into the custard. Cut the plums in half and remove the pips. Lay them on the semolina cream, cut side down, and push them down slightly into the cream.The number of plums needed depends on their size and the size of your baking dish. I used around 10 plums. Sprinkle the surface with a little caster sugar.

Bake in a pre- heated moderate oven ( 180° C ) for around 25 minutes or until the pastry is golden and the cream puffed and set. Cool a little before serving, though this tart is best served warm.

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Out of the oven, the plums look like jewels in a custard cushion. A little crunch, then some old-fashioned custard and the semi sweet gush of plum.
Filo pastry, semolina cream and plums.
Filo pastry, semolina cream and plums. A simple dish to throw together in minutes.

The idea for this recipe came from one I found here at Cook Almost Anything. Pre- cooking the plums isn’t necessary if you have juicy ripe plums. Try this dessert with other fruits in season.

My Myanmar

How much do we hear about Myanmar these days? Or Italy, or anywhere else for that matter, other than the dominant news from the USA?  Since the demise of Berlusconi, we rarely hear about Italy, unless there’s an earthquake. National disasters, terrorist activities, real or imagined, and narcissistic world leaders with toxic tendencies tend to dominate our mainstream media. We are adrift in a polluted sea of fake news.

Buddhist temple, Myanmar
Buddhist temple under a stormy sky, Myanmar

Against all odds, in 2015, a peaceful election was held in Myanmar, enabling a remarkable transition from a military led dictatorship to an emerging democracy. There is still a long way to go, not that any one cares much, when the eyes of the world are so focussed on the golden-haired beast. I’d rather contemplate these golden temples.

My Myanmar, a thousand golden pagodas
My Myanmar, a thousand golden pagodas
More moody temples, Myanmar
More moody temples, Myanmar

For those who take part in the Wordpress weekly photo challenges, the prompts now occur on Wednesday. This week’s challenge is Against All Odds.

Gold Class Seats and the Norwegian Star

The sandy perimeter of Port Phillip Bay is transformed into a natural amphitheatre on sunny evenings as thousands of residents and holiday makers drag their chairs onto the beach to watch the unfolding drama. The lighting is usually spectacular and moody, heat haze softening the detail of looming vessels, late afternoon sun turning the ripple of a ship’s wash into a flash of diamonds, while lone paddle board rowers or frisbee throwers appear as blackened puppets in a Wayang show. The vast expanse of water and sky are a Cyclopean back drop. Let the show begin.

Paddle Board rower or Wayang Puppet? The Norwegian Star in teh background.
Paddle Board rower or Wayang Puppet? The Norwegian Star in the background.

Enter the crippled Norwegian Star, a cruise boat that had left Melbourne Port the preceding Thursday, now being pulled and guided along by two tug boats. The Norwegian Star became stranded at sea due to a malfunctioning propeller system. As the ship was still only 30 kilometers from Wilson’s Promontory, Melbourne’s famous heroes, the tug boats, came to the rescue. The movement across Port Phillip Bay took more than 10 hours as the audience raised a glass, stubby or binoculars from the comfort of their gold class seats. A tragedy in slow motion.

Bay Show
Bay Show

The crippled ship assumes the shape of a glowing white ingot as it turns the corner at Mt Martha on its slow journey back to port. The cruise ship, with its 3000 passengers, has been saved by the powerful little tugs.

The Norwegian Star on its journey back to Melbourne
The Norwegian Star on its journey back to Melbourne

Another creature enters stage left, a dark, elongated and slightly menacing container ship, the Hyundai. The sky blackens: the sea turns turquoise.

Another ship enters the stage from the left.
Another container ship enters the stage from the left.

This sleek, fast-moving character is transformed into a comic figure as it moves off into the distance; the lighting changes once again, as the Hyundai becomes a colourful Humpty Dumpty or a cubist cupcake on the horizon, precariously balancing its load.

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The Hyundai as cupcake
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Pull up a chair, and let the show begin.

Saucy Plums

There is a season, turn, turn, turn, and right now it’s time to pick bucket loads of plums and deal with them. Most fruits have alternate years of bountifulness, with plum gluts appearing every second year. This year’s pear and apple crops look rather dismal in contrast. There are far too many plums to preserve. Some will be halved and de-stoned, then frozen. Others poached and popped into the freezer, ready for winter puddings such as crumbles, cobblers and charlottes. The first crops matured a few weeks before Christmas. Now the Japanese varieties are at their peak. We planted three different varieties 5 years ago- Formosa, Mariposa and Satsuma; all are sweet, dark-skinned and red fleshed, and all have been carefully netted and kept at picking height. My daughter also handed over most of her crop – 7 kilo to be precise. To date, I have made plum sauce, plum and port topping for a Pavlova, plum Clafoutis, and plum muffins, as well as Baked Plums with Labne, my favourite breakfast dish.

The next lot to ripen, Satsuma.
The next lot to ripen, Satsuma.

To kick off the Sagre delle Prugne, my plum festival, is this simple Chinese style plum sauce. Wonderful with Har Gow dumplings, or smeared on a big fat sausage, used in a Chinese stir fry, or as a substitute for everyday tomato sauce or ketchup. It went quite nicely with this morning’s potato and spring onion cakes.

Bar boiled baby potatoes, grated, lots of spring onions, including the greens, salt, pepper, two eggs, fried in a smear of love oil. With plum sauce.
Breakfast Special. Par boiled baby potatoes, grated, lots of spring onions, including the greens, salt, pepper, two eggs, fried in a smear of olive oil. Served with plum sauce.

Multiply this recipe if you are doing a large batch. My last lot of sauce, based on 5 kilo of plums, required a huge preserving pan, a worthwhile investment.

Chinese plum sauce.

Ingredients

  •  1 kg plums, stoned and halved
  •  1 red onion, finely chopped
  •  1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely grated
  •  1 cup brown sugar
  •  1 cup apple cider vinegar
  •  1/2 cup water
  •  1 tablespoon lemon juice
  •  1 teaspoon salt
  •  1 teaspoon Chinese five spice
  •  1/2 teaspoon chilli flakes

    Plum sauce, batch 1
    Plum sauce, batch 1
  1. Place all ingredients in a large saucepan over high heat. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring, for 30 minutes or until plums collapse.
  2. Use a stick blender to blend until smooth, or put through a moulis, pressing well to extract as much as you can from the last skins. I prefer the texture of the latter method. If you think the sauce needs further thickening and reducing, return to the large saucepan and continue to cook down until slightly thicker.
  3. Pour hot sauce into sterilised bottles. Seal, label and date.
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As you can see from these pics, the sauce drops when it settles so fill to the top of the neck. I have used small sterilised passata jars ( 500 gr)  and am on the lookout for more. A great size for summer preserving.

Past plum recipes on Almost Italian include:

Rustic plum cake,

Lorenza de’Medici’s Fruit Charlotte 

Baked plums with Labne

Black Saturday 8 years on. Questions and Answers

Today, on the 8th anniversary of the Black Saturday Bushfire, many locals in our small community will gather quietly at the Community Centre to reflect on the loss of loved ones and homes. Some will do this privately with family, while others, like myself, hope to meet up with dear friends who also experienced that similar life changing catastrophe on this day. There will be Prosecco no doubt, and a toast to the Wedge Tailed Eagle, Bunjil, and stories to repeat about our mad lives, lives lived in parallel, indelibly etched in Technicolor, like a Mad Max sequel that has unscheduled, insidious reruns in our dreams. The extreme level of adrenalin coursing through our veins throughout that first post- fire year was almost addictive. Living life on the edge, post traumatic stress brings extreme highs and lows, paranoia and hurt contrasting with overwhelming love and respect for those who helped us through it all.

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View from our driveway after the fire.

On February 9, 2009, an unprecedented firestorm, the worst in living memory, destroyed more than 2000 homes and killed 176 people in Victoria. In my nearby community, 69 houses were destroyed and 12 people were struck down. Most of the residents in St Andrews considered themselves well prepared before this event. Many residents belonged to Fireguard groups, and had done some basic training about protecting their homes in the event of a bushfire. The advice, at that time, was encapsulated in the slogan “Stay and Defend”. I am so pleased that the advice has now been radically altered to “Leave and Live”. Understanding the ‘Leave and Live‘ message is based on the principle of early self evacuation. You don’t wait for a fire to descend on the district: you leave on days of Severe Fire Rating early in the morning and only return when conditions change. Every one seems to have a different trigger point when it comes to self-evacuation. Some still have none at all.

Making a birthday speech for someone. My old house, full of stuff.
Making a birthday speech for someone in the family. My old house, before the fire, full of stuff.

People often ask me questions about that day, the first enquiring whether I was there at the time of the fire. I wasn’t. I left early: in fact, I left on Thursday, February the 5th, given that conditions were so extreme at our place. Temperatures were in the high forties that week, and it hadn’t rained for months. The bush was tinder dry. The eucalypt trees continually dropped their leaves, the lack of humidity in the air made stepping outside quite frightening, and the whole countryside seemed to be charged and expectant. I could sense this. We had experienced an ongoing drought for years. I also recalled this fire triangle, a simplified diagram included in a short unit of study in year 10 Geography, a subject I had been required to teach in the preceding years.

fire triangle - an important Geography unit taught in Victorian schools
The fire triangle – an important Geography unit taught in Victorian schools.

The next question always concerns insurance. Yes we were insured but like many others, we were vastly under-insured. After the fire, we received a payment for our contents and destroyed house fairly promptly from our insurance company. The figure was based on our specified premium for contents and house, which had not taken into account rebuilding labour costs, escalated costs of building materials, and the 2009 replacement value of our possessions. If you live in a bush fire prone area, I would advise you to re-calculate these things annually, and to carefully adjust your premiums to reflect current costs and values. Go through each room and consider everything in it. You will be surprised how much it adds up.

special brick
Special brick. This handmade convict brick came from my grandparents chimney in Port Albert. We used it as the keystone brick in a chimney built by our stonemason friend, Tony.
Teh footprint of our old house. We saved one of the handbuilt chimneys in teh separate cottage. after getting an engineers report . It is still there today,.
Part of the footprint of our old house. We saved one of the hand-built chimneys in the separate cottage. The local Council wanted it removed but we contracted an engineer to provide a safety report. It is still there today and I hope it can stay. We stacked up all the usable mud bricks for future use.

The other question people ask is if we rebuilt. No we didn’t. We fully intended to, but knew that this would be a long, drawn out process and would probably cause more stress than we needed. Our grandchildren were then aged 11, 4, 22 months and 12 months old, with another one on the way. I found it almost impossible to care for them in our temporary accommodations. My children, who had grown up in that house and on that mystical land where the moon rose over Mt Everard, often seemed more devastated and disoriented than we were. We decided to sell the land and bought a house in the neighbourhood. It was, in hindsight, a sensible thing to do. We could be an extended family again, a tribe with a home and a big table to share.

People still ask questions and I am happy to talk about it, especially if I can save one life by repeating these fire warnings. That old adrenalin and paranoia creeps up on me from time to time, especially on anniversary days like today. I am sure the fire took its toll on my mental health in many ways, but I can happily say that on extremely dangerous weather days when I evacuate, I take nothing much with me, other than my camera, phone and laptop. I don’t value anything in my new place. I do have new possessions but they hold no intrinsic value. It’s liberating.

My other posts on this topic are here and here.

In My Kitchen, February 2017

Strangely enough, February is the busiest month of the year in my kitchen. It’s also the hottest month in Melbourne, although this year we have been spared ( touch wood) those soaring temperatures of over 40ºC. The kitchen frenzy comes with the flushing of major annual crops such as zucchini, tomato, cucumber, chilli and now plums. It’s a bumper year for plums. I have another 5 kilo waiting for me in the fridge. Our annual beach camp is interspersed with busy times back at home preserving and freezing crops for the cooler months, as well as watering the garden and clearing away the fire hazardous leaves and fallen branches. The Sagra delle Prugne is around the corner.

Vietnamese tomato and dill soup with fish.
Vietnamese tomato and dill soup with fish.

Meanwhile, we eat simply and cheaply. When not eating zucchini fritters or Moulin Rouge Tomato Soup, I turn to Vietnam for inspiration. Cá nấu cà chua, fish, tomato and dill soup, is perfect for a hot day. I found this recipe last year while in Saigon and now that summer has arrived, I am delighted to make it with my own produce. The fish market at Preston provided the economical red snapper for this dish. Light and sustaining, it tastes like a wet version of cha ca la vong.

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Chopsticks and Vietnamese fish, tomato and dill soup. Summer time in Melbourne.

While at the market, I purchased a big pile of local Southern Squid for $5 a kilo. Yes, there’s an hour’s work gutting and preparing these for the freezer but my little ones love fried squid after a swim in the pool. The best day to buy squid is on the day the market opens for the week. In the case of our nearest fish market, that’s Wednesday morning. Squid needs to be super fresh to compete with is pricey relative, the calamari. How can you tell squid from calamari? Australian southern squid, the most sustainable seafood in Australia, has an arrow shaped tail, whereas the calamari has side wings.

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Hello Southern Squid. Five fresh squid for $7. Now to prepare them for the freezer. More summer jobs.
Arrow head on a Southern squid. I usually discard this bit. Not so the wings of a calamari.
Arrow head on a Southern Squid. I usually discard this bit. Not so the wings of a calamari.

At the same fish monger, I bought some fresh river shrimp from the Clarence river in NSW. These are tiny and eaten whole. They make an excellent beer snack with a little lime aoili. A tempura batter, made with iced water, baking powder and cornflour, protects them as they fry. A pre-prepared salt of interest is also a good accompaniment. I used Herbes De Provence with salt, a batch I made before Christmas. I love special salts and am about to make a celery seed salt and one from our chilli flush. These salts make cheating easy.

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Shrimp tempura with lime aioli and a provincial salt.

To mop up the big soups and fried things, one needs a large cloth napkin. These lovely cotton towels, seconds, turned up in a linen shop in Brunswick for $2 a set. I bought them all. They soften and improve with washing.

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Japanese tea towels turned into napkins

Last week I celebrated the summer zucchini plague on Almost Italian. This zucchini slice is handy and well known. I added almond meal to the mix for a lighter version. It comes with grated carrot, zucchini, chopped capsicum and herbs.

Succhini slice, enhanced with extras.
Zucchini slice, enhanced with extras.

This hungry lad has finally learnt to make a good tuna pasta in my kitchen. It is an easy dish for a 12 year old to learn. Practice makes perfect Noah.

Kids in the kitchen
Kids in the kitchen

And what would be an IMK post without my little Cheffa, Daisy, who always drags her stool to the bench to help with anything I am making.

hungry days by the pool.
hungry days by the pool.

Good food does come at a price around here, not so much in monetary terms but certainly in labour. Thank you kindly Liz, at Good Things, for your gracious hosting of this monthly link up.