Fig and Fetta Fantasia

Ever since the fresh fig supply stepped up at Casa Morgana, I’ve been imagining all sorts of fig dishes and recalling fig episodes in my semi sleep. I’m harvesting around 20 plump figs per day and many are beginning to rot on trays before my eyes. One of those memories involves making fig jam in Languedoc, France, in 1985. At one point, we had many ‘baguette with jam’ eating Australians staying with us and we were burning through the confiture at a rapid rate. We noticed a field of ripe figs going to waste and approached the farmer to ask him if we could pick them to make jam. Mais oui, he said dismissively, gesturing that the crop was nothing more than pig food. At some point mid jam making, Helen thought it would be nice to add some ginger to the mix, so we sent the 14-year-old girls off to the local supermarché to buy some. They returned empty handed. Sunshine demonstrated how many times she attempted her best pronunciation of the request. Je voudrais du ginger, s’il vous plaît, was met with blank stares, compelling the girls to adopt some very stereotyped French accents, repeating the word ginger over and over again. They were hysterical with laughter by the time they returned.

Figs and fetta, a marriage made in heaven, or Greece.

Another fig food memory was eating Saganaki served with a sweet fig sauce at Hellenic Republic, Brunswick, when it first opened. That sauce is based on dried figs with pepper and balsamic and can be served all year round with fried cheese.

This little entrée draws on both experiences. It is warm, sweet and jammy on top, and cold and salty underneath, with the nuts providing a Baklava style crunch. It takes 5 minutes to prepare and makes a very elegant starter.

Fig and Fetta Fantasia.

Ingredients, for two serves.

  • 150 gr (approx weight) quality Greek fetta cheese, sheep or goat, such as Dodoni (not Bulgarian as it has the wrong texture for this dish)
  • 6 large ripe figs, halved
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 dessertspoon vincotto
  • 2 tablespoons walnuts, chopped.

Cut the cold fetta into 4 thin batons.

Heat a small frying pan. Warm the honey and vincotto together until beginning to bubble. Turn down the heat and add the figs to the honey mixture. Cook gently on both sides for a few minutes so that the figs absorb some of the liquid.

Meanwhile, toast the walnut pieces in a small pan and watch that they don’t burn.

Assemble the dish by laying two fetta pieces on each serving plate. Top with hot figs and drizzle with the remaining liquid. Scatter the toasted walnuts on top.

Sweet and salty, cold and hot, smooth, sticky and crunchy.

For Lorraine at Not Quite Nigella, a fig fancier.

Smyrna Fig Tree after the rain.  Now in full production after 6 years. Will be rewarded with deep mulch.

Daisy’s Moist Chocolate Cake

Daisy and I decided that our cake needed a special name in case the mysterious hidden ingredient deterred her sister from eating it. Daisy loves vegetables and would rather eat a mixed salad, a pile of beetroot or a soup, than cake. She is a good eater. Meanwhile her sister, Charlotte, lives on air, apples and cans of tuna. The two sisters could not be more dissimilar.

Surprisingly moist chocolate and zucchini cake

Zucchini as a cake ingredient has never really appealed to me before. But given that I still have a plague of zucchini, and also a willing kitchen hand who was eager to do some baking, Moist Chocolate and Zucchini Cake finally got a guernsey. It will be hand written in my sepia coloured exercise book, its spattered pages dedicated solely to successful cakes. I was very pleased with the result. The cake had good flavour and texture without being overly sweet. The zucchini vanished completely, but the thing we all loved was the moist, moussy centre.

The mystery ingredient- grated zucchini

After trying one slice each, the cake was boxed and sent home with the girls, with instructions on the lid- ‘Guess the Secret Ingredient’. After five guesses, they gave up. Daisy has not yet revealed the answer. Sadly this post is about to blow her cover. I plan to make another one soon to try with cream and strawberries, and also to test it’s keeping quality. If you have an excess of zucchini this season, I urge you to try this simple recipe.

Moist Chocolate and Zucchini Cake

  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup neutral oil, such as rice bran oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 cup plain flour/ AP flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 baking soda ( bi carb)
  • 1 1/2 cups firmly packed grated zucchini

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 180c. Grease and line a loaf tin with baking paper.
  2. Place the sugar, oil, vanilla, eggs, salt and cinnamon in a mixing bowl. Whisk together until combined.
  3. Sift together the cocoa powder,flour, baking powder and baking soda. Using a rubber spatula, fold the dry mixture into the wet until just combined. Add the grated zucchini and stir through.
  4. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 50-60 minutes or until a skewer inserted comes out clean.
    My Kitchen Hand

    Baking with children is such a pleasurable pastime. Most children enjoy cake making as they love watching the transformation of ingredients. Simultaneously they learn maths, weight and measurement in a hands on way. Daisy is intrigued with my approach to making perfectly fitted paper rounds for the base of cake tins, learning radius and circumference without fuss or boredom. Sometimes we repeat the measurements in Italian, given that she learns Italian at her primary school. More classes should be held in kitchens.

    Daisy’s  Moist Chocolate cake.

    The recipe comes from Goodfood and is attributed to Kristy Komadina.

Pearl Couscous, Halloumi and Fig Salad

Returning to the kitchen with a basket of Autumn bounty presents a challenge: pasta, soup or composed salad- that is the lunchtime question. I’m not a sandwich person: too many school and work lunches, eaten on the run, killed the sandwich option for me forever. The provincial classic, Soupe au Pistou, combining green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, new potatoes, shelled red and white beans, then topped with a spoon of pesto, is an all time favourite. Warm composed salads are the other. With a few pantry and fridge staples, such as couscous and Halloumi cheese, this salad came together magically.

Insalata di cuscus, formaggio fritto, zucchini, figo e menta.

Ingredients for two large serves

  • 100g pearl couscous
  • 1 tablespoon EV olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • ½ red capsicum, finely diced
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  •  Halloumi cheese, drained or one small packet, cut into serving shapes*
  • a little EV olive oil for frying and grilling
  • one small zucchini, chopped thickly into 2 cm chunks on the diagonal
  • two or more fresh ripe figs
  • honey
  • mint leaves, torn
  • ground sea salt and pepper
  • vinaigrette or lemon juice to dress (optional)

Method

  1. Make the pearl couscous. In a small heavy based saucepan, add the oil, then add the couscous, capsicum and garlic and quickly toast over medium heat, stirring for 30 seconds on medium heat.
  2. Add the stock. Reduce heat to medium/low and cook, covered, for 20 minutes or until the stock is absorbed and the couscous is soft.
  3. Meanwhile, heat a stove top grill pan and grill the zucchini chunks. Remove and set aside. Season.
  4. In a regular frying pan, cook the Halloumi pieces in a little oil until brown on both sides. Remove and set aside.
  5. Halve the figs. Dunk the cut side in a little honey and fry in the on the cut side until brown and caramelised.

Assembling the salad.

Lay the warm couscous on a flat serving plate. Then add the zucchini, followed by the Halloumi, then the figs. Scatter torn mint over the dish, season and dress lightly.

* Notes.

  • I buy Halloumi in 1 kilo jars for around AU$10. The cheese keeps well in its salty brine and provides enough cooking cheese for around 6 months. Small packets of Halloumi from supermarkets would make this dish more costly.
  • Kefalograviera cheese fries well and would make a good substitute for Halloumi.
  • Other pantry staples could be substituted for the pearl couscous, such as orzo pasta. Use what you have.

This is an Almost Italian original recipe, inspired by this year’s stash of fresh figs.

 

Watching The Ships Roll In

As the afternoon reaches its zenith, it is traditional for holiday makers, local residents and sunset chasers to drag their chairs down to the white sandy shores of Port Phillip Bay, and waste time in the loveliest way, ‘Watching the ships roll in, And then I watch ’em roll away again.’ As time gently floats by, the moody sunset spectacle begins, all the more dazzling for its reflected glory in the gentle waters of the laguna: pink shifts to orange then purple and black bands ribbon the twilight.

There goes Green Toll again.

From our comfortable perspective, we imagine what life might be like atop one of these vessels. I have no interest in going on a cruise but I wouldn’t mind travelling in one of these ships as it makes its way from the Port of Melbourne to the heads at Queenscliff and Portsea. A working boat perhaps, a container ship or rig.

The Queen Mary 2. More chairs arrived on the sands to watch her progress through the Bay.
Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Autumn and Keats. A Pictorial Conspiracy.

When I first studied Keats’ Ode to Autumn as a 17-year-old student, I was naive, optimistic and ignorant, full of expectation and youthful determination. The possibilities of life stretched out endlessly before me. I was in the Spring of my life: this metaphor, now considered clichéd, was not lost on me at the time, but then again, how could I have fully understood the real depth of this Keatsian analogy, not having travelled very far through the successive seasons of life. My literature teacher laid strong foundations for future and deeper understandings. Good literature requires frequent visitations.

‘To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core
.’

Heirloom apple varieties, maturing at different times. Not so prolific but each one offering unique taste and texture. Not perfect, and never supermarket worthy. Some to stew: others to slice to go with a sharp cheddar or soft cheese.

I’m now in the Autumn of my life and am delighted to be here: I wouldn’t want to be 18, or 38 or 55 still. Those times were good: each season brought blessings and joys, angst and worry. Each season does. I just happen to love Autumn more and cling to whatever this season brings, knowing that my winter is not so far away.

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.’
Symbol of female sexuality. Ripe figs are autumn’s bounty. Spring and Summer played a part with rain then sun. Maturity comes in Autumn.

I visit the vegetable garden now and am rewarded with the products of our particular Summer: volatile and untrustworthy, youthful and full of energy, promises are made and broken. Patience is important when dealing with summer. Autumn is long and slow, with cool beginnings, windless warm days and soft pink, crimson, turning to tangerine sunsets. The ‘conspiracy’ is now over: we are loaded and blessed with fruits and vegetables and I’m not in a hurry to tamper with the season or hurry it along.

Chillies mature slowly, abundance comes in Autumn

Hiding along walkways, slow maturing pumpkins need another two lazy months before they surrender their sweetness and hard flesh for storing. Meanwhile, the zucchini are on display again, more loud and showy than the petite summer offerings: new flowers, bees and prolific fruits appear daily. Large seed filled zeppelins appear far too quickly now.

‘To swell the gourd’

Only in Autumn do the Pumpkins emerge. They don’t enjoy the harshness of young summer.

There could be a part two to my Keatsian story: to think that we have only just begun our gentle waltz through Autumn.

Just picked, a bowl of Zinfandel grapes ripen further then dry to sweet nuggets.

My previous Keatsian posts can be viewed here and the full verse can be found here.

Blue Range Estate. Wine, Smiles and Spuntini

Perched high above Port Phillip Bay, Blue Range Estate is a surprising find. The journey involves travelling through the back blocks of Rosebud’s sprawling suburban hinterland, housing estates that scramble up the foothills of Arthur’s Seat in search of that all important bay view. Following the signs, a narrow gravel track winds up the side of the range, and eventually a sea of white net covered vines suggests you have arrived. The winery, with its cosy tasting room and raised platform deck with market umbrellas, is a fine place to fritter away a sunny afternoon with a wine and a snack.

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An ocean of grapes, ripening under their nets

Blue Range is not like the other wineries in the nearby Red Hill wine district. It is unpretentious with very friendly service, a small wine tasting area and an outside dining area. Franc De Cicco and his wife Filomena established the winery 30 years ago. Frank must have been a very industrious man, as he also ran a cheese factory in Coburg, an inner Melbourne suburb of Melbourne. The winery is now run by the Melone family, Cosi, Jo and their four children.

Service with a smile, and lots of stories
Service with a smile and lots of stories.

My sister and I often travel up to this winery in the sky to share a light lunch and a bottle of wine, thanks to our obliging chauffeurs! The menu is made up of spuntini, small bites of light Italian style dishes designed to go with the wine. The food is simple and tasty, but I doubt that much of it is house made. It’s cheap and works well with the sensational wines. We ordered the calamari fritti, the arancini, and Tuscan sausage with artichoke, a bottle of the 2009 chardonnay and the sensational vista was free. Other menu offerings include flat breads with various toppings and antipasto platters.

st
spuntini and wine

The vineyard produces Pinot Noir, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. The wine list consisted of aged wines from 2009 to 2010: no youngies on the list at all. The 2009 vintage wines were made by Frank the founder, while some of the 2010 wines were made by a visiting Italian winemaker. I suspect the current grape crops are sold to nearby wineries. It’s a great place to visit if you want to taste an 8-year-old Pinot Noir, which is an exceptionally good drop.

It’s a good idea to do a full wine tasting before you choose a bottle to go with your bites. A tasting puts you in a festive mood and the sommelier or assistant needs to be well-informed and cheery. This young member of the Melone family was the perfect host, with lots of great stories to go with it. His Italian ancestors came from Benevento, the city of witches in Campania. There are some great folkloric legends about this region, a new little Italian nugget for me to explore further.

Deck at Blue Ridge Estate
Deck at Blue Range Estate

Cellar Door open from Thursday to Sunday 12pm-4pm (weather dependent, alfresco dining)

Address: Blue Range Estate, 155 GARDENS ROAD, ROSEBUD.VICTORIA. Ph 59 866560

In My Kitchen, March 2017

In my kitchen, I am surrounded by summer’s bounty, despite the seasonal peculiarities. The tomato crop has been ordinary: most people who live in, or near, Melbourne are complaining. There will be no passata making day for us in 2017. The zucchini and cucumbers have also been slow, but are now getting a new life with a dry, warm autumn. I am quite happy with the trade-off, with abundant plum, blackberry and fig crops this year, the seasonal surprises in my kitchen.

First bowl of blackberries. They are flushing every week.
First bowl of blackberries. A flush every week.
Today's garden pick
Today’s garden pick . Some will go on top of a pizza.
Pizza 5 Tesori
Pizza Cinque Tesori

Today’s ‘Five Treasure Pizza’ includes yellow pear tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, grilled baby zucchini, finely sliced red onion, and a handful of shrimp, scattered with tiny Greek basil leaves. This week’s dough was based on a mix of doppio zero white flour ( tipo ’00’) and a small proportion ( 50 g) of wholemeal spelt to give the dough a little more body. I like yeasted pizza more than sourdough, with long rises in the fridge, ( up to three days) making it even better.

bread-lot

I am trying to vary my bread flavours and methods, and have been inspired by Maree’s new facebook group, dedicated to Sourdough making. The sourdough loaves above were loosely based on a recipe from the Bourke Street Bakery Cookbook, and includes 60% wholemeal spelt. I like these nutty loaves, especially with soft blue cheese or zucchini pickle. The loaves below are my “Stand By Your Fam” high hydration loaves courtesy of Celia. I can now make these everyday loaves on autopilot, made in the evening, put to sleep for 8 hours or more, then shaped into loaves in the morning. These are favoured by the man and the extended family, with 75% baker’s white and 25% wholemeal.

Stand by your fam sourdough loaves.
Stand by your fam sourdough loaves.

A quick summer dish, spaghetti al nero di seppia, (squid ink spaghetti), is topped with a good commercial mix of seafood marinara, cherry tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and torn basil. The black pasta by Molisana is surprisingly good. Thanks Signorina at Napoli Restaurant Alert for reminding me about this pasta last month.

A quick Spagetti marinara
A quick Spaghetti marinara

I made these preserved lemons back in December. They have provided a lemon boost to many a dish this summer, especially given that lemons have been scarce, in contrast to limes which are now common place.

Preserved lemons, bridging the lemon gap.
Preserved lemons, bridging the lemon gap.

Oh no, there’s a chook in my kitchen, again! Mischa has been carting a red chook into my kitchen since she was 5 years old. At the old house, she used to sit on a garden swing with Hermione and put the chook to sleep. The red chook is always called Hermione, even though we don’t usually name our hens, and there have been at least six generations of ‘Hermiones’ since that first one. The conversation usually goes like this.

“Please take that chook out of the kitchen, Mischa.”

“But it’s Hermione”, said in a child- like voice, even though Mischa is now almost 20!

That’s what I like about my kitchen, the mad stuff. The other rooms of the house are dull and lifeless, sedentary rooms dedicated to kitchen recovery.

Mischa and Hermione.
Mischa and Hermione no. 7

Thanks Liz at Good Things, for hosting this monthly roundup. If you have ever thought about blogging, the monthly IMK is a good place to start. Most of my bread inspiration and support has come from friends found in this forum.

The Road Taken from Hội An to Huế.

After a long stay in the beguiling yellow city of Hội An, we decided to go by car to our next stop, Huế, a journey of 145 kilometres. There are two main routes to Huế: the new route, now favoured by trucks and other heavy commuters, which passes through a tunnel, a fast but boring trip, and the scenic route over the top of  Hải Vân Pass, which takes a good part of a day, given the various stops along the way. The road taken, the scenic route, provided plenty of distraction, making for an amusing seven hour journey. This route also brings back haunting memories of the American War, with names such as China Beach, Danang and Lang Co indelibly etched in my memory from that era.

Basket boats near Danang
Basket boats near Danang
More coracles.
More coracles.

You can discuss your itinerary with your driver before you go or just leave it up to him. Our itinerary included a long, hot and fairly tedious stop at Marble Mountain. In hindsight, I would not bother with this stopover. The next stop was along the beach at Danang. By late morning, the intense heat and glare was overwhelming: the colourful basket boats, thung chai, nestled on the sand in the foreground, contrasting so vividly with the concrete skyline of Danang, a modern highrise city by the sea with very little appeal. Then, a quick stop at the top of  Hải Vân Pass, (‘ocean cloud pass’) an important stop for historical reasons and providing great views, then down to Lang Co Beach, for a unmemorable lunch in a beach hut, and finally on to beautiful Hue.

Views looking back to Danang from Hải Vân Pass
Views looking back to Danang from Hải Vân Pass

If you go, organise a car and driver in Hội An  In August, 2016, this cost us around $60 AU. Make sure that your driver has a smattering of English. Most drivers have their own agenda: if you wish to cut out a couple of these stops, the trip would take around 4 hours.

Lang Co beach huts
Lang Co beach huts
Hot and Hungry at Lang Co, Vietnam.
Hot and Hungry at Lang Co, Vietnam.

way

 

Plum Clafoutis, a Light Summery Pudding

Another day, another plum recipe. Will my pile of plums ever shrink! This classic Clafoutis recipe is based on Julia Child’s cherry Clafoutis. As the cherry season never really got into full swing this year, I found this plum version to be a wonderful substitute. When fruit other than cherry is used in a Clafoutis, such as pears, apples, plums, prunes, blackberries or other berries, it is called a flaugnarde. I can see a fig and blackberry flaugnarde coming my/your way soon. This plum version resembles that lovely winter dish from Brittany, Far Breton. Left over Clafoutis makes a wonderful breakfast.

left over clafoutis for breakfast
Left over Clafoutis for breakfast, re-warmed

Ingredients

  • 500 gr firm, ripe plums
  • 1¼ cup milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract ( or 3 teaspoons or 15 ml)*
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup flour
  • 1/3 extra cup sugar
  • icing sugar for dusting

Directions

Preheat oven to 180ºC. Cut plums in half and sprinkle with some sugar. Set aside.

Place all the ingredients except the last 1/3 cup sugar in a blender in the order they are listed. Cover and blend at top speed for 1 minute.

Butter the base and sides of a low sided 8 cup gratin dish. Pour in a shallow layer (1.2cm) of batter and put in a moderate oven for a few minutes until a film of batter has set in the bottom of the dish. Remove from heat. Place plums over the batter and pour on the remaining batter; smooth the surface with the back of a spoon.

Bake in the middle rack of the oven for about an hour, or until the Clafouti has puffed and browned on top. Check with a toothpick to that it comes out clean. Sprinkle the Clafouti with icing sugar before serving. Serve with runny cream or ice cream.

before adding the runny cream.
Before adding the runny cream.

*About Tablespoons. As Julia child was an American chef, she would have used an American Tablespoon, naturally. But did you know that American tablespoons are smaller (15 ml)  than Australian tablespoons (20 ml) ? 1 American tablespoon = 3 teaspoons, whereas 1 Australian tablespoon = 4 teaspoons.

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Plum Clafoutis at time of the day

See my earlier post on dried cherry clafoutis here, which employs a very different method.

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