Risotto Invernale with Radicchio

According to market research, many people prefer recipes that take 27 minutes or less to make.¹ I think my patience level runs very close to this figure. A comforting risotto just fits it into this time frame, so long as you prep most of the ingredients as you go, which to me makes sense; it gives you something else to do while you are stuck beside that pan for 20 minutes or more, stirring, watching, and knocking back the wine you opened to make it.

Garden pickings. Radicchio, cavolo nero, winter’s Tuscan Kale and parsley. Add rice and parmesan to make a fortifying meal.

Risotto is my favourite winter food, especially when the garden provides winter loving treasure such as Cavolo Nero, the dark green Tuscan king of kale, and ruby coloured radicchio, a bitter leafed vegetable that adds colour and crunch to winter meals. As the morning temperatures drop below zero and the ground turns crunchy with white frost, these two plants come into their own. They love a cold snap.

Gazzono brand, Vialone Nano from the Mediterranean Wholesalers, Brunswick.

The other ingredients are fridge and pantry staples. Butter, olive oil, onion, good Italian rice and Parmigiano Grano Padano. Which rice is best for this task? I generally find that the cheaper brands of arborio produce a less appetising result. Although I do enjoy frugality, some cheaper ingredients make for false economy. One kilo of good quality Carnaroli or Vialone Nano rice goes a long way.

Chopped radicchio.

Risotto Invernale con Radicchio. Winter Radicchio Risotto. A step by step recipe. Ingredients for two large serves.

  • 1 cup good quality risotto rice ( Carnaroli or Vialone Nano)
  • 1 tablespoon EV olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 small red onion, very finely chopped
  • 1/2 small carrot, very finely chopped( optional)
  • vegetable stock, homemade or made with a stock cube, around 3 cups or more
  • dry white wine such as Pinot Grigio
  • a small head of radicchio, finely sliced
  • black pepper
  • grated parmesan cheese, Reggiano or Grano Padano
  • more butter, a good knob

Chop half an onion into tiny dice and add it to a wide pan with a generous slurp of olive oil and butter. Although a diced carrot isn’t generally added to the base of a risotto, a little carrot adds some sweet notes, since radicchio can be quite bitter. As the onion gently cooks, bring a pot of vegetable stock to the boil and let it simmer next to your risotto pan.  I like to have more stock than most recipes suggest, just in case it’s needed. This can be either home-made or made from a stock cube. Open the white wine. Measure the rice. Cut a small head of radicchio into fine strips. Find a small butt of Parmesan cheese and ask someone to finely grate it.

The beginning of a risotto.

Add the rice. One cup of rice makes a generous meal for two people. Adjust the recipe for more people. Stir the rice to coat the grains- the rice will turn opaque – then add a big slurp of white wine, ( at least a quarter of a cup, though I  never measure it)  and stir well. At this point, you are allowed to begin drinking, to fortify you for the task ahead.

Step two, add the wine.

Once the wine has evaporated, begin adding the hot stock, one ladle full at a time. There’s no need to stir too vigorously or continually. The heat should be on medium to high, though I generally adjust this up and down as I go. When the stock evaporates, add another ladle, and continue this activity for around 20 minutes or so.

Risotto absorbing the stock.

Add the radicchio and the last ladle of stock and stir vigorously for around 5 minutes. The leaves will soften and the dish will become more creamy. Add a grinding of pepper.

Add the radicchio and last ladle of stock

The final and most important step. Add a good amount of parmesan and butter, la mantecatura, then cover and turn off the heat. Let it sit for 2 minutes.

Take off the lid and stir through the butter and cheese vigorously. The dish will become creamy and smooth. Shake the pan backwards and forwards to observe a wave movement ( all’onda)  in the mixture. If you think that the risotto is a little dry, add a small amount of hot stock and stir through well. You are aiming for a soft, creamy and well united dish that has a little wetness.

Serve with more parmesan.

One of the best things I’ve read about cooking in the last few weeks. ¹ https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jun/18/great-recipe-explosion-social-media-does-more-mean-better-instagram-pinterest

Apple, Walnut and Cinnamon Cake or Pudding

Have you ever eaten something wonderful at a restaurant, determined to replicate the same dish at home? After enjoying the two course lunch special at Cecconi’s cellar bar earlier this week, I inquired about the dessert of the day, hoping that it would be something wintry and old-fashioned. Oh happy day, the dolce del giorno was a wedge of apple, walnut and cinnamon cake, comforting and grandmotherly, jazzed up with modern restaurant toppings, including cinnamon ice cream, tiny cubes of apple jelly and something crunchy, perhaps a disc of meringue. No photo was taken: greed intervened long before any thoughts of pics entered my mind. It was good.

My version is close enough to Cecconi’s torta, without the flash toppings. A little dusting of icing sugar is enough but a dollop of Frangelico infused mascarpone goes well too. The cake morphs into a simple dessert when warmed and served with custard or ice cream. Hideous winter begone with a little warm pudding.

Torta di Mele, Noce e Cannella.  Apple, Walnut and Cinnamon cake.

  • 200 gr butter
  • 250 gr caster sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 300 gr plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 100 gr chopped walnuts
  • 500 gr apples, peeled, cored, finely diced

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Butter a 20 cm square tin. Dust with flour or line with parchment if you prefer.

Cream butter and sugar well then add eggs, one at a time, and beat until creamy.

Mix together the flour, cinnamon and baking powder then add to the batter.

Fold in the walnuts and apples. Place in the prepared baking tin, ( it will be a stiff batter), smoothing the top, then bake for 60 minutes. Rest before turning onto a wire rack.

Winter Limes and Spicy Salt

Limes are often associated with hot weather and all things tropical- Mojitos by the pool, spicy Thai food, Indian lime chutney, and Mexican guacamole, just to name a few treats where limes play a key role. Because of these culinary associations, I tend to feel like indulging in lime laced dishes in summer. And yet my own lime trees prefer to crop in the cooler months. One week before winter and the Tahitian limes are in their prime. This calls for a week of lime recipes.

Tahitian limes, Kaffir lime leaves and one knobbly Kaffir lime.

Soon after arriving at our new place, we planted three limes, three lemons, one orange, one mandarin and a kaffir lime. The limes are the happiest of all the citrus family. Given the glut, I have been exploring new ways of using them. Dried lime peel gives an interesting note to a spicy salt when mixed with dried chilli, another plant that grows so well in the garden, some Himalayan pink salt and a little smoked pimenton.

The ground components of a special salt.

Before juicing your limes for other recipes, peel them and place the zest or rinds in a heatproof container near a heat source. Mine dried in a terracotta container on top of a wood stove within minutes, perhaps too quickly. To maintain that green colour, leave them on a dish on a mantelpiece when the fire or gas is going. The peels, once hardened, are ready to use.

First gather your ingredients. Use organic limes and chillies if you have them on hand. Grind some whole dried chilli, then grind some dried lime peel and then measure the salt and pimenton. I prefer to mix the components after grinding them separately so that I can tweak the flavour if needed, but you can throw the whole lot in the grinder at once if you prefer.

Lime and Chilli Salt.

  • 1/2 cup sea salt flakes or Himalayan pink salt rocks
  • 2 tsp dried chilli flakes
  • 2 tsp dried lime peel
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika (pimenton)

Whizz the ingredients in an electric spice grinder. Store in a jar.

This salt gives a great flavour boost to plain foods such as fish, grilled chicken, breakfast eggs, or, as shown below, sprinkled on red rice and tuna fritters.

Today’s lunch. Red rice and tuna fritters with lime and chilli salt and a garden salad.

P.S. While on the subject of drying peels, I save all the mandarin and orange peels to dry in the same way. They provide a beautiful orange oil aroma to the atmosphere and work like magic as fire lighters. If you have an open fire or wood stove heater, I urge you to dry your citrus peels.

Mother’s Day Pasta. Reginetta, Little Queen for the Day.

Mother’s day is something we reserve for the matriarch of our family, and so we will be celebrating the day with my 94-year-old mother. She doesn’t expect gifts but certainly looks forward to a visit and a good lunch. She recognises that her daughters and granddaughters are also mothers and so we toast each other on the day. The younger mothers in our tribe don’t give the day much thought, although sometimes random tokens of remembrance turn up. Gifts are not expected and never have been. I fondly recall the very peculiar little presents my children proudly gave me, after their father provided them with a few coins to buy something at the school mother’s day stall. The more memorable gifts were handcrafted items and cards, made under the guidance of a creative grade teacher.

Mother’s Day began in Australia in 1924, following the American institutionalising of the day in 1908. The commercialisation of the day sped up during the 1950s, and today it is a billion dollar industry in Australia. With a barrage of advertising brochures and catalogues infiltrating our household as the day draws near, an amusing pastime is to find the most annoying or stereotypical item proffered as a desirable gift for mother’s day. What about a new iron? And why aren’t irons offered as desirable gifts for men on the great iron- man day, Father’s Day? If someone turned up here with a gift wrapped iron, I might show them the door, or more kindly, send them into the spare room to deal with the despised and forlorn ironing pile.

If, however, someone asked me around for lunch and made this pasta dish, I would be more than pleased, especially if they opened a bottle of King Valley Sangiovese to go with it. I made it for myself and Mr T this week. Mother’s and Father’s Day is everyday here. The pasta, Reginette, means ‘little queens’, a most suitable choice for Mother’s Day. Reginette also goes by the name Mafaldine, named after the Princess Mafalda of Savoy, Italy. If you are entertaining a queen for the day, I can recommend this rich and economical option.

Reginette con Zucca, Cipolle, Gorgonzola e Salvia. Reginette with pumpkin, caramelised onions, Gorgonzola and sage.

Ingredients. For two big serves. Multiply as required.

  • 200 gr Reginette ( or Mafaldine, a wide ruffled edged egg pasta )
  • One chunk of Kent Pumpkin, around 400 gr
  • 4 -5 brown onions, finely sliced
  • a small piece of Gorgonzola Dolce
  • sage leaves, a generous handful
  • EV olive oil
  • Black pepper.
  1. Heat the oven to 180c FF. Cut the pumpkin into 3 cm chunks and bake for 20 minutes or so until just done but not mushy. Set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, finely slice the onions, and caramelise them in a large deep-frying pan with olive oil and a little salt, until nicely coloured and reduced. This takes at least 20 minutes. Adjust the temperature as you go and stir about from time to time. Remove and set aside.
  3. Fry the sage leaves in a little butter so they turn brown and crisp. Set aside.
  4. Heat a large pot of salted water. When boiling, add the pasta and cook for 5  minutes or according to the information on the packet.
  5. Drain the pasta, retaining a little of the cooking water in a cup. Add the cooked pasta to the frying pan ( the onion frying pan will have some luscious bits left at the base). Add some pumpkin pieces and onions. Decide how much you need to add here. Less onions perhaps. Stir about over high heat, adding a little pasta water to sauce the dish, and try to keep the pumpkin pieces intact. Finally crumble in some gorgonzola and add the crunchy sage leaves. Add black pepper to taste and serve the lot in a large preheated serving bowl.

As this dish is rich and sweet, serve it with bitter greens salad, simply dressed.

More on other’s day catalogues and stereotyping: http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life-and-relationships/parenting/mothers-day-is-a-bad-deal-for-women-and-all-mothers-know-it-20170511-gw2lvl.html

Aldo’s Spaghetti alla Puttanesca with Pesce Spada

“Come on Friday night when we’ll have Spaghetti Puttanesca with added Pesce Spada,” cajoled Aldo, the waiter, host, and sometime cook of the old Abruzzo Club. Aldo ran that vast dining room floor like a master of ceremonies. He conned all the kids with tricks and riddles, charmed the coiffed Nonne with flirtatious compliments that only Italian men do so well, and had a ready risqué joke for the tables of older men. For us non Abbruzzese, he tantalised us with the promise of authentic Italian cuisine, future dishes, specials from the kitchen that weren’t yet listed on the menu. When Aldo and his son left the Abruzzo club, we never returned. The soul and life of that place left with them. Nothing would ever taste the same again. Good food is more than the sum of its ingredients.

When I came across a small slab of Swordfish at my favourite little market recently, I thought of Aldo and how he might make this dish. It’s a substantial pasta dish and requires a little more preparation than that required by a busy Puttana.

Friday night Fish and Pasta, forget the chips.

Aldo’s Spaghetti Puttanesca with  Swordfish. For 2 greedy serves, 3 regular.

  • 200 gr swordfish or pesce spada
  • 200-220 gr spaghetti
  • a small bunch of oregano
  • a pinch of sea salt flakes
  • 3  cloves garlic
  • EV olive oil, a goodly amount
  • 1 can of tomatoes, drained of juice, large pieces roughly chopped.
  • a small handful of pitted black olives, halved
  • 2 teaspoons of salted capers, soaked in water
  • black pepper
  • finely chopped parsley

Method

  • Make the marinade for the fish. Using a small mortar and pestle, add the garlic and salt and begin pounding, then add the oregano leaves, around 2 tablespoons, and continue pounding till a green paste is formed, then add around three tablespoons of olive oil.
  • Cut the swordfish through the centre, ie horizontally, to make two thinner pieces. ( most swordfish is usually sold in very thick slabs- by slicing horizontally, you should have two equal portions of around 1 cm in thickness). Chop these into small chunks of around 2 cm. Place in a small bowl and mix in half of the marinade. Leave for around 1/2 hour on bench.
  • Bring a large pot of water to the boil, salt well. Add the pasta and cook according to packet directions.
  • Meanwhile, heat a large frying pan to medium-high and add the remaining marinade to the pan. When hot, add the cubes of swordfish and toss around until just cooked. Don’t let the fish overcook as it tends to become quite tough.
  • Remove the fish and set aside. Add the chopped tomato pieces to the same pan, add a little juice to get the sauce moving but don’t flood it with juice as this dilutes the flavour of the other ingredients. Add the chopped olives and drained capers. Sir about until hot, then add the cooked fish. Add a little pasta water to loosen the sauce if necessary.
  • When the pasta is cooked just al dente, drain, then add to the sauce, tossing about to amalgamate the ingredients. This second cooking in the pan makes the spaghetti really hot and brings the all the elements together. Add the chopped parsley and serve in a preheated pasta serving dish.

The Abruzzo club, Lygon Street East, Brunswick is now called 377 On Lygon. The restaurant has had a makeover. If you’ve been there recently, let me know how it went.

A Market Walk and Red Lentil Soup with Minted Eggplant

It’s shopping day. Come along with me to the Brunswick Market, not many Melburnians know about it. The uninviting blue concrete facade gives no hint of the treasure hidden within. I’ll lead the way, just follow me down through the windowless cavern, past the Turkish Kebab place on the left ( try to resist their big bowl of red lentil soup or the eggy Shanklish ) and the Iraqi Barber on the right, the one favoured by Mr T for $15 haircuts. In the centre of the hall is an open sided cafe, whose owner set up about 18 months ago. She is now doing well. Her gozleme are as soft as fresh lasagne, stuffed with intense green spinach, and receives my ‘Best Gozleme in Melbourne’ award. We’ll grab one on the way out. She makes other savoury pastries, including potato and onion Borek and Simit, as well cakes filled with almond meal and nuts. There are many other specialty stalls here: a shoe shop and repair business run by a Greek man, a mobile phone fixit guy, run by a Chinese man, a clothing alteration store, a Turkish CD shop, just in case you fancy a bit of belly dancing on the way through, and a clothing store selling nazar boncuğu, those lucky blue eye amulets, hijabs, colourful scarves and outrageous silver embossed leggings.

Shoe repairs, a skill worth preserving.

Here we are at the food section. In the centre is a large Turkish deli, specialising in all sorts of yoghurt, brined cheeses, grains, pulses and condiments such as Pekmez and Biber Salçası. Further along is the Vietnamese fish shop. They also manage supplies for hotels and restaurants so you can order anything you fancy. The fish here is sparkling fresh and they know the source of all species on offer. Ask the lovely woman from Hanoi to shuck six Tasmanian oysters for you then devour them on the spot. Over from the Vietnamese fish shop is the Italian butcher, with his sign, Vendiamo Capretti ( we sell young goat). His pork sausages, full of fennel, chilli and spice, are the best in Melbourne according to my carnivore sons.

Vendiamo Capretti. Baby goats for sale in Italian, Greek and English.

Until recently, there was a Halal butcher shop and a free range chicken shop but both have recently closed. A sign of things to come? Finally we get to Russell’s fruit shop, owned by Turks but staffed by Nepalese and Indians. It’s the busy end of the market where you can find the things that never turn up in supermarkets: knobbly yellow quinces, tables full of cheap pomegranates, ready to split and reveal their bijoux, piles of red peppers, shiny and irregularly shaped, curly cucumbers, every kind of bean- Roman, Snake, Borlotti, lime coloured Turkish snake peppers grown in Mildura, rows of eggplants, long, short, miniature and striped. It’s the antithesis of a modern supermarket.

The Brunswick Market. Every kind of bean.

Part of this walk involves chatting. While buying red lentils at the Turkish deli, I’ve nodded politely as two ladies gave me their different versions of the best way to make Mercimek Köftesi, or red lentil kofte. I once went halves in a kilo of filleted Western Australian sardines at the fish shop. An Egyptian woman told me in detail how she would cook her half. People love to talk about food here. You will also be recognised and remembered. And the hipsters of Brunswick? They mostly avoid the place. I wonder why?

Red Lentil Soup with Minted Eggplant is based on a recipe by Leanne Kitchen. The original recipe ( see below) makes a truck load. I halved the quantities and still had enough for 6 bowls. I also lessened the salt, added 2 tablespoons of Biber Salçası ( Justin Bieber in a jar) and kept the amount of garlic. The original is pale in colour. With the added Biber paste, the soup looks more vivid. Eggplants are now in season, and red lentils are one of my favourite budget foods. Eat well for less.

Red Lentil soup with minted eggplant.

Ingredients

  • 150 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 625 g red lentils
  • 2.5 litres chicken or light vegetable stock
  • 60 ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 500 g eggplant ( about 1 large) cut into 1 cm pieces
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 3 teaspoons dried mint
  • 2/½ teaspoons sweet paprika
  • 3 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped, to serve.

Method

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 6-7 minutes or until softened but not brown. Add the lentils and stock, then bring to a simmer, skimming the surface to remove any impurities. Add the Biber Salçası if using. Reduce heat to low, partially cover the pan, and simmer for 40-50 minutes. Add the lemon juice, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Meanwhile sprinkle the salt over the chopped eggplant in a colander and set aside for 20 minutes. Rinse the eggplant, then drain and pat dry. Heat the remaining oil in a large, heavy based frying pan over medium high heat. Ass the eggplant and cook for 6 minutes turning often, until golden and tender. Ass the garlic and cook for 2 minutes then add the dried mint and paprika and cook for another minute or until fragrant.

To serve, divide the soup among the bowls and spoon over the eggplant mixture and scatter with the fresh mint.

Recipe by Leanne Kitchen. Turkey. Recipes and tales from the road. Murdoch Books Pty Ltd 2011.

Turkish red lentil soup with minted eggplant.

Brunswick Market, 655 Sydney Road, Brunswick. Let’s hope this market survives as the sweep of gentrification and apartment wonderland takes over the inner city.

Sunday Books and Radishes

We often keep a book in the side pocket of the car door. The book is chosen for its suitability for long road trips. It could be a novel with self-contained, non sequential chapters but more often it’s a travel diary or humourous journal, a book that can resumed at any chapter when we’re in the mood. Mr Tranquillo drives while I read a chapter or two aloud to break up the journey. One book that amused us for years was ‘Everything but the Squeal: a year of pigging out in Northern Spain,’ by John Barlow. The author/ narrator travels through Galicia, Spain, while trying to eat every part of the pig. It’s a journey with entertaining diversions and detours, where the quest for eating various parts of the pig often segues into insanely funny anecdotes, amusing passages on foreign language usage and grammar, historic and literary references, vivid descriptions of the Galician people, its villages and festivals, as well as an occasional recipe based on pork. The ingredients ( all pork unless stated) of Galicia’s famous Lalín Cocido ( pork stew) are listed:

“1/2 head, 2 lb cured foreleg ham, 3 lb backbone, 2 tails, 1 1/2 lb streaky bacon, 1 side of ribs, 3 snouts, 5 ears, 5 trotters, 10 chorizo from Lalín, 5 onion chorizo, 4 tongues, 1 free range hen, 2 lb veal ( hock or skirt), 1/2 lb pork lard, 2 lb chickpeas, 1 lb dried broad beans, 12 lb grelos, 3 lb potatoes.”

After 11 months or by page 270, the author lists all the parts he has consumed, and then ponders those bits not yet eaten, including the pig’s unmentionables:

” Male pigs are generally very well endowed, with penises up to eighteen inches in length, which, relative to body size, makes those pork swords among the most impressive in the animal kingdom. In Galicia’s distant past, the pig’s penis used to be stretch-dried and used as a donkey whip. There’s no longer much call for donkey whips. Carlos, our organic butcher, says there’s no call for pig testicles either. No one eats them. And with an eighteen incher, a substantial set of testicles would probably come as standard, so that’s a goodly plate of meat going to waste.”

I’m returning this book to the car door pocket. It will need a future trip up the Hume Highway to find out if John ticked off those parts of the pig. In the meantime, as a ‘mostly’ vegetarian, let me introduce you to eating more parts of the humble radish. After a recent thinning of radishes from the garden, I recalled that the tops of radishes taste very similar to cima di rape or turnip tops ( grelos in Spanish). Radishes grow quickly in most seasons and with continuous sowing, are always plentiful in my garden. As cold salad season has passed by, I’ve just started using radishes and their tops in roasts and stir fries.

Roast radishes with stir fried radish tops

Ingredients.

  • a generous bunch of radishes and their tops, preferably just picked.
  • EV Olive oil
  • garlic
  • anchovy fillets ( optional)

Heat the oven to 180 c.

Clean the radishes and their tops thoroughly, then separate the leaves and roots, discarding any yellowing or damaged leaves. Cut the radishes in half. Add to roasting tin along with some olive oil. Roast for around 20 minutes.

Roasted Radishes with Radish tops, garlic and anchovy

Meanwhile, chop the garlic and anchovies ( if using). Add some olive oil to a small wok or frying pan, then add the garlic and anchovies, breaking up the anchovies with the back of a spoon. Stir fry quickly then add the radish tops and stir fry until they are wilted. A large bunch of greens will reduce to a small amount. Add ground pepper. Add some salt only if you haven’t added the anchovies. Plate nicely and enjoy as a starter or side dish.

The dish that cost nothing except for the oil.

Sunday Notes

  • This post was going to be called Eats, Roots, and Leaves after that well known Australian joke.
  • Roots in Italian are radici while radishes are ravanelli. 
  • I have eaten some great vegetarian food in Santiago de Compostella, Galicia, that beautiful, wet and Celtic area of Spain which serves up more than just pig.
  • Everything but the Squeal: a year of pigging out in Northern Spain. John Barlow, Wakefield Press, 2009.

    Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. In search of good Comida.

Garden Prozac with Thai Salad

On mid Autumn days when the sun shines and there’s not a breath of wind, my enchantress, the vegetable garden, lures me through her gates. No matter how much I try to limit my work to an hour or so, time just flies by. I read recently that it has a lot to do with Mycobacterium Vaccae, a microbe in the soil, which is said to have a similar effect on the neurons as Prozac. The bacterium found in soil may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Great, dirt is a natural anti – depressant. My fingernails are now full of garden Prozac. Or is it the sun, fresh air and exercise? I feel very content and at peace in the garden, despite what my back is telling me.

Today’s Pick/1. Carrots, cucumber, pumpkin, tomatoes, zucchini, baby leeks, Thai basil, mint, regular basil, French radish, beans, chilli.
Today’s pick

In the garden there are late borlotti beans, rambling cucumbers, and zucchini ( of course!). There are a few courageous tomato bushes, some self-sown specimens appearing out of nowhere after a big clean up. The strawberries are re-flowering, fruiting and throwing out runners which are taking up residence in the pathways. The lemongrass has turned into a giant, the chilli bushes are in their prime, and bok choy and celery have self-sown everywhere. There are three metre high amaranth plants, looking like it might be the invasive new crop I do not need. Definitely Triffid material. What was I thinking- grinding up amaranth seed for bread? This one has to go.

The potential pest. 3 metre high Amaranth giant about to shed its seed.

A transitional time, our beds are being prepared for new crops. Each bed receives a few loads of fresh compost and some spent straw from the chook house. So far, I have sown broccoli ( Calabrese), Tuscan Kale ( Cavolo Nero), regular kale, rugola, three types of lettuce, dill, radish, beetroot, spring onions, peas, snow peas, broad beans, parsnip, turnip, and cima di rape. Due to good timing- warm soil, followed by good rainfall and mild weather- all the seeds took off. Please dear reader, if you live near by, come and get some seedlings. I can’t transplant them all.

The seedling bed. Lots to spare

After a garden pick, I feel like one of those contestants on Masterchef, except less stressed. You know that segment where the judges hand over a bunch of odd ingredients and the contestants have to cook something using what’s on hand. Not wishing to see the freshly pulled carrots and herbs go limp, I put together this salad for lunch. As I was eating it, I thought it would go rather nicely with some grilled prawns, or freshly cooked prawns, peeled and chopped through it. But then, who needs to go shopping.

Fresh Garden Thai Salad

Garden Thai Salad

  • one medium zucchini, grated
  • 2 small carrots- I used two medium white carrots, and one small orange
  • leaves from mint, coriander, Thai basil, regular basil
  • one Thai chilli, chopped very finely
  • two teaspoons of light brown sugar
  • juice of one-2 limes/1/4 cup of juice
  • fish sauce to taste/ optional
  • a little neutral vegetable oil, not olive oil
  • unsalted peanuts, fried and chopped if you have some

Grate the vegetables. Tear the leaves and mix through. Mix the chopped chilli, sugar, lime juice, oil, fish sauce, together in a jug. Pour over the ingredients and toss well. Pile onto a serving plate and add chopped peanuts.

All for me.

Rewriting Tradition. Easter Cuisine Old and New. Part 1

I rang my 13-year-old grandson to ask if he had eaten any hot cross buns today. He sounded disinterested and replied ‘no’, in a polite but bemused way. I could almost hear his brain ticking over, perhaps with a ‘What the ..? Has Nanna finally lost the plot, ringing me about Hot Cross Buns?’ After all, the kids have been eating these buns since Boxing Day. That’s when they begin appearing in Australian supermarkets. By the time Good Friday comes around, the novelty has worn off. So much for tradition.

Ready for the oven

I then rang my eldest son, and asked him the same question. At least he is perfectly aware of the symbolic nature of these buns. No, he had also had his fill of the supermarket product along the way, and was whipping up some scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. Yes, another pagan in our midst. I am the first one to appreciate the secular nature of our society: I am not only a ‘collapsed’ Catholic but also don’t count myself as Christian. Having said that, I don’t see much point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, these buns are a seasonal and festive treat and it’s important to explain the meaning of the added crosses to the young folk. History and tradition form a part of who we are. At the same time, we happily appropriate any Buddhist and Hindu rituals that may suit us along the way.  Buddhist meditation becomes mindfulness ( and loses a lot in translation), Diwali is taking off in Australia and Chinese New year is popular too. Australia is a wonderful melting pot of cultures, but as we grab hold of the new, we should also at least understand the old, and adapt some of those traditions to our modern taste.

Just glazed. Who prefers the top half?

I now make hot Cross buns annually, just a dozen. The yeasted variety is light and perfect for our Autumnal weather. Next year I will increase the amount of spice in the recipe I used. They cost very little to make and are far more digestible than the common supermarket variety. If you are a beginner at yeasted baking, try Celia’s recipe here. It is foolproof and very straightforward.

To serve with butter, not margarine.

The other fond tradition I hang on to is my dedication to cooking smoked Cod on Good Friday. This is an old Irish Catholic Australian thing. Most Scottish descendants did not have this bright yellow dyed fish imposed on them as youngsters on Good Friday. If you feel slightly ambivalent about smoked cod, go to the fish market and buy the real thing  from the Shetland Islands which tastes peaty and less salty. I buy it at the Preston Market, from one fishmonger who has, by 9 am on Easter Thursday, queues 5 deep. I am told by Sandra that it is available all year round at the Prahran market.

Fish pie includes Shetland smoked cod, flathead and shrimp

One way to enjoy a piece of good quality smoked Cod is to forget your grandmother’s recipe, which consisted of an overcooked piece of fish, served with white parsley sauce, alongside boiled vegetables. Maintaining the tradition but stepping it up a notch or two makes the elements of this dish more appetising. Make an Easter fish pie, incorporating the poached smoked cod, along with poached white fish and a handful of shrimp, in a white sauce, and top with buttery mashed potato. The sides? A tossed green salad with lots of mustard in the dressing, another Irish note.

Three serves later….

This post was inspired by my friend Peter’s comment a few days ago. Peter lives in tropical Far North Queensland, where some of these culinary traditions would seem totally out-of-place.

“Enter the 60’s & 70’s: Traditional Good Friday cooking of smoked cod, which was smelt from miles away on the farm, still lingers in our psyche. We (all seven kids) all started to gag at the thought of having to consume his hideous boiled, vile muck served with over-cooked spuds and grey cabbage. Tradition beheld that we all sit at the kitchen table and dare not complain as the Compassion donation box was placed in the middle of the table with forlorn starving African children’s’ faces staring back at us which reflected those much worse off than ourselves. If only our parents knew that when we took those money boxes back to school they were much lighter by many pennies and the occasional thrupence than when they left their position placed strategically near where food or indulgent entertainment was involved. When visiting childless Aunts and Uncles visited our eyes bulged as they loudly dropped loose change into said box and we immediately tallied up how many kangaroo or umbrella toffees on a stick , yard-long licorice straps of triangular frozen Sunnyboys we could buy at the tuck-shop on the next school day. I’m sure tens of thousands of children in Africa died of starvation by we greedy Catholic kids but obligatory confession ultimately absolved us even if we had to lie to the priest to protect our guilt. So now we celebrate Easter by holding a “traditional” Bad Friday by sharing all the amazing regional and seasonal foods abundant in our region. Last week-end was the annual sugarcane and banana plantation pig shoot – sponsored by the local pubs. We bar-hogs waited for hours until the slaughtered swine were unceremoniously chucked off the blood-splatted Utes by the shooters whose faces were akin to orgasmic stimuli at the thought of winning the $25 stake. The weigh-in is a serious event all greased with gallons of booze and much humourous joshing . However, those of us on the peripheral could only see that these beasts can’t possibly go to waste and commence bartering for the whole hog. My point being is that this Bad Friday’s fare is a 57 kilo pig on a spit to be shared with all the local collapsed Catholics, a few bevvies and lots of stories about how we all ended up in the wonderful wet tropics of Far North Queensland – and not a hot-cross bun in sight. Ahh! Bliss!!”

Thanks Peter for making the effort to add such entertaining recollections to my posts. I am sure many Australians of a certain age may have similar memories.

That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion…..

Smoky Cullen Skink Soup

When the first suggestion of Winter arrives, right in the middle of Autumn, it’s a reminder to gather wood for the fires and adjust the wardrobe and mental outlook for the oncoming cold season. Many Melburnians still have their head in the sand, believing that Australia is a hot place. For six months of the year, it’s cold and inhospitable, with dreary grey skies dominating the landscape, and black dressing de rigeur. Out come the Michelin man garments, those unflattering and un-environmental puffer jackets and vests that work rather well, along with fingerless gloves, berets and warm leggings, umbrellas and wind jackets. I’m not a fan of Winter but in theory, it does have a certain romantic appeal.

A taste of winter.  Southern Cross station, April 10th. Autumn turns mean.

And that appeal centres around soup. Late Autumn soups become thick and creamy, a French purée or perhaps an Italian crema. Lunchtime zuppa del giorno loaded with beans or pulses, is eaten as a piatta unica with crusty bread. Vegetarian shepherds pie makes a comeback, Autumn’s new eggplants feature in rich Turkish fare dressed with Pekmez, and the day might culminate with a sharp cheddar cheese served with whisky laced fig jam, a salty, sweet and peaty treat beside the fire. Served with a single malt of course.

Soup for two in found English bowls.

One of my favourite creamed soups, Cullen Skink, features smoked fish. Cullen is a small fishing village on the east coast of Scotland and is well worth a visit, while Skink ( no, not a small lizard) may be derived from soups made with shins or ham bones. There are as many versions of Cullen Skink as there are Scots. Some like it chunky: others, like me, prefer it pureed. The main thing that each recipe has in common is simplicity: potatoes, smoked fish, onions and milk. Once you begin adding fresh fish, or bacon or any other bits and pieces, the soup becomes a chowder.

Cullen Skink, for four servings or two greedy sized servings.

  • I tablespoon butter
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large stick celery, finely chopped
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
  • 300 ml water
  • 250 g smoked haddock, or mackerel, skin on.
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 250 ml milk
  • ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or chives

In a large heavy based saucepan, sauté the onion and celery till soft. Add the potatoes and cover barely with water. Bring to the boil, lower to medium heat and cook until the potatoes are soft.

Meanwhile, in a separate pan, add the milk, smoked fish and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 8 minutes or so while the potatoes are cooking.

Remove the fish from the milk. Skin the fish, carefully remove the flesh, discard all the bones and skin, then strain the milk back into the pot containing the potato. Add the flaked fish. Bring back to high heat. Then puree using a hand-held stick blender. Add more milk or cream to thin a little if you prefer. Reheat,

Add finely chopped parsley or chives to serve, with crusty bread.

* The choice of smoked fish is important. Look for small, dark whole fish, not the supermarket, chemically dyed yellow cod, or smoked salmon or trout, the latter being too mild in flavour. New Zealand readers will have more options as more varieties of smoked fish are readily available in NZ supermarkets and fishmongers.

My everyday sourdough loaves, to serve with soup.

An interesting Guardian article about the ins and outs of Cullen Skink can be found here.

Which season do you prefer? What are your thoughts on Puffer Jackets? Do you like smoked foods?