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.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Plum Clafoutis at time of the day

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

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

 

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.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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

Bruschetta 101

Bruschetta is a celebration of seasonal ingredients. It could be a simple version with newly pressed olive oil or a summer version with vine – ripened tomatoes. On the surface, it is an uncomplicated Italian antipasto dish and yet it is so often misunderstood and easily stuffed up. The key to good bruschette is the quality of the ingredients.

Some freshly picked tomatoes and basil.
Some freshly picked tomatoes and basil.

Let’s start with the pronunciation. I am sure I have posted on this topic before, but as Bruschetta is the most mispronounced culinary term in Australia, with wait staff leading the way, it is worth another go. Phonetically, the word can be divided into three parts: Broo- Skeh- Ta. There is no SHHH sound in the middle, as sche in Italian makes the SKE sound. ( sce or sci makes the shh sound). The next thing to note is that there is a subtlety to the sound of the broo part of the word. American speakers of Italian invariably turn this sound into Brew, whereas the sound is much closer to Brook or lies somewhere between the two. Here’s a little sound bite that might assist:

http://inogolo.com/pronunciation/bruschetta

This season's garlic.
This season’s garlic.

Next the bread. The best bread to use for this dish is a rustic and fairly dense white bread such as Pane di Casa or Sourdough ( not ciabatta- too holey- and not fluffy French breadsticks). As the word Bruschetta is derived from Bruciare, to burn, and Bruscare ( Roman dialect) to roast over coals, an open charcoal grill or BBQ achieves both these outcomes best, especially if serving simply with garlic, new oil and salt. Many family run trattorie throughout country Sicily and Campania have a small open fire in the wall near the kitchen for cooking alla brace. For the home cook, the nearest version is to use a heavy cast iron ridged grill over a gas flame. Also keep in mind that the size of each bruschetta should not be too large. The diminutive ending –‘etta’- suggests something small and dainty, not a boat-sized toasted thing. Bruschette are not the same as Crostini. Crostini are small rounds of bread baked in olive oil in the oven and are much harder and crunchier.

Grilling the bread for Bruschetta.
Grilling the bread for Bruschetta.

About the toppings. Bruschetta is a classic example of a dish where less is more. Originally, the dish consisted of bread, oil, and garlic. If you have some new season freshly pressed olive oil on hand, I recommend you go no further, other than rubbing the grilled bread with garlic. In tomato season, a topping of garlic, tomato and maybe a little basil, is just right. This is not a dish for imported winter tomatoes that have sat in storage for eons. I also find hydroponic tomatoes extremely disappointing in flavour. If you are shopping at a farmer’s market, ask how they are grown before buying seasonal tomatoes. If they look completely regular in size with neatly cut stems, chances are they are hydroponically grown. Choose those that have grown organically and in the open air. The best tomatoes to use for this dish are Roma or Egg tomatoes. The flesh on these is much firmer and they are not so wet and seedy.  My photos show Rouge de Marmande tomatoes, which are very tasty but a little too mushy for this dish.

a little salt brings bruschetta to life.
A little flaked salt brings bruschetta to life.

Adding other non-Italian things, such as fetta cheese, is a real distraction from the simplicity of this dish. Australian cafes have a ‘dog’s dinner’ approach to Bruschetta presentation, shoving too much stuff on top. Some celebrity chefs, like Ottolenghi, also have a tendency to muck around with classic dishes. Keep it simple and authentic, especially if you happen to have top ingredients.

Assembling the bruschetta
Assembling the bruschetta

This tomato Bruschetta recipe is based on an old classic by Anna Del Conte.¹ The recipe serves 8 people. Halve or quarter according to your numbers.

  • 6 sun ripened firm tomatoes, preferably Roma or Plum tomatoes
  • a handful of torn fresh basil leaves or a few pinches of freshly dried oregano
  • 8 slices of good crusty bread, cut 1cm thick
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • flaked salt
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil.

Blanch and skin the tomatoes, cut them in half  and remove most of the seeds. Dice the flesh into 1.5 cm cubes. Tear the basil into small pieces, or if using dried oregano, strip from the stem and crush it finely in your hands.

Grill the bread on both sides then rub with the garlic. Cut each slice in half to make them easier to eat. ( or thirds, depending on the size of your slices).

Spoon on some tomato cubes and some torn basil over each slice and sprinkle with salt. Drizzle on the oil and serve at once.

Small bites of Brushcetta con Pomodori
Small bites of Bruschetta con Pomodori

Another approach is to mix the chopped tomatoes, chopped garlic, oil and dried oregano together and to let the mix steep for 10 minutes. Try it both ways and see which way you like it. The salt at the end brings out the flavour.

‘Con il passare del tempo ed il continuo mutare della cucina napoletana, da molti anni si possono assaggiare in tante versioni condite con creme e paté di peperoni, funghi, zucchine,piccoli tocchetti di melanzane, mozzarelle, scamorze e salumi vari.’

With the passing of time and the continuing changing of Neapolitan cuisine over the years, you can taste many versions dressed with pate or pesto of pepper ( Red capsicum), mushrooms, zucchini, small chunks of eggplant, mozzarella, scamorza and various salami.  Again, use one seasonal ingredient or meat and keep the topping simple.

¹ Anna del Conte Entertaining All’ Italiana, Bantom Press 1991. This beautiful book presents seasonal menus. This recipe appeared as an antipasto in a summer luncheon for 8 people, and was followed by freshly made Tagliatelle with Mozzarella, Anchovy fillets and Parsley, a side dish of Pepperoni in Vinegar, and finished with Walnuts, Grapes and Parmesan. Traditional, classic food that is not over fiddly.

Dal giardino.
Dal giardino.

Mafaldine Pasta with Zucchini, Cream and Saffron

My Zucchini Festival continues today with another good zucchini pasta recipe ( see below) and a look at the seeds which produce this fecund vegetable. This year I planted two varieties of zucchini in my orto. The first to go in were the Black Jack variety, purchased as seedlings from a country market. They are the most common variety of zucchini grown in Australia, with vigorous, fast growing plants, high yields, and smooth dark green skin. Unfortunately for seed savers, they are also hybrids. The other variety, the Zucchino Striato d’Italia, or Italian striped zucchini, is easily grown from seed, and whilst not so prolific, which could be a good thing, they are definitely superior in taste and texture. An heirloom variety, this means you can save the seed for future plantings, a routine worth following when growing your own vegetables. The flavour is reminiscent of the zucchini grigliati we ate in the small trattorie in Trastevere, Roma. The other variety I’ve planted in the past is the yellow zucchini- a poor performer both in taste, yield and keeping quality, despite the lovely colour.

Mr Tranquillo in a trattoria in Trastevere. The side dish inclused some simply cooked and dressed zucchini striati. Once tasted, nevere forgotton.
Mr Tranquillo in a trattoria in Trastevere. The side dish included some simply cooked and dressed zucchini striati. Once tasted, never forgotten.

Today’s simple pasta dish marries Mafaldine pasta with small cubes of zucchini, saffron and cream. Mafaldine pasta is ribbon shaped pasta with curly edges and is also known as Reginette. The photos don’t do justice to the creaminess of this dish.

xx
Mafaldine con Zucchini Striati, Panna e Zafferano

Mafaldine con Zucchini, Panna e Zafferano . Mafaldine Pasta with Zucchini, Cream and Saffron  (for 2 medium serves)

  • 180g mafaldine or other long ribbon egg pasta
  • 2 small zucchini, cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 small white onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • salt
  • pinch dried chilli
  • generous pinch of saffron threads
  • 1 cup cream
  1. Bring ample salted water to the boil in a large pot.
  2. Heat a large wide frying pan or non stick wok for the sauce. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil then the chopped onion and garlic. When softened, add the cubes of zucchini, some salt, and a pinch of dried chilli. Stir about and cook on low heat for around 20 minutes.
  3. Add the Mafaldine ( or chosen pasta) to the boiling water and cook for the required time.
  4. Use a little of the cooking water and add to the saffron to soften, then add this to the zucchini mixture. Add a cup of cream and raise the heat so that the cream thickens. Add more cream if necessary.
  5. When the pasta is ready, drain and add to the zucchini cream sauce in the pan. Toss about. Save a little pasta cooking liquid to loosen the sauce, if necessary.
  6. Serve with ample grated parmigiano cheese.

I enjoyed this dish on this cooler summer day. It will be included in my annual Zucchini Festival repertoire. It cost tuppence to make, allowing the splurge on a pinch or two of precious saffron pistils and a nice chunk of Reggiano Parmigiano cheese to serve.

vv

seed packet- Zucchino striato d'Italia
seed packet- Zucchino striato d’Italia

Seed saving tips for non- hybrid zucchini:

http://blog.seedsavers.org/blog/zucchini-tips?rq=zucchini

Herb, Spring Onion and Zucchini Fritters

The Sagra di Zucchini continues at Casa Morgana as the crop picks up speed, and it’s a race to snare modest sized zucchini before they turn into giants. Zucchini fritters make a very satisfying and economical lunch, but rely on a couple of other key players- abundant herbs and good quality fetta cheese- to push the flavour from bland to gustoso. There are many varieties of fetta available in Melbourne, especially in the Greek delicatessen at fresh markets. At last count, my favourite Supermarket Deli in Brunswick stocked around 12 varieties. As this dish only requires a small chunk, I prefer to use Dordoni fetta, while I’m happy enough to use cheaper fetta cheese in Spanakopita or Tiropita.

Mucever,  Zucchini Fritters Turkish style.

  • 700 gr zucchini, coarsely grated
  • salt
  • 1 bunch spring onions/green onions/scallions white and green finely chopped
  • 170 gr fetta cheese, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose/plain flour ( try chick pea flour for a GF version)
  • olive oil for frying.

    simple luncheon dish.
    simple luncheon dish. Mucever.
  1. Place the zucchini in a colander and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Let it sit for 1 hour to drain. Lightly squeeze out the moisture and dry with paper towels.
  2. Place the zucchini in a large bowl and mix in the spring onions and herbs. Then add the eggs and mix well. Finally sprinkle over the flour and mix. Add salt and pepper.
  3. Heat a large skillet or frying pan containing a thin film of oil. Drop tablespoons of the batter into the oil, spreading them to make thin, small pancakes. Cook until golden brown on both sides.
  4. Serve hot with yogurt and mint sauce.

This recipe is from my favourite cookbook, a battered copy of From Tapas to Meze, by Joanne Weir, 1995.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Early morning pick.
Thank you bees
Thank you bees

 

 

 

 

A New Peanut Sauce for Gado Gado

I’ve been on the lookout for some time now for a more authentic Indonesian peanut sauce to crown a gado gado salad or sate sticks. I’ve tried many recipes from my various Indonesian cookbooks and most seem to miss the mark. Indonesian sate sauce differs from island to island and each Indonesian home cook may highlight a distinctive spice in their sauce. I’ve tasted some dark, thick sauces in Java and Sumatra which are quite different from their Balinese counterparts. The same goes with the classic gado gado vegetable salad, a dish which depends on an excellent peanut sauce. I’ve eaten some completely green gado gado salads in Ubud, Bali and some made from only kangkung  (water-spinach) in Sumatra, as well as the old-fashioned mixed steamed vegetable gado gado that I learnt around 35 years ago in my early visits to Bali, which includes hard-boiled eggs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Basic ingredients for a good peanut sauce

The following recipe comes from Janet de Neefe’s Bali, The Food of My Island Home. Janet runs a cooking school in Ubud, which I attended a few years ago, and also has three restaurants and a lovely guesthouse in Ubud. She has lived in Ubud for more than 30 years with her Balinese husband and family. Note that I often substitute brown sugar for palm sugar, a switch that makes very little difference to the outcome of the sauce. Balinese peanuts are always super fresh and freshly roasted: try to find a reliable source of freshly roasted nuts. Good Indonesian Krupuk Udung ( prawn crackers) are quite different from the ubiquitous supermarket variety. They are large and tastier and can be found in many Asian groceries.

Balinese Peanut Sauce
Balinese Peanut Sauce

Bumbu Kacang– Balinese Peanut Sauce

Ingredients

  • slice of shrimp paste/ Belachan/Terasi equivalent to 1/2 teaspoon
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 long thin red chilli, seeded and roughly chopped
  • 2 small red chillies, roughly chopped
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves, rolled into a bundle and finely shredded
  • 2- 3 tablespoons fried shallots ( optional)
  • 1 tablespoon grated palm sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Kecap Manis
  • 1/4 medium tomato
  • 150 gr peanuts, roasted
  • 3 + tablespoons water
  • 2 teaspoons lime juice
  • sea salt
My gado gado- using vegetables mon hand
My gado gado- using vegetables on hand

Method.

Hold the piece of shrimp paste with tongs or pierce with a skewer and roast over a gas flame on both sides until the smell is strong.

Blitz the shrimp paste, garlic chillies, lime leaves, fried shallots, palm sugar, and kecap manis in a food processor until smooth. Add a splash of water to get the mixture moving. Add the tomato, peanuts, water, lime juice and salt to taste. ( For a sauce with deeper flavour, you can fry the garlic, chilli, untoasted shrimp paste and tomato in 2 tablespoons of neutral oil ( not Olive) until fragrant first)

Prepare your gado gado vegetables or sate. Pour over the peanut sauce and garnish with krupuk udang ( prawn crackers)

Krupuk Udang. Balinse Prawn crackers
Krupuk Udang. Balinese Prawn crackers

A simpler version of Peanut Sauce can be found here, the latter useful for camping.

Photo on header taken at Taman Sari in Pemuteran, Northern Bali, where they make an excellent Bumbu Kacang.

A Beet in Time. Beetroot and Caramelised Onion Relish.

Once upon a time, here in Australia, there was the beetroot. It was boiled, sliced, then pickled, and added to a salad sandwich, placed on top of a hamburger ‘with the lot’ or served in a salad alongside its summer friends, the tomato and Iceberg lettuce. This was the era when Olive Oil came in a small jar from the chemist and was used as a skin moisturiser!  Salad dressings were rare, except for a sharp home- made mayonnaise which was based on condensed milk, vinegar, and mustard.

Many older Australians still favour their beets cooked in this way: after the initial long boiling, the beets are skinned, drained then sliced into a container, while alternately sprinkling each layer with sugar and white vinegar. Not a summer goes by without my mother ( at 94 ) calling for a bunch of beetroot to make this light preserve. This method can be applied to any vegetable for a quick pickle.

New Beetroot relish
Beetroot and onion relish

Like most modern cooks, I enjoy the more earthy taste of the beet without the added sugar and vinegar. Around  8 years ago, fresh-baked beetroot and fetta or goat cheese salad topped with walnuts became the dish to change our view of beetroot. My young visitors devour versions of this salad yet avoid the retro pickled version. The composed beetroot salad has put this old-fashioned tuber back on the culinary map.

beet
Beetroot and onion relish. Easy and fast.

The recipe below for beetroot relish takes the humble root back to the middle ground. The ruby brine of retro sliced beets is absent but some of the agrodolce elements remain. This is now a new favourite for summer sandwiches and rolls or as part of a classic Ploughman’s lunch or as a counterbalance to a rich cheese dish, such as a double baked Stilton Souffle

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 large brown onions ( 800g) sliced thinly
  • 1 1/2 cups ( 330 g) firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (375ml) cider vinegar
  • 3 large fresh beetroot ( 600g) grated coarsely
  • 1 teaspoon coarse cooking salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Method

Heat the oil in a large saucepan; cook onion, stirring about 15 minutes or until the onion is softened and caramelised.

Add remaining ingredients; stir over high heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes or until the beetroot is tender and the relish is thick.

Spoon hot relish into hot sterilised jars. Seal immediately. Label and date jars when  cold. Makes four cups,

Store relish in a cool, dark place for at least 3 weeks before opening. Refrigerate the relish after opening.

recipe from The Australian Women’s Weekly Preserves. 2011.

Sweet relish
Sweet relish

Beetroots and Italy. The Italian word for beetroot, Barbabietola, is so expressive, visually conveying the trailing beard, or barba, from the end of the bietola (beet/silver beet/chard) and its root. Try saying barbabietola, placing an equal stress on each vowel- it’s a little tongue twister for many, like the start of the old Beach Boys song, Ba-Ba-Ba, Ba-Barbara-Ann. Beets were favoured in the Roman era and used for food and medicine. These days, Europe grows 120 million tons of sugar beets and produces 16 million tonnes of white sugar, extracting a sufficient quantity to meet 90% of demand. This is a different crop to the red variety. While the edible barbabietola may occasionally turn up in a risotto, it’s use as a relish is not part of Italian culinary history. It is occasionally used in recipes, however most of these are modern and derivative, appearing in magazines such as Donna Moderna or Sale e Pepe and not in traditional collections.

barbabietola dal orto.
Barbabietola dal orto.

Twice- Baked Stilton and Walnut Soufflé. When Less is More.

The other day I noticed some of our peaches ripening on the bench too quickly. This is not normally a problem, given that I live with a fruit bat of a man who has an addiction to fruit, a dependence  he has passed on to some of his grandchildren. The likelihood of finding fruit in prime condition, hanging about and ready to be eaten, is a rare event. He was being polite I am sure, knowing that I have a preference for summer stone fruits. Thank you kind sir, but I can’t eat 12 pieces of fruit in one day like the rest of you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Home grown peaches.

The slightly too ripe peaches were skinned, stoned, ( it’s beginning to sound like a medieval tale of torture-  bring on the rack), then thrown into a blender, puréed and frozen into ice blocks. On Christmas Day, at around 11 am, they emerged once again and were shaved into the base of a crystal stemmed glass and covered with chilled Prosecco. Not quite a Bellini, more like a special breakfast beverage and one I can highly recommend.

The day started to improve dramatically. We began with a small pot of Manuka smoked mussel pâté  on salted plain biscuits, a quickly imagined and executed festive treat, consumed only in the interests of sobriety. My simple Christmas vegetarian meal followed, Stilton and Walnut Double Baked Soufflé, the pre-planned part of our day. It was whipped up the night before, requiring minimal re-heating in the oven ‘on the day’, and accompanied by a few colourful trimmings, picked baby leaves from the garden and a psychedelic dollop of home-made Beetroot and Caramelised Onion Relish . These little puffy fellas were served with a Roaring Meg Pinot Gris from the Central Otago District of NZ. At this point, I was more than happy about losing my traditions, amongst other things.

And that dear friends, is how my quiet Christmas Day at home, senza famiglia, went. The dessert, a grown up trifle full of garden berries, followed much later on.

I’m posting my simple festive recipes here as they are most fitting for a light luncheon or entrée in any season. The soufflé recipe comes from Delicious Magazine.

The Smoked Mussell Pâté. Throw a  handful of good quality smoked mussels into a blender. Add a couple of Tablespoons ( 1/4 cup)  of cream cheese and a little sour cream. Blend until smooth. Add chopped chives if you have them nearby. Adapt the quantity to suit your numbers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Twice- Baked Stilton and Walnut Souffle, Leaves and Beetroot  Relish.

The Twice baked Stilton and Walnut Souffles ( makes 6)

Ingredients.

  • 300 ml milk
  • 1 celery stick, roughly chopped
  • 25 gr unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 25 gr plain flour
  • 2 tsp English mustard
  • 4 medium-sized free range eggs, separated
  • 175 gr Stilton cheese, crumbled
  • 50 gr walnuts, roughly chopped
  • leaves, chutney to serve

Method.

  1. Heat the milk in a saucepan with the celery to just below boiling point. Remove from the  heat and leave to infuse for about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 180C . Butter 6 X 150 ml ramekins/mini souffle dishes thoroughly and place in a deep baking tray.
  2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, then stir in the flour to form a smooth paste. Remove from the heat and slowly strain in the celery infused milk, stirring constantly to make a smooth sauce. return to the heat and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring to thicken. Cook a further few minutes then transfer to a large bowl to cool.
  3. Beat the mustard and egg yolks into the sauce and stir through 150 gr of the Stilton, the walnuts.Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl till they form stiff peaks, then using a metal spoon, fold a little egg white through the souffle mix to loosen it. Fold the rest of the egg white gradually into the souffle.
  4. Divide the mixture among the 6 buttered ramekins, then fill the baking tray with boiling water so that it reaches halfway up the outside of the ramekins Bake for 30 minutes or until the souffles have risen and are cooked through. Carefully remove them from the bainmarie, cool,then chill until needed.
  5. When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 200C. Line a baking sheet with baking paper and using a palette knife, carefull loosen the souffles from their ramekins. Turn each one out onto the baking sheet.  ( if at this point , some of the mixture has stuck to the bottom of the ramekins, don’t worry. Just lift it off with the knife and gently place it back onto the souffles. They may look a little ugly and shrunken at this  point also. Don’t fret- they puff up agina with the second baking.) Scatter over the remaining 25 gr of Stilton.
  6. Return to the oven for 10- 15 minutes until risen and golden on top. Serve with watercress, or baby leaves lightly dressed and some interesting chutney.

The best part of this recipe is that it can be made ahead up to step 4, then wrapped in cling foil. They can be frozen for up to 1 month and defrosted in the fridge overnight. Or they can be kept chilled for up to 24 hours. When ready to serve, continue from step 5.

Tomorrow’s recipe – that beetroot and caramelised  onion chutney.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Trifle. Lemon custard, home grown sliced peaches, four egg sponge cake with added grog, mixed berry jelly, whipped cream, strawberries, chopped baked almonds, shortbread sand.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Grown up Trifle