Most images of Hong Kong feature walls of skyscrapers marching up the hills from the shoreline. Meanwhile at ground level, Hong Kong is delightfully old-fashioned and quaint. During our recent visit, we took to the trams to get from Sheung Wan to Central before continuing on foot up staircases and escalators,stumbling across little back lanes, tea shops and temples along the way. The trams saved the day and our legs. All double deckered, narrow, and some quite ancient, they are one of the most environmentally friendly ways of travelling about, all for HK$2.30/AU.37 cents a ticket, an amazing bargain. You enter the tram from the rear and exit at the front, whilst depositing your coins in a little box near the driver. Some were covered in words and advertising, others were left plain and painted dark green.
Good Thai, bad Thai, Australian suburbs all have at least one local Thai restaurant. Most Australians are familiar with the more common dishes on a Thai menu. We assume that when we travel to Thailand, the food will automatically be much better, more authentic and spicy. This is not always the case. You can read Trip Advisor or similar sites for clues. In Thailand, these recommendations are often written by people staying in 5 star Western hotels who are happy to pay 5 star prices for food, or backpackers who hang around cafes and juice bars who are more interested in the ‘chill’ factor than taste. During my last trip to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, I found another clue to bad Thai food in restaurants- simply look at the clientele. If a place is full of tourists of any age, you will most likely eat bland, over priced, ordinary food masquerading as Thai. There are exceptions of course, but choosing a restaurant on the basis of a sea of Western diners will usually lead to disappointment. Thai food will be better in your local suburban Thai at home. Watch where the Thais eat. They know where the food is good so just follow their lead.
Here are two of my favourites. They both happen to be vegetarian. The first, Ming Kwan Vegetarian restaurant, is one is frequented by locals from early morning until they finish (around 5 pm). Some brave tourists like ourselves love this place. Little English is spoken. You just point to the things that look good, then ask for a plate of rice, which happens to be wholesome red rice. The cost per plate is between 20 and 30 Thai Bhat ( AU$1.14 or less). The water is free. Favourite dish: the iconic Khao Soi soup, made with a curry sauce and coconut milk base, with some added textured soy meat, a handful of yellow egg noodles and topped with deep-fried crispy egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, coriander, a squeeze of lime and some ground chillies fried in oil.
Khao soi and spring rolls, Ming Kwan. Chiang Mai
deep fried money bags
Ming Kwan- look for the yellow and red.
New dishes are added to the bainmarie all day
Other dishes available at Ming Kwan
A bowl of these greens please
Two fat spring rolls, ready to devour.
Another tasty dish Mein
My second favourite is Taste from Heaven. This place is frequented by tourists, expats and some locals. ( thus breaking the rule I espoused above). Nan has now opened two more branches in the Moon Muang area but I’ve only eaten at her original branch. The serves here are generous. The menu is in English. Beer, Wine and WiFi are available as well as things like Vegan brownies, all being tourists draw cards. The food is sensational and medium priced. Most dishes are around 70 – 90 Bhat per plate, (AU $3 or so), and choosing is agony. I want it all. Return visits are a necessity. Favourite dish: Tempura battered morning glory vine with cashews, tofu and peanut sauce and the charred eggplant with chilled tofu salad. The sate of mixed mushrooms with peanut sauce is hard to pass by also. Hungry now?
Ming Kwan Vegetarian Restaurant. 98 Rachadamnoen Rd Soi 4, Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
Taste from Heaven. 34/1 Ratmakka road (opposite soi 1) Prasing Muang Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
Ohi ohi ohi ohi, I’m in love with your body, blasts from of the car radio. The windows are down, the chorus line repeats as the kids burst into harmony. I raise the volume, the crescendo builds and I join in.Come on be my baby come on. The energy of the kids is infectious on this glorious autumn day.
We’re off to Melbourne Zoo. I’m keen to keep the costs down as school holiday activities can often blow the budget, especially given that Melbourne is such an expensive city. Children receive free admission to the Melbourne Zoo ( as well as at Healesville Sanctuary and Werribee open range zoo) on weekends, public holidays and Victorian School holidays. It’s a good time to go but expect it to be more crowded than usual. Tickets for adults cost between $25- 30. Adult tickets can be purchased online, saving the need to queue at the gate.
First stop is early lunch in Brunswick. The kidlets love Lebanese Haloumi cheese pies from the A1 Bakery. Patrons help themselves to large bottles of chilled water and glasses. The children know that any request for sugar drinks will be met with a stern glare. They carry their water bottles when out on a trip: most venues in Melbourne offer water bottle refilling stations, including the zoo.
Station group hug
The Upfield line, graffiti land.
We park in Brunswick close to the Upfield train line. A few stops down the track is Royal Park Station, a dedicated zoo station and the best way to go. Kids find the train journey as fascinating as the zoo itself. The ever-changing graffiti along the route keeps them amused. If travelling with kids, make sure to purchase a children’s concession MYKI travel card at a staffed station before your trip. Most un- staffed stations have machines to top up your cards, but don’t issue new passes for children, seniors or anyone eligible for a concession.
On the train, we plan our adventure together. Each child nominates one enclosure they would like to see. Melbourne Zoo is huge and as we usually go there once a year, it’s important to make a plan before you go. They agreed on the following: baboons and orangutans, seals and penguins, elephants, butterflies, and tigers. Of course, en route, a few extra characters caught our attention.
The 8-year-old was put in charge of the map and leadership for the day. They take turns with this task each year.
One of the more impressive features of Melbourne zoo is the dense jungle planting near the elephant and tiger park. Over the years it has developed its own micro climate. The area has recreated an Indonesian village, with signs above shaded picnic tables in Bahasa Indonesian, Indonesian artifacts and dense forest planting.
Dense jungle planting helps to create a sympathetic habitat
Travelling with my own monkeys
Jungle at the zoo
Indonesian village within the zoo
Indonesian village, Royal Melbourne Zoo
The Butterfly enclosure is enormously popular. I managed to grab a seat inside and while the butterflies were lovely, I was more interested in the human reaction to them. People noticeably changed as they entered. Smiling, serene faces filled the space as old men, babies and children gazed upwards, all delighted. I enjoyed observing a three-month old baby almost leaping out of her pram- her eyes amazed and bewildered by the butterflies above. It’s very humid and close inside, but no one is in a rush and the atmosphere is hushed.
The zoo staff are active in promoting environmental messages about changing shopping behaviours to conserve habitat. The kids signed a petition to ban balloons from their birthday parties and received a fridge magnet to remind them.
‘Dolphins, whales, turtles, and many other marine species, as well as terrestrial animals such as cows, dogs, sheep, tortoises, birds and other animals have all been hurt or killed by balloons. The animal is usually killed from the balloon blocking its digestive tract, leaving them unable to take in any more nutrients. It slowly starves to death. The animals can also become entangled in the balloon and its ribbon making the animal unable to move or eat.’¹
The other strong message concerned the massive increase in the use of palm oil and its effect on habitat. A display of common supermarket items, ranging from Lindt chocolate to chips, biscuits, soaps and shampoos, made it clear to kids what products contain palm oil.
‘To make room for palm crops, huge areas of tropical forests and other ecosystems where conservation is important are being stripped bare. Critical habitat for orangutans and many endangered species – including rhinos, elephants and tigers – has been destroyed. Forest-dwelling people lose their land, local communities are negatively affected.’²
Many products containing palm oil are disguised with labels such as vegetable oil, sodium laurel sulphate, glyceryl, to name a few.
This display had a profound affect on me and the older children eventually got the connection.
Costs per child: Melbourne Zoo, free. Haloumi pies, $3 pp, icypole $3pp. Train fare $2.10 pp. Total per child, AU$9.10 plus adult costs.
This is an old stand- by soup, made when I need to charge my batteries. It requires minimal thought and is adaptable, relying on 3 basic elements: onion, potato and a pile of greens. This week’s green soup was made from zucchini, silver beet ( chard), parsley and basil. In winter, I make it with half a bunch of celery and add a few dark leaves for colour. The outside, often discarded, green leaves of an iceberg lettuce make an excellent addition. Peas go well. Any soft, non- bitter leaves will do. I don’t usually use a recipe but today, I am attempting to add quantities. It’s a great recipe for beginners in the kitchen as well as worn out cooks too.
Super Green Soup
400 gr potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
200 gr onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 kilogram of greens, such as, zucchini, silver beet leaves and stems, outside leaves of an iceberg lettuce, young Cos lettuce leaves, parsley, celery, basil etc, roughly chopped or torn.
1 vegetable stock cube
Add the chopped potato and onion to a pot. Add a good pinch of salt and cover with water. Cook for 10 minutes, then add all the greens. After another 10 minutes, check that everything is soft. Don’t overcook or you will lose the bright green colour. Puree with a stick blender, return to pot. Add the stock cube. Add some cream if you don’t feel too purist. Serve with chopped chives and ground pepper.
My best meals are usually spontaneous and unplanned. Ingredients present themselves from the Spring garden: I wander about, basket in hand, and pick a few likely candidates to make the Pasta Del Giorno ( pasta of the day) while Mr T digs out a cheap, light red wine, to go with it. He does most of the hard physical labour in the orto, carting wheelbarrows of compost about or making fences and mowing grass, so a proper lunch is in order most days. I add a few pantry staples and a new combination is born.
Today’s pasta takes around 20 minutes to prepare and cook. Meanwhile, have a munch on these radishes while I boil the pasta water.
Pasta del Giorno. Casarecce con bietola, acciughe, e ceci./ Casarecce pasta with silver beet, anchovies, and chickpeas for two or three people.
Recipe for two or three.
180 gr casarecce pasta ( I prefer De Cecco brand)
6 anchovy fillets in oil
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil plus extra
a pinch of ground chilli flakes
4 medium-sized young silver beet leaves including stems.
a few tablespoons of chickpeas, well-drained, from a can. ( reserve the rest for another use)
more oil and parmigiano to serve
In a heavy based deep sided frying pan, add the oil and stir fry the garlic and anchovies together, mashing the anchovies as you go.
Add the chilli and finely shredded silver beet leaves, stirring well. Add a handful of chickpeas to the mixture. Turn heat down to very low or off until the pasta is ready.
Meanwhile cook the casarecce pasta in a large pot of salted water and as per packet directions. Keep a cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta OR, simply scoop out the pasta with a large wire strainer and add to the frying pan of sauce. The second method retains enough liquid to loosen the sauce.
Turn heat to high, then toss around in the frying pan, distributing the ingredients well. Season with black pepper. Consider adding a little more oil or cooking water. Serve in hot bowls with grated parmigiano. Salute!
The Bossy Stuff or Basics for Beginners.
It is easy enough to create a nourishing and well-balanced pasta dish so long as a few basics are observed:
Start with a flavour base for your sauce. Each soffrito should match the ingredients and the season.
Don’t overload your pasta dish with too many ingredients. Choose around 2-3 main ingredients to star in the sauce.
Choose a pasta shape that will match or showcase your ingredients.
Consider how to make your sauce wet. Short, fat pasta shapes are hard to digest if the sauce is too dry.
Save some of the cooking water at the end to add to the sauce.
Add the pasta to the sauce, and toss around in a large pan. This technique guarantees that the sauce is well-distributed through the pasta, and reheats as well. ( Don’t serve the cooked pasta in a bowl and plonk the sauce on top. Aussie style, alla 1970s – very stodgy )
Time the cooking of the pasta and taste it for doneness. Al dente or to the tooth means a little undercooked and not too soft. Remember that the pasta will continue to cook when added to the sauce.
Always heat the serving plates. A good pasta meal can become instantly cold through the omission of this step.
Use large shallow bowls for serving. Large deep bowls are better for Asian noodle dishes. Small ‘old school’ bowls are good for breakfast cereal.
The other day I ran out of bread. I can’t eat ‘white death’ or spongy packet bread of any colour, dosed with preservatives to make it last forever. Neither can I eat the fake sourdough marketed to look like the real thing sold in a well-known supermarket or the stuff from hot bread places. I perused the specialty bread section of the supermarket where racks of famous city bakers display their tempting loaves, Dench, Baker D Chirico, La Madre, Phillipa’s: there’s not much change from $10 for an ‘artisan’ loaf, rivalling the smashed avocado as the real cause of inner city hipster poverty. We went without bread that day.
I hurried home and hastened along my trusty starter, Sorella, another offspring of Celia’s Priscilla, a consistently reliable sourdough starter in any weather. It’s important, when baking your own loaves, to seek out variety in flavours and flour combinations. I often get stuck in a groove and make the same loaf over and over again, especially when I can make it on autopilot now.
Recently I returned to the Finnish Rye loaf which I have written about before. Now that I’m hand building this loaf, thanks to the demise of my stand mixer, I’m finding it far more successful than before. For sourdough bread makers out there, I urge you to give this one a go. It stays moist for three days or more thanks to the linseed. Forget about my previous method- this one makes a superior loaf. Linseed is full of omega 3, so this loaf is healthy but doesn’t taste heavy at all. It is soft, earthy and easy to digest. You could live on it.
The Finnish Rye Loaf, recipe courtesy of Craig Gardiner, baker extraordinario.
288g white bakers flour
144g wholemeal flour
144g rye flour
365g water ( filtered or tank water, not treated water)
173g sourdough starter (100% hydration). Make sure it has been refreshed three times and is bubbly before use.
140g flaxseed ( linseed)
154g water to soak flaxseed.
Mixing the Dough
Begin by soaking the flaxseed in the soaking water for at least 30 minutes in the water. ( last two ingredients on list above)
Put the starter, water and molasses together in a large mixing bowl.
Add the flours and bring the dough together by hand.
Cover the dough and leave for 15 minutes.
Add the salt, mix through the dough and let stand for 1 minute or so.
Add the soaked flaxseed along with the soaking liquid and squelch through with your hands, making sure the liquid and all the seeds are distributed through the dough. The mixture will be very wet.
Resting and stretching
Let the dough stand for 30 minutes. Put a few drops of oil on your bread working surface and spread out with your fingers. ( I use a silicon mat which has been a great investment). Scrape out the wet dough using a pastry scraper, then stretch and fold the dough. Return dough to the bowl and cover.
Let the dough stand for another 20 minutes, repeat stretching and folding, returning dough to the bowl and covering.
You will notice the dough tightening with each new stretch. Now cover the dough and leave in a warm spot for around 4-6 hours, depending on your room temperature. Basically it needs to double in size. Don’t overprove this bread.
Scrape the contents of the bowl onto a floured surface, using a pastry scraper. It will be sticky so flour your surface well.
Now pull up one side of the dough and stretch it up as far you can and fold this long piece over the rest of the dough. Do this with the other side. Then top and bottom. All the surfaces will now be lightly dusted with flour and will not be so sticky. Cut the dough in half with a pastry scraper. Shape the loaves into round balls for another short prove. Cove the dough balls with a tea towel.
Turn oven on to 250c Fan Forced.
After 30 minutes or so, the oven should be ready and the loaves slightly risen. Now gently shape the loaves. Do not overwork them at this point. treat them like soft babies. I like to make batard shapes. Place the loaves onto baking paper, then slash the tops well, using a serrated knife or a razor blade. Lift the paper with loaves into enamel baking tins and cover with lids.
Put the two roasters into the hot oven ( if your oven is large enough to take both) reducing the temperature to 220c. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the lids, and bake for another 15-20 minutes at the same temperature. Usually the time here is 20 minutes but these loaves are a little smaller than the usual loaf size.
Cool on wire racks.
I am indebted to two baking mentors here- Craig for the original recipe, and Celia for the method and for the brilliant idea of using enamel bakers for a more consistent result in the home oven.
It’s school holiday time in Melbourne, with kids in the kitchen and mess everywhere. The girls wanted to make something sweet but both have radically different tastes. After some negotiation, a pavlova was agreed upon, after some squabbling about suitable toppings. Before we grabbed the electric beaters, a detour through history into the life of Anna Pavlova was fun, something I had never thought about much before their visit. As Tchaikovsky played in the background, we admired all the beautiful old photos of Anna Pavlova in her divine longer tutus and portraits of her with her pet swan, Jack.
We discovered other wonderful facts about Anna’s life, including her last words on her death-bed, “Get my Swan costume ready.” This is now our secret code for beating up egg whites or dying like a swan, which ever comes first.
Pavlova is an easy dessert for young cooks to whip up. It doesn’t matter if it cracks or turns out misshapen. It will still taste great. Just crack and separate the eggs for them and hand over the electric beaters. They love watching the whites whip up into a big fluffy tutu. Once the eggs are standing up, the younger child adds in the sugar until the boss (me) says they are ready. Add a little cornflour, white vinegar and vanilla and let the kids do the sculpting on a papered tray.
Basic 4 egg Pavlova Recipe ( serves 6-8 )
4 egg whites ( room temperature)
pinch of salt
250 g caster sugar
2 teaspoons cornflour
1 teaspoon white vinegar
few drops of pure vanilla
Preheat oven to 180°c. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Draw a 20 cm circle on the paper. Beat egg whites and salt until satiny peaks form. Beat in sugar, a third at a time, until meringue is stiff and shiny. Sprinkle over cornflour, vinegar and vanilla and fold in lightly. Mound onto paper lined tray and flatten top and smooth the sides. Place in the oven, immediately reduce heat to 150° c and cook for 1¼ hours. Turn off the oven and leave pavlova to cool. Invert pavlova and pile with chosen topping.
From Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion
While the meringue cooks and cools, it’s time to make the topping. I usually settle for whipped cream and brandy macerated strawberries or, in season, passionfruit. Daisy was happy to settle for this mundane option but not Charlotte. After rejecting a few of my suggestions, including a lemony custard, she decided on a chocolate mousse filling!! Warning, the following photos of this chocolate mousse pavlova may make you want to utter those dying swan words sooner than expected. This is a pavlova for kids and the young at heart.
Fast Chocolate Mousse Filling.
200 gr packet of cooking chocolate, 45% solids.
a dash of rum or brandy
4 egg yolks
¼ cup sugar
some whipping cream to loosen.
Melt the chocolate in a bowl over hot water, making sure the bowl doesn’t touch the boiling water. Loosen with a little brandy or rum.
Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until very pale and thick. Add gradually to the bowl of melted chocolate.
Beat the cream until thick, then add to the chocolate mixture. Stir in well then set in the fridge.
PS. The chocolate mousse topping was ridiculously rich. from Charlotte 🙂
After six weeks of travelling, it takes a while to adjust to the rhythm of cooking your own meals, let alone all those other tedious tasks, such as bed making and house cleaning. Where are those fairies who come and clean up? Home cooking routines return more quickly; after all, we do need to eat at least twice a day. After purchasing one packet of inedible bread, the sourdough starter was revived and our breads are back on the table, using a variation of this recipe. I dehydrated my sourdough starter (Celia’s method can be found here) back in July, but then discovered that one very kind sir kept my fridge dwelling starter, Sorella, alive, replenishing her each week while visiting to feed my other animals.
Home made food tastes glorious, modest yet satisfying and comforting, filling that yearning for more olive oil and cheese that is missing in most Asian diets. And then there’s the wine- beautiful Australian and New Zealand wines at an affordable price. The Spring garden is neglected, with only leeks, celery and herbs ready for picking, while our hens keep pumping out eggs, now far too many for our own needs. It is with these modest supplies and a well stocked pantry of basics ( lentils, rice, pasta, dried beans, olive oil, cheese) that we can eat well for very little.
My budget dishes this week included a Flamiche, a leek based quiche, enabling me to make a dent in the leek and egg bounty. A leek and potato Vichyssoise for the export market (my mother), a lentil shepherd’s pie with Kumara mash, (my $1 per person comfort food), a salad of baked pumpkin with haloumi, the pumpkins left over from last Autumn’s harvest screaming to be used. Haloumi can be picked up in 1 kilo jars at Bas foods for around $10, another pantry/fridge essential for a quick salad. A purchase of 400 grs of Dory fish fillets was stretched over three meals: 200 gr went into a Vietnamese caramel claypot, (still trying to perfect this method of cooking), 100 gr accompanied some fresh mussels in a Pasta Marinara, and the last 100gr added more flavour to a Balinese nasi goreng ikan.
Haloumi and Pumpkin Salad
a generous chunk of Kent pumpkin, cut into 5 cm cubes
1 small cucumber
EV olive oil
salt and pepper
Toss the pumpkin cubes in a little olive oil, season, then bake for around 20 minutes, stirring or turning over once during cooking. I often bake extra to stash in the fridge for a pumpkin risotto or a pumpkin and caramelised onion pasta or topping for a foccaccia. Cool the pumpkin.
Cut the Haloumi into strips and fry in olive oil until golden on both sides.
Refresh chosen salad leaves and dry. Cut the cucumber into long thin edges. Toss the leaves and cucumber in a bowl with salt flakes, a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Plate the leaves, cover with baked pumpkin cubes, and haloumi strips. Add ground pepper and another drizzle of oil.
Nasi Goreng Ikan ( Fried rice with fish, Indonesian style)
I became quite fond of this simple dish and ordered it often in a little Balinese Warung by the sea. My version includes some sliced fresh turmeric, as I believe all the healthy hype surrounding this little tuber, despite my general cynicism regarding supposed ‘superfoods’. The Balinese always colour their seafood nasi with red, simply using tomato ketchup from a bottle. I used some bottled tomato passata. The choice is yours- use what’s on hand.
Nasi Goreng Ikan Recipe- serves 2-3.
left over steamed white rice, cooled. (one cup of uncooked rice will make a large nasi goreng for two or three)
a little neutral flavoured oil, not olive oil
one fish fillet (100g or so) of boneless fish, for example Dory, chopped into small 2 cm chunks.
2 finely chopped garlic cloves
2 small purple shallots, chopped.
a small finger of fresh turmeric, scrubbed, finely sliced or grated
a small knob of ginger, finely chopped or grated
2 small kaffir lime leaves, centre vein removed, shredded
1/2 red capsicum, finely sliced or 1/2 cup grated carrot
1 small birds eye chilli, finely sliced (optional)
some greens, for example, 1 cup of finely shredded cabbage or wombok
freshly ground black pepper
1-2 Tbs tomato passata or tomato ketchup
1 Tbs ketchap manis
lime wedges to serve
Heat the wok on a strong, high gas flame, add two or so dessertspoons of oil. When the oil is hot, add the aromatics- garlic, ginger, shallot, turmeric, chilli, and kaffir leaves. Stir and toss for 30 seconds.
Add the fish, toss about until opaque, then add the capsicum and cabbage.
Add the rice, breaking up large clumps with your hands, then stir fry the rice through the vegetables, tossing well as you go and colouring all the rice.
Add the sauces, toss further, then season with pepper.
Serve with lime wedges.
A nasi goreng has a wetter, denser consistency than its Chinese cousins.
Midst all the opulent and overly ornate works of art from the Baroque period, hangs a modest but well-known painting, Il Mangiafagioli, by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), depicting a quotidian scene, a peasant sitting down to a simple lunch of bean soup, onions, bread, a vegetable pie and a jug of red wine. The Beaneater is as Florentine as Brunelleschi’s dome, given that the Florentines were often called by the taunt, ‘beaneaters,’ especially in bygone days.
The painting captures that moment when ‘the peasant is just raising a spoonful of beans to his lips, only to stop, surprised, by the intrusion of the viewer’, and in one sense, it is remarkably like a modern photo, a snapshot of a working class scene. At the same time, the table setting could be the work of an early food stylist. In modern times, food stylists bombard our senses and shape our taste from every media quarter. Note the crisp white linen and the well composed meal, the wine on the table and the strategically placed bread. You would expect to see a rustic wooden table in this naturalistic vignette, something that the modern food stylist would prefer too. (Have wooden planks used as food styling props become clichéd yet and why is good linen shunned in the modern world?) This bean eating peasant has a fine knife and glassware, a generous jug of wine and serve of bread. Perhaps he is an upwardly mobile peasant of the 1590s about to become a member of the white meat-eating class, despite the dirt under his nails.
Interestingly, up until modern times, beans were regarded as peasant food,
‘Social codes in Baroque Italy extended as far as to food. According to contemporary thinkers, foodstuffs like beans and onions, which are dark in color and grow low to the ground, were suitable only for similarly lowly consumers, like peasants.¹
If this Beaneater’s repast were placed before me today, I would be overjoyed and would probably pay dearly for it too, as I once did, at the delightful restaurant, Il Pozzo, in Monteriggione, Tuscany, where a bowl of bean filled Ribollita, served with a side of raw onions and good Tuscan bread cost me a large wad of lire. Other than the price, the meal hardly differed from the one depicted in Carracci’s painting of 1590. Things don’t change much over the centuries in Italy, a conservative country, particularly when it comes to food, recipes and styling.
This modern-day beaneater, Mr Tranquillo, was bribed with a bottle of Yering Sangiovese 2010, to pose for this ‘painting’. A bowl of bean soup, good bread and a glass of wine is a lunchtime reward for hard work.
How to cook dried white beans and eat well for one dollar.
This recipe will give you enough cooked beans for a very large soup for a crowd or enough to divide and freeze for later soups or dips.
500g dried cannellini beans
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled but whole
4-5 sage leaves, and/or a small branch of rosemary.
60 ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to serve
2 teaspoons or more of salt
Place the beans in a very large bowl with plenty of cold water. Leave to soak for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Drain the beans and place in a heavy-based saucepan or cast iron pot with the garlic, herbs, olive oil and 2.5 litres of water.
Bring to a simmer on the lowest heat setting and cook, covered, very gently until the beans are tender. Do not add salt and do not boil. Salt hardens beans and prevents them from softening and boiling splits the beans.
Remove any scum that rises to the top of the water. When the beans are soft and the cooking water is creamy, add the salt and some freshly ground pepper towards the end of the cooking. Test and adjust seasoning. Depending on the age of the beans, this could take two or more hours with slow cooking.
Use the beans to make a simple cannellini bean soup. Start with a soffritto of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery cooked gently in olive oil, then when softened, add some vegetable stock and cook for 10 minutes. Add the cooked beans and creamy cooking water. Heat for a further 5 minutes, taste and season. Consider pureeing half the mixture with a stick blender and return the puree to the pot. Serve in a deep bowl over grilled slightly stale sourdough bread and drizzle some good oil on top.
I’ve been thinking a lot about eels lately, eels to eat and those other slippery and be-suited characters poncing about in politics and local government. There are the crafty eels standing for election, their slick barrage of three word slogans masquerading as debate. Then here in Melbourne we have the serpentine organisation called VCAT, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, their nefarious machinations designed to twist words and regulations faster than an eel can swim backwards. Our local government is not immune from eeliness, with self-important planning committees proposing an eel pit full of new draconian restrictions, designed to trap the unwary ratepayer, like a sharp toothed moray lying in wait.
How did poor innocent eels get to be connected to untrustworthiness and devious dealings? The saying ‘as slippery as an eel’ is associated with the most duplicitous and sly behaviour.
But getting back to my foody eel thoughts, I was excited last week when my fishmonger turned up with one long smoked eel, vacuum wrapped but otherwise fresh. This set my mind racing. Eel is rich and has that umami taste missing in my diet. Time for a Spaghetti Carbonara I Can’t Believe its Not Bacon. It’s a pescatarian delight.
Spaghetti Carbonara with Smoked Eel. Recipe serves two.
200 g spaghetti
2 large egg yolks, beaten
20 g grated parmigiano, reggiano or grana
one large handful of Italian parsley, very finely chopped
15 g or so of unsalted butter
85 g diced smoked eel, skin and bone removed. This amount was from about one quarter of a whole smoked eel.
Cook the spaghetti in ample boiling and salted water until al dente. Reserve a half cup of cooking water.
Meanwhile, fry the diced smoked eel in butter in a large frying pan. Fry gently until golden, around 5 minutes. I like using a non stick wok these days, providing room to toss through the pasta at the last stage of preparation.
Beat the egg yolks, grated parmesan cheese and parley together.
Drain cooked spaghetti, add to the pan with the eel, toss about, then pour in egg mixture. Toss until the egg sets, adding a little reserved cooking water for creaminess. Keep tossing and heating for a few more seconds, adding a little more water as you go.
Serve with lots of freshly ground pepper and more parmesan.
This recipe has been adapted and simplified from a Gourmet Traveller recipe, March 2014. It has been filed in my mind for two years now, waiting for that illustrious smoked eel to appear.
Another weird eel expression found while researching this post.
Sposarsi è come mettere la mano in un sacco pieno di serpenti, nella speranza di tirar fuori un’anguilla.
Marriage is like putting your hand into a bag of snakes in the hope of pulling out an eel. Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.