Catering for a Celtic Birthday Party

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

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

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

Irish Yoga
Irish Yoga T- shirt.

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

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Lassie draped in Scottish flag

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

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

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

Simple Seafood Paella

Paella is an uncomplicated and quick dish to prepare at home, once you get to know the basic ingredients and keep a few of these on hand. When a bag of mussels and a handful of fresh green prawns saunters my way, I now turn to Paella. It’s easier than risotto, with no stirring involved, and can be made on a regular gas stove.

The basics for Paella
The basics for Paella.

In the pantry you will need these standbys:

  • a small container of commercial pre-made fish stock, or home-made frozen stock or one vegetable stock cube
  • some good quality Spanish smoked pimenton ( paprika )
  • Calasparra rice- no other rice will do for this dish
  • saffron strands

Some other desirable ingredients for a seafood paella for two people are:

  • some left over calamari wings, stashed in the freezer*
  • some green prawns, three large or 6 small per person
  • mussels, around 6 per person
  • one green or red capsicum, sliced
  • one finely sliced onion
  • one finely chopped garlic
  • good olive oil
  • parsley

You don’t need a special paella pan for a no fuss paella for two people. I use a heavy based frying 20-25 cm frying pan with a glass lid. My other paella pans come out and are used for bigger gatherings. Just double or triple the quantities for your larger pans and seek out an even and very large heat source.

Pictorial recipe instructions follow.

Fry the onion, garlic and red capsicum in two tablepoons olive oil.
Gently fry the onion, garlic and red capsicum in two tablespoons olive oil for around 5 minutes or until softened but not coloured.
after the onions have softened but not browned, add the rice and stir about until opaque
Add one cup of Calasparra rice and stir about until opaque
Grind one generous pinch od saffrom with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt in a mortar and pestle and add to the pan.
Grind one generous pinch of saffron with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt in a mortar and pestle and add to the pan. Add a little water to the mortar and add remaining saffron water to the pan.
Add the sliced strips of calamari wing and smoked pimento to the pan along with 2 1/2cups of stock.
Add the sliced strips of calamari wing and 1-2 teaspoons of smoked pimento ( I like mine smoky) to the pan along with 2.5 cups of stock. Commercial fish stock packets usually contain two cups. Add extra water if needed, or use a stock cube. Cover the pan with a suitably fitting glass lid and cook on low to medium heat for 15- 20 minutes. Relax.
after 20 minutes, add the mussels to the pan, and cover.
When the rice has swelled and most of the liquid has been absorbed, add the mussels to the pan, and cover. After another five minutes, add the prawns and cover until cooked. Check that liquid has been absorbed and the dish should now be ready to serve.
Serve in the pan, with finely chopped parsley
Serve in the pan, with finely chopped parsley
The bottom will have formed a slightly golden crust. The soccarat is the best bit.
The bottom will have formed a slightly golden crust. The soccarat is the best bit.
More than enough for two, with some leftovers for breakfast or lunch.
More than enough for two, with some leftovers for breakfast or lunch.
The big fellas used for larger crowds. Not so suitable for stove top cooking.
The big fellas, used for larger crowds are not so suitable for stove top cooking

After preparing fresh calamari for another meal, stash the wings in the freezer for occasions like this. They defrost very quickly and add depth of flavour to the rice as it cooks. I have also used a small fillet of Dory in the same way.  I learnt this trick from Sandra at Please Pass the Recipe and the habit has stuck.

Dangling a Carrot. Farm gate produce of the Mornington Peninsula.

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Rich red sandy loam and a mild climate makes the Boneo area perfect for market gardening.

The suburbs stretch along the coastal fringe of Melbourne’s Port Phillip bay as far as the eye can see. Once an area dominated by holiday houses and temporary residents, the built up areas between Mornington and Portsea now attract more permanent dwellers, young families and retirees. The old weatherboard and fibro shacks, suitable only for summer, are slowly disappearing from the area.

For those who venture beyond this narrow suburban strip, around one kilometre or less deep at Rosebud and Rye, rich fertile countryside awaits, with vast market gardens, horse studs, vineyards and apple orchards scattered through the peninsula’s hinterland. This area has always been devoted to traditional farming and is one of the oldest market garden areas of Melbourne. When camping down that way, I prefer to bypass the well known duopoly of supermarkets ensconced in an ugly, crowded mall, and head straight to the farm gate outlets of two farms located along or near Boneo road. King’s vegetable farm is located in Browns road, Boneo and Hawkes vegetable farm, which specialises in waxy potatoes such as Nicola and Kipfler potatoes, can be found a little further along on the road towards Cape Schanck.
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At King’s Farm, expect to see daily picked heirloom carrots and tomatoes, rocket and spinach, frilly leafed soft lettuce and kale, beetroot and brocoli, as well as a range of fresh herbs of every kind and free range eggs.

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Heirloom carrots, Kings of Browns Road
Freshly picked Kale at Kings
wooden crates at Hawkes farm
Wooden crates at Hawkes farm

More farms are yet to be sampled, making hunting and gathering an enjoyable pastime. I am looking forward to sampling cheeses, honey and olives as well as more wonderful wines of the region. These finds, along with freshly harvested Mount Martha mussels from Prosser Seafoods in Rye, make the area far more interesting than first meets the eye. A daily shop out in the rural hinterland, followed by a quick meal prepared in a simple camp kitchen, then eaten by the bay- oh what bliss.

Super Fast Thai Mussel Curry

I used to refer to myself as a Pescetarian, a fish loving vegetarian, but have now adopted a new appellation, Vegacquarian, to sum up my preferred regime.  I stole this new moniker from the lovely signorina at Napoli Restaurant Alert.  Mind you, I’m not too holy grailish about this diet I adopted 37 years ago after travelling through India and Nepal. Mr Tranquillo, often calls me the evil veggo as, on occasion, I like to bite the end off someone’s chorizo and am rather partial to an overdone baked chicken wing, free range of course. The skinny end of a crispy bacon rasher is a wonderful hangover cure and life is too short not to have a slice of prosciutto on Christmas Day. Maybe I’ll just steal a slice of that paper thin sorpressa that I bought for the visitatori. These fleeting incursions into the land of carnivore make me quite happy. Am I on the cusp of conversion? Or will my Lenten life always be peppered with pleasure from these meaty raids?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Given my partiality to flesh of the fishy kind, it can be a job in itself sourcing sustainable and cheap seafood. When a lovely bag of freshly harvested black mussels turns up, it is a happy day for many reasons. Mussels are the ultimate fast food. They are sustainable, cheap and organic. They contain omega -3 oils, selenium ( an anti- oxidant), and iodine, as well as a being a source of protein and iron. Very good news for a Vegacquarian on a budget!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This simple Thai styled recipe comes from Charmaine Solomon: it’s fast and easy to prepare. Put your rice on first, as this dish takes around 10 minutes to make.

Mussels in Red Curry sauce. Serves Four.

  • 1 kilo mussels
  • 185 ml coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons Red Curry Paste ( bought or home-made)
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves
  • 1-2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 1 red chilli, finely sliced
  • 2 spring onions, sliced diagonally.

Method. Clean mussels and de-beard them. Place in a saucepan and add 185 ml or 3/4 cup of water. Cover and cook over high heat, shaking the pan occasionally. When the shells open (they only take a minute or so), remove them with tongs. Do not discard those that don’t open:there is nothing wrong with them. Remove the top shells, then strain the cooking liquid through a fine sieve or muslin.

Heat 125 ml of coconut milk in a saucepan until oil appears around the edges, mix in the red curry paste and cook, stirring, until fragrant. Stir in the remaining coconut milk, the reserved cooking liquid, lime leaves, fish sauce, and sugar. Stir until the mixture simmers. Simmer for 5 – 10 minutes. Add the lime juice, red chill and spring onion, and ladle the sauce over the mussels. Serve with rice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Recipe from The Seafood Book, Charmaine Solomon, Hamlyn, 1993.

Zuppa Estiva di Cozze. Summery Mussel Soup.

As the season reaches its peak, the tomato glut becomes a mixed blessing. I have grown tired of the early yellow varieties, enjoying this months flush of Rouge de Marmande and Roma. With a little home grown chilli, a bunch of basil, some garlic and a bag of black local mussels, a soup is born and la vita è bella, as we lunch in the garden on a still, hot day.

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Black Mussels are a sustainable and cheap seafood in Victoria, retailing for around $6.00 a kilo, and are grown in the cool clean waters of Port Arlington and Mount Martha in Victoria. They are sweet and briny, unlike their large, green lipped New Zealand cousins which tend to be fibrous and tough. Tasmanian black mussels are lovely too.

I found this summer soup in The River Cafe Book by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, but have made some adaptations along the way.

Zuppa Estiva di Cozze – Summer Mussel Soup. 

  • 2 kilo of mussels, cleaned
  • 100 ml olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, 1 chopped, 2 sliced finely.
  • 1 large bunch basil, stalks removed
  • 1 small chilli, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1.5 kilo ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped, all juices and seeds retained
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

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  1. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large, heavy based saucepan, add the garlic slivers, and cook gently until golden. Add half the basil leaves and the chopped tomatoes and cook, stirring over a fierce heat, until the tomatoes break up and reduce a little. This should take around 15 minutes.
  2. In another large, heavy saucepan, fry the chopped garlic in the remaining olive oil until golden, then add the mussels and a few basil leaves and the remaining, reserved tomato juice. Cover, and cook on a high heat, shaking as you go, until they are open. Remove them as soon as they open and leave to cool. Remove most of the mussels from their shells, retaining a few for serving.
  3. Reduce the mussel/tomato stock for five minutes, then strain it through muslin into a bowl. Add some or all ( to taste) into the tomato sauce. Reheat the sauce and reduce a little.
  4. Add all the mussels to the sauce, add the rest of the basil and season well.

Serve in big bowls accompanied by a simple Bruschetta.

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An unexpected surprise! The stock in step 3 is not retained in the original River Cafe recipe. It is just too good to waste. From now on, when opening mussels for any dish, I intend to use this combination of tomato juice and garlic, instead of wine, and retain a batch of stock in the freezer for another dish.

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Urban Myth.

Don’t discard those unopened mussels. The advice to “throw away mussels that refuse to open”, began in the 1970s when there were concerns over some European mussels being dredged from polluted mussel beds. This advice has been repeated without question by chefs and in many ‘how to cook fish’ cook books since then. See the following:

Local Mussels.
Local Mussels.

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