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?

 

Weekend Pasta. Pappardelle with Creamy Gorgonzala, Spinach and Walnut.

As I was devouring today’s lunch of Pappardelle, I began to ponder the derivation of this word. Italian pasta shape names are often fanciful and descriptive, some shapes based on historical events, or conjuring images from nature, such as shells or hailstones. As it turns out, the word Pappardelle is derived from the verb Pappare– to wolf down or tuck into. This is spot on, given the way I love to slurp down these broad egg noodles, carriers of comforting sauces, hiding further treasures beneath their soft folds.

pappardelle con crema di gorgonzola, spinaci e noci

The word can also be used metaphorically to describe a bore who writes or talks at length, like pappardella, never finishing. ( Stava scrivendo una pappardella che non finiva più – She was writing a pappardella that was never-ending ). So without further ado, and in case I am accused of the latter, may I present my current all time favourite pasta dish, Pappardelle with Gorganzola cream sauce, spinach and walnuts. The key to the success of this dish is the quality of the pasta used. Either make home-made pasta, cutting it wider than tagliatelle, 13 mm to be precise, using this recipe, or use a good brand such de Cecco Pappardelle, which tastes soft and comforting, and as good as home made egg pasta.

pasta con gorgonzola, spinaci e noce.

Pappardelle con crema di Gorgonzola, spinaci e noce.

Recipe for 4 large serves.

  • 350 gr good quality pappardelle
  • 50 gr of unsalted butter
  • 225 g gorgonzola Dolce Latte or other creamy blue cheese.
  • 300 ml single cream
  • 225 g walnuts, chopped small
  • two or more handfuls of baby spinach leaves
  • freshly ground black pepper

Method

Bring the water to the boil for the pasta. Use a large saucepan; you need at least 4 litres of water for this quantity of pasta, with 1 level tablespoon salt added to it. Add the pasta and cook for the required time as suggested on the packet.

Meanwhile, place the walnuts in a non stick frying pan to toast. Watch that they don’t burn.

Over a low heat, melt the butter in a deep non stick frying pan. ( I tend to use a non stick wok for this type of cooking as the pasta will be added and tossed through the sauce later.) Then add the gorgonzola cheese, followed by the cream and leave to simmer very gently to reduce and become creamy and thick.

When the pasta is ready, drain it in a colander, holding back half a cup of cooking liquid. Return the pasta to the wok or pan containing the gorgonzola sauce. Add the baby spinach leaves and freshly ground black pepper, toss everything over medium heat.  You may need to add a little cooking water if your sauce has become too thick. Add most of the nuts, reserving a few for garnishing.

Parmigiano cheese is optional and can be added to the sauce as it cooks. I prefer this dish without it.

Time to make pasta. ( Urbino, centro storico, Le Marche)

Fig and Fetta Fantasia

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

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

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

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

Fig and Fetta Fantasia.

Ingredients, for two serves.

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

Cut the cold fetta into 4 thin batons.

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

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

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

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

For Lorraine at Not Quite Nigella, a fig fancier.

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

Daisy’s Moist Chocolate Cake

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

Surprisingly moist chocolate and zucchini cake

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

The mystery ingredient- grated zucchini

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

Moist Chocolate and Zucchini Cake

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

Method

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

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

    Daisy’s  Moist Chocolate cake.

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

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

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.

More Christmas Balls. Almond Flowers from Agrigento

A few days ago, I made a batch of Sicilian Cherry and Chocolate Amaretti, (Amaretti di Cioccolato e Cilegie ). They disappeared too quickly: some were wrapped up and given away, others popped into our own merry mouths. Sicilian sweets taste so evocative, medieval and ancient. All the flavours of the island seem to be rolled up in these little festive biscuits- dried fruits and figs, orange and lemon peel, Marsala wine, Arabic spices, honey, almonds, pine nuts and pistachio, to name a just a few ingredients favoured by the Siciliani.

Gid
Ready to go out the door. Fior di Mandorle.

This year’s festive cooking is beginning to look like a cook’s tour around Sicily. Last week Siracusa, now today’s festive balls, Fior di Mandorle, a specialty of Agrigento. Come to Sicily with me this month as I delve into my collected recipes from each major town. Map provided, in aid of travel fantasy.

I love a good map.
I love a good map.

Fior di Mandorle.  Almond pastries with honey and spice

  • 200 g freshly ground almonds or almond meal
  • 50 g/3 tablespoons of fragrant clear honey
  • 100 g caster sugar
  • grated zest of  1 small organic orange
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • 1  large, or two very small beaten egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • icing/confectioners sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 150c.

Mix all the ingredients together, then knead until the oils from the almonds are released into the pastry.

Shape into smooth little cakes around 3 cm in diameter. Place onto a baking paper lined baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes.

Cool on a wire rack, then dust generously with icing sugar. Makes around 20.

Adapted from Flavours of Sicily, Ursula Ferrigno 2016.

xx
Fior di Mandorle. A taste of honey and spice. Very Arabic.

My next Sicilian instalment will be Nucatoli, from Modica, which are similar to last year’s Cuddureddi, but come in an amazing shape.

Christmas Biscotti from Siracusa

I’m looking forward to a quiet, relaxing Christmas this year. During the weeks leading up to that day, I won’t be counting plates, cutlery, wine glasses, napkins, gutting rooms and borrowing chairs, moving furniture to make more room, ironing table cloths, emptying fridges, making lists and more lists, and anticipating an event for 29 or so guests. On the day, I may be sitting under a shady tree, eating some simply cooked fresh fish, followed by a few light biscotti, enjoying a conversation, good music, and a bottle of wine.

biscotti da Siracusa, Sicilia
Biscotti da Siracusa, Sicilia

Despite this once in a lifetime opportunity, or escapist retreat, the making of festive delicacies is, for me, very much part of December and still continues. Last year I enjoyed making Cuddureddi, a spicy little Sicilian tart. They were eaten in the weeks leading up to Christmas day or were given away to friends. This year, I am looking to Sicily once again for inspiration. What could be more tempting than chocolate, almond and cherry biscotti, usually found in the pasticcerie in Siracusa, Sicily?

Anaretti di Ciocccolato e Ciliege
Anaretti di Ciocccolato e Ciliegia

These little almond, cherry and chocolate bites can be thrown together very quickly and only take around 12 – 15 minutes to cook. They are soft centred, with the texture of a truffle more than a biscotto. They are gluten-free, dairy free and very moreish. Wrap a few in cellophane to give to your child’s favourite teacher, or give little gifts to loved ones during Advent. Dicembre e` un mese bellissimo, mentre il giorno di Natale puo` essere stressante!

Amaretti di Cioccolato e Ciliegia/  Chocolate cherry amaretti biscuits

  • 250 g finely ground almonds
  • 120 g caster sugar
  • 50 g dark ( 70%) chocolate, grated
  • 60 g dried sour cherries, chopped
  • finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 extra-large egg whites, ( or three medium )
  • a pinch of salt
  • 30 gr icing/confectioners’ sugar

    bisoctti ready for oven
    biscotti ready for oven

Preheat the oven to 160 c.

Mix the almonds, sugar, chocolate, cherries and lemon zest together. Whisk the egg whites until firm and add to the almond mixture with the salt. Mix well. The mixture should be damp. ( Note- if you have used two egg whites and feel that the mixture needs a bit more moisture, beat another until stiff and add it to the mixture.)

Place the icing sugar in a bowl. Form balls with the almond mixture then roll them in the icing sugar. Place them on paper lined baking sheets.

Bake until they have a golden tinge, approximately 12- 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Makes around 20 balls. Note, my edited pics make the balls look rather large but they only measure around 4 cm.

biscotti di Siracusa
Biscotti di Siracusa. Amaretti con ciliegie e cioccolato

Adapted from Flavours of Sicily, Ursula Ferrigno, 2016

For my dear friend Diane. Let’s spend next Christmas in Sicilia, cara mia.