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

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

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

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

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

Ingredients. For two big serves. Multiply as required.

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

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

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

Aldo’s Spaghetti alla Puttanesca with Pesce Spada

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

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

Friday night Fish and Pasta, forget the chips.

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

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

Method

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

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

Sunday Books and Radishes

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

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

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

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

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

Roast radishes with stir fried radish tops

Ingredients.

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

Heat the oven to 180 c.

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

Roasted Radishes with Radish tops, garlic and anchovy

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

The dish that cost nothing except for the oil.

Sunday Notes

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

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

Garden Prozac with Thai Salad

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

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

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

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

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

The seedling bed. Lots to spare

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

Fresh Garden Thai Salad

Garden Thai Salad

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

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

All for me.

Rewriting Tradition. Easter Cuisine Old and New. Part 1

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

Ready for the oven

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

Just glazed. Who prefers the top half?

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

To serve with butter, not margarine.

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

Fish pie includes Shetland smoked cod, flathead and shrimp

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

Three serves later….

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

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

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

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

Smoky Cullen Skink Soup

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

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

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

Soup for two in found English bowls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My everyday sourdough loaves, to serve with soup.

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

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

 

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