In My Kitchen, September 2021

There are a few months in the year when you yearn for daylight savings to begin, or cease. September is one of those months. Long before a respectable morning hour, the insistent morning light finds a way into your consciousness, and once the idea of daytime is planted, that dreaming state is over. There’s something rather demanding about this month, especially if you’re a gardener, farmer and home baker: suddenly, there’s just too much to do. I was rather enjoying my winter approach to each brand new day. I finally learnt the art of sleeping in, which has become a sweet ruse. By simply staying put long enough, the first cup of tea arrives, and if undrunk due to an extra bit of dreaming, a frothy strong coffee will follow. The bringer of drinks, my kindly Ghillie Dhub1, spends the first hour of each morning cleaning the train wreck of a kitchen. With good timing, I often arise to a clean canvas.

Risotto all’onda. A springtime risotto with celery and peas. Leftovers will make arancini.
No waste in these dark times. The leftover Spring risotto above becomes some arancini with marjorum pesto two days later.

Since Melbourne has been in lockdown for most of this year, all sorts of trips and events have been cancelled. There’s no point in planning anything until things dramatically alter. A small shopping trip to a boring supermarket has become the welcome chance card in a Monopoly game, ‘Get out of Jail Free’. I’m really looking forward to the days when my vaccination passport allows me to go further. The Victorian countryside has never looked so appealing.

Rad Na. Thai recipe full of rich gravy on fresh rice noodles and tofu.

As a consequence, the kitchen repertoire has expanded to include a greater variety of dishes, since we live nowhere that offers any form of appealing take away. Food has become the highlight of the day. I’m sure this is also the case for many others in semi- permanent lockdown. I usually do a fridge edit each Monday, and write up a possible weekly menu. One welcome ingredient that only lasts a week or so in the fridge is fresh rice noodles. I’ve recently learnt a few hacks regarding their preparation. Take out the required quantity of fresh noodle from the packet, in my case, around 300 gr for two people, place them in a long lidded microwave box, and ding them for 1.5 minutes or so. Then remove and put them into a wide bowl, dressing them with a tablespoon or so of oyster sauce, or Kecap Manis, using your fingers to gently coat them. The noodles are now ready to add to your chosen recipe. In the average home kitchen, fat rice noodles don’t stand up to fierce stir- frying without breaking up, (Char Kway Tiew or Rad Na for example), so forego that smoky taste, and add these prepared noodles to a hot wok, leave them to heat and catch a little without moving them, then add the other precooked ingredients ( greens, prawns, tofu etc) then the sauce. Stir gently through. Old dog learns new tricks. Don’t you love kitchen hacks?

Another version, fresh rice noodle, tofu, broccoli, soya chilli paste.

One of the other features of lockdown for many is the absence of celebration. Significant birthdays come and go without much fanfare but a cake can always be delivered. I made this carrot cake with the de rigueur cream cheese topping for my daughter’s 50th. Happy birthday dear reader, if you missed out on your birthday celebration this month.

Carrot cake with cream cheese topping, caramelised walnuts, borage flowers.

Below are a few dishes that we enjoyed over the last month. I often cook too much but then, on those busy days in the garden when the thought of cooking yet another meal drives me insane, it’s nice to find something hidden in the freezer. The big lasagne made 10 serves, so there are 6 portions left. And there are always extra pies to be found, left over from my pie making days. I often try to replicate typical takeaway meals that we miss in lockdown.

Eggplant and ricotta lasagne. No troops to eat it all, but leftovers freeze well.
Salting the limes for Indian Lime Pickle. I love this condiment but now must wait another week before cracking open a jar.
Sometimes you just need a falafel. So cheap to make, and always keep wraps in the freezer so you can pretend you’ve been to a famous Lebanese take away shop so far out of reach.
Once a week I make pies and deliver 7 down to my family in a nearby village. So far the tuna, potato, leek and dill pie is the favourite. Now that winter is over, the pie run may have to stop.

Below is a collage from my Instagram page ( @francesca.morgan ). As you can see, bread and birds featured often last month. The first pic shows a beautiful mask made by Celia of Fig Jam and Lime Cordial fame. It is the most comfortable mask I’ve ever worn and the fabric goes well with this new season. Call me paranoid, but lately I’ve been wearing two masks at once when shopping, which often matches my tendency to wear two pairs of glasses at once- sunglasses on head and readers on face. It’s been a maddening month, but taking photos daily, walking in the bush and cooking goes a long way in the sanity stakes. Thanks once again to Sherry, at Sherry’s Pickings, who hosts this series each month. It is always a pleasure to look back on some positive experiences in the kitchen and remind myself that we are very fortunate to have so much food.

1In Scottish folklore, the Ghillie Dhu or Gille Dubh was a solitary male fairy. He was kindly and reticent yet sometimes wild in character but had a gentle devotion to children. Dark-haired and clothed in leaves and moss, he lived in a birch wood within the Gairloch and Loch a Druing area of the north-west highlands of Scotland.

Fish-fragrant eggplant, Sichuan dreaming.

Fish-fragrant eggplant is a dish that came to me late. I’ve seen that tempting recipe pop up on screens and in books many times over the years, but only decided to make it after reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, a Sweet – Sour Memoir of Eating in China 1 For those who don’t know this dish, Fish-fragrant eggplant, yú xiāng qiézi, contains no fish and no other animal products for that matter. Along with Mapo Tofu, a dish I do make often, Fish-fragrant eggplant is one of Sichuan’s most famous dishes. Given that eggplants are available all year round, and that the special sauces required for this dish last well, it’s a dish that suits lockdown very well.

Ma Po Tofu, Cabbage and chilli, White lotus and Black fungas.
Local dishes made by the cook in our accommodation, a restored Tang Dynasty courtyard house in Langzhong, Sichuan. 2014

Dunlop’s memoir is seductive and a great substitute for travel in these stay-at-home times. After becoming disenchanted with her work at the BBC in London, Dunlop moved to Chengdu to study at Shanghai University, ostensibly to learn Mandarin and embark on research, until she became seduced by the local cuisine. Her passion for the culture and language of food enabled her to immerse more effectively in Mandarin as well as the local Sichuan dialect much more so than through her formal studies. She became the first Westerner to study at the prestigious Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. Although there are a few recipes sprinkled throughout the text, this is not a recipe book, though it does discuss Chinese food at great length, including the dynastic history of taste, the textural elements of Chinese food, the importance of cutting shapes, and the unusual concept of ‘mouth feel’. It is also a fascinating read for linguists or anyone who has attempted studying Mandarin: one can feel the mind and tongue rolling around the sounds of the cooking terminology which are noted in pinyin. Dunlop’s memoir paints a balanced portrait of Sichuan: she doesn’t omit issues such as environmental degradation and local corruption, but, in the end, her love for Sichuan’s friendly people, its culture and food shines through. It’s a great read, especially for those who are open to learning more about China and its people.

1.First published in 2008. This edition, 2019.

Fish- Fragrant Eggplant, a recipe by Fuchsia Dunlop

  • 600-700 g eggplant
  • peanut oil for frying
  • 11/2 Tbsp Sichuanese chilli bean paste ( see notes below)
  • 3 tsp finely chopped ginger
  • 3 tsp finely chopped garlic
  • 2/3 cup ( 150 ml) of stock
  • 1 1/2 tsp white sugar
  • 1/2 tsp light soy sauce
  • 3/4 tsp cornstarch, mixed with 1 Tbls cold water
  • 11/2 tsp Chinkiang vinegar
  • 4 spring onions, green parts only, sliced into fine rings
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and then crosswise. Chop each quarter lengthwise into 3 or 4 evenly sized chunks. Sprinkle generously with salt and leave for at least 30 minutes to drain.

In a wok, heat oil for deep frying. Add the eggplant in batches and deep fry for 4-4 minutes until lightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within, Remove and drain on kitchen paper.

Drain off the deep frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, and then return it to a medium flame with 2-3 tablespoons of oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir fry until the oil is red and fragrant: then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir fry for another 20-30 seconds until they too are fragrant.

Add the stock, sugar and soy sauce and mix well. Season with salt to taste if necessary.

Add the fried eggplant to the sauce, bring to the boil and then let them simmer gently for a few minutes to absorb some of the flavours. Then sprinkle the cornstarch mixture over the eggplant and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Next, stir in the vinegar and spring onions and leave for a few seconds until the onions have lost their rawness. Finally, remove the pan from the heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve.

My Notes A neutral oil like canola oil is fine to substitute for peanut oil, but don’t use olive oil in Chinese cooking. Wipe the salt from the eggplants before cooking and dry them with a paper towel. Chinkiang vinegar is black vinegar that is now widely available. Don’t substitute this for another vinegar. I found the best chilli bean sauce for this dish in a Chinese- Vietnamese shop and have added the photo below. Keep the cut pieces of eggplant fairly large to maintain that velvety pillow effect. Serve with steamed rice. This dish is plenty for two or forms part of a banquet for 4-6.

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Cad players, Lijiang, Sichuan, China
Hot night on the streets of Langzhong. Card players. Sichuan, China 2014

Fuchsia Dunlop has published many cookbooks on Sichuan Cuisine and is considered a world authority on that topic.

The header photo was taken in the foyer of a renovated Tang Dynasty house during our travels around Sichuan in 2014. It appealed to the Tretchikoff in me.

of cockatoos and cousins unknown

In the late afternoon, the call stretched across the yard and into the distance, a larger than life sound, ‘Yvonne…… Isabel‘. The girls’ names were elongated with pleading vowels, gentle yet insistent. The incessant winds carried the calls further. It was a mother calling her children at dusk or tea time or at 6 o’clock, whichever came first. ‘Yvonne…… Isabel’, the voice seemed to come from the sea bleached weatherboard house, urging the girls to come home, to return from their vast playground of sky, sea and distance that made up the fishing village of Port Albert. The weathered house was unadorned, unpainted, a homemade shack. Attempts at domestic beautification included a patch of spongy buffalo grass which was impossible to mow, and an overgrown cigar fuchsia, which attracted honey eaters when in flower. The rainwater tank near the backdoor was home to a large venomous brown snake, especially during summer, when it curled under the tank stand for shade and came out for a drink when the tap was left dripping. The outhouse toilet was down a grassy track beyond the tank with the snake. ‘Yvonne…. Isabel‘, the second call, five minutes later, became more urgent. ‘Tea’s ready‘ was perhaps all that was implied, but then the front yard was the sea, and as the tide turned in Corner Inlet, the muddy mangroves became quickly submerged. Beyond the mangroves, deep sea channels filled with swirling eddies as the tide rapidly moved across the sand, dangerous to anyone except the most experienced of boat navigators who saw the channels as sea routes back home to the Port. And further out on the horizon, the bushy headland of Snake Island became a Sphinx on dusk: that dark, terrible shadow scared most young children. The Sphinx Head knew all the secrets of the sea, of all those cousins who ‘met their watery grave’. ‘Yvonne….. Isabel, the cry carried across that austere but magical landscape.

My Grandparents, Grace and Charles Robinson, at Port Albert with Cocky.

I never heard that woman’s call, and yet it is vividly recalled. By the time my memories began, her call had been perpetuated by Cocky, the pet cockatoo who lived with my grandparents. Cocky continued to call their names in the late afternoon. Like a recording from the past, Cocky’s call, although a little scratchy sounding, especially as they claimed he was at least 100 years old, preserved their childhood long after they had left and grown up. Cocky’s evening call for Yvonne and Isabel captured the lengthened vowels of the Australian bush coo- ee, except with tenderness entwined with rising anxiety. I never knew the woman, or Yvonne and Isabel, who were/are my cousins. They had departed long before my visits to the Port. No one spoke much about them: a ‘broken’ marriage was a taboo subject back then. They left and that was that. My uncle Fred, the father of those girls, was a fisherman at Port Albert in those days, and spent some time as the lighthouse keeper on Maatsuyker Island, an isolated job that is said to drive one insane. Fred became a dedicated alcoholic, ending up in a men’s boarding house in Moreland Road, Brunswick, when that part of Melbourne was considered a ghetto for the poor or dispossessed.

Uncle Fred on the right, my father, Jack, on the left. 1940s

Uncle Fred, the owner of Cocky, taught him a few colourful phrases and tricks. It was said that Cocky had had a previous owner, so some of Cocky’s party tricks may have come down through time. Apart from calling for those girls each evening, Cocky could swear with passion, and sing and dance like a cabaret star. He definitely had mood swings. To this day I’m not sure if Cocky simply replicated Uncle Fred’s moods, from singing to cursing, the range of emotions induced by alcohol, or whether Cocky had his own real moods. Although a pet, he only spent part of the day in a cage, which was the place where he was more likely to perform his song and dance routines, Cocky want to Dance. When free, he would often enter my grandparents’ house through the back door and stomp around the living room in a bad mood, yelling bloody bugger bloody bugger, terrifying all who were present. His ugly moods may have been an attention seeking act, the expressed anger and words learnt from Uncle Fred.

I also have a pet Cocky who, like Uncle Fred’s Cocky, has no special name. It always makes me laugh when I hear about others who call their pet cockatoos Ralph or Kevin. My Cocky reminds me of the past, of all the cousins I never met, and of my grandparents who lived at the Port, whose simple lives were in tune with nature and the tides. When my Cocky first visited, he looked unkempt, dirty and thin. He had brown dust marks on his chest and seemed to be a loner. Over the last two years, Cocky has become a gracious bird: his white coat glistens, he is well fed and clean with a beautiful deep lemon crest: at one point last year, he also had a mate. He also has his foul moods. Most of the time he sits on the same broken bough of our Melia Azedarach tree at about head height. He seems to enjoy listening to us talk to him and is not simply after a free handout of sunflower seeds. And yet there are days when he stomps around our verandah table, throwing things off with obvious displeasure, as if he is annoyed by our mess. If we’re away from home for more than a day, we return to find all sorts of odds and ends removed from the small green verandah cupboard and thrown about on the ground. He is either wise, gentle and a good listener, or an angry bird. Perhaps I should call him Fred.

Cocky in a pleasant mood.

In Memory of my cousin L Vardy, another cousin I never met, who passed away last year. Len’s poem, Home, takes me straight back to Port Albert and to Pop, that skilled navigator, the grandfather we both shared.

Extract from a work in progress. Another extract can be found here.

In My Kitchen, August 2021

It’s challenging to write about my kitchen exploits without resorting to the L word. L is for lockdown, of course, and Melbourne has had it’s fair share, with 234 days since the pandemic began, but who’s counting. One of the crazy things that happens when we come out of lockdown is the excitement of shopping for food in a venue of one’s choice, which for me simply means anywhere but the local Coles supermarket. It’s like panic buying in reverse. The post -lockdown shopping list is always a huge one. My haul just after Lockdown 4 lasted very well and took me through to Lockdown 5, thanks to the spare fridge running in the laundry. My solar power app indicates that my fridges hardly make a dent on my power consumption. Unlike that wonderful cultural habit seen in parts of Asia and the Mediterranean where shopping for perishables takes place on a daily basis, lockdown style shopping is the antithesis.

Braised peppers, Turkish bulgar pilaf.

I know that my food preferences have radically altered since 2020, the year when life changed for everyone. We eat more simply than ever, waste less, and write a weekly menu which we follow unless I get side tracked. I rarely eat out these days, but when doing a big post lockdown shop, I always buy the same treats for lunch- a big fat samosa or a freshly made gozleme.

Over the last two months, we’ve probably eaten more Asian than Italian food and I’ve developed a real fondness for cooking in a Vietnamese claypot.

Claypot cooking- Vietnamese style fish in caramel sauce and fresh herbs

I’ve also discovered an excellent fish sauce, Nước Mắm Nhĩ 3 crabs fish sauce which has more depth of flavour than the cheaper brands. The search for a better quality fish sauce began after I read ‘New Flavours of the Vietnamese Table ‘ by Mai Pham, 2007. There is a traditional saying about fish sauce, ‘without good fish sauce, the father’s daughter will not shine‘. Mai Pham says she has always been struck by this saying.

On one level, it points to the Vietnamese view of the universe and how everything is seen from the family’s perspective. The implied pronoun- in this case ‘she’- is replaced with the ‘father’s daughter’. On another level, it suggests that without good fish sauce, the quintessential sauce of Vietnamese cuisine, food can never taste good, no matter how talented the cook. “

I know, dear reader, that, like me, you’re probably thinking that the daughter’s skill as a cook would make her more marriageable, and that her role in the traditional family was defined by this. Nevertheless, this particular fish sauce is good, and you only need to use a few drops to transform all sorts of dishes that require a little salt. It makes a wonderful nuoc cham dipping sauce, but I also add a few drops to an Italian style pasta with prawns. But please don’t tell the Italians. Non autentico ma buono!

Spaghetti with Tasmanian tiger prawns.

Another very tasty addition to this spaghetti prawn dish is prawn oil. This is a trick I learnt from Adam Liaw’s ‘The Cook Up’ on SBS. After de-heading and shelling your prawns, gather the heads and shells, fire up a wok with a little oil, and toss the heads around until bright red, then slowly add more oil. The addition of a little tomato paste adds to the colour of the oil. Once made, drain the brightly coloured oil into a jug or jar, then start cooking your garlic and prawns in some of this oil, which will coat the strands of spaghetti with a umami loaded pink gloss.

In My Kitchen, Vietnamese noodles and Chinese condiments.

Above are some of the ingredients that add excitement to my non supermarket shopping. I tend to use the rice noodles in Char Kway Teuw, my favourite Malaysian dish, or in Thai Drunken noodles or Pad See Ew. The Sichuan Chilli Douban sauce is reserved for that Sichuan classic, Fish Fragrant Eggplant, while the little jar of XO mushroom sauce is a wonderful base for any claypot concoctions such as mushroom and tofu.

Indian lunches are always welcome on a freezing day. I prefer a main meal for lunch, with a simple soup for dinner rather than vice versa. This is one of the changes that came about since lockdown- big lunch, small dinner. The main dish here is Moong Dal with spinach, accompanied by lemon rice, and a left over Muttar Paneer from the previous day. Did you know that dal means ‘split’ in Hindi? And Moong/mung means yellow, though whole Mung beans are green. As a general rule, dried split beans don’t need soaking while whole beans do.

Eating with the eye is a rather important idea, especially when serving a simple cheap meal such as pea soup. These large yellow dried split peas, unlike the tiny yellow moong dal, definitely need pre -soaking. This is a vegetarian version of that classic pea soup I grew up with, which was loaded with salty ham bones or hocks. In this version, the flavour comes from the vegetables, ( onion, parsnip, celery, carrot, swede, turnip and parsley) the salt from a small rind of parmesan, the latter added after pureeing and re-warming. The extras on top add more flavour and texture- garlic sourdough croutons and fresh marjoram leaves.

Above is my cake of the year, one that will be repeated often. The mandarin almond syrup cake recipe can be found here. Almond meal is on the list for my next mass shopping event. The mandarins are fattening up in the orchard.

During one of those treasured spaces between lockdowns 4 and 5, we headed into the city with Daisy and visited every Korean and Japanese shop in Melbourne’s CBD. She was keen to eat at a Sushi Train restaurant, one of the highlights of the day, after spending her hard earned pocket money at the expensive KPop store. This is my little non- kitchen addition to this month’s post, though it is food related. My message to all – enjoy these moments of freedom, the breathing spaces outside of lockdown, which is how we measure time now. Do something special, especially with the little ones who’ve had their world turned upside down.

Thanks once again Sherry, for hosting In My Kitchen. It’s always a pleasure to put together these kitchen posts together each month.

Mandarin Almond Cake, and my winter of citrus.

The colder months are notable for citrus fruit and this year’s crop of lemons, limes, mandarin, oranges and some weird agrumi throwbacks is abundant and extra juicy, given the plentiful rainfall. I find myself grating citrus peel into more dishes lately: a touch of grated orange peel enhances a dark rye sourdough, while grated lemon peel has become the new parsley- it’s the final sprinkle on many savoury dishes. Lemons have been preserved: that salty acid is a surprising addition to a fishcake mix, while the limes have gone straight into the freezer. It’s odd, but I always associate limes with summer and hot climates, Thai food, Mojito and the beach, and yet they are usually scarce when you need them most. They juice well after a few months in the freezer. Oranges and mandarins are best enjoyed straight up, though both make rather lovely cakes. I also dry the skins near the woodstove as they make very effective fire starters: orange oil is highly combustible as I found out one winter, so care needs to be taken in drying them. This season I’ve made a rather lovely lemon jam, Marmellata di Limoni. It lacked the fussy soaking and slicing of a British marmalade and yet tastes just as good. I also attempted the famous steamed pudding from The Three Chimneys Restaurant in Corbost on the Isle of Skye. It was a terrible flop, and yet the accompanying Drambuie custard was a winner. I inflicted my flop of a pudding on my friends, who gave it a new title, “The Three Jimmys.” After a shot or two of that special liqueur, no one really noticed how bad it was. The chooks enjoyed it the next day. 

Which brings me to the Mandarin Almond cake which doubles as a noble winter pudding. It is similar in many ways to that classic and famous cake, the Middle Eastern orange almond cake, but more exotic and interesting. It can also be made more quickly as the mandarins don’t require hours of boiling. This is a recipe to keep, unlike my failed attempt at that famous Isle of Skye marmalade pudding.

Mandarin Almond Cake

  • 300 -350 g mandarins, skin on, cut into quarters, seeds removed
  • 1 3/4 cups caster sugar ( divided into two parts- 1 cup and 3/4 cup)
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 125 g unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups ground almond
  • 1/3 cup cornflour

Method

Preheat oven to 180°C/160°C fan-forced. Grease a 6cm-deep, 20cm (base) round cake pan. Line base and side with baking paper.

Combine mandarin, 1 cup sugar, cinnamon and 13/4 cups cold water in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes or until sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil. Gently boil, covered, for 15 minutes or until mandarin skin is tender. Remove mandarin with a slotted spoon. Process mandarin until almost smooth. Cool. Reserve syrup.

Meanwhile, using an electric mixer, beat butter and remaining sugar until pale and creamy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides as needed. Stir in almond meal, cornflour and mandarin purée. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Meanwhile, place reserved syrup in a small saucepan. Place over medium heat. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes or until slightly thickened.

Cool cake in pan for 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack over a baking tray. Pour half the syrup over cake. Serve cake warm with cream and drizzled with remaining syrup.

This recipe is adapted from one found on Taste.

In My Kitchen, June 2021

Here we go again, lockdown number 4 in Melbourne. From whence it came and who’s to blame? That’s the name of the game, again! I can vividly recall the range of emotions and behaviours that accompanied each previous lockdown. During lockdown number one and two, I settled into a new set of routines that were pragmatic and budget centred. We stocked up on beans, pulses and grains, not toilet paper, and got on with the business of surviving safely. We walked more for exercise, and I cooked more for others- soups, pizzas and bread to send to adult children and grandchildren down the road. They often shopped for me: the care went both ways. It was a time of sharing and there was a sense of generosity and reciprocity in the community. And for many, pride in our State leader, along with a sense of common struggle. We would stay safe, we would stay at home and we would get vaccinated once it became available.

This time around, I’m struggling to conjure up the same emotions. This time I’m fearful and angry. Angry at the lies that are told by the fat rogue at the top, our own Trumpian shouting clown, and annoyed at vaccine hesitancy in members of our community, though things are slowly improving on this score. It goes without saying that if more people were vaccinated ( fully) the virus could not shut down a whole community. This time there’s no financial support for our workers, epecially those in casual employment, though some is offered to businesses by our State. And this time, many children, back at home without their school mates and caring teachers, are more anxious. This virus strain is more virulent. I’m still very focussed on life in my kitchen- that one room, along with my garden, is my sanity saviour in the end. 

Every June, my pantry stash of garlic starts sprouting green shoots. In order to extend the supplies to November, when the first harvest of new garlic appears, I’ve resorted to freezing it in handy batches. One of the hacks I found involves peeling and roughly chopping the garlic in a food processor, then popping teaspoons full into mini patty pans, covering with a little olive oil, then freezing them inside a muffin tin. Once frozen, they are removed and placed into zip lock bags and stored in the freezer. Pull out a little round or two and throw into the pan. The only annoying part of this hack is peeling the garlic.

One of the things I never managed to do during lockdowns 1 to 3, was to sort out my lovely collection of serving ware into categories. It was satisfying to put the Asian bits and pieces together so that my Doutsa, as I like to call him, ( kitchen hand in Sichuan) can find them. There are old Vietnamese fish patterned bowls, Chinese oval serving platters, Chinese rice bowls and many delicate little Japanese saucers. All rather out of date but timeless, collected second hand along the way.

The bread making continues. On a Winter’s day, a north facing window is a baker’s best friend. Sunbaking below we have a 500 gr bowl of pizza dough, a large bowl of sourdough wholegrain dough and a starter sharing the ledge with a sleepng Buddha. It does get rather hot, so they are moved once they’ve started to rise.

On occasion I’m left with a spare sourdough loaf, due to a stuff up in pick up or drop off, which is annoying. There are two solutions- make lovely oiled croutons to freeze or remove the crusts, blitz in the food processor, toast in the oven, blitz again, bag and freeze. Waste not, epecially during lockdown. I know I’m going to love these crumbs on top of a vegetable gratin. Much better than a bag of shop bought saw dust.

one loaf of stale sourdough = the best crumbs for the future

The lemon trees are at their best in winter. One of the top priorities is making a batch or two of preserved lemons. I love using the salty peel in tuna cakes, mashed potato and smashed baked potato. Whatever fish you use to make your fish cake, preserved lemon takes them to another level.

Preserved lemons are so useful.
Tuna burger/cake/pattie on a coulis of San Marzano and oregano. ( stash from the freezer) along with a winter salad. We still have tomatoes ripening in the window, and always have tons of garden greens.

Some other dishes that passed through my kitchen recently are pictured below. Some of these will land in my lockdown cookbook that I’m slowly assembling.

Vegie pasties, lightly curried, the vegies bound with a little red lentil dal. The pasta frolla or buttery shortcrust pastry is not my favourite thing to make, but I plan to get over that.
This is one of my favourite pasta dishes, especially when red capsicums/peppers are cheap and plentiful. Sadly I can never grow fat capsicums. The sauce is creamy, based on almond meal. Here it covers Paccheri, a rather large shaped pasta.
I love my Vietnamese clay pot and find it so handy for a speedy dinner. The rice is cooking in the ricemaker, the tofu has been pre-fried. Into the clay pot goes ginger, garlic and spring onions, then some mushroom XO condiment, some sliced mushrooms, greens from the garden, the tofu and the sauces. ( light soy, kecup manis, oyster, water ) and thickened with cornflour just before serving. Extra rice is always cooked for tomorrow’s fried rice.
Yesterday’s plain rice is today’s fried rice. Old school fried rice, includes garden cabbage, supermarket frozen prawn, aromatics.
This is not my cellar. It belongs to Bill Calabria of Calabria Family wines in Griffith. We travelled to Rutherglen and then Griffith for a week, and returned with some tasty and unusual wines. I loved this cellar.

Dear reader, thanks for your support over the last 8 years. I’ve been rather neglectful of my blog and although I have many travel stories to tell and recipes to share, I’m struggling with sitting at the computer for too long. This monthly piece, In My Kitchen, appeases my urge to write, and calms my rather angst ridden brain. Thanks to Sherry at Sherry’s Pickings for continuing to host this blog gathering. It’s the prod I need.

Farewell dear Kim, of A Little Lunch. Your stories of your kitchen life were delightful to read and your comments were always warm and wise. Vale, and deepest condolences to your family from this blogging community across the sea.

In My Kitchen, May 2021

Just when I thought we had turned the corner, and winter had signaled an early arrival, along came a big sunny weekend, throwing me back into the sensuality of summer and late autumn. There’s a hot breeze blowing today: outside a lawn mower buzzes somewhere in the distance and the roar, now approaching now distant, of weekend Harley motorbike riders echoes along the valley below. If you listen carefully, there are insects too, a neighbour’s dog, and other domestic sounds, but still no jet noise above.

My kitchen routines happily shifted into winter mode last month. After the first cup of tea, I get stuck into things early- soaking the beans, feeding the sourdough levain or baking bread, making stock with leftover bits of vegetable, and deciding on the two meals of the day. Anzac biscuits always appear in April and the first of the Nanna soups are made, an old fashioned thing based on Mckenzie’s soup mix, the most comforting of soups. It’s a seasonal shift and one I really enjoy. But with this recent May Indian summer, we are back working in the vegetable patch, getting sunburnt, layering compost, and picking the last of the borlotti beans, small zucchini and yellow cherry tomatoes. Another bucket of late picked figs arrives to laze about on the north facing windowsill- if we leave the doors open, European wasps find their way straight to the ledge to seek out that ruby jammy flesh. The long lasting red peppers keep ripening. I’m yet to find a recipe for these but may dry some, make some Biber Salcasi or preserve them sott’olio, under oil. The summer – autumn season has been hugely productive this year but now I’m looking forward to the chards, bitter leaves, snow peas and brassicas of the coming season.

This month’s In My Kitchen is largely a photo post of the food that I enjoyed picking or cooking recently. As I read the posts of other contributors, especially those of my North American friends, I can almost hear that big sigh of relief and joy as they embark on their first dinner party or interstate family visit, now that they’re immunized. ( See Mae’s post here) It’s a liberating feeling for sure and I feel much the same way. Thanks Sherry for hosting this monthly roundup. See Sherry’s Pickings for other like minded kitchen posts.

Late pickings, transitional season.
Daily pick, the greens. Parsley, lettuce, kale.
the best bean to grow, for beauty and taste, the Borlotti.
Lemon and almond ricotta cake, late window ripened figs.
Autumn apples and rhubarb.. The beginning of a crumble or pie?
Yesterday’s lunch, five spice tempura battered squid on an Asian garden salad
Today’s lunch, Warm pumpkin salad with Halloumi, lentils, rocket, and za’atar.
Stocking the pantry with winter staples: carnaroli rice for risotto, bulgar wheat for Turkish meals, lentils for soups and dals, couscous for a break from potato, besan flour for pakoras.

In My Kitchen, April 2021

This month’s In My Kitchen post takes the form of a small, April journal, interspersed with photos of ingredients and dishes that entered or exited my kitchen recently.

Tagliatelle with mushrooms- swiss browns, porcini and fresh shitake. Autumn bowl.

At the Beach, Easter ’21

I’m lying on a comfy bed inside my caravan on Good Friday afternoon. The day is hot and still, though the cooling sea air finds its way through the windows and ceiling extractor, making a little lie down even more enticing. The small space is darkened by blockout curtains: it’s womblike, cocooning, soothing. Someone is tuning a guitar in the distance, followed by a sampling of acoustic bluegrass notes. Wattle birds make scratchy chatter in the nearby banksia trees. It’s not quite #vanlife because it’s a caravan and I’m probably disqualified anyway. I think it must be the small space that is so appealing about a van, reminiscent of the cubby houses I used to build in my childhood, with planks of old timber, worn blankets smelling of shed and dusty hessian bags.

It’s olive time at home, and although we have netted, the cockatoos find their way in.

There’s not much to do except walk, read, write or plan the next meal. Fortunately, some good things, like hot cross buns, were made at home and brought to the beach camp to share with others. This year’s hot cross buns were a big hit with me, and I’m a very fussy customer. Over the years I’ve attempted quite a few different recipes and I may have finally found one to suit my discerning palate. The two recipes I used this year were similar with regard to ingredients but differed in technique. I’ve learnt quite a few things along the way, and am happy to say that the 32 buns were all eaten, with praise offered by my appointed samplers, Daisy and Helen. Sourdough buns last much longer than yeasted buns. Cinnamon affects the rising action of sourdough so should be added later, or at least after an initial autolyse. Butter is better added in chunks rather than melted, and is also best added at the end of the mix. In hindsight I preferred using a stand mixer for the dough over the hand built version, given the wetness of the mix and the delay in adding the butter. An overnight proofing in the fridge makes the dough much easier to shape. Allow 24 hours once you begin your mixing and monitor ambient temperature: around 23c-24c is ideal. I’ve finally invested in a thermometer/hygrometer, an important tool in the bread making process. I may make some Not Cross Buns to practise my technique throughout the year.

Mark 1. Fruit soaked in vanilla, lots of cubed butter added at end. Machine mixed, 10 hour ferment, long second proof due to colder kitchen. Not sure about the vanilla soak.
Mark 2. No vanilla, no mixed peel,. Hand mixed. 20 hour ferment. Quince glaze was too sticky.

If you’re not into sourdough, yeasted hot cross buns are fast and easy to make, assuming you have a hungry horde to feed, as they don’t keep very well. Why bother making your own buns? The answer partly lies in the image below, taken from a Coles packet of HC buns. Bakers Delight and Brumby’s buns are also loaded with numbers too, with 27- 32 listed ingredients. Small independent bakeries are more likely to make buns without a bunch of numbers: they are more expensive but then, they’re meant to be an annual treat. Real butter goes on top of a good bun, not a mixture of oil, dairy and numbers, known as spreadable butter.

Coles Hot Cross Bun Info

Help indeed.

The best shared meals at the beach are fairly well planned. We either decide on a particular cuisine or theme. Indian nights are good value, with family members bringing their favourite curry, which drives nearby campers mad with desire as the onions and spices slowly cook. Pizzas done in the Baby Q Weber work well but are very slow, giving new meaning to the notion of slow food. I usually bring 8 balls of 48 hour fermented dough from home for our beach pizza night, but supermarket pizza bases work well enough when desperate. My favourite flour for pizza, buns and bread is Wholegrain Milling’s organic stoneground baker’s flour which I buy wholesale in 25 kilo bags.

A 25 kilo bag of organic premium white bakers flour via Terra Madre wholesalers has finally arrived. These big food safe bins will hold 20 kilos and come with a good airlock lid. The remaining five kilos are decanted into an everyday container with handle.

April 11. Thoughts from the couch on a wet Sunday.

I’ve been reflecting on the idea of the anti-cook, and whether I might become one. You know those days when a bowl full of numbers in the form of a packet of Indomie, a popular Indonesian instant noodle brand, is all you can imagine. Adding a chopped spring onion is going too far down the road of kitchen mess. Or a cup of instant miso soup for an overdose of salt, the zen answer to bonox. There’s no shortage of good food here: I have a garden full of it. But putting it all together requires a herculean effort as well as a desire to eat well. No one told me that one of the side affects of the Covid Jab is loss of appetite and a disinterest in wine. This is outrageous! Why didn’t they tell me on the carefully printed side effects sheet? Along with kitchen apathy comes a keen desire to spend more time in a horizontal position watching streamed TV series. An Easter Lindt chocolate or two and a heat pack are my new daytime friends. If you’re over 50, join the club and suffer a few days of sloth and achy joints, or perhaps smoke one, but don’t become vaccine reticent. That packet of Indomie has 17 mysterious additives which are more likely to cause more blood clotting than the Astra Zeneca Jab. An anti- cook I may become, but I’ll never be an anti- vaxxer. I’m part of the herd, and hopefully part of the solution.

Mid Autumn pickings.
Those quinces are still waiting for me to get off the couch.

Thanks once again Sherry for hosting the IMK series. At present I like writing more than cooking and so my contribution may seem a little curlballish, or googly to use an old cricket term, but that’s life. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for more inspiring world kitchens.

Simplifying Italian Tomato Passata

It’s tomato time once again and that means passata making month. We grow a wide variety of tomatoes each year, but always reserve two beds for saucing tomatoes, either Roma or San Marzano, both cultivars of egg shaped tomatoes. This year I grew San Marzano from seed, starting in late winter. I planted out 12 seedlings and made sure they were well spaced, at around 35- 40cms apart, which guarantees a bigger crop. They are situated in full sun all day, another factor in considering the siting of your tomatoes. San Marzano and Roma tomatoes store well as their thick skins prevent early rotting or splitting. In the height of the fruiting season we harvest around 5 kilo per day: I’m pleased to see the crops slowing down now dwindling to around one kilo per day.

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Dealing with this constant flushing means addressing sauce making in a very different way from the big annual sauce making day favoured by many. I don’t have a cool room or sufficient fridge space to store masses of tomatoes so we make sauce every second or third day. The following approach takes around 10 minutes of preparation, and minimal equipment. The resulting thick sauce captures the taste of summer to use throughout the colder months. The sauce consists of tomatoes only, no basil, herbs or garlic. 

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What you need:

  • 3 kilo of San Marzano tomatoes or similar egg shaped tomatoes
  • a large heavy based stainless steel stock pot
  • an old fashioned mouli or passatutto ( metal hand cranked food mill) with larger holed disc.
  • rectangular plastic storage containers

Weigh the tomatoes and wash them if necessary. Remove ends and half, or quarter if very large. Throw them into the stock pot and cook on high heat for approximately 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure they don’t catch on the base of the pan. Place your mouli over a bowl. Pour the mushy tomatoes into the mouli. Once all the juice has fallen through, turn the mill to extract the remaining pulp. Scrape the thick pulp from beneath the holed plate and add to puree. Discard the skins and other left overs in the mouli. Return pulp to the stock pot and cook on medium heat for around 30- 40 minutes to reduce and thicken. When cool, place into plastic storage containers. Label with date and freeze.

Yield. 3 kilos will yield around 1.5 litres or so of thick passata/two tubs of 750 mls.

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My mouli is one of my most useful tools. It’s easy to clean, easy to store and fast to use. It’s the perfect implement when you want a certain texture to your food. Sometimes they turn up in opportunity shops so if you see one, grab it. They come with two or three interchangeable discs.

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Interesting Uses for passata.

I deliberately leave my passata plain so that it can be used in a variety of cuisines. Once defrosted, I cook half with some garlic in olive oil, dried oregano and a little tomato paste to use in the week’s supply of Italian dishes such as pizza, pasta, eggplant parmigiana, or Italian soups such as Pasta e Ceci or Minestrone. The remaining un flavoured passata is added to Indian or Chinese dishes. Last night I made a quick Indian sauce using passata with added garlic, some homemade tomato kasundi, and cream. This was used to sauce some lentil balls and became a quick version of Malai Kofta. It was a huge success, and consequently I now must make this year’s batch of Kasundi, which also uses another kilo of plain tomato thick passata. A few spoons of passata can be added to a stir fry along with soy or oyster sauce. Passata enriched with onion, garlic, chilli and smoked pimento is an excellent sauce for baked beans. And when tomatoes are sad and woody in winter, enliven them with a tub of passata to make a brunch shakshuka.

Melbourne Then and Now

I have a great fondness for the city of Melbourne. I recall travelling to the city by train frequently as a child, though back then, it was always called ‘town’, a term I still like, akin to the Italian concept of ‘centro‘. ‘Town’ back then meant the centre of Melbourne, particularly the commercial hub from Flinders street through to Bourke street via the arterial network of wonderful dark lanes and arcades. The route, chosen by my mother, usually included various shortcuts underground then along Degraves St, crossing over to the ornately tiled and arched Block Arcade where she spent time as a teenager working in a florist shop. My father spent his working life in the Customs House, a grand old colonial building in Flinders Street, which now houses the Immigration Museum. If he knew beforehand which train we were on, he would wave to us from his second floor window, not that we could see him, but my mother would know. ‘Wave to Dad’, she would say as we passed by. Going to town was part of our upbringing and education: train travel was central to where we lived. It became my escape route from bland suburbia. The grid layout of the city was the key map and we learnt to draw it at an early age, along with learning by rote the names of the stations along the line. The train trip grew in excitement as the view of the industrial docklands appeared to the right, a warning that we were nearly there, followed by the frightening proximity of a dark grey Dickensian looking building to the left, the deeper shadows and grandeur of the city’s architecture, Dad’s Customs House, and the final arrival at Flinders Street station, with subways lined with white and green tiles, spittoons, people in a hurry and men in hats. The highlight of a trip to town would also involve lunch, usually at Coles Cafeteria. Lining up with a tray, and being permitted to choose from an array of pies, cut sandwiches in points and a jellied sweet was the only time we ever ate away from home.

To this day, I’m still very fond of trips to the city, though my train journey is much longer and doesn’t trigger any flashbacks of looming ancient buildings and the scenery of my childhood. As I’m not an avid shopper, I’ve found a new excuse to visit the city more often, or at least I did until the Melbourne lockdowns began. The Melbourne City Library is conveniently located in Flinders Lane, the most vibrant library in Melbourne. By ordering books on line, I had a wonderful excuse to travel along the pulsating lanes of Melbourne, which are memory lanes for me. Of course this library is now closed for browsing, and during lockdown, closes completely. 

I’m not sure why Mr Tranquillo suddenly produced a book from our overflowing and somewhat shabby home library: perhaps I had been reminiscing about these times. He found the book in an op shop some years ago, though I have never laid eyes on it before today, which is a good enough reason not to clean out or prune the library. Edwardian Melbourne in Picture Postcards ¹, includes a wonderful selection of old postcards held at the State Library of Victoria. One page is devoted to each, with details of the location, the printer of each, and a transcript of the letter on the back. I now have another legitimate reason to visit the city, to capture the modern equivalent of each photo, taken from the same location. Standing in the middle of the road, and attempting to photograph above a sea of people may present a few problems.

Below, a selected photo postcard from the collection, taken in 1913 and printed in three colours in Germany, followed by my photo taken in November 2020, when the city of Melbourne, post lockdown, was still very quiet. And the book which inspired this post.

Flinders Lane, Melbourne 1913. This view of the busy intersection of Flinders Lane and Swanston Street was taken a little way up Flinders Lane, looking west. Collotype with three colours. Printed In Germany. Shirley Jones Collection, State Library of Victoria.
Little Collins St, Melbourne. November 2020. View looking north towards Bourke Street. Taken when Melbourne first opened from the second hard lockdown and was still deathly quiet.
Edwardian Melbourne in Picture Postcards, Alexandra Bertram and Angus Trumble. Melbourne University Press, 1995.