This summer I’m working my way through my most recent Ottolenghi cookbooks, Simple and Flavour, and finding quite a few classics to add to my repertoire. These sweet potato chips are a tasty, economical and quick to prepare and make a useful side dish or snack. Sweet potatoes store very well and are often cheaper per kilo than potatoes which is a bonus, especially during those months when only bland, tasteless potatoes are available. Sweet potatoes are not, however, a superfood, unless you need a huge injection of vitamin A. The superfood marketeers put this tuber in that mythical category. They are as healthy or unhealthy as a regular spud, depending on how you cook them. See the infographics pages here for more nutritional info.
Sweet Potato Chips, serves six to eight as a side.
Ihalved this recipe and still found we had rather too many. If you do cook the full amount, you may need more trays than suggested in this recipe, and two shelves, swapping half way through baking. The potatoes need to be placed in a single layer on the trays. Preheating the oven to 220º C guarantees successful baking in this short time frame. The potatoes can be prepared up to six hours ahead, up to the point of placing them in the oven.
sweet potatoes, 1.2 kg, peeled and sliced into 1½ cm thick chips. (see photos)
1 Tbsp sweet smoked paprika
½ tsp cayenne pepper
3 garlic cloves, crushed
30 g polenta
100 ml olive oil
1 Tbls sumac
flaked sea salt
Preheat the oven to 220ºc, fan on.
Mix the sweet potatoes in a large bowl with the paprika, cayenne, polenta, oil and 1 teaspoon of flaked salt. Once combined, tip the sweet potatoes (and all the oil) on to two large parchment- lined baking trays and roast for 25-30 minutes, stirring gently once or twice, until the potatoes are cooked, crisp and golden brown.
Remove from the oven, sprinkle over the sumac and 1 teaspoon of flaked salt, and serve at once.
I must admit, I have a love-hate affair with my Ottolenghi cookbooks. Over the years I’ve found his recipes to be needlessly complex, with long lists of ingredients that often clash. If you’re a traditionalist, his fusion approach can seem iconoclastic. Yet despite this, I keep putting my hand up for more. I now own 5 of his cookbooks: Plenty (2010), Jerusalem (2012), Ottolenghi The Cookbook (2016 ), as well as his recent editions, Simple (2018) and Flavour (2020 ). The last two are the best and the most useful. The recipes in Simple are geared to every day cooking, while those in Flavour are more exciting, pushing the ‘f bomb’ (Ottolenghi’s term for flavour bombs) to the limit. I enjoy reading his short preface to each recipe, advising what may be made ahead, substitute ingredients, and most importantly, how long the food keeps. This information is often sadly missing from many modern recipe books.
This summer I’m planning to work my way through Ottolenghi’s Simple and Flavour, two books that I bought during lockdown. My choice of recipe will be determined by what’s growing in the garden along with ingredients that are readily available. I hope to share the more successful recipes that get a tick from us, recipes that will become family favourites rather than one night wonders. The following recipe is a Middle Eastern take on the classic Italian dish, Pasta e Ceci (pasta and chickpeas). While Ottolenghi has chosen Gigli, a wavy pasta that means ‘lillies’ in Italian, any short pasta of a similar size and shape may be substituted. I chose casareccia, a good sauce carrying pasta shape that I keep on hand.
Gigli with chickpeas and za’atar. Serves 4.
45 ml olive oil
1/2 onion ( 100g) fnely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp ground cumin
10 g fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
25 g anchovy fillets, finely chopped
1 lemon, finely shaved skin of half, the juice to 2 Tbles
480 g cooked chick peas, or 2 cans, drained.
1 tsp soft brown sugar
400 ml chicken broth – substitute vegetable stock if vegetarian
200 g gigli pasta ( or other shape such as conchiglie, orecchiette, or my favourite all rounder, casareccia
50 g baby spinach leaves
15 g Italian parsley,, finely chopped
1½ tsp za’atar
salt and pepper
Put the olive oil into a large sauté pan and place on a high heat. Add the onion, garlic, cumin, thyme, anchovies, lemon skin, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper. Fry for 3-4 minutes, stirring often, until soft and golden. Reduce the heat to medium, then add the chickpeas and sugar and fry for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chickpeas begin to brown and crisp up. Add the chicken broth and lemon juice and simmer for 6 minutes, until the sauce has reduced slightly. Remove from the heat and set aside. You can make this in advance if you like and warm through before serving.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions, until al dente. Drain and set aside.
Stir the spinach and parsley into the chickpeas: the residual heat of the sauce should cook the spinach., but if it doesn’t wilt, just warm the chickpeas gently on the stove. Transfer the pasta to the pan of chickpeas and stir to combine. Divide between four bowls and sprinkle the za’atar on top. Finish with a drizzle of oil and serve.
A few notes on this dish.
Cooking the first stage ahead makes sense, allowing you to throw the dish together when ready.
If you use home cooked chickpeas, you might find they don’t brown or crisp up- this isn’t important to the successful outcome of the dish. canned chickpeas are more bullet like and will, most likely, stay firm and brown.
I tend not to drain pasta as a rule, but simply lift it from the pot of water and into the sauce, with tongs or a pasta claw. In this way, some of the remaining salty water clinging to the pasta enriches the sauce.
I used chicken stock powder by Massel for the broth, which is completely plant based and useful for everyday stock.
If you want to turn this back into an authentic Italian dish, simply remove the thyme and the Za’atar, and maybe add some finely chopped tomatoes during the first step of cooking.
It goes without saying that we are all rather pleased to see the end of 2020. As a friend Cristina, from a Un Po’ di Pepe succinctly points out, Addio 2020 is too polite a term to farewell the year from hell: she offers some fitting Italian sendoffs including the colourful Vaffanculo 2020. I’m not prepared to make any commitments or plans regarding this New Year. Should 2021 be any different? This will depend on the successful uptake of the vaccine and its availability worldwide. Meanwhile the main threat to our planet, global warming, still crouches in the other corner, ready to spring back into action with more destructive weather events around the globe. At this time last year, Australians were far more passionate about taking radical steps to deal with the urgency of global warming. If there’s one positive outcome from Covid-19, it’s the reduction in emissions as a result of minimal air and car travel during 2020. The skies are still silent, and only recently has the road traffic snarl returned to its pre- Covid level.
Looking back over the year 2020, there were more kitchen highlights in my life than usual, since I spent most of the year in that room. I came to enjoy winter at home, improved my bread shaping techniques, sourced some wonderful flour via online shopping, and shared more shopping activities with others. I discovered a reliable fishmonger who was prepared to deliver to our fringe country area. The woodstove provided a permanent source of hot water for beverages while the small baker’s oven below was used to reheat food. Because we were home for most of the year, we wasted less food. We didn’t dine out- except for a rare take away treat of fish and chips from our nearest village. It was quiet. Home life became far more rewarding (I’m excluding house cleaning from this broad statement ) and the car was rarely used. We recently installed solar panels and look forward to the benefits over the coming months. Maybe being forced to change one’s behaviour, courtesy of Covid, is one small answer to solving the climate crisis.
Looking backwards, highlights from my kitchen in December 2020 included:
Lobster for two, with a warm butter sauce infused with garlic.
For the first time in many years, Australian lobster became available to locals as the two major supermarket chains bought the annual Western Australian quota and marketed lobster for $20 a piece. They were small, and came precooked and frozen, thus sparing the need to kill the delicious beast humanely. Thanks to the ongoing trade war with China, (whose trade war it really is and why we’re having one is a long story ), the usual Chinese market for lobster suddenly disappeared. It seems rather odd to me that in ‘normal’ years, Australians are not able to buy an affordable Christmas crustacean. I remember the stories my grandparents told me about their Friday night treat, a crayfish and a bottle of beer to share. They were solidly working class with rarely a shilling to spare. Lobster, more commonly referred to as crayfish in those days, was considered working class food during the 1930s. It is now the food destined for the wealthy in Hong Kong and China. Long live the trade wars that allow Australians to eat locally caught foods.
These two sourdough breads saw us through the week after Christmas and both are my favourites. I try not to make them too often. The dark rye bread teams beautifully with any smoked fish, along with dill pickles. It is also perfect for breakfast with Seville Marmalade. One of my goals for 2021 is to master the art of smoking fish. Other than wholemeal rye, the flavours include anise and fennel seeds and orange rind, with molasses providing colour and caramelisation to the crust. The other loaf is a Panmarino, a white loaf flavoured with fresh rosemary and encrusted with salt flakes. It is loaf supposedly evoking the bread of the D’Este family of Ferrara in the late 13th century. I’m still playing with this recipe, but if you’re keen to make it, the recipe is here.
Baklava instead of Christmas pudding.
I was quite happy with this baklava but felt that the inclusion of honey in the syrup tended to dominate the flavour. I added both walnuts and pistachio in the mixture. Have you ever tried to chop pistachio nuts? It’s not a job I can recommend, and even the very patient kitchen hand, Mr Tranquillo complained. This dessert lasted well for a week and I ate most of it for afternoon tea in the week following Christmas. Couch, book and baklava- I can highly recommend it. Prosecco may be added.
Vegetarian Sausage rolls
I made a huge batch of vegetarian mini sausage rolls for my daughter’s Christmas catering event. At some point in our tradition, sausage rolls crept onto the menu as a substitute for those who don’t/can’t eat the seafood starters, or for fussy kids, or committed vegetarians. These were popular with all her guests, regardless of their food preferences, so I guess they’ll stay on the menu. The recipe can be found here, though I’ve slightly adapted it since then.
Mango Fundraising time
Every year, some of the local schools organise a mango fundraiser. This year our mangoes arrived in early December, supporting the after school drama programme at Eltham High School. Some are still lolling in the fridge and will soon be pureed and frozen for a summer mango mojito.
I’m so glad that Christmas is over. January is one of our busiest months as all the garden and orchard produce lands in the kitchen in abundance. The garlic, 225 bulbs, has been stashed in the dark for the year ahead, 12 kilo of peaches have been picked to date and the zucchini are being transformed into pickles, a good summer condiment to serve with feta or cheddar cheese on busy days. Thanks once again Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for continuing with this series. It has been such a wonderful place over the years to connect with like minded people.
Australian road trips are long and often arduous affairs, depending on your view of the world. In our recent getaway after Melbourne’s ‘Ring of Steel’ was removed, which allowed Victorians freedom of movement within their own State after many months of hard lockdown, we travelled way out west to visit a friend who lives in the Wimmera, then headed to Portland on the south west coast, returning home six days later, a total journey of 1110 kilometers, not counting side trips. There are two schools of thought when it comes to planning a road trip. The old school approach plans on getting from A to B as quickly as possible. It involves travelling along major routes and highways at the speed limit. Fuel stops, lunch and toilet breaks are hasty, usually consisting of take away food from huge highway service centres, soulless and treeless places. The second approach focuses on back roads, with preference given to minor C or D roads for most of the journey, stopping along the way to walk around small towns, visiting historic sites, and taking photos along the way. Back roads are rarely frequented by trucks, speed demons, or people attached to a time frame, a construct that is based on the idea that the destination is more important than the journey. In a back road journey, a country town’s bakery might offer a tasty pastie for lunch while a packed thermos of hot water provides a cup of tea along the way. There’s always a park with picnic tables under a shady tree, a gazebo or picnic hut in an Australian country town.
My preference for back road journeys began at some point during the late 1980s after reading the iconic road trip story, ‘Blue Highways’, by William Least Heat Moon ( born William Lewis Trogdon). Travelling around the USA in an old van, Heat Moon chose only the “blue highways”. He coined the term to refer to small, forgotten, out-of-the-way roads connecting rural America: these roads were drawn in blue on old maps. During his three month journey, he visited small towns with interesting names, meeting quite a few characters and documenting the history of each place along the way. He took along a copy of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, considered to be the quintessentially American book, published in 1892, poetry which had little appeal to me when I was obliged to read it back the 1970s. I’m wondering what the archetypal Australian book might be to take along on an Aussie road trip in a van in 2020?
Travelling around Australia’s back roads that connect old towns, there’s more chance to collide with history. These old towns were important markers along the way before the major highways bi-passed them, cutting them off from passing trade. Nowadays, many are struggling to survive though quite a few are having a renaissance too. By revisiting them, there’s a chance to relive a long forgotten childhood memory of a trip taken so many years before, or to find ancestral farms and burial grounds, or to discover the importance of agriculture in the life of the Australian economy, a thing we often take for granted. Many small towns are graced with marvelous bluestone buildings, constructed by skilled Scottish stonemasons in the 1850s, as well as a surfeit of churches, most now obsolete, shrines to the many sects that divided the Christian religion during a previous era. Many Australian small towns were built after the success of gold mining or the sheep boom or during the grand building era of the 1890s. In each small town there’s a war shrine listing those who had died in the Great War, a reminder of how war devastated farming families and communities. Perhaps there’ll be a memorial avenue of large trees, or a bank of a river by which to loiter, or a country pub with a counter meal to distract you totally from your trip.
Driving along major roads you’ll miss this wonderful exploration of the past as well as the present so peaceful and appealing. But peel away this colonial veneer, the buildings, the churches, the old houses and quaint statues, the white history of our country places, and you may begin to see, perhaps for the first time, the indigenous history of the land, spelt out in land forms, native flora, in hidden billabongs and creeks.
On our recent road trip, the first leg took us to Woodend, a 99 km trip, via the country C or back roads towards Wallan, Donnybrook, Kalkallo, a most convenient and gentle way to leave the city without meeting much traffic or speed. This route skirts just beyond the outer fringes of Melbourne’s large suburban sprawl, the route notable for the beautiful ancient red gum trees, some believed to be 500 years old, that are dotted in paddocks along the way. Looking towards the horizon near Kalkallo, Bald Hill, the well worn hill of an old volcano, dominates the flat land. Bald Hill was noted in the diaries of our colonial ancestors who settled in this area in the 1840s. The large hill, seen from every road and angle, would certainly have been a significant marker for the indigenous people, prior to white invasion. The Merri Creek rises nearby. This creek was formed over many years by incising through the lava surface near Wallan, and then flows in a southerly direction for 70 km until it joins the Yarra River in Fairfield near Dight’s Falls and subsequently flows into Port Phillip Bay. Many Melbournians are familiar with Merri creek, given that it passes through many of the older suburbs of Melbourne, but few are familiar with its source. The Merri Creek was also vital for the first nation people of Melbourne.
“The Wurundjeri-willamhad regular camping spots along the Merri Creek which they would visit according to season. In winter the low lying land next to the creek was subject to flooding and the general dampness made it an unsuitable place for camping. At this time they would move to the hills. In summer time when food supplies were plentiful along the creeks, clans would visit one another and host meetings and ceremonies.
Women were responsible for 90% of food collected, of which the staple were plants. All Wurundjeri-willam women carried a long fire hardened digging stick known as a kannan. They used their kannan to dig up the root or tuber of the murnong or yam daisy. It had a bitter taste in winter but became much sweeter when spring arrived.
The creek supplied the Wurundjeri-willam with an abundance of food such as eel, fish, and duck. Women waded through the Merri with string bags suspended around their neck, searching the bottom of the stream for shellfish. Emu and kangaroo were hunted in the surrounding grasslands.
In the forests and hills, possum was also a staple source of food and clothing, The flesh of the possum was cooked and eaten, while the skin was saved to be sewn into valuable waterproof cloaks.
These cloaks were fastened at the shoulder and extended to the knees. Clan designs were incised with a mussel shell tool into the inner surfaces of the skins. Wearing the fur side next to the body showed off the designs which were highlighted with red ochre.” *
As Melbourne’s Northern Growth Corridor begins to swamp this area with more suburban subdivision, cultural mapping is taking place in these areas near Wallan and Kalkallo. The Merri Creek was a significant route for the Wurrundjeri-willam people. Archeologists may reveal stone sharpening tools and middens along the billabongs and creeks, and perhaps not come across any sites of significance, but intangible indigenous history can be felt in these areas. You don’t need intact evidence, a birthing tree, a canoe tree or ancient fish traps to know that this land is culturally significant. And you don’t need a history book to tell you that massacre of the indigenous people took place nearby.
I’ll be returning to this area, which is not too far from home, next time to take photos of a land that reveals many surprises if you just take the time. I’m afraid that if I wait too long, the area, and the signs you can still read, will be buried under new housing estates.
A few holiday questions for you Dear Reader. What book would accompany you on a road trip in your country? Do you prefer to take C roads when travelling, assuming that you have all the time in the world? What makes a road trip special for you?
This is part one of my recent road trip. There will be more legs offered soon, I hope.
It is only in very recent weeks that we have returned to some semblance of ‘Covid Normal’ here in Melbourne. This has had a huge impact on my life in the kitchen. While the meals I prepared for two were interesting, healthy and varied over the long 8 months of no socialising, I managed to lose the desire to cook for larger groups, or provide for little gatherings at home. I’ve lost confidence in cooking: I now prefer spontaneous meals, rather than planned events. A corollary of this is that I no longer write blogs. Let’s hope this little post will be akin to dipping my big toe in cold water before diving right in.
One thing I’ve noticed, now that I’m able to travel more than 5 kilometers from my residence, is that food shopping has become rather special: it’s louder, brighter and more tempting than previously, akin to a 3D technicolour movie experience after a life of black and white. The local supermarket supplied me with the basics during the ‘iso’ months, but I’m excited to be travelling to my preferred food outlets again. Years ago, one relied on the inner suburbs for more interesting goods, be they Middle Eastern, Indian, Italian or Greek. With the gentrification of the inner suburbs and consequent rent hikes, more interesting food supplies can now be found in developing suburbs on the fringes. Fortunately for me, this means a drive through our back hills and dales which ends up being relatively close.
My vegetable garden is booming. There’s nothing better than fresh stuff picked on the day of cooking. This year I’ve planted two types of zucchini – Romanesco are producing well at the moment and I love the more delicate flavour of this variety. Blackjack zucchini are in flower and I mainly use these for pickles and soup. Two of my late cauliflower have grown into florets- something I find more desirable than creamy heads. These stalks are really nice in stir fries or battered with besan flour. I’m planning to save the seed of this non heading variety
I took a month off sourdough bread baking- to match my month of doing nothing much except watching Netflix. But happily I’m back into it with a vengeance, especially now that I can order from a wholesaler who supplies top organic flours. During covid, I relied on Amazon for flour deliveries, but can now travel to pick up the good stuff.
We recently enjoyed a short getaway to Western Victoria, once the metaphorical ‘Ring of Steel’ was lifted from Melbourne. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Bakehouse in Portland, where Kim bakes the most amazing sourdough goods. There are wonderful breads to choose from, but her sourdough patisserie goods are irresistable too. The range changes daily- fresh bombolini, danish, brioche, croissants and more- all light and buttery but made with a sourdough levain. The Bakehouse Portland is only open from Thursday to Sunday, and it’s best to arrive early. Her bakery is at the rear of 31 Percy Street Portland, VIC, Australia. Once inside the shop, you are transported to a classy French Patsisserie: I was surprised to learn that Kim began making sourdough only 5 years ago and learnt mostly from youtube and instagram, and not in Paris. There’s hope for us all, you just need the passion. If you’re travelling through Portland, do not miss this bakery.
The youngberry bush is flushing daily. I think it’s time to make jam again.
There are always a few dozen fresh eggs in my kitchen. I sell around 5 dozen each week which subsidises the cost of grain and fresh straw. My girls have a good life runnning through the orchard and hiding in the berry bushes. One strange thing that happened during lockdown was the secret expansion of the flock and the hatching of chickens. Yes we do have rather too many, but who can resist a lavender coloured Pekin Bantom with attitude?
This year’s garlic crop is curing in the shed. It takes a month or so to correctly cure garlic for long storage. The harvest is now finished, with a count of 230 garlic bulbs, enough to keep the vampires away for next year. Thanks Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for hosting this series. You can follow Sherry’s link for more worldwide in my kitchen posts.
The Australian meat pie is one food item that is deemed to be a truly local culinary meal. It is also an iconic snack that goes hand in hand with Aussie Rules Football. I like the idea of pies, they are such a comforting and traditional food, especially when well anointed in bottled sauce, but as I don’t eat meat, the native version is not for me. I’m also not a fan of football, but as the AFL Grand Final is today, I may watch a short segment of the match, perhaps the last 5 minutes, as I eat my very untraditional Australian scallop pie. Two Victorian teams will be battling it out, they tell me, the Cats and the Tigers: I may keep some earphones handy and listen to music as it’s the sound of football I dislike the most. I don’t mind a few close ups of the lads climbing all over each other in their attempt to get their hands on that leather ball. As the state of Victoria remains under strict lockdown, the finals match will be played in Brisbane, Queensland, a state that has managed to avoid the plague so far.
During this extraordinary year of the pandemic and consequent very strict lockdown, I’ve developed my pie making skills, thanks to the discovery of a base recipe by Australian chef Neil Perry. I’ve discovered that the success of a good pie, which in my case is either vegetarian or seafood, comes down to the flavour and texture of the glutinous sauce which binds the ingredients together. I’ve played with Neil Perry’s base sauce recipe many times now and have adapted it to the ingredients and herbs that grow in my garden. So far, I’ve made pumpkin and carrot pot pies, leek, potato and cheese pies, and these wonderful scallop pies. Once you master this sauce, you can add anything really. The pie filling can be placed in a ramekin dish and topped with puff pastry, or you can use pie molds for a complete top and bottom pastry lined traditional pie. It’s worth spending a little extra on very good commercial puff pastry, especially if you’re planning to fill them with expensive, seasonal Bass Straight scallops.
I’m breaking this recipe into a few parts. The first part deals with the binding thick gravy. I’ve adapted the original recipe from Perry and switched to stock for the liquid ( the original used milk). I’ve also added mild curry powder for these scallop pies, but use Dijon mustard for other vegetable versions.
Very adaptable thick pie gravy recipe, enough for 4 pies
80 gr butter
1 1/2 Tb EV olive oil
1 leek, white and pale green parts, finely sliced
2 Tb wild fennel herb finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
sea salt, freshly ground white pepper to taste
cayenne pepper, a pinch
1/2 cup plain ( AP) flour
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 cups stock, made from stock cubes or powder, warmed
1 heaped teaspoon of mild curry powder such as Keens
1/4 cup cream
zest of 1/2 lemon, optional
small handful of flat leafed parsley, finely chopped
To make the sauce, heat the butter and olive oil in saucepan over low heat. Add the leek, fennel herb, garlic, a pinch of salt, white pepper, cayenne and cook over low heat for 10 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Stir in the flour and curry powder and cook until the mixture bubbles and becomes grainy, stirring as you go.
Gradually pour in the wine, stirring well, then gradually add the warm stock. Continue stirring until the mixture bubbles. Add in lemon zest and parsley, the taste and check seasoning.
The filling and pastry for scallop pies, enough for 4.
300 grs fresh scallops, remove hard digestive tracts on side, cut large scallops in half
1 potato, around 120 gr or so, peeled, diced and cooked in water for 10 minutes
1 pkt of good quality butter puff pastry sheets. You’ll need four sheets for encased pies or two sheets for ramekin pastry topped pies.
1 egg mixed with 1 Tb milk, whisked together for the pastry glaze
Putting the pies together
After you’ve made the pie gravy, add the raw scallops and cooked diced potato to the mixture. Cool the mixture while defrosting the puff pastry sheets.
Grease some pie tins and line with pastry cut to shape. Fill the pies with cooled scallop mixture. Top with pastry lids cut to shape and crimp well, joining top to lining. Brush the egg glaze over the pastry. Pierce or fork the top of each pie to allow the steam to escape. Place the pies on a baking tray and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 200c or 180 c FF. Bake the baking tray in the centre of the oven and bake for round 20 minutes or until pastry is golden.
If you make a version of these pies, using the special thick and flavoursome gravy recipe, let me know. I’m keen to collect more good versions.
Below is a collage of my week in Instagram pics. Instagram is a lot less demanding than blogging, especially now that WordPress has changed its editing programme. Am I the only one struggling to adapt to this new geeky block editor?
There’s no shortage of good quality fresh fish and seafood in Melbourne, but getting your hands on it at a reasonable price is another thing. Under the State of Victoria’s present regulations for controlling the spread of Covid-19, there’s a 5 kilometre rule in place which limits the distance one may travel to do essential shopping. My nearest fresh seafood market is around 30 kilometres from my home; it has been 2 months since I’ve enjoyed good fish ( sounds like a confession opening) and I’m beginning to feel like a deprived fish junkie. There was one small window of opportunity back in late July, when my favourite fishmonger offered a fabulous home delivery service: I promptly formed a local group, placed a huge order, then shared the $20 delivery fee. Sadly this fishy opportunity came unstuck when my trustworthy fishmonger closed due to Covid issues. We all cried. In the meantime, I can honestly say that the fish and seafood offerings at my local major supermarket are disappointing. Here’s what’s on offer:- flabby farmed Barramundi, farmed Tasmanian salmon, with its bright pop of pink synthetically dyed flesh, chemically dyed and smoked imported cod, ordinary defrosted New Zealand ling and nastiest of all, Vietnamese Basa, white, bland tasting catfish farmed in suspect ponds around the Mekong river. If local fish turns up at all, it’s ridiculously expensive, grey and tired looking. Shopping for fish at a supermarket is a frustrating business. There are only two questions you may ask: has this fish been defrosted and what is the use by date. The staff behind that deli window display are not fishmongers. Most of the other seafood – prawns, scallops, etc- are thawed in trays daily, the stock trucked in from a national depot somewhere in Australia. None of the offerings reflect locality or season.
But there’s one option on a lucky day that warrants a quick sideways glance when scuttling past that fishy display – the vacuum packed bag of fresh mussels. ( Yes, I know, more plastic). Local black mussels are a sustainable choice. Farmed on long ropes in pristine seas around Victoria, mussels cannot be fed or fertilised; this means the whole production process is totally natural. The only important thing to check is the use by date on the bag when purchasing. Try to obtain mussels that have just been harvested- the longer they’ve been in the bag, the less appealing they become, even if they haven’t yet reached the magic use by date.
Mejillones a la Gallaga – Galician Style Mussels.
1 kilo of fresh black mussels
1/4 cup white wine for opening the mussels
2 tablespoons EV olive oil
one onion, finely chopped
two garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 heaped teaspoon of Spanish smoked pimenton/paprika- hot or sweet
1/4- 1/2 teaspoon of saffron threads
one can diced tomatoes, including juice
In a wide, deep frying pan or non stick wok, heat the oil and add the onions. Cook on medium heat until they soften, about 6 minutes, than add the garlic, and cook for another minute.
Add the saffron threads and pimenton. Toss through the onions then add the can of tomatoes. Turn the heat down low and cook slowly to thicken.
Meanwhile in another large lidded pan or pot, open the mussels with the wine. They should all open within a minute or two so stand by with your tongs, ready to remove them as they open. Place the opened mussels in a bowl. Pour the remaining mussel juice through a muslin cloth lined strainer, over another small bowl to catch the juice.
Add one cup or so of the strained juice to the tomato mixture. Turn up the heat and bubble the tomato mixture/mussel juice to thicken. You my wish to add more juice as you go.
Remove the top shells of the reserved mussels. After cooking and reducing the tomato mixture for around 10 minutes, check it for seasoning. when its ready, add the mussels and turn through the sauce to heat them.
Add chopped Italian parsley if you wish and serve with crusty baguette, or cooked bomba rice or small shaped pasta.
If you like eating fish, support a fishmonger before they all disappear.
The season has been fruitful, especially with an abundant supply of all kinds of citrus, though this colourful presence is slowly coming to an end, with Blood and Valencia oranges the last varieties to pick. In Spring, the trees will return to flower and leaf production for next year. We have around 14 citrus trees but there’s always room for more. Most were planted around 10 years ago, with productivity hampered by drought, wind, rabbit infestation and severe frost. They’ve now reached a stage of maturity where they can withstand most conditions.
There are two citrus trees producing oddities. These knobbly, thick skinned fruit grow on thorny wild trees. One wild tree used to be a grafted Kaffir lime tree. After dying in the recent drought, it re-sprouted, reverting back to old root stock below the graft. Although incredibly bitter to taste, the fruits are exotic, brightly coloured and decorative. They remind me of the Renaissance fascination with formal citrus gardens and the collecting of rare and unusual specimens. The paintings by Bartolomeo Bimbi and Giovanna Garzani, reveal this fascination for depicting bumpy, disfigured lemons and other rare agrumi.
On that subject, The Land Where Lemons Grow, by Helena Attlee, documents the history of the Italian fascination with citrus and is a great read. Thank you Beck, at In Search of the Golden Pudding, for recommending this. In terms of food writing, it’s up there with Delizia! An EpicHistory of Italians and their Food, by John Dickie and Honey from a Weed, by Patience Gray.
In My Kitchen there’s always cake: the peasants have no fear of starving. I make a cake weekly: in this cool weather, it keeps well under a glass dome sitting on the kitchen dresser. I often halve them and send some away to other cake loving peasants. Most double as pudding: a couple of slices gently warmed in the remaining heat of an oven, served with something wet ( cream, icecream, custard) have kept us sane during winter and the lockdown. I’ve now made two versions of the Seville orange marmalade cake, pictured above. The recipe can be found here. The second version pictured below is a classic Middle Eastern orange and almond cake, glazed in marmalade. I think I prefer the first version. Excess marmalade can be used as a glaze in many ways. Maybe a chocolate cake could turn Jaffa-esque when topped with an orange marmalade glaze? Or a little Seville marmalade stirred through a rice pudding? Served with Halloumi? Liquified then added to a G&T?
The little pasta dish below looks quite plain, belying the richness and intense lemon/orange flavoured sauce hiding within its folds. The sauce includes fine slivers of peel from an orange and lemon, which are boiled to soften, and the juice, a little onion, a knob of butter, cream and seasoning.
The egg noodles from Mantovanelle come very close to those made by hand at home. These tagliatelline are my favourite comfort food. Cooked in five minutes, this gives you just enough time to quickly construct a sauce. Once the pasta hits the boiling water, my large non- stick wok is fired up and ready to go. In goes the EV olive oil, a little garlic, followed by fresh things from the garden, small stems of broccoli, young leaves of kale, some herbs, a few tiny unshelled broad beans, a dash of wine, perhaps some smoked salmon chunks, a few dashes of cream, seasoning and finally the cooked noodles. It’s a merry little dance around 2 stove jets. When the long lockdown ends in Melbourne, I look forward to returning to my favourite food shops which are further than 5 kilometres from my home. Since early July, strict travel distance rules have regulated movement in Melbourne. This pasta will be at the top of my shopping list.
The winter garden has kept us in fresh greens and now that spring is here, broad beans are slowly appearing.
Another day, another pasta. Rigatoni paired with a vegetarian ragù. The sauce included some mushrooms, dried porcini, herbs, left over thick lentil soup, a little miso, and tomato passata.
In these times, I often find myself looking back rather than forward. I cannot think of anything at present to look forward to- no short drives in the country, a family gathering, dinner with friends, travels overseas, visits to the city, a Vietnamese meal, a trip to the library- it’s a life without anticipation. Often, our next meal is the highlight of the day. The arrival of a book in the post, or a food order from Mt Zero Olives, is an added bonus. In this era of hard lockdown, the future has become blurred. Last night, as we were eating dinner, a spaghetti cacio e pepe, the conversation inevitably led to Rome. Where did we eat that last Roman cacio e pepe, where would we stay next time, an apartment in Trastevere again ( too busy) or over in Testaccio ( interesting suburb) or in centro? Through reminiscing, we came to the realisation that we would not be returning to Italy, or indeed Europe, and perhaps not to our favourite haunts in Asia. This is not meant to be a maudlin observation: I am a pragmatist at heart. Looking back over some of my old posts has given me a chance to relive some of those travels: like writing a detailed journal, blogging is a worthwhile pursuit in this sense. Unlike Facebook or Instagram posting, blogging provides a permanent and accessible log into the past. In the same way, participating in the monthly In MyKitchen for the last 7 years has produced another kind of documentation. Over the years my kitchen posts have gravitated towards seasonal food and simple dishes. My previous September posts expose another story: I’m usually away. Thanks Sherry of Sherry’s Pickings for continuing this series: it has been an interesting journey.
Put away your trumpet, there’ll be no fanfare for the dawning of Spring. In Melbourne, the month of September is changeable, windy and unpredictable. Sunny days are often preceded by blistering cold. Gale force winds rip through the hills, bringing down branches from bare winter trees while the ‘darling buds’, the blossom on fruit trees, bravely hang on. There’s nothing especially attractive or romantic about Spring: the arrival of Primaverais invariably disappointing. Early Spring is like a moody teenager: all that white and pink confetti blossom helps to create a sense of hope and promise, yet the new season is accompanied by immaturity and mood swings. It’s a season on hormones. I’ve often returned to Melbourne in late September to be disheartened by the cold and windy weather.
This year I experienced my first Melbourne winter for 10 years and was surprised by the vibrant colour in the garden and the calm weather throughout late July and August. It isn’t surprising to learn that the Wurundjeri – Melbourne’s indigenous people who have lived around what is now Melbourne for thousands of years- have a calendar consisting of 6 seasons. The period from late July to the end of August is a distinct season in the indigenous calendar: it’s the time of nesting and first flowers. This year, this pre-spring season has been remarkably clement, sunny and still, with many joyous picnic kind of days.
” The division of the year into four seasons comes from Northern Europe, and does not fit Melbourne. We still think of winter as an unfavourable season for plants, when northern European trees drop their leaves and become dormant, but for our native plants, especially the small tuberous herbs, winter is a season of growth. At this time the bush is green, and the temperatures are rarely low enough to stop growth. The unfavourable season is high summer, when water is scarce, and much of the ground flora becomes brown and dies off. “¹
In the last two weeks of winter, I’ve observed new seasonal birds in the garden, attracted by the early pink/mauve flowering Echium. New Holland Honeyeaters, Eastern Spine Bills and Wattle birds have feasted on this large bush while on still days, hundreds of bees have had their turn. Once the honey eaters arrive, a seasonal indicator of sorts, I start sowing seeds, knowing that the sun’s angle will be perfect for germination inside my north facing window.
Native wattle trees have been in flower for weeks, with different species taking turns to paint the distant landscape with bright yellow patches of mini pom poms. The blue green leaves of the eucalypt drape and sway gracefully from tall healthy trees. They are in their prime in late winter. The native purple flowering creeper, hardenbergia violacia spent winter snaking its way along a fence while the mauve flowers on the tips of the silver leafed Teucrum Fruticans hedge have enjoyed this pre-spring season. Some non- native plants have also thrived in late winter, especially the euphorbia, a startling lime green show off, while the jonquils and daffodils, now spent, are a late winter pop up. One lone flag iris emerged under a pear tree. The citrus trees fruit in this little wedge of time between winter and spring- Navel, Washington and Blood orange fruits brightened the season. Now that Spring has arrived, they’ve finished their fruiting cycle, with energy directed to leaf and flower.
The late winter vegetable patch has supplied us with bitter salad leaves, chard, kale, turnips, green onions, leeks, broccoli, fennel and parsley. Spring will push these plants sky high: it’s now a race to eat as many of these liver cleansing greens as we can before they bolt to seed.
Picked greens for a Pizza di Verdure Pugliese.
This year’s pandemic and subsequent isolation forced me to regard winter with new eyes: I can honestly say, it wasn’t so bad. And now, let’s see what this season throws at us. Life has become as unpredictable as Spring.
¹ There are many diagrams and charts illustrating aboriginal seasons, each one varying from place to place. The diagram above best illustrates Melbourne’s seasons. Diagram and quotation from http://www.herringisland.org/seasons1.htm
The search for a neighbourhood Seville orange tree began back in May. I’d just made a few batches of lime marmalade and had passed a jar on to a friend in our village. This inevitably led to a conversation via Messenger, ( aren’t all good conversations held this way during the pandemic? ) about the need to find some elusive Seville oranges to make the epitome of all marmalade, Seville Marmalade. I went as far as inquiring about Sevilles on our local community Facebook site. A respondent replied, an artist from the next village, who paints beautiful studio studies of seasonal fruit. In her walks, she had noticed some productive Seville orange trees and sent me monthly updates on the state of ripeness. Not only that, she picked 5 kilos, carried them to my daughter’s house, who then delivered them to my place. This season’s Seville Marmalade is now happily in jars, though plenty are walking out the front door.
The point of this simple little tale of two villages is that throughout this pandemic and months of lockdown, community consciousness has developed and now includes the sharing of major shopping trips, the cost of delivery services, spare garden produce, tools, and knowledge. Much of this is done through social media, which can be a tool for social change when used well. If there’s an up- side to the pandemic, it is this.
Seville Marmalade Cake
Ingredients • 100 gr coarse-cut orange Seville marmalade ( approx 1/3 cup) • 175 gr butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the pan • 175 gr sugar • 2 teaspoons grated lime zest ( optional) • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest • 3 large eggs at room temperature • 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice • 190 gr all-purpose flour • 7 gr baking powder • pinch fine sea salt
30 gr icing sugar
100 gr Seville marmalade ( approx 1/3 cup)
knob of butter
Preparation 1. Heat oven to 175º c. Grease a 23 cm by 13 cm loaf pan. Line with baking paper. 2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together softened butter, sugar, lime zest and orange zest for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until incorporated. Beat in the marmalade and orange juice. ( Tip: if the mixture looks like curdling when you beat in the eggs, add a little flour as you go) 3. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Fold dry ingredients into wet until just combined. 4. Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until surface of cake is golden brown , about 50 to 55 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer pan to a wire rack. Cool for 10 minutes before glazing. then turn cake out of pan and place on rack right-side up. Glaze/icing. Heat the marmalade in a small pot over low heat until melted; whisk in icing sugar and butter until smooth. There are two approaches to adding the topping. EITHER invert cake onto a tray, turn right way up then add the jammy topping which will run down the sides OR add the glaze to cake in the pan, which will concentrate the flavour to the top, though some will sink through and down the sides. When completely cool, lift from pan right way up.
Keeps well for about 5 days
Use any orange marmalade if you don’t have Seville, though that sweet bitter taste will be missing. Omit lime zest if you don’t have limes on hand and add a little more orange zest. I’ve left the ancient non-measurement, knob, because I love the sound of it. A knob could be anything you wish it to be: it’s also a crude term of abuse in Australia- Don’t be a knob! A knob only applies to butter and is similar to that wonderful Italian cooking measurement qbor quanto basta, which means ‘as much as is enough’, or ‘to taste’ or as much as is needed to achieve the desired result.