Little Fish Swimming Under Oil. Preserving Fresh Anchovies.

One of the classic ways of conserving seasonal food, especially in rural Italy, is to preserve food in jars ‘sott’ olio’ or under oil. Usually vegetables, such as peppers, artichokes, eggplant and mushrooms, are partially cooked, grilled or brined beforehand, then covered completely in oil. The oil excludes air and acts as a seal against deterioration. The shelf life of these country treasures is shorter than other foods preserved using the bottling or ‘canning’ method, and once opened, they should be stored in the fridge.

One of the most enticing treats done in this way is anchovies under oil. I have vivid memories of the first time I tried anchovies conserved in this way. It was February 1993 and I was living in Siena for a month to attend a language course in Italian at the Scuola di Dante Alighieri per Stranieri, a short course wedged between my first and second year Italian studies at university. The course was demanding, with daily classes from 8 am to 1 pm, with a short coffee break in between. This left the afternoon free to explore the countryside or to wander the streets of Siena before returning home for a wine, a snack and more homework. One lunchtime, a fellow student and his wife invited me to lunch- he was, like me, an older student and was studying Italian to enhance his wine writing career. He recommended a little osteria, a simple place, with an appealing array of antipasti dishes displayed at the front counter. And there they were, sitting neatly in a rectangular glass dish, acciughe sott’olio, pink tender fillets of anchovy glistening under golden olive oil, carpeted above in finely chopped parsley. I ordered a large scoop, along with some other bits and pieces and a panino. Anchovies have never been the same for me since that day. When in Italy, I always order a small container of acciughe sott’olio from an alimentari:  they taste nothing like the jarred or tinned variety.

Last Wednesday as I was trawling the fish market at Preston, a big shiny pile of fresh anchovies caught my eye. I could barely contain my excitement, largely because in all the years I’ve been frequenting fish markets around Melbourne, I’ve never seen them offered for sale. I bought one kilo, raced back home and spent the next hour, with some help from Mr T, de-heading and gutting hundreds of these tiny fish: no bigger than my little finger, this was a real labour of love, the anticipation of eating the finished product inspiring me to gut neatly and well. The following recipe is for those who might come across fresh anchovies in their travels and who don’t mind some tedious gutting. The gutting becomes quite easy once you get a rhythm going. Once gutted, they are easy to brine and conserve. Don’t confuse fresh anchovies with sardines- they are two quite distinct species: anchovies are much smaller and look and taste completely different.

Fresh anchovies preserved under oil. Acciughe sott’olio.

  • 1 kilo fresh anchovies
  • course salt
  • red wine vinegar
  • EV olive oil.
  • garlic
  • herbs

First of all, wash the fish a few times in a large colander to remove some of the blood. Then start the de-heading and gutting process, well armed with a strong wooden cutting board and newspaper for the scraps ( perfectly fine sent to the compost heap). As you cut off head, push down against the board and drag it away from the body- you’ll find that the guts come out with the head in one simple movement. If the anchovy separates into two parts, pull out the backbone: if not, leave it there, to be removed later.

Once prepared, lay in a glass or ceramic container – I used a large earthenware gratin dish.  Liberally sprinkle with course salt, lifting the little fillets through the salt, then arrange them neatly in the dish. How much salt? Quanto basta, as they say in Italian recipes, q.b. for short, which means as much as you think they need. Cover with red wine vinegar. Cover the dish, and put it in the fridge for 24 hours.

The next day, sterilise two medium sized jars for the anchovies. Drain the brine from the fish, remove their fine backbones, which will pull out very easily, then pop into jars, layering them with a little finely chopped garlic and some oregano if you wish. Don’t overdo the extra flavours as they may come to overwhelm the fish over time. Fill the jars with olive oil, knock the jars against the bench a few times to remove air-pockets, then top up with more oil as needed. The contents must be covered. Put on lids tightly then store in the fridge. Leave for around five days before eating. As olive oil turns cloudy when cold, remove the anchovies a few minutes before serving and place in a small bowl. The oil with clear in no time in a warm room.

As the flavoured oil is a component of this antipasto dish, you want to use good tasting oil, but perhaps not a top notch one. I used Cobram Australian Extra Virgin olive oil, a good quality everyday oil and one that tastes quite good too.

Serve as part of an antipasto selection, or simply place them on top of good sourdough bread, along with parsley and black pepper, and eat them when the mood takes you.

Miss Daisy, 9 years old, anchovy connoisseur. After school treats for the Kitchen Princess.

The recipe was inspired by a post by Debi who wrote about finding fresh anchovies in Greece, around one year ago. I remember that post well, thinking that I would never see the fresh species land in my local fish market.

 

 

In My Kitchen, June 2019

Winter is a tricky business. Throughout June, winter is still a novelty. Everyone walks around saying how much they love wood fires, barley soup, root vegetables, scarves, knitting and red wine, and how pleased they are that scary old summer is finally over. With the lowest rainfall on record, the first four months of 2019 were quite unpleasant, the ongoing drought finally breaking in May. These cold wet days are very welcome. Our garden sings once again. And yet I know that this love affair won’t last. By July, me, my bones and I, will want to fly to a warmer zone to dodge the worst of it. I’ll enjoy the remainder of this month and then I’m packing my bags.

Kitchen Garden

A visit to my kitchen is often preceded by a spin around the orto, my vegetable patch out the back that inspires most of my cooking.

A winter vegetable garden is often more productive than those of warmer months. While many Australians enjoy growing summer crops such as tomatoes, winter crops are a reliable source for salads and soup ingredients. I never let my beds lie fallow- if unoccupied, they are planted out with broadbeans ( fava) or filled with garlic, a crop that takes 6 months to mature. In my kitchen garden is abundant lettuce, ( spicy red Mizuna, Cos, Curly leaf, Endive, Bronze, Rugola), and self sown radicchio turning crunchy crimson. Cavolo nero, the Prince of winter, grows darker- a plant that thrives in cold weather. As the first frost has not yet arrived, chilli, tomatoes, basil and beans hang on bravely. Young turnips and radishes slowly plump: their leaves can be used as wild greens with pasta. Self sown leeks have been moved into position while wild mustard and celery appear in the pathways. Thanks to well rotted, mature compost, the winter vegetable garden is booming.

Cookbooks

Books and winter go hand in hand. I was planning to stick to library books for inspiration but a few purchases have crept through the door. The cost of a good second hand cookbook is usually less than half the price of a new magazine. Savers second hand store provides most of my cheap finds, while the Book Grocer is a great source of remaindered books.

Library books on trial. Happy to return all of these except Australian fish and Seafood, which is a superb, and Tartine, which is a great read for those who love sourdough bread baking. The two books by Meera Sodha were disappointing and Eat at the Bar by Matt McConnell was a quick enjoyable read but happy to return it.
New books purchased for $4 each. Two Diana Henry books are a delight to read, and while I don’t think I’ll cook from the recipes. they are good examples of excellent food writing. Magic soups on the other hand excels in food styling.
Second hand finds of note. The timeless classic, Turquoise, by Greg and Lucy Malouf, Neighbourhood, by Hetty McKinnon, modern vegetarian share food, and the Baker by Leanne Kitchen, old fashioned classics

Grains

I love warm grains in winter and farro is definitely my favourite. I used to buy Italian farro at the Mediterranean wholesalers, but now find Mount Zero Farro much tastier. Found at my nearby Deli and Larder.

Fish

Many species of fish are at their peak in winter. The snapper were almost jumping at the Preston market last week, along with a winter specialty, a rare item, small gutted cuttlefish. I bought one large snapper carcass to make fish stock to freeze, one snapper to bake, and 1/2 kilo of cuttle fish to freeze. Five fishy meals for $19. I was very happy with this baked snapper recipe from Neil Perry. We devoured young Roger the Snapper with gusto.

Roast potatoes to accompany fish.

Road Trips

No road trip is complete without a tin of home made biscuits and a thermos. These chocolate, date and almond biscotti came along on a road trip way out west, past silos and deserts, wine country and isolated, melancholic towns. Travelling through the Wimmera and the South Australian wine district of Coonawarra during winter is inspiring. The light is silver, the red liquid rewards numerous.

Kitchen Table

I’ve been tempted with the idea of downsizing. Clearing out junk is very satisfying, but when I advertised our 2.8 metre long kitchen shearer’s table on the local Buy, Swap and Sell sites, I received a blunt message from my daughter in capitol letters. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? I sheepishly replied that our table was far too big for our needs but soon realised that on an average day, the kitchen table is covered with stuff-  laptops, phones, books, notebooks, lists, baskets of fruit and vegetables from the garden, bowls of sourdough slowly fermenting, a teapot and more. The table ad was withdrawn.

Yarns

In another cosy corner of the Kitchen cum dining room live the wool supplies. They have gathered here to remind me how enriching winter can be. My yarn stories can be found here

Discards for small projects, found at op shops.

Thanks Sherry for hosting this monthly series at Sherry’s Pickings. There’s always more going on in a kitchen than in any other room in the house. 

I am slowly being converted to the joys of Instagram. Less demanding than my blog posts, my pictorial pastimes can be found at @morgan.francesca

Cooking Siciliano and the Oregano Festival

I can’t imagine a garden without herbs. Or cooking without herbs. Or life without herbs. If I were marooned on a desert island and had just one food request, I would choose fresh herbs. And if then forced to choose only one herb, the answer might well be oregano.

Dried oregano from last week’s pick.

Although a perennial herb, oregano has distinct seasons. It shoots up in Spring, producing tall hard stems with bracts of pale mauve flowers. It’s best to harvest these stems once in full flower and hang to dry. If you’ve ever bought a packet of dried wild Greek or Sicilian oregano, you’ll notice that the flowers are favoured. By harvesting the mature stems, the plant will reinvigorate for summer and beyond. It is alive in winter, but not so productive.

Today’s pick, ready to hang.

Every time I gather bunches of oregano and string them up, I can almost taste the savoury crunch, salty sea air, pizza, fish, pickled olives, capers and the Mediterranean all rolled into one little sensation. I first tasted this herb in 1968, the year I first ate pizza. A few years later, as a cash strapped student with two infant children, my favourite weekly treat was a bag of oregano laced olives from the little Greek grocery shop on the corner of Canning Street. I am still searching for that same taste, that excitement that transported me away from my childhood diet of bland British/Australian cuisine, and into the firm embrace of Cucina Mediterranea.

Dried oregano, bagged for the ‘export’ market and oregano salt,

When making a simple pizza sauce (with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes, fresh or canned) I invariably choose to add dried oregano. When cooking fish, a simple fillet of flathead, a snapper or a pesce spada alla siciliana ( swordfish), oregano usually stars in the sauce. Its earthy, slightly bitter flavour bonds well salt, garlic and oil. Fresh oregano, olive oil and vinegar is a perfect dressing for a warm potato salad or is the final blessing, along with a squeeze of lemon, on fried saganaki or halloumi.

Pan fried flathead, dusted in seasoned riceflour, cooked in EV olive oil, dressed in salmoriglio.

I often feel enslaved by my food memories, though it’s a pleasant kind of servitude. One other vivid recollection involving oregano is the day I first tasted Salmoriglio, that famous Sicilian sauce and marinade. We were sitting in a little restaurant in Palermo. It was late Spring in the year 2000. The decor spoke of that era- terracotta paving on the floor, Mediterranean tiles on the walls, and colourful Italian made platters and plates. We ordered Pesce Spada, grilled swordfish, dressed with Salmoriglio. It came with oven roasted potatoes and grilled red peppers on the side. To this day, it is the fish sauce of choice.

Flathead alla Siciliano.

Salmoriglio

There are a few variations on the theme of salmoriglio. Some recipes add capers or anchovies. I think the following recipe comes closest to that taste true of Palermo. It can be a sauce or a marinade for vegetables. The sauce is best used straight away or within 24 hours. I made it last night for a sauce to go with pan fried flathead fillets, and today I used the remainder to marinate some zucchini and tiger prawns, which were then grilled.

  • 6 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, removed from woody stems
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • course sea salt flakes to taste
  • juice of one large lemon
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 6 tablespoons EV olive oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons hot water

Mash the leaves with a pinch of salt flakes and garlic in a mortar and pestle. Pound well to amalgamate into a rough paste. Add the lemon peel and oil. Continue to pound then add the lemon juice and a little hot water, mixing well to make the sauce creamy. You can gently warm this sauce if you wish. If you make it in a food processor, the sauce will have a dense consistency and will not be so rustic or tasty.

Gamberi e Zucchini alla Griglia con Salmoriglio.

Oregano Salt Recipe.

  • 1/4 cup of dried oregano leaves
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt crystals.

Grind in a coffee or spice grinder and store in a jar. Add to baked vegetables, fresh tomatoes, Greek potatoes.

So what food would you choose on your desert island dear reader? My choice of oregano assumes that I will also have a fishing rod.

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In My Kitchen, September 2018

A few years ago, an old friend mentioned that he found my blog very positive. Since that day, I decided to keep it that way. There’s enough negativity in the world without me adding my two bob’s worth concerning the sadness of our times, family illness and the winter of my discontent: in times like these, graceful silence makes more sense. And so I raise my glass to Spring, and though the vestiges of Winter will stay with us for some time, Spring brings hope. The bounce of early morning kangaroos in the front paddock, the alarming yellow of late winter daffodils pushing through the grass and the efflorescence of pear blossom, a snow-white foreground to a cold misty morning, bring glad tidings and a sense of anticipation and transformation.

View from kitchen window, pear blossom , Spring 2018

But now, let’s get back in the kitchen, the place where magic happens every day. This season’s local fresh scallops ( from Tasmania or Lakes Entrance) have made an appearance in the fish markets. The Bass Strait scallop season opens in mid July, and they are at their freshest in August and September, though the season continues through to December. The industry is highly regulated and subject to quotas. Fresh local scallops are my favourite seafood and bring comfort and joy to my kitchen. Not only are they subtle and delicious, but are easy to prepare, quick to cook and a few go a long way.

Collected shells, containers for Coquilles St Jacques, sauces and dips.

Some years ago, I collected a huge pile of scallop shells when visiting Lakes Entrance on the east coast of Victoria. We sat by a fishing trawler as an older Greek man shucked thousands of scallops into a large box, destined that day for the Melbourne and Sydney fish markets while the beautiful flawless shells were tossed into plastic bags. I took away a large bag of shells and every season, I freshen them up in readiness for a favourite dish, Coquilles St Jacques, baked scallops on the half shell. The scallop shell is the emblem of St Jacques, St James, Sant’Iago or San Giacomo, (depending on your language) and as such, is the symbol of the camino, and in particular, the town of Santiago di Compostela in Galicia, the final stop of that famous pilgrims’ route. Those who have visited Santiago di Compostela or passed through the various French or Spanish towns along the way, will be familiar with the scallop shell embedded in walkways and roads. Modern pilgrims carry the shell around their necks, on the end of their walking sticks or backpacks as a sign to other pilgrims. But the question remains- why the scallop shell? One answer may lie in the Italian word for scallop- Capesante. It is said that the shell was used by the saint to contain water to be used for blessing or benediction on the heads of his followers. Then again, the scallop shell washes up along the shores of Galicia, burial-place of St James, another simple connection.

Santiago in Galicia in his scallop shell hat. Photo from my journey there in 2008.

Another legend provides further clues,

” Following his execution, James’ headless body was being brought to Galicia in northwest Spain to be laid to rest. As the boat containing his body approached the coast, a knight on horseback was walking the cliffs above the Atlantic. Upon seeing the boat, the horse bolted and plummeted into the sea with the knight. St James is said to have miraculously intervened and saved the knight, still on horseback, who emerged covered in scallop shells.”¹

But then, digging a little deeper, we find that a similar pilgrimage route, ending in Finisterre in Galicia, was used in Roman times by pagans:

“In Roman Hispania, there was a route known as the Janus Path used by pagans as a born-again ritual and ending in Finisterre. Its starting point? The Temple of Venus, Roman goddess of love. Venus is said to have risen from the sea on a scallop shell, as depicted in Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus, and is associated with fertility rituals practiced along the route.

Ideas and themes associated with the cult of Janus are echoed by the concept of transformation on the Camino de Santiago. The Roman god Janus, for whom the month January is named, is the god of beginnings and endings, transition and transformation – all ideas shared by pilgrimages and discovered on the Camino today, a constant source of renewal and rediscovery.” ¹

Nascita di Venere. Sandro Botticelli. Uffizi, Firenze

Sant’Iago and these fabulous legends are wonderfully distracting thoughts as I prepare this season’s scallops in my kitchen. To prepare shucked scallops for a recipe, simply tear off the small ligament or tract line on the side. Please keep the roe- an equally delicious part of the scallop and proof that the product is fresh and not from some frozen packet from who knows where. Check that the scallops aren’t overly plump- a sign that they have been soaking in water which makes them less tasty but more costly.

300 gr of scallops, a greedy night for two.

Spaghettini con capesante, porri e zafferano. A hot serving bowl full of spaghettini, scallops, leek, saffron, EV oil and herbs. Recipe soon.

Good things like scallops demand a few lovely condiments. This little Iranian saffron box is one of the jewels residing in my kitchen spice drawer, the ‘dark arts’ drawer as Mr T likes to call it.

Box of Iranian saffron, Preston market.

On my kitchen bench, right next to the stove, stands a bunch of fresh herbs, a tussy mussy of inspiration, replenished often but saving a cold evening walk to the herb garden. This bunch includes winter favourites- parsley, wild fennel, rosemary, thyme, dill and bay.

Herb tussy mussy. Life without herbs is unimaginable.

I bought these cute graters in Bali last month for the princely sum of AU$1. Hand made of stainless steel, they are as effective as my costly Microplane. There’s one for my old friend/ex student Rachael P, and, as I’m returning to Bali next week, I may buy a few more for gifts.

Handmade Balinese microplanes.

Next to the kitchen radio sits a container of Lotus tea. The flask is refilled with hot water from the whistling kettle on top of my wood stove. Another simple pleasure concomitant with Winter.

Sipping Lotus tea in my kitchen. Jon or Raff on the radio or maybe a morning raga.

Thanks once again to Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, who hosts the monthly event of In My Kitchen. It’s another positive place where the world gathers to showcase simple delights.

Spaghettini, capesante, porri e zafferano. Paradiso in inverno.

Older scallop posts with recipes:

https://almostitalian.blog/2015/09/23/pasta-con-capesante-scallop-season/

https://almostitalian.blog/2015/10/30/the-seafood-coast-of-eastern-victoria/

¹ https://followthecamino.com/blog/scallop-shell-camino-de-santiago/

Balinese Cuisine at the Warung.

Food, glorious food, glorious Balinese food. It’s one of the reasons I keep returning to this beautiful island. Good Balinese food is seductive yet quite subtle. Two famous Balinese sambals, sambal matah and sambal merah, add depth to a simple grilled fish or chicken, while the combination of white pepper and coriander seeds, turmeric and galangal, purple shallot, lemongrass, palm sugar, chilli, and terasi ( fish paste) are pounded together to make a rich tasting bumbu, or Balinese spice paste, the basis for a simple curry.

Warung in the Sindhu Night Market

There are many tiers of eating establishments, or rumah makan, in Bali: you can pay a fortune at an upmarket international hotel, continuing to eat the cuisine from your home country, or watered down versions of local cuisine in a Western style restaurant, or you can try a more authentic and economical meal at a simple warung. A warung is a small family owned eating place, often located on the street or beach. Some may look a little ramshackle and temporary, often with small benches and plastic stools, and will usually be patronised by locals.  Other modern warungs have sprung up in the beach suburbs around Sanur, but some bare no relationship to the real thing.

Many warungs are made from wooden, bamboo or thatched materials, perhaps with tin walls. In the past, the Warung tenda, a portable warung that looked like a tent, was more common, with roofing and walls made from Chinese blue and white plastic tarps. Other interesting warungs include kitchen carts on wheels, colourful bright blue Bakso stalls, motorbikes with gas cookers, and night market warungs set up with little tables and chairs. Warungs also tend to specialise in one or two dishes which are often based on a secret family recipe.

Morning bubur cart travels around the back suburban streets of Sanur, sounding a morning bell. Rice porridge comes with tasty toppings like ground peanuts.

I’ll admit It takes a brave heart to venture into the tasty world of the  street warung: you need to assess the cleanliness of these eateries and often that’s quite hard. Word of mouth, and popularity with locals- these are good indicators. Also check out the washing up facilities and water used. Good warungs are clean as hundreds of locals eat here every day. You may need to know a few food words, and simple phrases if you have special dietary preferences as often there’s no menu or price. Tanpa daging ( without meat) or tidak daging ( not meat) will suffice if you don’t eat meat. As food is often cooked to order, a warung cook is happy to adjust a recipe for you, leaving out ingredients that you don’t like.

Not all warungs are cheap: a few located around the Sanur beaches have become famous, rating highly on TA and frequented more by tourists than locals. One popular grilled fish restaurant, Amphibia, operates flat-out from midday till late. They work from a small tin shed, and grill the fish and seafood on a charcoal BBQ set up on raised platforms outside. Bench seating is nearby. You order your fish, lobster, prawns, octopus, squid and clams by weight, then they are barbecued and served with rice and vegetable urab and sambal. These boys never stop. They buy the fish early in the morning at Jimbaran, then store it under ice in large tanks: during lulls in business, you can watch them tenderising and peeling octopus, cleaning prawns and fish, running hoses around the place and stoking the BBQ with charcoal. A share plate of snapper, prawn, shrimp, a few calamari rings and razor clams is AU$20. Sit on a little stool on the beach and share the platter, washed down with a Bintang beer.

Hot work. Cooking at Amphibia. Sindhu Beach, Bali

Another Warung favoured by Westerners is Jackfish, a family run business right on the beach just past Semawang. Nyoman, the brains behind this warung, trained as a mechanical engineer but after working off shore for years, decided to open a fish themed Warung. His mother waits on tables and makes the Urab ( mild tasting Balinese salad made from bean shoots, green beans and coconut ). His father sorts cutlery and napkins and helps with the accounts. Nyoman does the grilling, waiting on tables and everything else. The family come from five generations of fishermen, and now source their daily deliveries from local sources. They often cater for large parties so check before hand as Jackfish closes when they do large groups. When I’m staying in the Semawang end of Sanur, I eat at Jackfish everyday, it’s that good.

Grilled snapper, rice, urab, and two sambals. IDR 60,000/AU $6. Jackfish is located right on the sand at the southern end of Sanur.

Energetic Nyoman of Jackfish, Semawang Beach, Sanur, Bali

When in the mood for snacks, I head for warungs specialising in deep-fried foods, called  Gorengun. At these little carts you’ll find feep fried springrolls, deep-fried tofu or Tahu Isi ( Tofu stuffed with bean shoots) and battered gado-gado and other things with tofu, as well as an array of sweets such as Onde-Onde. A bag of 8 snacks will cost around AU$1 and will come with a few green chillies and chilli sauce.

Tasty deep-fried vegetarian snacks from a Gorengan cart at the Sindhu Nightmarket, where a $1 goes a long way.

The Warung situated right in front of the Bunjar Pantai Semawang, has great ocean views and is well sheltered from the wind. They do the best spring rolls in the district. Three large vegetable lumpia ( AU$1.50) make a tasty lunchtime snack. Try with a mug of hot lemon tea ( AU.65c) a fresh juice ( AU$1.50)  or cut straight to the chase with a chilled Bintang to wash them down.

Satu Bintang besar, dua gelas, Terima Kasih.

Guide to Balinese Cuisine here

Aldo’s Spaghetti alla Puttanesca with Pesce Spada

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

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

Friday night Fish and Pasta, forget the chips.

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

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

Method

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

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

Rewriting Tradition. Easter Cuisine Old and New. Part 1

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

Ready for the oven

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

Just glazed. Who prefers the top half?

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

To serve with butter, not margarine.

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

Fish pie includes Shetland smoked cod, flathead and shrimp

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

Three serves later….

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

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

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

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

Smoky Cullen Skink Soup

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

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

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

Soup for two in found English bowls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My everyday sourdough loaves, to serve with soup.

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

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

 

In My Kitchen, February 2017

Strangely enough, February is the busiest month of the year in my kitchen. It’s also the hottest month in Melbourne, although this year we have been spared ( touch wood) those soaring temperatures of over 40ºC. The kitchen frenzy comes with the flushing of major annual crops such as zucchini, tomato, cucumber, chilli and now plums. It’s a bumper year for plums. I have another 5 kilo waiting for me in the fridge. Our annual beach camp is interspersed with busy times back at home preserving and freezing crops for the cooler months, as well as watering the garden and clearing away the fire hazardous leaves and fallen branches. The Sagra delle Prugne is around the corner.

Vietnamese tomato and dill soup with fish.
Vietnamese tomato and dill soup with fish.

Meanwhile, we eat simply and cheaply. When not eating zucchini fritters or Moulin Rouge Tomato Soup, I turn to Vietnam for inspiration. Cá nấu cà chua, fish, tomato and dill soup, is perfect for a hot day. I found this recipe last year while in Saigon and now that summer has arrived, I am delighted to make it with my own produce. The fish market at Preston provided the economical red snapper for this dish. Light and sustaining, it tastes like a wet version of cha ca la vong.

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Chopsticks and Vietnamese fish, tomato and dill soup. Summer time in Melbourne.

While at the market, I purchased a big pile of local Southern Squid for $5 a kilo. Yes, there’s an hour’s work gutting and preparing these for the freezer but my little ones love fried squid after a swim in the pool. The best day to buy squid is on the day the market opens for the week. In the case of our nearest fish market, that’s Wednesday morning. Squid needs to be super fresh to compete with is pricey relative, the calamari. How can you tell squid from calamari? Australian southern squid, the most sustainable seafood in Australia, has an arrow shaped tail, whereas the calamari has side wings.

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Hello Southern Squid. Five fresh squid for $7. Now to prepare them for the freezer. More summer jobs.

Arrow head on a Southern squid. I usually discard this bit. Not so the wings of a calamari.
Arrow head on a Southern Squid. I usually discard this bit. Not so the wings of a calamari.

At the same fish monger, I bought some fresh river shrimp from the Clarence river in NSW. These are tiny and eaten whole. They make an excellent beer snack with a little lime aoili. A tempura batter, made with iced water, baking powder and cornflour, protects them as they fry. A pre-prepared salt of interest is also a good accompaniment. I used Herbes De Provence with salt, a batch I made before Christmas. I love special salts and am about to make a celery seed salt and one from our chilli flush. These salts make cheating easy.

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Shrimp tempura with lime aioli and a provincial salt.

To mop up the big soups and fried things, one needs a large cloth napkin. These lovely cotton towels, seconds, turned up in a linen shop in Brunswick for $2 a set. I bought them all. They soften and improve with washing.

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Japanese tea towels turned into napkins

Last week I celebrated the summer zucchini plague on Almost Italian. This zucchini slice is handy and well known. I added almond meal to the mix for a lighter version. It comes with grated carrot, zucchini, chopped capsicum and herbs.

Succhini slice, enhanced with extras.
Zucchini slice, enhanced with extras.

This hungry lad has finally learnt to make a good tuna pasta in my kitchen. It is an easy dish for a 12 year old to learn. Practice makes perfect Noah.

Kids in the kitchen
Kids in the kitchen

And what would be an IMK post without my little Cheffa, Daisy, who always drags her stool to the bench to help with anything I am making.

hungry days by the pool.
hungry days by the pool.

Good food does come at a price around here, not so much in monetary terms but certainly in labour. Thank you kindly Liz, at Good Things, for your gracious hosting of this monthly link up.

In My Indian Kitchen. December 2016

Curries, dhals, chutneys and spices are often present in my kitchen. Inspired by a new cookbook, Spice Kitchen, by Ragini Dey, I’ve been making a few onion Bhajees and curries of late. I borrowed this book from the library two months ago, and as I found it difficult to return, I realised I needed my own copy. Libraries can be dangerous like that. Unlike many of my other Indian cookbooks, this one doesn’t list too many ingredients. It also has that Indian- Australian modern touch.

Spice Kitchen
Spice Kitchen by Rajini Dey. Published 2013, Hardie Grant Books.

Every time Mr Tranquillo opened the spice drawer, millions of little packets of seeds and spices threatened to tumble out, assaulting his senses on the way. He called it the Dark Arts drawer, so I was forced to sort it out. Below is my orderly spice drawer: now all the spices are fresh and some even have labels. The freshest spices in Melbourne come from BAS Foods, Brunswick, where they pack spices weekly in their warehouse next door.

Dark arts drawer.
The Dark Arts drawer.

An old Tibetan Bell with Dorje lives near the kitchen. I was so devoted to my first Dorje bell, bought in India in 1978-9, that I called my youngest son Jack Dorje, a name that really suits him.

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Tibetan Bell reminds me of India and my son Jack

I found some good quality green prawns yesterday so the Bhajee recipe was given another trial, this time with prawns. I added some cumin seeds and chopped spring onion to the batter. I’ve always had a stand-by pakora batter recipe but this version is sensational. The key is the addition of white vinegar to the batter mix. (recipe below). Served with a mango chutney for dipping and a crisp wine, we watched the sunset highlighting the ridges along the horizon, our own Von Guerard view, a reminder that life is good.

Prawn pakora or Bhaji.
Prawn pakora/ bhaji.

Two days ago I made the Rajma Curry from my new book. Such a simple version and so easy to whip up. Have you noticed that curry tastes better when left for a day or two? The Rajma ( red bean) curry turned into this morning’s baked beans and poached egg breakfast. A breakfast fit for an Indian Queen, especially with a cup of Chai.

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Rajma ( red bean) curry with poached egg and yoghurt.

This year I am attempting a Christmas free December, but I couldn’t resist this little Indian ornament from Ishka. I love the half price sales at Ishka. Going there allows me to openly embrace my inner hippy. Although that’s not too difficult.

Ishka bells, Ishka bells....
Ishka bells, Ishka bells….blah blah all the way. Oh no, those songs are back.

And now for Spice Kitchen‘s recipe for Onion Bhajees. ( photo for these are on the header at the top of this post ). Pop on an evening Raga or a famous Bollywood playback singer to get into the mood. Eat them with the setting sun.

Ingredients

  • 2 large onions, sliced
  • 55 gr besan ( chick pea ) flour
  • pinch of chilli powder
  • pinch of turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons white vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • vegetable or canola oil for deep-frying.

Mix together the onion, besan, chilli powder, turmeric, vinegar and salt in a bowl.

Add 1/4- 1/2 cup of water to the mixture gradually, and mix together until the besan coast the onion. There should be just enough besan mixture to hold the onion slices together. The amount of water required to achieve this consistency will depend on the type of besan you use as some besan flours retain more liquid that others.

Heat the oil in a wok to 180c. Deep fry a few Bhajees at a time for about 6-8 minutes or until crisp and golden brown. Drain on kitchen towels and serve hot.

My Notes.

I prefer to mix the batter first then add the onion rings to the batter. Mix the batter to a custard like consistency for onion Bhajees or thicker for pakora coating. The batter must be thick enough to hold the onion rings to it.

I don’t use a kitchen thermometer. I test the oil by immersing a chop stick and if the oil bubbles around the stick, it’s ready.

Make the batter a little thicker to coat prawns. I doubled the amount of batter for 14 large tiger prawns.

I add other things to Indian frying batters, such as cumin seeds or nigella seeds, just for fun and flavour.

My onion bhajees cooked much faster than the time suggested in the original recipe above. They really don’t take more than a minute or two. Many are eaten by kitchen hoverers and never make it to the plate.

prawn pakora
prawn pakora with mango chutney.

Thanks Liz, once again, for hosting this amazing series. While IMK may seem to have a life of its own, it flounders without someone organised like Liz, from Good Things at the helm. By opening the link, you can discover other kitchens from around the globe. Why not write one yourself?