Fish-fragrant eggplant, Sichuan dreaming.

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

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

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

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

Fish- Fragrant Eggplant, a recipe by Fuchsia Dunlop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandarin Almond Cake, and my winter of citrus.

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

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

Mandarin Almond Cake

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

Method

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

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

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

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

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

This recipe is adapted from one found on Taste.

Simplifying Italian Tomato Passata

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

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

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What you need:

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

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

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

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

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Interesting Uses for passata.

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

Ottolenghi’s Sweet Potato Chips

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.

I halved 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
  1. Preheat the oven to 220ºc, fan on.
  2. 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.
  3. Remove from the oven, sprinkle over the sumac and 1 teaspoon of flaked salt, and serve at once. 

Recipe from Simple, Yotam Ottolenghi, 2018

Me and Ottolenghi

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
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Simple, Ottolenghi, 2018.

Mussels Galician style

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
  • ground pepper
  • chopped parsley
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Add chopped Italian parsley if you wish and serve with crusty baguette, or cooked bomba rice or small shaped pasta.

Spanish pimenton varieties for that real smoky hit.

If you like eating fish, support a fishmonger before they all disappear.

The Best Seville Orange Marmalade Cake

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

Glaze/icing

  • 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

Notes.

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 qb or quanto basta, which means ‘as much as is enough’, or ‘to taste’ or as much as is needed to achieve the desired result.

Last few slices. The cake didn’t last long.

For a look at Kylie’s beautiful fruit painting, see @kyliesirett on Instagram or https://www.kyliesirett.com.au/

Baci Birthday Cake, Flourless and Decadent.

I love making birthday cakes for others. Often it’s an excuse to dig into my prized stash of good quality chocolate or ground nuts. Most of us will be celebrating our birthdays without fanfare this year and so a delivered cake becomes a small symbolic mark of recognition in lieu of a family gathering. During this pandemic, I’ve been nervously eagle eyeing my exotic ingredient stash. It’s easy enough to refill the dark cooking chocolate container, which is sometimes subject to a midnight raid, but my hazelnut and almond meal supplies are precious commodities, not so easily sourced. I’ve made two versions of this Italian style torta over the last year. One was a classic Torta di Nocciole, famous in Piedmonte, and light as a feather, with only four ingredients, butter, sugar, eggs and ground hazelnut. This version is much richer, with the addition of dark chocolate. It stays fresh under a glass dome and keeps well for a week. Unlike the classic Reine de Saba which tends to sink and crack a little, this cake is firmer and stands tall, so long as you use the recommended sized tin and just laid eggs. It’s very easy to make for that special person in your life and tastes a lot like Baci. xxx

Torta di Cioccolato e Nocciole (senza farina)  Flourless chocolate and hazelnut cake.

  • 200g dark chocolate, 70%, chopped
  • 150g butter, chopped
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • 2/3 cup caster sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups hazelnut meal
  • double cream, to serve
  1. Preheat oven to 170°C/150°C fan-forced. Grease a 6cm-deep, 20cm round cake pan. Line base and sides with baking paper.
  2. Combine chocolate and butter in a bowl and melt gently over a saucepan containing water. Cook over low heat, making sure the base of your bowl doesn’t touch the hot water. Stir until melted and set aside to cool slightly.
  3. Place egg yolks and sugar in a bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat until thick, pale and creamy. Add the chocolate mixture. Beat to combine. Add hazelnut meal. Beat to combine.
  4. Place eggwhites in another bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat until soft peaks form. Using a metal spoon, stir one-third of eggwhites into chocolate mixture. Gently fold remaining eggwhite through chocolate mixture.
  5. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake for 1 hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out cleanly. Stand in pan for 10 minutes. Turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
  6. Serve, dusted with icing sugar and cream.

Tanti Auguri a Te, Sig Tranquillo

Eggplant rolls, Molto Siciliano.

Same Same but Different is a wonderful Balinese-English expression that was devised many years ago by a streetwise Balinese salesperson. It spread quickly among the shopkeepers and Mr T still wears his 10 year old Same Same But Different T shirt which always cracks me up. Same same on the front, But Different on the back. I love this expression: it captures the humour and inventiveness of the Balinese people and their ingenuity at devising new ways to lure a few dollars from the mindless tourist.

I often think about this crazy expression when imagining ways to use eggplants. Our usual standby dish is eggplant parmigiana, that well loved classic with an interesting culinary history. ¹ Involtini di Melanzane, or eggplant rolls, require very similar ingredients to the former classic, and yet the dish seems much lighter and more interesting. Same same but different.

The following recipe is by Karen Martini. The quick process of flouring and egging the eggplant slices before frying prevents them from absorbing too much olive oil, resulting in a much lighter dish. The original recipe uses a simple tomato passata for the sauce. I found this too bland. A more flavoursome dish results from making a garlic and oregano laced tomato ragù, but if you are in a hurry, go for the bottled passata.

Melanzane Involtini. – eggplant rolls ( serves 4 as a main, 6 as a starter)

  • 3 eggs
  • 2 large eggplants
  • 75g plain flour
  • olive oil, for frying
  • 250g ricotta
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons currants, soaked in red-wine vinegar for 5 minutes, then drained
  • 40g grated parmesan
  • 200g mozzarella, cut into 1cm thick sticks ( or grated)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 500ml tomato passata ( 2 cups) ( see notes above)
  • 3 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
  • 50g pine nuts
  • 3 tablespoons chunky fresh breadcrumbs

In a small bowl, lightly beat 2 large eggs with 1 tablespoon of water. Peel the eggplants to create a striped effect, then cut lengthways into 1 cm thick slices. Dust the eggplant slices with flour, then dip into egg wash. Heat olive oil in a large heavy  based frying pan over high heat. Cook eggplant slices for 1-2 minutes on each side until golden. Drain well on kitchen paper.

In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta with remaining egg. Season with salt and pepper. add the drained currants and half the parmesan and stir to combine. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of this mixture onto each eggplant slice. Add a little mozzarella and roll up tightly.

Preheat oven to 170ºC. Brush the base of a large ovenproof dish with 1 tablespoon of EV olive oil. Spread half the tomato passata or ragù in base of dish. Place the eggplant rolls on the sauce, seam side down, so they don’t unroll. Drizzle with remaining oil, spoon over the remaining sauce and sprinkle with parmesan.

Combine the chopped parsley, pine nuts and breadcrumbs in  a small bowl. Sprinkle over the top. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake for a further 10 minutes or until cheese is melted. and top golden.

Mmmm, Molto Siciliana

¹ A History of Eggplant parmigiana 

² Recipe from Karen Martini, Where the Heart is, Lantern, 2006. 

In My Kitchen, June 2020

Sometimes it occurs to me that writing about food seems inconsequential, perhaps even pointless, when the world has become so dark. I’m also aware that blogging is a pastime for the well- off, those like me who have more time, money, food, and housing security than most people in the world. As our world staggers from one disaster to the next, the deep and underlying fissures in society are being exposed. Environmental disasters caused by climate inaction, the current pandemic which has not yet run its course, imbecilic, corrupt and dangerous national leadership in many countries, shifts in global trading patterns, a potential American civil war, ongoing structural and institutional racism, gender inequality and political manipulation in the elections in so called democracies- the list of modern ills seems infinite. The only safe place is in the kitchen, where the focus is directed towards family, nourishment, and the preservation of ancient food cultures.

Although I’m still reticent to venture out, especially for the time wasting amusement gained by shopping for more things I don’t need, whether they are new or pre-owned, I have enjoyed buying a few things online, including some kitchen ware, and may continue to shop this way in the future. I was also delighted when some social gathering restrictions were eased and I could see my family again. No hugs yet but at least we can eat and drink in the same room. We have also enjoyed one dinner away from home with friends. Sitting at distant ends of the table, the large vegetarian lasagne was a joy to behold and eat- at last something not made by me or Tranquillo.

Zuppa cereale, made with freekeh.

My granddaughter, Daisy, has been a delightful presence in my kitchen. “Can I help?”or “What are you cooking?” are some of her words that I love to hear, as is the sound of her small cooking stool being dragged into place at the bench. She chops, crumbs, mixes, and tastes for correct seasoning and balance. She prefers anchovies to sweet things, and can wax lyrical about her favourite dish, a white bean and silver beet soup. From the age of two, her refined sense of smell has led her to the kitchen: she’s a natural chef with a strong desire to learn. Now that she is ‘allowed’ to come here for her home schooling, we’ve enjoyed more time together in the kitchen: this has been the up side of the pandemic for me. After we finish the set school tasks, we reward ourselves with some good cooking. Last week she made her own Kolokithopita, mastering the triangular shape, while I rabbited on about equilateral triangles, trying to slip in some math. Kolokithopita is a Greek pie stuffing using pumpkin. I simply substitute some oven baked pumpkin for the spinach in a spanakopita recipe, adding lots of fresh herbs and chopped spring onions. Daisy likes making these mainly because of the smell of the warm melted butter used to paint the pastry sheets. What a nose.

Daisy at 10, with her fillo parcels. 2020

Daisy shelling beans, 3 years old,  2013

I’ve been baking sourdough bread for 7 years, with four loaves baked weekly along with three large tray pizzas which are delivered to my extended family each Wednesday. Storage of flour and baking equipment was becoming a huge problem, along with RSI in my arms caused by the unusually high kitchen benches. I’ve been longing for a kitchen renovation but am fearful of the expense involved. The solution came in the form of an online purchase of an Ikea stainless steel trolley and a large bread making board. The lot is now wheeled to my dining table where I can work at the right height for dough handling, which for me is around 75 cms.

Cheaper than a kitchen reno.

The lime trees are still covered with fruit. This week I’ve begun an Indian style lime pickle. Below, a bowl of sliced and salted limes, waiting for the next step. Meanwhile, home grown lemons are preserved in salt. Ancient preservation traditions from India to the Middle East.

One of my favourite pasta dishes in winter is Pantacce, bietola, gorgonzola e noce. I found a small piece of blue cheese hiding in the fridge, which I melted into some cream, tossed in a handful of toasted walnuts, and cooked the chopped silver beet briefly in the same pot as the pasta. The components came together in a deep frying pan. A more precise recipe can be found on my post here.

Pantacce, gorgonzola cream, silver beet, walnuts

I posted these Friday Night Indian potatoes last week here: they were popular, and can be whipped up in no time.

Rye sourdough, with unusual scoring. Almost an indigenous pattern?

Thanks Sherry once again for hosting this series on Sherry’s Pickings.