My joy in cooking is directly related to the level of productivity in my vegetable garden and orchard. This year’s summer crops are inspiring, despite the difficult and dangerous weather we’ve experienced this summer in Australia. I can only put this abundance down to a few things- the time spent monitoring the garden, good compost, mulch and water, the latter, in our case, pumped from a dam to a header tank. Each day, it’s simply a matter of combining the day’s pick with some pantry staples to make deeply satisfying meals. The first and most prolific summer vegetable, the zucchini, will come first in my Summer Cookbook, a reverse alphabetical approach. They are a versatile vegetable, lending themselves to slow braising, frittatas, ratatouille, fritters, sweet cakes, pasta sauces, soups, Greek pies, and shapes to be stuffed. This year I’m growing three varieties: Blackjack ( Black beauty), a dark green fleshed fruit, a good keeper, adding colour to soup and fritters, Cocozelle, an Italian heirloom variety, which is striped and long, the flowers more likely to cling to the young fruit, making it a great one for tempura battered zucchini flowers, and the pale green Lebanese zucchini, a good one for braising. I prefer to pick zucchini when very young for most dishes. Medium sized zucchini are set aside for soups and the large ones go straight to the chooks or are dried for seed collection.
My latest simple recipe, Grilled zucchini with Marinated Goat’s cheese, is a great addition to the summer table.
five or more very young zucchini, halved vertically or cut into three lengthwise. Note, if you shave these into thinner strips, they will char to quickly and virtually disappear on the BBQ.
good olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, smashed into a paste
fresh marjoram leaves
Meredith marinated goats cheese or equivalent product
a pinch of sea salt flakes
Light a hooded BBQ and get the temperature above 250 º c. ( you could also use a kitchen iron grill ). Toss the cut zucchini long pieces and toss in a little EV olive oil in a bowl. Add the garlic paste to a separate small bowl of EV olive oil. Using tongs, place the lightly oiled zucchini directly onto the BBQ and close the lid. Raise the lid after a minute or so and turn the zucchini strips. When nicely done on both sides, add to a serving bowl, and toss through some of the garlic paste oil. Add salt and pepper, fresh marjoram leaves and a few hand torn cubes of marinated goats cheese, as much as your conscience allows. Serve alongside other summer dishes.
Looking for more summer zucchini recipes? The links here will take you directly to some of my older recipes on the Z word.
I wish modern life was as simple as a freshly picked broad bean. Broad beans keep on giving, to us, back to the earth, to the future, and don’t ask for much in return. They are prolific, nutritious and easily grown, but their season is short. When I’m picking broad beans or fava, I feel safe and in touch with something primordial and elemental: they’ve been cultivated for 10,000 years and pop up in all sorts of world cuisines. The recipes are endless and all tempting. I often notice how well these tall plants support each other in the wind when they’re heavy with fat beans. Bending my way through the pale stalks as I pick the plump young pods, I often reflect on the grander issues of life. Gardening is my thinking space, free from distraction and noise and it is, in a sense, quite subversive . It’s a world away from the culture wars that dominate my screens, where new causes and self -righteous stances pop up daily and divide and split those on the same side, each issue mutating along the way. Young versus old, boomer versus millennial, carnivore versus vegan, on and on it goes. Is this cartoonist a misogynist? Change the Date, Nup to the Cup, farmers versus city folk, who has the holiest milk, almonds versus cows, will the real water thieves please raise their hand, diet religion. Division is the name of the game here, and those climate crisis deniers who speak untruths, who adopt slogans without meaning in response to catastrophe, dealers in fake religion, prayers and hopes and rhetorical nonsense, the used car salesman in a baseball cap holding a lump of coal, or those sporting silly hairstyles, the cretins in power are laughing all the way to the next polls. Unlike our co-operative and timeless tall broad bean plants, progressives around the globe are divided and distracted, too busy with their own point scoring and breast thumping, privately self congratulatory at their stance on… fill in your own issue. Beware of smugness and mindless memes. Read more books and turn off the screen. View with suspicion new language, appropriated words from African Americans, if it makes you feel superior, separate or better than others. Keep your eyes on the main event. There is only one earth. Divided we lose.
My Best Broad Bean Soup. Crema di Fave Fresche con Pecorino Romano.
freshly picked broad beans, 800 gr or more
one large potato or 2 medium, peeled and cubed
one medium onion, finely chopped
new season garlic, 3 or more, finely chopped
EV olive oil
stock, home made or water with stock cube/powder
fresh marjoram leaves, torn
sea salt, white ground pepper
grated pecorino romano cheese
In a heavy saucepan, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil gently for 10 minutes till soft and golden.
Add the chopped potato, and cover with stock. Cook on medium heat.
Meanwhile, shell the beans and cook them in boiling water for around 1 minute. Drain, cool the beans in cold water, then shell them. The delicious green centre will pop out easily between finger and thumb, once parboiled.
Once the potato is almost soft, add the green shelled broad beans and the torn marjoram. Cook gently for another minute or so. Season well.
Add the contents to a blender or food processor and buzz until smooth.
Serve with freshly grated Pecorino Romano. Of course you could use another cheese, but Pecorino and broad beans( fava) make a wonderful marriage, and are a traditional match.
My sometimes editor, Mr T, suggested I remove all the ‘F’ words from this post, but I’m more than happy for you to reinsert them wherever you like. This post was inspired by an overdose of activity, by way of comment in the Guardian, with a whole heap of supposedly progressive younger people who like to use the meme, #okboomer, an ageist term destined to divide activists on the basis of age. Use it and be the unconscious tool of fascism.
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, acciughesott’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 acciughesott’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
red wine vinegar
EV olive oil.
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.
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.
Stepping back into my vegetable garden after three months away, I’m immediately overcome with horticulture shock. It’s not only a sense of disorientation and sadness over neglect, but a looming frustration that the work ahead might be too difficult. The cavolo nero plants are now treelike, with thick grey trunks and yellow flowers waving in the breeze high above my head. The bees are happy. Mizuna lettuces resemble a triffid forest, delicately frilled in maroon and topped with more yellow flowers. The coriander, endive, parsley and chicory follow on their march towards the sky. There are weeds galore, some trying to smother the garlic, requiring gentle hand pulling so as not to disturb the still emerging bulbs of our precious annual crop. Most weeds are valuable additions to the compost bin: they might not be edible, but many have sought out valuable trace elements in the soil. Those in flower are drowned. Beds full of broad beans support each other like good friends, their black eyes winking with promise, roots setting nitrogen in the soil.
Once the borders are clipped, the pathways revealed, the beds pulled into shape, the snow peas supported and tied, and edible greens harvested for pies and soups, I can see my way forward. My vegetable patch, my precious orto, is a labour of love, it’s a statement about the value of fresh food, and it’s an act of defiance against the capitalist diet.
Ingredients for a Garden Soup. Minestra dell’Orto
1/2 kilo fresh borlotti beans, podded or substitute dried borlotti if fresh are unavailable.
3 cloves garlic, 2 finely chopped,
fresh rosemary branch
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery sticks, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons EV olive oil
4 large silver beet leaves, finely shredded, or more if small
3 handfuls big pasta, such as mezzi rigatoni
homemade vegetable stock ( ingredients listed separately in method )
salt, pepper to taste
Steps for a tasty spring soup
Make a vegetable stock from chopped carrots, onion, celery,bay leaves, parsley stalks, mushroom stalks. Cook for 30 -45 minutes.
Pod the borlotti beans, add to a pot, with one whole garlic clove and one small rosemary branch. Cover with water, bring to the boil, lower heat and cook till beans are soft and liquid is brown and thick, around 30- 45 minutes. If using dried beans, soak overnight, then cook until soft. Time will vary depending on the age of the beans.
Make a soffritto with one chopped onion, two chopped garlic, chopped celery in the olive oil. Add a little dried chilli and more finely chopped rosemary to the mix if you like. Cook on gentle heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened but not coloured.
Add the silverbeet ( chard) and toss around for a minute or so to coat in oil. Then add the cooked beans with some of the cooking water. Add stock, enough to well cover the beans and silver beet. Bring to the boil then reduce heat and cook for five minutes or until the greens have softened. Add salt.
Add the pasta, making sure there is enough liquid in the pan, and cook until the pasta is al dente.
Serve topped with a drizzle of good olive oil, grated parmigiano reggiano and crusty bread.
When we eat at home in Bali, I invariably make a soup. Some of these soups are easily converted into wet style curries by adding two tablespoons of coconut cream at the end of the cooking. Served with rice, a little shaped mound on a plate, Bali style, you simply add a few spoons of the soupy curry to the top of your rice and not the other way around. I have seen many Westerners add scoops of rice to their bowl of soup/curry and I always wonder if they are trying to make rice soup.
Tomato soup, however, is never served as a curry. Although a very Indonesian recipe, I like it served western style, with a little garlic bread or toast. It is based on the classic duo, purple shallot and garlic- those two sisters, bawang merah and bawang putih. Each time I make this, other herbal and spice elements creep into the initial stir fry and come along for the ride. I have finally settled on this simple and quick recipe. It takes around 10 minutes all up, and doesn’t involve making an initial paste or sambal.
Tomato Soup, Indonesian Style. Serves 2 -3 .
2 tablespoons of cooking oil of choice
6-8 small purple shallot, finely chopped ( note, Indonesian purple shallots are much smaller than most found in Australia. See photo above.)
2-3 garlic, finely chopped
one small hot chili, finely chopped
a small knob of turmeric, peeled and finely chopped
2 lemon grass stems, thick white part bashed then finely chopped, the remaining stems knotted
1/2 kilo fresh tomatoes in season, roughly chopped into small pieces.
freshly ground white pepper
1 packet Indo Mie or instant noodles
Add oil to a small wok and heat on medium. Add the shallot, garlic, chili, turmeric and lemon grass. Stir fry gently until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and raise the heat a little to get the tomatoes shedding their juice and breaking up. Add salt, pepper and the knotted lemon grass. Add water, around 4 cups or so. Cover the wok with a lid, reduce heat and cook for 5 minutes. Add the Indo Mie/ noodles, cook for a further minute or two. At this point you can decide whether to add the contents of the little packets that come with these noodles. I like to add the white powdery packet and soy sauce sachets into the soup for that old Indo Mie hit. Stir through, and remove the lemon grass knot. Serve in big bowls.
I’m not sure about the title of this post. The word artisan, or artigianale in Italian, has become the word of the decade. Once indicating a handmade product to distinguish it from the quotidian factory or machine-made version, it now stands for something else, something more desirable and elite, carrying with it a certain snob appeal and a price tag to match. Kevin McCloud, of Grand Designs fame, sprinkled his series with the terms artisan, bespoke and atelier, giving rise to various Kevin McCloud drinking games at the time. And so while I’m loathe to sound like a braggadocio,¹ I accept that the term ‘artisan’ may not carry the same overtones of wank that it once did. And so the title remains.
I received a copy of a wonderful book for my birthday, Artisan Sourdough MadeSimple, by Emilie Raffa. The book is a gem, a wonderful addition to my bread book library. I’ve known about this book for some time- many of the sourdough bread makers I’ve met through Celia’s blog, Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, have also bought this book. The opening bread recipe is identical to the one I use everyday- I think Celia and Emilie may have collaborated on this basic loaf. The other wonderful bond we share is our sourdough starter. Some years ago, Celia sent her starter around the globe, to Emilie in New York, to me in Melbourne, and to hundreds of others, and in doing so, created a bread making community, all using a clone of her bubbly starter, Priscilla. I’ve also shared this starter as, no doubt, many others have too. Perhaps there are now thousands of Priscilla clones out there. Emilie’s recipes are straight forward and accessible: the book is useful to the beginner and the experienced sourdough baker. Once the basic recipe is mastered, outlined in detail in the first chapter, the proceeding chapters explore sweet and savoury artisan loaves, pan loaves and sandwich breads, whole grains and specialty flours, foccaccia, rolls and flatbread, bread art, leftovers and a few extra recipes.
My plan is to work through each recipe and settle on my favourites. The two loaves I’ve made to date have both worked really well. Emilie’s Golden flax and spelt sourdough is a good everyday loaf, while her Cinnamon Raisin Swirl brings back childhood memories. It is a fitting loaf for Easter and an alternative to hot cross buns. And it’s fun to make. Don’t be put off by the longish recipe below. It really is rather easy. This is Emilie’s recipe, though I have Australianised the ingredient list.
Cinnamon Raisin Swirl
Before starting the recipe, feed your starter over a day or so till active and bubbly.
50 g bubbly active starter
365 g warm water
480 g bakers flour ( bread flour)
20 g wholemeal flour ( whole wheat flour)
9 g fine sea salt ( not iodized)
65 g raisins
65 g walnuts
50 g sugar ( I used caster sugar)
6 g powdered cinnamon
Make the dough: In a large bowl, whisk the starter and water together with a fork. Add the flours and salt. Cover with a damp towel and let rest for 30- 60 minutes.
Meanwhile, while the dough is resting, soak the raisins and walnuts in just enough water to cover. Drain well before using.
Add the fillings: Add the raisins and nuts to the bowl. Gently knead the fillings into the dough to incorporate, about 1 minute. The dough will start to feel slightly sticky at this point; add a sprinkle of flour to adjust the consistency if needed.
Bulk rise: Cover the bowl and let rise at room temperature, 21°C, until double in size, about 8-10 hours.
Shape and rise: Remove the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Let it rest for 15 minutes. A longer rest at this stage will relax the dough, making it easier to stretch into a rectangle. Line a 25 cm oval proofing basket with a towel and dust with flour. Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Set aside.
With floured hands gently stretch the dough into a long rectangle, about 40 x 20 cm. Lightly brush the surface with water. Then evenly sprinkle the cinnamon mixture over the top, leaving a small border at the top, bottom and side edges. With the short end facing you, roll up the dough into a lob, pinching in the ends to seal. Place it into a basket, seam side up.
Second rise. Cover the dough and let rest until puffy. ( 30- 60 minutes) Preheat the oven to 230 C. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the size of your pot. Place the paper on the bench, gently invert the dough onto the paper. rub the surface with flour and slash diagonally, making two or three cuts, keeping the depth shallow to preserve the filling. Use the parchment to lift the dough into the baking pot.
Bake the dough on the center rack for 20 minutes with the lid on. Remove the lid and continue baking for 40 minutes. When finished, remove the loaf to a wire rack and cool before slicing.
( Note, I found the loaf required less time with the lid off)
¹Braggadocio- empty swagger. Originating from Spenser’s Faerie Queene, 1596, the name given to his personification of vainglory. English writers at the time were taken with sprinkling Italian words throughout their works. From the Italian, braggadocio, meaning bravado, haughtiness, boaster, braggart. “I wrote the Art of the Deal. I say that not in a braggadocious way,”Donald Trump 2016. Now who would ever want to accuse Trump of braggadocio?
Emilie Raffa, Artisan Sourdough Made Simple. A beginner’s guide to delicious handcrafted bread with minimal kneading. 2017. I highly recommend this book to all my sourdough making friends and readers.
Falafel tends to make a more frequent appearance in my kitchen during summer, probably because it pairs so well with most of the summer vegetables in the garden: it can be made well in advance, before the day’s heat sets in. It is also the ultimate budget meal- one packet of split dried fava beans goes a long way. Not chick peas I hear you say? While I’m quite happy with my chick pea/Israeli/Lebanese version of this famous snack, these days I prefer Egyptian falafel, more accurately known as ta’amia.
Lunching well for less than one dollar per head is also very appealing. Frugal opulence, thanks to the hours we spend in the orto, tending herbs and vegetables. When it comes to home-made falafel, the most costly ingredient will probably be the deep-frying oil. I usually make a hummus or tahini dressing to pair with them as they do need the wetness of a good sauce or dip. Serve with a salad of shredded Cos lettuce, finely cubed cucumber, spring onions, mint, and salt tossed about with a little oil and lemon juice.
This recipe serves 4. Or two with leftovers for later.
250 g dried split fava beans, covered in cold water and soaked overnight or up to 24 hours.
3 garlic cloves, crushed
5 spring onions, finely sliced including all the green section
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp besan flour
1-2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
1-2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
A pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and black pepper to taste
a small handful of sesame seeds
a tablespoon of water to help in blending, if needed
Oil, for frying (rapeseed, rice bran or sunflower)
Drain the fava beans and wash thoroughly, especially if the soaking water has begun to foam. Add them to a large food processer along with all the other ingredients except the sesame seeds, water and oil. Blend until reasonably smooth. You may need to stop the motor and rearrange the contents as you go. Use the water if you feel the mixture is too dry. Finally add the sesame seeds and pulse through.
Place the mixture in a covered bowl and refrigerate for at least two hours or until ready to deep fry. I often rest the mixture overnight.
Add enough oil to a small wok or pan, enough to at least cover the falafel balls. Test the oil by flicking in a tiny piece of the mixture. If it sizzles, the oil is ready. Scoop out mixture by the tablespoon and shape with your hands into small balls. Add to the pan of hot oil, making sure that you don’t overcrowd the pan. Adjust temperature of oil if too fast or slow. The falafel should cook evenly and not too quickly. Turn to brown on both sides then drain on paper towel.
Makes around 22 falafel. Serve with tahini sauce, or hummus and salads.
The secret is out. The best falafel in Melboure can be found at Very Good Falafel, Sydney road, Brunswick, where the hipster version gives the local A1 Bakery Lebanese snack a run for its money. http://www.shukiandlouisa.com/
It’s on again. Mid January in Melbourne brings soaring temperatures, and for those fortunate souls on holiday, lazy days inside watching the Australian Open tennis (one ball game I can tolerate) or reading a pile of novels. AND, of course, zucchini! When the pile of green zeppelin starts to stare me down, I force myself off the couch and into the kitchen, looking for more novel ways to cook this bountiful vegetable. Small zucchini pies, or Kolokythopitakia, are a tasty useful alternative to the more common place Spanakopita ( Spinach and Fetta pie). The recipe is also a good way to use around 7 zucchini. Light and nutritious, they go well with salads. I stashed two in the freezer for next week’s heat wave. My recipe uses kefalograviera cheese, a nice change from fetta, and one I recommend you try in this recipe. You can use the remaining kefalograviera to make saganaki.
Kolokythopitakia (Small Zucchini pies). This recipe makes four small pies of around 12 cm/ 5 inch diameter.
700 g zucchini
8 sheets filo ( fillo/phyllo) pastry ( I always seem to have this quantity left over in the fridge after making a big family pie)
6 spring onions, finely sliced including most of the green
3 eggs, lightly beaten
butter or olive oil for brushing the filo leaves
Preheat oven to 180c
Grate the zucchini with a box grater or the largest hole of a food processor grating disc. Place in a colander, lightly salt and toss through. Cover the mixture with a small plate, weight with something heavy, then place in the sink or over a bowl to drain. After 30 minutes or so, squeeze out as much liquid as possible and add the zucchini to a large mixing bowl.
Grate the kefalograviera on a large grater. Add it to the zucchini along with the chopped herbs, the chopped spring onion, and eggs. Mix well.
Lay the 8 sheets of filo pastry on the bench and halve them. You want 16 pieces in all which will be shaped about 27 cm X 21 cms, almost a square shape. Stack them up and cover with a damp tea towel, especially if the day is hot and dry as they become brittle and tear easily.
The pies need four filo sheets each and will be used for the base and the top. Using small pie tins with removable bases, radius 12 cm and height 3 cm, paint the insides with melted butter or oil. Lay one filo pastry sheet into the tin, centering the sheet so that the extra pastry hangs evenly around the outside. Paint this sheet with butter or oil then continue with 3 more sheets, making sure that you place the sheets in such a way so that the overhang lands in a different corner with each sheet.
Repeat with remaining tins.
Fill each pastry lined pie tin with the filling. Then bring the hanging pastry leaves over the pie filling, one corner at a time and paint each pastry sheet with melted butter or oil as you go. When complete, sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake for 20 minutes at 180c. Leave for a few minutes before turning out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The word ‘green’ is associated with more connotations than most other colours, including immaturity, rawness, naivety, pale and sickly looking, envy, and the green environmental and political movement, just to name a few. Perhaps some of these concepts are inadvertently connected? As an offshoot of the green environmental movement, some cooking sites loudly proclaim to be ‘green’, a word that has become synonymous with healthy. A quick perusal of these sites will reveal recipes using all sorts of everyday ingredients that are neither ‘green’ nor healthy. ‘Green’ food, just like that other odd term, superfood, has become another marketing tool. Maybe green is the new lite?
As I suggested in a recent post on eating greens, I am enjoying taking the word back to its literal meaning, given that I have a vast array of garden greens to choose from. I can honestly say that most of the things I eat are unavailable in restaurants. I prefer to eat my own concoctions more than ever and have no time for flashy, restaurant styling or plating. I’m after big flavour, freshness and ease of production. My garden greens go in soups, pastas, risotti: they top pizzas, go in salads and stir fries, while the herbs flavour bland foods or star in their own right.
Growing our own food and eating with the seasons is a fifty year old habit, though I think we’ve become better at it with age and more time. My green stories are not meant to promote a romanticised view of country life. Far from it. It’s a lifestyle choice which comes with a fair amount of dedication and is not for the armchair tree changer, the naive or the time poor. The picture of country life, at least in the Italian context ( this blog does, after all, rely on a certain Italianità for content and inspiration) pictures a nonna making bread and preserves or a nonno making sausages and eating pecorino and fresh fava beans under an olive tree. There will be home pressed olive oil and maybe an outside fireplace to cook alla brace. This is the stereotypical view of Italian country life, a wonderful food marketing myth. The idyllic notions about cucina povera conveniently ignore the laborious and hard life of the peasant. Italian migration, especially after WW2, took place as a result of desperate poverty in Italy. We can forgive the modern-day Italian blogger who pretends, just a little bit, to be connected to the land and the seasons, writing from the comfort of her own modern apartment or suburban home via a trip to the nearby farmers’ market to check what’s in season. These stories make people feel that their food has authenticity, another marketing tool.
It’s not easy being green. It’s hard work living by the seasons, which involves making vast amounts of compost based on the layering of collected manure, grass clippings, oak leaves, and scraps, as well as saving seed, pruning, netting fruit crops, harvesting gluts of food and giving it away or preserving it, watering, mulching, and ensuring that the fences keep out unwanted pests such as rabbits. The food tastes good because it has been nurtured well.
If you are fortunate enough to have any small patch of land that accompanies your abode, grow herbs that suit your climate, plant some silverbeet (chard) in the flower garden- rainbow chard, with its yellow and red stems looks wonderful. Plant an annual crop of cavolo nero for winter soups. These tall dark green plants look statuesque in a garden bed next to lavender. Why not grow some artichokes in an unused corner of the yard? Their silver leaves are as ornamental as any other exotic plant and they grow like weeds. Pop in a row of radish every fortnight and some soft heading lettuce. Tend to them like children and learn what they need. The old cop-out, having a black thumb, is an excuse for not learning about your own environment or the needs of plants. Agitate to save an old growth forest from logging and learn to grow a few greens at the same time.
The two pastas shown throughout this story both rely on the same base soffritto shown in the picture below.
As the spaghettini cooks in the pot of boiling salted water, chop some soffritto ingredients. I like to use anchovy fillets, garlic and dried chilli. Heat a good glug of EV olive oil in a wide and deep frying pan and add this mixture, stirring about to break up the anchovy. Add some greens to the pan- I like to use broccoli Calabrese, a side shooting broccoli that is even finer than broccolini and cooks in a minute, a few young leaves of cavolo nero and some immature zucchini cut into the same shape as the other greens. Toss these about for a few minutes, then add a ladleful or two of the pasta cooking water. Raise the heat to reduce the liquid a little. Once the pasta is al dente, drain it and add it to the pan of greens. Toss about and season with ground pepper. Serve in big bowls and dress with grated Parmigiano or more good oil, or leave it as is.
No quantities are mentioned in the recipe. It’s entirely up to you and what greens you use. This recipe only works because the greens in question were picked 20 minutes beforehand. Herbs work well. Lettuce, chicory, chard, shaved young artichoke- whatever you can find or forage.
Brocollini Calabrese seeds can be bought from Eden seeds. Sow these directly into the ground in April ( or towards the end of Autumn). I pick side shoots every second day.
Sunny brand anchovies come in 750 gr cans. I buy these at Gervasi supermarket in Brunswick, Melbourne. I haven’t seen them anywhere else in my travels. They are very good and last well, packed under oil.
If you grow too many chillies, dry them out and grind them in a spice grinder for the year. You can then decide on your own level of heat. They last in sealed jars forever.