Ode to Garlic and a Simple Bruschetta

There are hundreds of Italian proverbs dealing with garlic. Some deal with the¬†puzzo¬†or stench of garlic: others sing its praises. My favourite is ¬†L‚Äôaglio √® il¬†farmacista¬†del¬†contadino¬†–Garlic is the peasant’s pharmacist.

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The benefits of garlic:

  • Throughout history in the Middle East, East Asia and Nepal, garlic has been used to treat bronchitis, high blood pressure,TB, liver disorders, ¬†rheumatism, diabetes and fevers.
  • According to many studies, garlic is widely used for several conditions linked to the blood system and heart, including¬†hardening of the arteries, high cholesterol, heart attack, coronary heart disease,¬†¬†and blood pressure.
  • garlic is said to lower levels of osteoarthritis in women.¬†Image

The list of health benefits goes on and on. I add garlic to nearly every savoury dish I cook, but raw garlic has greater health properties. Add raw garlic to guacamole, babaganouge, humous, salsa verde, aioli, garlic butter, salad dressings. Slice it raw onto pizza, fish, tomatoes. Or make some bruschetta.Image

To celebrate this season’s garlic crop, dried and carefully plaited by Alessandra, I am making some simple¬†bruschetta, using the best sourdough bread from St Andrews Bakery and a premium¬†Cobram¬†extra virgin olive oil. Slice the bread thickly, brush with Extra Virgin olive oil, and grill in a ridged pan, pressing down to get nice charred marks. Remove, rub with lots of galic, and add more oil.

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“Non¬†piangere” –¬†disse¬†l’aglio¬†alla¬†cipolla. “Non¬†fiatare” –¬†rispose¬†la¬†cipolla.

“Don’t cry” said the garlic to the onion. “Don’t breathe” replied the onion.Image

If everyone ate garlic, no one would detect the smell on others. However , chewing parsley leaves or eating yoghurt will neutralise the smell.

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Are you a garlic devotee?

 

Almond and Honey Spice Cake for La Befana

The Epiphany, January 6th, is celebrated in many places throughout the world in various ways. It signifies the Three Wise Mens’ visit to the infant Jesus. In Italy, the focus is on La Befana, a benevolent old witch, who delivers gifts to children. Traditionally, the gifts consisted of toys,¬†caramelle¬†and fruit or¬†carbone,¬†a lump of coal and some garlic if they had been naughty.

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Legend has it that Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men a few days before the birth of the Jesus. ( I only own two!)  They asked her for directions as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know the way. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework and sweeping.  Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to find the three wise men and Jesus. That night she was unable to find them, so to this day, La Befana flies around on her broom, searching for the little baby and visits children with gifts on the evening of January 5th.

Australians don’t celebrate the Epiphany but there is something very appealing about the idea of a crazy witch riding around on her broomstick looking for Jesus. I can relate to this figure. Tonight we will eat an¬†Almond and Honey Spice Cake¬†because we have been good, and something very garlicky because we have been naughty too. The recipe lives in my tried and true handwritten recipe book.

The cake

  • 125g butter, softened
  • 75g castor sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 eggs
  • 180g almond meal
  • 1/2 cup fine semolina
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 cup milk.

The Spiced Syrup

  • 1 cup castor sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 8 cardamom pods, bruised
  • 2 cinnamon sticks

The Orange Honey Cream

  • 3/4 cup thickened whipped cream
  • 1 Tablespoon honey
  • 2 Tablespoons finely grated orange peel

Preheat oven to 180c ( 160c fan forced). Grease a 20 centimetre deep round cake tin, line base and sides. Beat the butter, sugar, honey and spices in an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating between each. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl. Fold in the almond meal, semolina, baking powder, and milk. Spread mixture into the pan and bake for around 40 minutes. Stand cake for 5 minutes, leaving in pan.

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To Make the syrup. Stir ingredients in a small saucepan until sugar dissolves. Boil uncovered for 5 minutes to thicken syrup. Pour over hot cake. Cool cake to room temperature.Image

Place the cake onto a serving plate. Decorate with the remaining spice ingredients. Refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight. Serve with orange cream (Beat the ingredients together and serve at room temperature.)

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The cute little poem is known by all Italians.

La Befana vien di notte                   The Befana comes at night
Con le scarpe tutte rotte                  With her shoes all tattered and torn
Col vestito alla romana                    She comes dressed in the Roman way
Viva, Viva La Befana!                       Long Life to the Befana

Per Alberto, Quest’anno, soltanto carbone.

Buon Natale – Merry Christmas 2013

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A warm and sunny day awaits us.  No cloud, no wind. No threat of tropical downpours, arctic winds or heatwaves, all of which are possible in Melbourne on Christmas Day.Image

Preparations are in progress for the feast. I am so pleased the venue for the family gathering rotates and will be held at my sister’s house this year. ¬†Best wishes to all, but especially to the those who cook for the day!Image

The Mother of all Christmas Trees

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

The hunt is on to find a pine tree to chop down for Christmas. Pine trees ( Pinus Radiata) are considered weeds in Australia: they invade bush areas and starve indigenous vegetation of moisture, nutrients and light. They also increase soil acidity and spread easily. Unlike our other invasive weed, the blackberry, pine trees are difficult to remove when large. We recently spent $4,000 removing an ancient specimen from our land. It was the mother of all Christmas trees.Image

Each Christmas we search for a sensible looking pine tree in the bush. This annual ritual has become a family joke. Mr Tranquillo and sons head off into the bush with axes while I hum the tune¬†I’m a lumberjack and I’m Ok¬†, a memorable tune and one worth glancing at when needing youtube procrastination time.

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It’s always the same old story. They return grinning sheepishly, dragging a ridiculously large specimen, while I run around like some mad¬†strega on steroids,¬†dodging the branches that invade the whole living room, threatening to buy a Kmart plastic tree or go without if another dainty one is not found.

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This year I am accompanying the lads. Where’s my checked¬†flannelette shirt?Image

Lake Tyers Dreaming and Fish Frenzy Recipes.

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The waves pound the coastline, often breaking like thunder, along the Ninety Mile Beach in Eastern Victoria . It’s a rugged and isolated stretch with few settlements along the way. Lake Tyers¬†is one of those magic spots, a small town facing the gentle lakes which protect it via a sand spit, from the wild seas of Bass Straight. The town consists of beach houses, a few camping grounds, one milk bar/general store and delightful pub set right on the lake,the Waterwheel Tavern.Image

It’s the place I choose to visit out of season, usually in early December, and sometimes in winter, away from shopping malls, job lists and the internet, which is generally unreliable.¬†We are here to ponder the view, read, walk and¬†eat fish.Image

On clear nights, the horizon sparkles with fishing boats and trawlers, night’s glittering promise of tomorrow’s fresh fish. The catch is landed at Lakes Entrance, a major commercial fishing port which is a short 10 km drive away. Two outlets stock local fish and a few imports from interstate. The Fishermens Own Omega 3 fish shop. (which is basically the fish Co-Op ) and Ferry Seafoods, which is a little fish shop underneath a restaurant of the same name. It’s a fishy surprise each day!ImageImage

On rough nights I ponder the lives of these commercial fishermen who love and respect the sea and I think of my ancestors who earned¬†their living fishing off the coast in the nearby town of Port Albert, many of whom met ‘their watery graves’.Image

The fish feast began on the first evening with a half kilo of freshly caught wild school prawns. To this we added bread and butter,lemon, and beer. A fitting start to the holiday!Image

The following day the ‘fishermens’ own shop’ had some beautiful slippery grey mauve calamari, a steal at $13.95 ¬†a kilo. We dusted them with flour, gave them a quick minute fry, then dressed them with chilli flakes, salt, spring onions and lemon. Say no more!Image

On the third day, the wonderful folk at the same shop had filleted a ton of school sand whiting. I would not normally buy these little fellas as they are so boney, but when filleted, bring them on! I bought a huge pile for $9.00- so delicate and transparent and silvery. These were popped into a Thai green curry, loaded with ginger, garlic, chilli, red onion, kaffir lime leaves, basil, lime juice, fish sauce and coconut milk. I added a few beans and zucchini, to avoid growing fins! The fish were stirred through at the end and cooked in a minute.

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The Fish gods were still smiling on us. On the fourth day some wild caught scallops turned up for a song. In the evening, these little gems were stirred through a simple spaghetti dish with lots of garlic, extra virgin olive oil,basil and a hint of chilli. The halved scallops cooked in the heat of the pasta.ImageImage

Accommodation is available in camping grounds or in apartments and beach houses. These are usually cheaper out of season, which is anytime outside of the Christmas holidays and Easter.

This post is dedicated to my sister Kerrie, who has inherited the same fish gene from Port Albert, and to Bruce, who is always so good natured.

The Panettone Invasion

Have you noticed that the Christmas Panettone are marching into our shops, like a colourful Italian brigade, their tall boxes full of sweet promise. ¬†Originally from Milano, they are popular at Christmas and New Year all over Italy and throughout the Italian diaspora. It is often served with a¬†frizzante¬†wine, such as Moscato d’Asti or a liquor such as Amaretto or coffee.¬†Image

But I have a Christmas confession to make. I find them quite dry and boring. As far as I am concerned, a Panettone needs all the help it can get, so dunking slices in anything wet is a plus.Image

But I can’t resist the beautiful boxes and if I buy one before Christmas, I display it as decor. Then, after New Year, when the prices come down,I buy a few more- usually the plain, fruit studded varieties – to stash in the freezer to make Panettone bread and butter pudding.

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As the weather in the southern hemisphere is too hot to consider making this yummy treat, I am considering the summer options. After all, once that big castle shaped bread is cracked open, something needs to be done. Toasted, spread with marscarpone, drizzled with Amaretto? Layered as part of a Tiramisu? Image

Further summer ideas from readers would be most welcome.

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Vittorio the Vegie Man

Vittorio is from Sicily but has lived in Melbourne for most of his adult life. Like many other¬†Italo- Australiani¬†who migrated here in the 1950’s and 60’s, he is getting on in age. He is now 84 years old, is stooped and in pain but this doesn’t deter him from hardwork. In fact, it keeps him going.

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He sells vegetable seedlings and plants at weekend and country markets which are grown under shade cloth in his inner suburban backyard.  He nurtures thousands of seedling plants like children, each one individually tended and cared for.

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They are strong and resilient- just like Vittorio himself. He speaks a crazy mixture of two languages- Sicilian dialect and Australian English. It’s a strange mixture, making conversation quite difficult, but we get by.

These tomatoe bushes were given to me as a Mother’s Day bunch of flowers. Why not mother’s day in November?¬†Vittorio √® un angelo.

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Spring Soup – Tutto Fa Brodo

It was about twenty years ago. I was sitting in my first class of Italian B ( B standing for Beginners). I was terrified! ¬†The introductory class was mostly in English, sprinkled with bits of Italian here and there. The lecturer, Walter ( say this with a V ) suddenly planted an explosive seed in my brain when he said, ‘Tutto Fa Brodo’. ¬†This was an epiphanic moment, the lightning bolt: a simple Italian proverb that swept me into the wonderful world of Italian language and its culture.¬†Tutto fa brodo¬†literally means ‘everything makes soup’, ¬†or, ‘whatever you put in soup will work’, ¬†or metaphorically, ‘a little bit of everything is good for you’. ¬†Italian proverbs invloving food and wine are innumerable and often humourous, highlighting times of need, frugality and seasonality. When I gather bits and pieces from the¬†orto, my vegetable garden, the mantra begins anew, ‘Tutto Fa Brodo, Tuttto fa Brodo’. ¬†No vegetable soup is ever the same. That’s the lovely thing about soup, the recipes are always so flexible. Use what’s on hand.

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Today’s late Spring garden provides the last of the cavolo nero; it’s a bit woody and needs to be used, silver beet (chard), a perennial in the garden, early season broad beans, side shooting brocoli, leeks, spring onions and all sorts of herbs.

I always start with a little soffritto or quick fry of a few ingredients to give the soup a base on which to build. A typical Italian soffritto includes finely diced onion, celery and carrot.  I often make one with garlic, anchovies and chopped rosemary, a little trick I learnt from Marcella Hazan years ago.  As the anchovies melt, they give a salty earthiness to a soup. Of course they can be omitted.

This is not so much a recipe, but an ode to Spring in the form of soup. It’s so green, it makes you feel holy!

The Soffritto

3 or more garlic cloves, finely chopped.

1 small branch of rosemary, leaves stripped, finely chopped.

6 anchovies, chopped

3 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive oil.

Other soup ingredients. 

2 leeks, finely sliced across, pale parts only. ( save other bits for stock)

2 waxy potatoes, eg Nicola or Dutch Creams, diced.

5 leaves Cavolo Nero or Tuscan Kale, remove centre stem if tough, then shred.

3 large leaves of silver beet, (chard) rolled then cut across finely. I like to include the stem.

a few handfuls of young shelled broadbeans,

fresh herbs such as parsely, oregano

salt, pepper to taste

vegetable stock cube, optional, or stock.

grated parmigaino, reggiano or grana padano

Method.

  1. Heat the oil in a large heavy based saucepan. Add the anchovies, rosemary and garlic, stirring the whole time so that the anchovies melt. *
  2. Then add leeks and potatoes, keep stirring, then the Tuscan kale and silver beet, keep stirring, then cover well with stock or water.
  3. Cook on medium heat until the potatoes are soft and the greens are cooked but still vibrant.
  4. Add the baby broad beans (no need to double shell the young ones).
  5. Cook for a few minutes longer. Add more hot stock if you prefer a wetter soup. Taste. Add a stock cube if needed.  Season. Add fresh herbs.
  6. Stir through some grated parmigiano. Serve with more parmigiana at the table, along with some very good bread.

For a more substantial soup, you could also add tiny pasta shapes towards the end of cooking, for example risoni or orzo, cooked to the required time.

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Memories of Marcella Hazan

Marcella Hazan, who passed away on September 29, ¬†was my cooking muse. ¬†I feel that I knew her well. She fulfilled the role of Italian aunt, she was my Zia from Venice and Florida.¬†Her voice was often bossy but sensible. In the late 1980’s, I owned two small cookbooks by Marcella, all text, no glossy pictures, with recipe titles and indexing in Italian before English (unlike her modern editions). Some of my favourite recipes came from these two volumes and they have become part of my extended family‘s repertoire too. ¬†Young chef Daisy can smell Zuppa di bietola e fagioli bianchi as soon as she walks in the door. Marcella not only taught me how to cook down to earth Italian food, but also my first Italian words, soffrito and battuto. No Ciao bella and Va bene for meit was always about the cooking. ¬†From this little beginning, came a degree in Italian, some translating, lots of travelling to Italy, and Italian friends. Marcella completely changed my life. ¬†Although sadly I no longer own the modest dark green and maroon cookbooks, my versions of her recipes live on.

Marcella advised, in a forthright manner, on the importance of using salt, so I dedicate my little Italian salt container to the  memory of Marcella.

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