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 è 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. 

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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