Unlike the residents of the nearest village who are offered a plethora of dining options during this period of social distancing and isolation, we have none. Down at that village seven kilometres away, every coffee shop, take-away, fine dining restaurant and catering business has published their menu online to tempt families, couples and the non cooking brigade, setting times for parcel pick ups, sourdough bread days, couple’s date night in, and more. They all seem to have adapted to the new normal, competing for the same disposable dollar. They appear to be doing well enough.
I’m not prepared to brave the queues or drive at night to pursue those options. The last time I went out, everyone was too close for comfort. There’s no rest for the lockdown wicked. I get quite cantankerous in the kitchen these days, especially if I’m the only one contributing to the decision making about meals. There’s trouble in paradise. It usually goes like this:
Me “What would you like for dinner?”
T “Hmmm, what do you feel like?”
Me “No, I asked you first. I’m sick of thinking about food”
T “Maybe a stir-fry?”
At which point I pour myself a glass of wine and turn on Netflix. A stir-fry is not the answer I was hoping for. It’s a recipe for disaster, usually resulting in some hodgepodge dish doused in a collection of pantry Chinese sauces and condiments, the plating resembling a dog’s dinner, with little thought given to ethnic origin or finesse.
I usually cook Italian food, which is second nature to me, but if I’m straying at all, I’ll choose between Indian, Lebanese, Turkish, and Greek cuisine. We’ve now resolved the problem with the advent of cuisine theme nights, where we both test new recipes from my wall of cookbooks. On Indian nights, which seem to be occurring rather frequently of late, we make one curry each, starting quite early to allow the curries to settle a bit before rewarming them for dinner. There’s usually enough leftover to stash in the fridge for another meal, given that most curries improve with age. We rate our new concoctions, and if they get the nod of approval, they’re scanned, then popped into a folder. Our Indian nights include dressing the table with Indian fabric and playing some romantic ghazals by that old crooner, Jagjit Singh. Who needs to dine out? It’s a fine solution for those who take self isolation seriously.
I hope to share our tried and true Indian recipes this week, in case you need some inspiration for some Indian take away made at home. Recipes will include two good versions of pakhora, muttar paneer, prawn curry, dhal, potato, pea and yoghurt curry, pumpkin curry, rajma and naan bread. Stay tuned.
As the broad bean season draws to an end, with only one bed left to pick, I am revisiting a post from 6 years ago. It’s a recipe I return to every November, buying a packet of smoked salmon cooking pieces especially for this dish.
What the Fava! The Broad bean glut is on. One week they look nice and petite, ready to be eaten raw with a chunk of Pecorino cheese. Blink, turn around, and suddenly they are huge and in plague proportions.
Broad Beans or Fave have a fascinating history but none more so than for our local Italo- Australiani, many of whom migrated here in the 1950s, with broad beans sewn into the lining of their suitcases or hems of their coats. Fava beans played a important role in the Sicilian tradition. When dried, roasted and blessed, they became lucky beans. Some believe that if you keep one in the pantry, there will always be food in the kitchen. Given the size of our broad bean crop, we will be very fortunati this month.
I collected another basket load today and enlisted the help of young chef Daisy, who was happy to…
I’m reblogging this recent article written by my friend Cristina on her blog, Un po’ dipepe. If you haven’t been to Firenze lately, you wouldn’t have noticed these little art references dotted around the city on sportelli di gas e di luce– the metallic doors of gas and electrical panels. Cristina and her niece must have walked the whole of Florence to find all these Blubi. What do you think of these dear reader?
L’arte sa Nuotare -art knows how to swim- is a project by Italian street artist Blub (Bloob). Anyone who has been to Firenze in the last few years has likely seen Blub’s work plastered onto the city’s sportelli di gas e di luce- the metallic doors of gas and electrical panels. I was recently in Firenze with my nipotina Isabella. We were constantly on the lookout for ‘Blubi’ (BLOO•bee). It was like a scavenger hunt! We even spotted a few in Lucca, but none in Siena. No one has met mysterious street artist Blub. All we know about Blub is that he…..or she….. is from Firenze and is a talented artist with a fun, quirky sense of humour.Blub’s series “L’arte sa Nuotare’ takes famous works of art and gives them a new look, immersing them underwater, complete with blue background, snorkel masks and bollicine-bubbles!
I am often aghast when my mother tells me about her cure for general lethargy. She cooks up a small rump steak, the ‘point’ of the rump, she insists, along with two eggs for breakfast! Part of my awe is her amazing appetite for meat at this early hour of the day. Even when I used to eat meat, now more than 40 years ago, I doubt I could have stomached this meal first thing in the morning. My mother lived through an era without internet ‘authorities’ proselytizing about food, although she is aware of the modern-day TV cranks, those we love or love to loathe, who promote a high protein, no carb diet to the gullible. Mother has always eaten modestly and sensibly, cooking all her meals from scratch until very recently and included a daily quota of vegetables, fruits and carbs in her diet. But she NEVER cooked lentils.
When I’m feeling run down and tired, my body growls for lentils. These humble little pulses cure me instantly, especially when combined with rice or grain. Food associated with poverty to some, or hippy era food to others, lentils come into their own when treated well and cooked in interesting ways. Red and yellow lentils in Indian dhal, or whole black lentils combined with red kidney beans in a soothing Dhal Makhani, red lentils and a scoop of bulgur wheat in Turkish bride soup, brown lentils for burgers, puy lentils in shepherds’ pie, lentil and vegetable soups finished with a dash of lemon juice, lentil and zucchini fritters, Indian Kitchari and the addictive Lebanese dish, Mujaddara, the list goes on and on.
In the last two months, I’ve made Mujaddara three times, trying to streamline the method. The SBS version, hosted by Maeve O’Meara, is quite good, the Diane Henry version tends to stick to the pot, whereas the more straight forward version I like comes from Abla Amad of Abla’s Lebanese Restaurant, Carlton, Melbourne. I love the way Mujadarra goes well with easily prepared side dishes: labne, radishes, any pickled vegetable, salads of tomato, cucumber and mint, and perhaps some Lebanese pita bread. Leftover Mujaddara can be combined with grated zucchini and a little binding egg for fritters, or stuffed into silverbeet (chard) leaves for dolmades. Or, simply microwaved for breakfast, and served with a big dollop of yoghurt. My kind of pick me up.
The following recipe is from Abla’s Lebanese Kitchen. I have slightly modified a couple of small details along the way.
Lentils and Rice ( Mjadra’at addis)
300 grams ( 1 ½ cups) brown lentils, washed and drained. ( I used Australian grown Puy lentils)
1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt
150 ml EV olive oil
2 large onions, halved and finely sliced
200 g ( 1 cup) long grain rice, washed, soaked then drained
Place the lentils in a saucepan and 750 ml ( 3 cups) of water. Cover and bring to the boil over high heat. Add another 250 ml ( 1 cup) of cold water ( this prevents the lentils from splitting) and boil for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a frying pan over high heat and cook the onion for 7 minutes or until golden brown, stirring often to prevent the onions from going too dark. Set aside one quarter of the onion, and add the remainder, together with its oil, to the brown lentils. Stir in the rice, then add another small cup of water ( about 150ml if using puy lentils) and cook, covered, over low heat for 20-30 minutes, or until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender. I recommend using a simmer mat for this final step.
Spoon the mixture into a shallow serving bowl and sprinkle with reserved onion. Add any left over onion cooking oil. Serve with yoghurt, Lebanese salad, and other found fridge meze.
Stuffed silver beet rolls
Silverbeet dolmade, stuffed with Mujaddara
Mujaddara stuffed silver beet rolls
What, dear reader, is your favourite ‘pick me up’ food? Can you down a steak for breakfast? Do lentils hold any odd connotations for you?
We enjoy our bird visitors but lately the word has spread around the bird kingdom that Mr T is handing out free sunflower seeds. At times it’s like being stuck in Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds. The King Parrots are always welcome: some are more interested in a chat than a feed. One cute fellow likes to sit on the ledge of our side door, waiting to say hello each morning in bird language. Other Kings watch through the kitchen windows as we wash the dishes. They are inquisitive, gregarious and always surprising. The kings also like to greet us in the garden or car park by flying past our head within a centimetre. No sound, just the rush of wing air, a gentle bird kiss and nothing like a magpie swoop. This precision flying and affection always impresses me.
Lately, a tribe of small Rainbow Lorikeets has moved in. Their colours are loud and startling, their beaks more pronounced. They don’t hang around for a chat: they come for a feed then do a bit of showing off in our Melia Azederach trees, looking a lot like Christmas baubles. They are the psychedelic hippies of the bush. ( see header photo)
We also have plenty of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos. Big, loud and bossy, they are not so welcome. Lately, their gentler cousins, the Corellas, have moved in. The pink and grey Galahs sometimes pop in, when they’re not getting high on grass seeds. I love the word Galah- it’s an old fashioned Australian label referring to idiotic behaviour that is not too offensive. I’d like to see this quaint word make a comeback . My new year’s resolution is to use it more often, especially around children.
If a majestic Wedge Tailed Eagle appears above, all the birds flee at once. They can sense danger and go into hiding. Other bird visitors to the garden include various small honeyeaters, Meliphagidae, and the Grey Shrike Thrush, the songbird of the bush. Out in the wild bush paddocks we see Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoos while a lone White Faced Heron often lands on the dam.
All the family are bird lovers
King and Andrew
The Birds movie poster
Another young King
Rachael, Mr T and a King
Upside down Lorikeet
I never thought I would enjoy chatting to birds so much, and wonder if this is a sign of imminent madness. The following bird song is a fitting conclusion to 2018. The inane lyrics can be sung when thinking of your least favorite political leader. Buon Anno dear friends and readers. May the New Year bring you more birds and good cheer.
Four years ago, almost to the day, I began ‘Almost Italian’ in an attempt to document my obsession with food along with some of the cultural aspects of Italy that inform my life, my cooking and gardening. Since then, I’ve drifted away from my main theme, especially when travelling, and so I hope, dear reader, that these little indulgent travel stories are a pleasant distraction from whatever you are doing. Once I step back into my home and garden, the recipes will flow once again.
I’ve enjoyed the food of Dordogne, France, immensely. Everything I’ve eaten, with only two exceptions, has been quite special. Small restaurants and bistros respond enthusiastically to the seasons, and so a trip around a French country market will indicate what you’ll see that week on any menu. This season, cèpes ( porcini mushrooms) are still being hunted in the woods, pears and apples are sold ready to eat, kissed by the Autumn sun, irregular in shape and handsomely mottled. Small yellow fleshed potatoes are good just as they are, or with some salted butter from up Brittany way. Small bunches of parsley are added to your fish purchase, a box of oysters will be laid gently of a bed of seaweed, and vegetable stalls offer bunches of bouquet garni, consisting of thyme and bay laurel, for a small coin. This month, many bistros list omelette aux cèpes, which may seem like a simple enough dish, until you notice that fresh cèpes cost around €22 per kilo at the local market. I bought a small box and the flavour will haunt me forever. Walnuts turn up in every sweet dish imaginable, tarts, macarons, biscuits, as well as fresh walnut oil, which I resisted buying. Organic food is sold in markets, farmer’s roadside stalls and on supermarket shelves: there’s nothing precious about it- it’s a choice that doesn’t involve a huge premium or a special stamp of approval.
What I’ve loved most about French bistro food is the saucing, a technique that the French are famous for. A well executed sauce transforms a simple fish dish. The French are also reasonably adventurous and don’t stick to the formulaic dishes of the region but happily borrow and adapt from modern culinary trends, while maintaining a French slant.
When I return, I plan to work on my saucing and practise a little French technique. French bistro dishes will be trialed and blogged. Thanks for following, dear friends and readers. Bonjour or bonsoir. xx
The three course menu du midi, above, cost €21, which seems like a real bargain to an Australian reader, where restaurant dining and wine pricing is ridiculously expensive. But then, wages are much lower in France, and waiting staff are usually run off their feet.
Privilège du Périgord
58 rue Notre-Dame
I’ve lost count of the church doors that have drawn me inside during the last few weeks in France. Big or small, grandiose or modest, they all appeal in different ways. The scaled down medieval church in the village ofSaint-Léon-sur-Vézère took me to the land of quiet meditation, more than most. The church, built in the 12th century on Gallo- Roman ruins, has been meticulously restored but the interior decor remains minimalist, evocative and artistic. Time to light a candle and reflect inside this glorious small space.
Lovely grounds at Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère
Through the side door of the church at Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère
More on the beautiful village ofSaint-Léon-sur-Vézère, my favourite village in the Dordogne, next post.
For WordPress photographic prompt this week. Scale
The East Side Gallery, an open air gallery along a 1.3 kilometre stretch of the retained Berlin wall, is a wonderful expression of hope and optimism, painted in 1990 by artists from all over the world. Not only is it an historical record of the end of an era, but is also a symbol of open borders and the freedom of movement which European residents now enjoy.
Most of the panels today have been repainted, layered over years of tagging, graffiti and vandalism. You would think that this preservation would be a logical step, yet the move has been met with major conflict. “Eight of the artists of 1990 refused to paint their own images again after they were completely destroyed by the renovation.”
East side Gallery, Berlin
East side Gallery, Berlin
East side Gallery, Berlin
East side Gallery, Berlin
East side Gallery, Berlin
Badly graffitied piece on East Side Gallery
East side Gallery, Berlin
East side Gallery, Berlin
Restored with permission.
East side gallery
East side Gallery, Berlin
East side Gallery, Berlin
East side Gallery, Berlin
East side Gallery, Berlin
In order to defend copyright, they founded ‘Founder Initiative East Side’ with other artists whose images were simply copied without permission. It just goes to show that the ego of some artists is bigger than this historical statement. Restore, re-paint, touch up, preserve, leave to vandalism, start again- where do you draw the line with street art?
Do you enjoy snorkeling and diving? Bali has some delightful areas to explore underwater and as the temperature is always warm in this tropical zone, there’s no need to don a wetsuit.
This year’s Balinese underwater adventure was enjoyed by Mr T and our daughter: the trip was a birthday gift from daughter to father, and will be another diving adventure they will recall forever. Due to my increasing lack of confidence on the open sea, especially in an area known for some ‘interesting’ currents, I remained behind and enjoyed another massage. These photos were taken mostly by Mr T, with his cheap underwater camera.
One of the best diving spots in Bali is in the north-west of the island at Pemuteran. The village, at present, is delightfully calm and traditional: the tourist trade here centers around diving tour operators and small, discreet guesthouses. There are a few warungs along the main road and very little shopping.
Many diving boats operate tours each day, especially in July and August, the main European tourist season. A day trip costs between AU$45 and AU$55 per person. This includes snorkeling gear, lunch, drinking water, driver and underwater guide.
It was Mt T’s second trip to the reefs off Pemuteran. He also enjoys snorkeling off Lembongan Island and near Amed. Although no turtles were spotted this time, plenty of colourful fish passed by.
Giant clam, Pemuteran
Tropical fish, Pemuteran
Coral conservation and and a turtle breeding programme are two postive outcomes of tourism in this area. “A community-driven reef restoration and conservation project started in 2000 that has changed not only the reef itself, but also the attitudes, livelihoods and economy of the entire region. Bio-Rock is a technology that uses low voltage electrical current on artificial underwater structures to encourage growth of corals and other reef life. Experiments with the technology worldwide have shown that it can help counteract some of the difficult environmental factors affecting coral growth.”¹
“The Turtle Hatchery of Pemuteran in the utmost west of Bali started in 1994 after Australian Chris Brown, the owner of a diving company in the area, bought a sea turtle from a local fisherman who caught the animal in one of his nets by accident, to save its life; the turtle was tied to a rope and let out to graze in the sea during the day, and at night brought into a small pond. A second turtle soon joined the first and thus the Turtle Hatchery Project became a fact. The Turtle Hatchery project’s mission is to promote the protection of the wild turtle population and to stop, or at least diminish the worthless slaughtering of turtles. Up to 2001, more than 3000 juvenile turtles have been released into the ocean as well as many larger adults.”²
If we were in Naples today, I would take you to lunch in a family trattoria, set in an un-touristed part of the city. I would lead you through the dark lanes around Spaccanapoli, passing the eternally grieving Madonna statues sitting snugly in niches along white washed walls, each with their own red or pink glowing light and plastic flower bouquet. We would pass beautiful desanctified churches, graffitied, bombed and derelict beyond repair. Turning down the busy Vin San Gregorio Armeno where craftsmen carve and paint wooden presepi, a street dedicated exclusively to the Nativity, we would later exit onto the main thoroughfare at Via Duomo. On the opposite side of the road, we would gaze up at the ornate Cathedral of Naples, Cattedrale di San Gennaro, and then notice the 20 foot high advertising poster of a young woman in skimpy lace underwear right next to it. As we walk to lunch, we might speculate about a country that in recent times enjoyed the depraved antics of a corrupt Prime Minister, Berlusconi, and a society that feasts upon evening game shows hosted by middle age men in suits alongside young women sporting bikinis and stilettos.
After much banter, we’d find our lunch venue down an unattractive street still bearing the scars of the second world war. There’s no written menu here so we order a lunch of three courses, senza carne, without meat, a lunch of the house. First comes a little antipasto of acciughe, anchovies lightly dressed in oil, a generous ball of mozzarella di bufala, with a pile of Pane Duro, sliced from the ringed shaped loaves on the counter. Next follows a simple Pasta Napoli, then some contorni or sides, acooked tangle of spinach slicked with good oil, some roasted potatoes which emerge from the focolare set in the wall, and a mixed salad. Finally, and because it’s the week following Easter, we are served a large slice of Pastiera, the famous wheat studded ricotta tart of Naples. The vino di casa, a light red wine, is included in the 10 euro per head price. We remark on our good fortune to have found such a place.
Grapes and Pears and a snail. Giovanna Garzoni, 1600-1670
Di’s Beurrre Bosc pears
pear tree turns to Autumn
Pastiera Napolitana is a pastry lined tart filled with citrus flavoured ricotta, lightened with eggs, containing softened wheat berries, then covered with latticed pastry on top. It has pagan and mythical origins, but the modern version of pastiera was probably invented in a Neapolitan convent.
“An unknown nun wanted that cake, symbol of the resurrection, to have the perfume of the flowers of the orange trees which grew in the convent’s gardens. She mixed a handful of wheat to the white ricotta cheese, then she added some eggs, symbol of the new life, some water which had the fragrance of the flowers of the spring time, candied citron and aromatic Asian spices. We know for certain that the nuns of the ancient convent of San Gregorio Armeno were considered to be geniuses in the complex preparation of the Pastiera. They used to prepare a great quantity for the rich families during Easter time.”¹
I have made Pastiera in the past. It needs to be made some days in advance, and no later than Good Friday, to allow the fragrances to mix properly. This Easter, I have decided to break with tradition and make a lighter version. No resurrection wheat, and no top layer of pastry which I now find too heavy. My Sunday’s ricotta tart is lightened by cream, retains the aromatic orange elements, and steals a little trick from the French, a brûlée topping. It is served alongside some autumn pears cooked in vincotto. It is a dessert worth indulging in at any time of the year and the fruit can be varied to suit the season. Slow baked quinces would also go nicely.
Torta di ricotta con pere, vincotto e vaniglia- Ricotta tart with brûlée topping and pear, vincotto and vanilla.
The Pastry Case
First make some sweet shortcrust pastry or pasta frolla, rested for one hour then baked blind, enough to cover a 25 cm tart or flan tin with a removable base. I have not included a recipe for this, since most cooks will have their favourite. Make it very short ( with 250 gr of butter) and dust the tin with almond meal before baking.
The Ricotta Filling
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
375 g firm ricotta, drained
60 gr icing sugar
2 tsp or more of fine orange zest
1 tablespoon of Grand Marnier or orange blossom water
50 – 100 gr candied citron, finely chopped – optional
25 ml full cream
Set the oven temperature to 180 c before commencing.
Place the egg, egg yolk, ricotta, sugar, orange zest, liquor and citron in a bowl of a an electric mixer and mix on low until very smooth. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until thick then fold through the ricotta mixture. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tart case and smooth over the top. Bake for 20- 30 minutes or until golden on top. Set aside until the topping sets and cools before removing from the flan tin.
4 large firm pears, such as Beurre Bosc
500 ml water
150 gr caster sugar
1 vanilla bean, slit open and seeds scraped
juice and rind ( without pith) of 1 lemon
2 strips orange rind
1/3 cup vincotto
Peel and core the pears and cut each pear into four. Place the water, sugar, vanilla, lemon and orange rinds, juice and vincotto into a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to the boil then add the pears. Cook on a low poaching heat, for around 30 minutes or until you are satisfied that the pears are soft enough. Remove the pears from the liquid and reduce the poaching liquid to thicken. The pears can be kept for days covered in their liquid.
The brûlée on top.
Sprinkle 1/3 of a cup of Demerara sugar evenly over the cake. Holding a kitchen blowtorch, caramelise the top by moving the flame backwards and forwards, until the sugar is melted.
Serve the tart with Vincotto poached pears on the side.
Although this dessert has many steps, it really is easy to put together once you’ve made a sweet pastry shell.
All recipes are derivative and I have based this one on a recipe I found here, a site dedicated to the use of Vincotto. I also added some of the extra orange elements found in the traditional Pastiera Napolitana.