Fish-fragrant eggplant, Sichuan dreaming.

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

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

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

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

Fish- Fragrant Eggplant, a recipe by Fuchsia Dunlop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simplifying Italian Tomato Passata

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

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

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What you need:

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

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

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

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

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Interesting Uses for passata.

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

Ottolenghi’s Sweet Potato Chips

This summer I’m working my way through my most recent Ottolenghi cookbooks, Simple and Flavour, and finding quite a few classics to add to my repertoire. These sweet potato chips are a tasty, economical and quick to prepare and make a useful side dish or snack. Sweet potatoes store very well and are often cheaper per kilo than potatoes which is a bonus, especially during those months when only bland, tasteless potatoes are available. Sweet potatoes are not, however, a superfood, unless you need a huge injection of vitamin A. The superfood marketeers put this tuber in that mythical category. They are as healthy or unhealthy as a regular spud, depending on how you cook them. See the infographics pages here for more nutritional info.

Sweet Potato Chips, serves six to eight as a side.

I halved this recipe and still found we had rather too many. If you do cook the full amount, you may need more trays than suggested in this recipe, and two shelves, swapping half way through baking. The potatoes need to be placed in a single layer on the trays. Preheating the oven to 220º C guarantees successful baking in this short time frame. The potatoes can be prepared up to six hours ahead, up to the point of placing them in the oven.

  • sweet potatoes, 1.2 kg, peeled and sliced into 1½ cm thick chips. (see photos) 
  • 1 Tbsp sweet smoked paprika
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 30 g polenta
  • 100 ml olive oil
  • 1 Tbls sumac
  • flaked sea salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 220ºc, fan on.
  2. Mix the sweet potatoes in a large bowl with the paprika, cayenne, polenta, oil and 1 teaspoon of flaked salt. Once combined, tip the sweet potatoes (and all the oil) on to two large parchment- lined baking trays and roast for 25-30 minutes, stirring gently once or twice, until the potatoes are cooked, crisp and golden brown.
  3. Remove from the oven, sprinkle over the sumac and 1 teaspoon of flaked salt, and serve at once. 

Recipe from Simple, Yotam Ottolenghi, 2018

Me and Ottolenghi

I must admit, I have a love-hate affair with my Ottolenghi cookbooks. Over the years I’ve found his recipes to be needlessly complex, with long lists of ingredients that often clash. If you’re a traditionalist, his fusion approach can seem iconoclastic. Yet despite this, I keep putting my hand up for more. I now own 5 of his cookbooks: Plenty (2010), Jerusalem (2012), Ottolenghi The Cookbook (2016 ), as well as his recent editions, Simple (2018) and Flavour (2020 ). The last two are the best and the most useful. The recipes in Simple are geared to every day cooking, while those in Flavour are more exciting, pushing the ‘f bomb’ (Ottolenghi’s term for flavour bombs) to the limit. I enjoy reading his short preface to each recipe, advising what may be made ahead, substitute ingredients, and most importantly, how long the food keeps. This information is often sadly missing from many modern recipe books.

This summer I’m planning to work my way through Ottolenghi’s Simple and Flavour, two books that I bought during lockdown. My choice of recipe will be determined by what’s growing in the garden along with ingredients that are readily available. I hope to share the more successful recipes that get a tick from us, recipes that will become family favourites rather than one night wonders. The following recipe is a Middle Eastern take on the classic Italian dish, Pasta e Ceci (pasta and chickpeas). While Ottolenghi has chosen Gigli, a wavy pasta that means ‘lillies’ in Italian, any short pasta of a similar size and shape may be substituted. I chose casareccia, a good sauce carrying pasta shape that I keep on hand. 

Gigli with chickpeas and za’atar. Serves 4.
  • 45 ml olive oil
  • 1/2 onion ( 100g) fnely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 10 g fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
  • 25 g anchovy fillets, finely chopped 
  • 1 lemon, finely shaved skin of half, the juice to 2 Tbles
  • 480  g cooked chick peas, or 2 cans, drained.
  • 1 tsp soft brown sugar
  • 400 ml chicken broth – substitute vegetable stock if vegetarian
  • 200 g gigli pasta ( or other shape such as conchiglie, orecchiette, or my favourite all rounder, casareccia
  • 50 g baby spinach leaves
  • 15 g Italian parsley,, finely chopped
  • 1½ tsp za’atar
  • salt and pepper
  1. Put the olive oil into a large sauté pan and place on a high heat. Add the onion, garlic, cumin, thyme, anchovies, lemon skin, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper. Fry for 3-4 minutes, stirring often, until soft and golden. Reduce the heat to medium, then add the chickpeas and sugar and fry for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chickpeas begin to brown and crisp up. Add the chicken broth and lemon juice and simmer for 6 minutes, until the sauce has reduced slightly. Remove from the heat and set aside. You can make this in advance if you like and warm through before serving.
  2. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions, until al dente. Drain and set aside.
  3. Stir the spinach and parsley into the chickpeas: the residual heat of the sauce should cook the spinach., but if it doesn’t wilt, just warm the chickpeas gently on the stove. Transfer the pasta to the pan of chickpeas and stir to combine. Divide between four bowls and sprinkle the za’atar on top. Finish with a drizzle of oil and serve.

A few notes on this dish.

  • Cooking the first stage ahead makes sense, allowing you to throw the dish together when ready.
  • If you use home cooked chickpeas, you might find they don’t brown or crisp up- this isn’t important to the successful outcome of the dish. canned chickpeas are more bullet like and will, most likely, stay firm and brown.
  • I tend not to drain pasta as a rule, but simply lift it from the pot of water and into the sauce, with tongs or a pasta claw. In this way, some of the remaining salty water clinging to the pasta enriches the sauce.
  • I used chicken stock powder by Massel for the broth, which is completely plant based and useful for everyday stock.
  • If you want to turn this back into an authentic Italian dish, simply remove the thyme and the Za’atar, and maybe add some finely chopped tomatoes during the first step of cooking.

Simple, Ottolenghi, 2018.

The Best Seville Orange Marmalade Cake

The search for a neighbourhood Seville orange tree began back in May. I’d just made a few batches of lime marmalade and had passed a jar on to a friend in our village. This inevitably led to a conversation via Messenger, ( aren’t all good conversations held this way during the pandemic? ) about the need to find some elusive Seville oranges to make the epitome of all marmalade, Seville Marmalade. I went as far as inquiring about Sevilles on our local community Facebook site. A respondent replied, an artist from the next village, who paints beautiful studio studies of seasonal fruit. In her walks, she had noticed some productive Seville orange trees and sent me monthly updates on the state of ripeness. Not only that, she picked 5 kilos, carried them to my daughter’s house, who then delivered them to my place. This season’s Seville Marmalade is now happily in jars, though plenty are walking out the front door.

The point of this simple little tale of two villages is that throughout this pandemic and months of lockdown, community consciousness has developed and now includes the sharing of major shopping trips, the cost of delivery services, spare garden produce, tools, and knowledge. Much of this is done through social media, which can be a tool for social change when used well. If there’s an up- side to the pandemic, it is this.

Seville Marmalade Cake

Ingredients
• 100 gr coarse-cut orange Seville marmalade ( approx 1/3 cup)
• 175 gr butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the pan
• 175 gr sugar
• 2 teaspoons grated lime zest ( optional) 
• 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
• 3 large eggs at room temperature
• 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
• 190 gr all-purpose flour
• 7 gr baking powder
• pinch fine sea salt

Glaze/icing

  • 30 gr icing sugar
  • 100 gr Seville marmalade ( approx 1/3 cup)
  • knob of butter

Preparation
1. Heat oven to 175º c. Grease a 23 cm by 13 cm loaf pan. Line with baking paper.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together softened butter, sugar, lime zest and orange zest for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until incorporated. Beat in the marmalade and orange juice. ( Tip: if the mixture looks like curdling when you beat in the eggs, add a little flour as you go) 
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Fold dry ingredients into wet until just combined.
4. Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until surface of cake is golden brown , about 50 to 55 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer pan to a
wire rack. Cool for  10 minutes before glazing.  then turn cake out of pan and place on rack right-side up. 
Glaze/icing. Heat the marmalade in a small pot over low heat until melted; whisk in icing sugar and butter until smooth. There are two approaches to adding the topping. EITHER  invert cake onto a tray, turn right way up then add the jammy topping which will run down the sides OR add the glaze to cake in the pan, which will concentrate the flavour to the top, though some will sink through and down the sides. When completely cool, lift from pan right way up. 

Keeps well for about 5 days

Notes.

Use any orange marmalade if you don’t have Seville, though that sweet bitter taste will be missing. Omit lime zest if you don’t have limes on hand and add a little more orange zest. I’ve left the ancient non-measurement, knob, because I love the sound of it. A knob could be anything you wish it to be: it’s also a crude  term of abuse in Australia- Don’t be a knob! A knob only applies to butter and is similar to that wonderful Italian cooking measurement qb or quanto basta, which means ‘as much as is enough’, or ‘to taste’ or as much as is needed to achieve the desired result.

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

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

In My Kitchen, August 2020

This month, I’m inviting you to step inside my kitchen. No one else can come inside these days, but you’re all welcome. It’s one long narrow room that incorporates a kitchen, a small pantry, a long table of 2.8 metres, a wood fired baker’s stove and two old sofas. Above are high beams and clerestory windows and plenty of natural light from the windows facing north and east. All are double glazed making the room easier to heat in winter and naturally cooler in summer. I would argue that retrofitting old windows and upgrading to double glazing is one of the most important energy saving moves you should make, regardless of where you live. Although we have other rooms in the house, we have chosen to live in and heat this single space, along with our bedroom which has a heater set on 17º c for 8 hours overnight. Our kitchen/living space heating consists of one small but very efficient wood stove and one split system inverter. Things are nice and toasty, even on days when the temperature ranges between 0º c and 10ºc outside. We monitor our power usage and note that the winter costs are much lower since adopting this single living space approach. Sig Tranquillo chainsaws fallen trees from the forest on our property which supplies the wood heater, another major cost saving and a gym workout for him.

Melbourne is now in stage 4 lockdown, due to the surge in numbers of corona virus in the state of Victoria. This is one of the most stringent of all lockdowns, and the world will be taking notes on the effectiveness of such a move. Mask wearing is compulsory, no one can travel more than 5 kms to shop, only one person from each household may do this and only for one hour, a night curfew operates from 8 pm to 5am, exercise must be undertaken locally, and only essential businesses may stay open. The vast majority of Victorians are doing the right thing and are determined to make this work. Of course, the media will highlight those who break the rules, and give way too much oxygen to the Karens and Kens of this world: anything newsworthy to feed the coffers of the Murdoch Press.

Dan the Man

In My Kitchen is Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, who appears at 11 am, or later on really bad days. Dan has been doing these updates for months: most Victorians admire and respect him. I moved the TV into our kitchen/everything room at the beginning of the pandemic to save on heating. Before the pandemic, we weren’t so glued to the big screen in the daytime. 

In my kitchen is a Nectre Heater, an Australian made wood heater that is very environmentally efficient and effective. We use it primarily for heating, but also  to cook stock and soups, heat the kettle, and warm leftovers and puddings in the little baker’s oven below. I often use the top to toast bread for bruschetta.

In my kitchen, there’s plenty of research happening. Sig Tranquillo is working on a Scottish history project. Sometimes his clutter fills the large table. Meanwhile, I’m finally back into full time reading and the books are piling up. I can highly recommend, Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water. A memoir of sorts, Flyn journeys from Scotland to Australia to investigate the travels and massacre of the Gunai indigenous tribe by the explorer, Angus McMillan. It is essential reading to all those who live in Gippsland, Victoria. More about this book in a later post. The local library sent my books by post but I feel that this is one book I must own. Books, computers, phones, diaries,and notes get swept to one end of the large table at meal time. Oh the clutter.

On sunny days we venture outside for lunch and have now established the routine picnic day, every Friday, on the platform under the old half built chimney. Picnic days can be dangerous, especially when the musical instruments appear.

I’m adding my post to Sherry’s In My Kitchen series this month, despite it’s lack of novel kitchen stuff.  Life is up and down here. I hope, dear reader, wherever you may be, that you keep safe and wear a mask.

Header photo. Turnips from the garden. Despite their vibrant colour, they always remind me of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. 

Eggplant rolls, Molto Siciliano.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mmmm, Molto Siciliana

¹ A History of Eggplant parmigiana 

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

In My Kitchen, June 2020

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

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

Zuppa cereale, made with freekeh.

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

Daisy at 10, with her fillo parcels. 2020

Daisy shelling beans, 3 years old,  2013

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

Cheaper than a kitchen reno.

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

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

Pantacce, gorgonzola cream, silver beet, walnuts

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

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

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

Friday Night Indian Potatoes

Some of you have returned to work, some of you never left, and some are still working from home. Despite the changing nature of work and the uncertainties that plague our lives, Friday night is knock off night, a call for simple food, perhaps fish and chips from the local take away, or the equivalent version cooked at home. I’ve always struggled with chip cooking, but can recommend these Indian fried potatoes as a quick and tasty substitute. These are irresistible on their own. Make a big pile and forget about the fish.

Indian style fried potatoes with 5 seeds. This recipe serves 3 as a snack or a side. Double the ingredients for a decent size, they will all be eaten in a flash, I promise.

  • 500 gr potatoes. I used Desiree potatoes today.
  • 3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons panch phoran, ( a blend of 5 whole seeds including cumin, fennel, mustard, nigella and fenugreek seeds)
  • 3/4 teaspoons turmeric powder
  • salt to taste
  • dried chilli flakes to taste
  • a handful of chopped fresh coriander

Method

Peel the potatoes and cut into chunks. Cook in boiling salted water until just done.

Place the oil and seeds in a medium non stick frying pan and fry over a low heat for a minute or so, then add the turmeric, chilli and salt. Stir about, the add the potatoes, gently turning them so that they are coated in the spices. Cook over a low heat for a few minutes, turning gently, then turn up the heat so that they form a nice golden brown crust on both sides. when done to your satisfaction, serve, garnished with chopped coriander.

Note- if you don’t have panch phoron on hand, raid the seeds in your spice cupboard and create your own blend.

Recipe adapted from Indian Food made Easy, Anjum Anand. 2007 a very handy collection.

Muttar Paneer, My Favourite Curry

As promised, it’s curry recipe time. But first let me say a few words about that ubiquitous word ‘curry’. The word Curry is simply the anglicised form of the Tamil word kaṟi meaning ‘sauce’ or ‘relish for rice’. This makes sense as rice is central to all Indian meals, as it is in other parts of Asia, and the ‘curries’ are often presented in small bowls to add to your rice and not the other way around. If you order a large Thali in India, you will be offered unlimited rice along with little teacup sized scoops of spicy and bland accompaniments- perhaps some mild chickpeas flavoured with sour tamarind, a crunchy fried fingerling, some bland soupy dal, or a dry curry of spicy potato or cauliflower, along with some hot chutney and dahi (plain yoghurt). A good Indian curry recipe involves subtlety in spicing, variation in texture and balance. Some people associate the word curry with heat, but this is a misconception: there are more mildly spiced aromatic curries than hot versions. There are no prizes for choking on chilli, eyes weeping in pain. A good banquet of curries might include one hot dish such as a Madras or Vindaloo, alongside others that are medium or mildly spiced, with some wet and some dry dishes. 

Unfortunately, there’s no chance for a banquet here any time soon, given the restrictions on social gathering. So it’s down to one curry at a time in this household of two, made with care, and served with all the sides- basmati jeera rice, naan, chutney and dahi. We have time on our side.

 

Muttar Paneer ( peas and curd) Serves 4 or more as part of a banquet

This is a two part recipe. The first step involves making the curd (paneer) which can made the day before, or anytime up to 3 hours before you make the curry. The recipe for paneer, including photos of the process, follows this main recipe.

  • 4 Tables neutral flavoured oil, such as canola or a mixture of half oil and half ghee ( my preference for a richer sauce)
  • 250 gr paneer, cut into 2.5cm cubes
  • 6 or more cardamom pods, bruised
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp garlic puree*
  • 2 tsp ginger puree*
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2- 1 tsp chilli powder
  • 200 gr canned tomatoes or fresh tomatoes with skins removed, finely chopped.
  • 350 gr whey or water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 125 gr frozen peas
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala
  • 2 Tblsp cream
  • 2 Tblsp chopped coriander leaves

Heat half the oil and ghee in a medium sized heavy based saucepan over medium heat. Add the paneer, sprinkling with a few pinches of turmeric if you wish. Cook till golden brown, turning gently.  Remove and drain.

Add the remaining oil to the same saucepan. Add the cardamom, stir about for a few seconds, then add the onion,and cook, stirring frequently for 5 minutes, lowering the heat if need be, till soft. Add the garlic and ginger, and cook, stirring frequently for 2 more minutes or until the onion is soft and a pale golden colour.

Add the ground coriander, turmeric and chilli powder and stir for 1 minute. Then add the chopped tomatoes and their juice, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4- 5 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of whey, (or water if you’ve used a commercial paneer ) stirring frequently until the oil separates from the spice paste. Then add the rest of the liquid, and salt. Bring to the boil, the reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 7-8 minutes.

Add the paneer and peas to simmer gently for 5 minutes. Stir in the garam masala and cream and remove from heat. Sprinkle with chopped fresh coriander if you happen to have some. Mint works well too.

Serve with rice, naan and thin yoghurt or raita.

* the best way to produce ginger puree is grating it on a fine microplane, while garlic puree is best made bashed in a mortar and pestle. If I’m making a few different curries, I start with this step and make a bulk lot of each. 

Paneer recipe

Making paneer is the one of the easiest and most satisfying things to do. Once you’ve made your own, you’ll never go back to those tough blocks sealed in plastic found in the fridges of Indian Delis. You will also be able to use the whey in your curry, so nothing is wasted. The whey keeps well for over a week and can be used in all sorts of curries and soups.

Ingredients for paneer to yield around 250 gr

  • 2 litres full cream milk
  • 3 tablespoons strained lemon juice

Boil the milk, making sure that it just reaches boiling point and doesn’t develop a skin or begin to froth. Stir occasionally while doing this. Turn off the heat, add the lemon juice and stir about until curds and whey separate. Leave it for 5 minutes, then tip into a muslin lined strainer over a bowl. The bowl will collect the whey. Wrap the curds tightly in the cloth, making a flattish shape, then place in the fridge on a plate with a heavy weight on top. Keep the whey and store in a bottle. The curd will be ready to use in 3 hours. Cut as required.

The pics below show the stages of paneer making. The whole process takes less than 10 minutes. The result is worth it.

The following chart gives an approximate guide of yield of paneer ( curd cheese) to milk. I used 1 litre of full cream milk for my most recent batch which produced 130 gr of paneer, enough for a large curry for two. The time before, my batch of 2 litres of milk produced a yield of 260 gr which is consistent, using full fat generic brand supermarket milk . UHT milk is not recommended. 

An approximate guide to yield of curd from milk. Use this chart to reduce or increase the recipe for paneer as required. Chart courtesy of Kurma Dasa. Who remembers cooking with Kurma?

For Maree Tink, who also enjoys making Muttar Paneer.