In My Kitchen, March 2018

Perhaps the title of this post should read ‘In My Kitchen Garden’ as this season’s harvest dominates the show and tell. March sees the tables and benches laden with baskets full of apples, pears, quince, figs, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplants, lettuce, basil, Thai herbs, and an occasional potato. The garden is wild and I can no longer tame all that rampant life without ending up on the table of the osteopath. The time for clearing and seeding will soon announce itself. I can already sense a crispness in the air. Today, the second morning of Autumn, the overnight temperature dropped to a chilly 10ºc: I pull on some warm socks before the day’s heat sets in. A morning cup of tea, followed by a rummage through the seed box is an auspicious start to the new season.

Sleeping Buddha and tomatoes

The sleeping Buddha was installed in my kitchen window after I was stung by a European wasp last week. These lovely Roma tomatoes enjoy an extra lazy day in the glazed northern sun. From now on, Buddha will remind me to search for smuggled insect terrorists. Did that wasp stare through the windows and gaze longingly at my produce laden table, then sneak in when the wire door was ajar?

Odd tomato varieties

This year we inadvertently grew some rather odd tomato varieties. Some are large and flavoursome but aren’t so prolific. They are grown for show. I bought the seedlings from an Italian man who labelled them simply as ‘red’. It’s rather nice though to completely cover a slice of bread with one large disc of tomato, the jewelled translucent seed and ridged pattern simply blessed with a grind of salt. It must be the perfect breakfast. The Russian tomatoes are lacking in flavour and I won’t bother with these again. They are too big and tend to rot on the vine before ripening. Next year I’ll stick to my favourites, the varieties that are well suited to my micro-climate;  Rouge de Marmande, the best of tomato flavours, Roma, or similar egg-shaped tomatoes which are good keepers, Green Zebra and the large acid free yellows which continue fruiting well into late Autumn, a literal pomodoro, along with a few self-sown large cherry varieties.

Over the last few years, I’ve gathered many old baskets which tend to clutter the verandahs during the colder months. They come to life during February and March when they are filled repeatedly. The long kitchen table is covered with baskets full of colour as they await sorting, freezing, cooking, preserving or giving away.

Jonathon apples- our earliest variety. More varieties to come. Lace produce bag in foreground made by Celia: thank you lovely friend.
Marcella Hazan’s apple and rum cake. One kilo of Jonathon apples dispatched.

It’s always a challenge to find more uses for zucchini. One way of eating a kilo without noticing is to make Indian Zucchini Bhaji. Grate them, mix with onion slices, then add to a thick and gently spiced Besan and rice flour batter, then deep fry them like fritters. Serve with chutney and yoghurt.

Zucchini Bhaji and mild mango chutney.
Fettuccine with grilled zucchini and pesto.

I am still being challenged by the cucumber plague and now give most of them away. Come and help yourselves.

Cucumbers, Hazlenuts, Buerre Bosc Pears.

Everyone and his dog has been waiting for the arrival of my figs. That day came yesterday. I have a few hundred slowly ripening and pick a small basketful when perfectly ripe. Green on the outside, but soft and purple within, they are the garden’s gender antonym to the zucchini. At some point I’ll make some fig jam when the harvest becomes overwhelming. Unusual fig recipes are welcomed, dear reader.

My most successful eggplant this year is this magenta striped variety, Melanzana Siciliana or Graffiti eggplant. I have some wild self sown eggplants still to show their true colours.

Too nice to cook.
Buerre Bosc pears are great keepers.

Thanks once again to Sherry of Sherry’s Pickings for hosting In My Kitchen, a monthly event which encourages many to step back from their regular writing or photographic posting and to take a closer look at the engine room of the house, the kitchen.

Not so Cool Cucumbers

Every time I wander through the vegetable garden, cucumbers virtually trip me up. They are self-sown, growing wild between other more ordered plantings, scrambling over paths and up reo metal structures. Not having the heart to pull them all out when they were petite little specimens with delicate yellow flowers, I am now paying for that weakness. These cucumbers make the zucchini look polite. On average, I pick 10 a day and although I try to nab them while they are dainty and seedless, many reach adulthood. At the beginning of summer, when they’re cool and welcome, I grate them into garlicky tzaziki or serve them in various brines and vinegars, just like my grandmother Maggie used to do. I’ve also pickled a few jars with dill and am now wondering what comes next. Last night the cucs got the hot Sichuan treatment with this spicy dish by Fuchsia Dunlop. The best part of this dish is smacking the cucumber with a rolling pin- very therapeutic. It’s a wonderful side dish served alongside other dishes as part of a Chinese banquet. I attempted to eat this dish on its own as a little Chinese entrée, chopsticks in one hand, chilled rosé in the other. The dish needs friends, both culinary and human.

Smacked cucumber in garlicky sauce (Su an ni pai huang gua)

  • 1-2 cucumbers ( 300 gr )
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp caster sugar
  • 2 tsp Chinkiang vinegar ( black vinegar- no substitutes)
  • 1 tsp light soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp chilli oil – optional
  • A pinch or two of ground, roasted Sichuan pepper

Put the cucumber on a chopping board and smack it a few times with a rolling pin or the flat side of a cleaver, until some cracks appear on the surface. Then, holding your knife at an angle to the chopping board, slice the cucumber on the diagonal into small chunks.

In a bowl, mix the cucumber with the salt and leave to sit for 10 minutes to draw some of the water out of the cucumber. Stir together all the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Drain the cucumber, then pour over the sauce and serve right away while still crunchy.

Do you have any memorable and unusual cucumber recipes? Leave a cucumber recipe comment below. Francesca xx

Sweet Plums in Summer and an Old Tart Recipe

The orchard, summer’s sweet fulfillment, beckons each morning, before the heat sets in. With the passing of the month, more heavily laden boughs bend with the weight of fruits of the season. Long gone are the peaches, young berries and cherries of early summer: now is the time for slow maturing fruit, apples, pears, quinces, figs and plums. Today the ruby-red fleshed Satsuma plums announced their turn to be picked: not as sweet as the Mariposa plum of early January, but a close relative and a very good keeper.

satsuma plums

Picking fruit is a kind way to wake up. I ponder the efficacy of the netting, and the man who meticulously netted, as I reach in to gently press the fruit, testing for perfect ripeness. An abundant season thanks to good spring rain, purple plums press against each other, nudging siblings for space on the bough, beautiful cheeks full of dark juice. As the basket fills, recipes come to mind- sweets of all kinds and savoury concoctions too, jams to put down for rustic winter crostate, spicy Chinese sauces, and poached plums to eat with yoghurt or labne.

Picking plums in the cool of early morning

I’ve made this tart often, and in the past with pears, apricots and cherries. It’s a seasonal standby. The apricot version is my most popular recipe on this blog. I’ve never had much success with growing apricots and so that version is a rare treat. Commercial apricots are picked too soon and never seem to fully ripen, tasting wooden and sour. This plum version is colourful and not too sweet. When choosing plums, make sure that they are juicy, fully ripe and are red fleshed. I should stress that they are not poached beforehand, but gently pressed into the top of the almond frangipane batter before baking.

Torta di mandorle e prugne

Torta di Mandorle e Prugne con Amaretto. Italian Almond and Plum Cake with Amaretto.


  • 125 g softened unsalted butter
  • 150 g castor sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 50 g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 375 g finely ground almond meal
  • 2 Tablespoons Amaretto liqueur ( brandy works well enough here)
  • red fleshed plums, such as blood plums, fully ripe, enough to fill the tart
  • 25 g flaked almonds


  1. Preheat oven to 170 FF. Grease a 25 cm loose bottom tin and line with baking paper.
  2. Cream butter and sugar in a stand mixing bowl, then add eggs one at a time and beat for 5 minutes until thick and pale. If the mixture curdles, throw in a little of the measured flour.
  3. Stir in the flour mixed with the baking powder, then fold in the almond meal, followed by the Amaretto. Pour into the prepared tin.
  4. Arrange halved plums over the top and lightly press down so they are partly submerged. Scatter the top with the flaked almonds.
  5. Bake for 45- 50 mins. Cool in tin. Gently un-mould.

    Torta di Mandorle e Prugne

In summer, this tart keeps well in a covered box in the fridge. I reheat the slices a little before serving.

Links to my my previous plum concoctions.

Poached plums with labne and nuts and seeds

Plum Clafoutis

Plum and Semolina Cream Tart

Rustic Italian Plum Cake

Chinese Plum Sauce


Pizza Cinque Tesori

Pizza night is a weekly event here and, depending on the mood of the creator and the time given to the task, some pizzas turn out better than others. I never fiddle with my dough recipe: as the old saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but I have revised and simplified the method. Summer pizzas tend to be more reliable given the warm atmosphere, conducive to a faster rise, and the abundant treasure from my vegetable garden. Eating pizza in the great outdoors may also enhance the taste.

Today’s pick

My current favourite is Pizza Cinque Tesori or five treasures. Although my name for this pizza sounds exotic, the topping is quite restrained: it’s the taste of mid- summer. The pizza base is painted with a rustic tomato passata and a little grated mozzarella, then come the five treasures-  zucchini ribbons, flash grilled and dressed in garlic oil, a hand full of cooked shrimp, a finely sliced red onion, some capers and basil leaves.

Hand stretched base on baking paper, getting dressed for the oven.

These days I tend to hand stretch my pizza dough. After flattening the dough ball a little, I gently lift and stretch the sides, then let it rest for a few minutes. As the dough relaxes, stretching becomes easier. The dough then gets a long rest on the bench, fully dressed, before cooking. Laying it on kitchen parchment before stretching makes it easy to lift it onto a long rectangular baking tray.

Before baking

My Most Reliable Pizza Dough Recipe, updated and simplified.

  • 5 g active dry yeast ( 1¾ teaspoons)
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 320 ml tepid water (1 1/3 cups)
  • 55 g olive oil ( ¼ cup)
  • 500 g baker’s flour or unbleached plain flour (3¾ cups )
  • 7.5 g sea salt (1 ½ teaspoons)

Stir the yeast and sugar into the water in the mixer bowl of a stand mixer and leave for a couple of minutes. Stir in the oil. Add the flour and salt to the yeast mixture. Mix, using the dough hook at very low speed at first, then increase to medium speed until soft and satiny but firm, about 5 minutes. Finish kneading briefly by hand on a lightly floured surface and form into a ball.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn to coat with the oil, cover tightly with plastic wrap or a shower cap and let rise until doubled. Depending on the room temperature this could take one to two hours. If your dough doesn’t rise, your yeast may be stale so always check the use by date.

Knead the dough briefly and gently on a lightly floured surface, for 1-2 minutes. Divide the dough into two. Leave the dough to rest another 15 minutes or so, under a cloth or tea towel, before shaping. Hand shape by stretching, resting and stretching again or use a rolling-pin if you prefer neat rounds. If hand stretching, I find it easier to place baking/parchment paper underneath beforehand.

Lift the stretched dough on large trays dusted with semolina or polenta or onto baking paper/parchment and let it rise for another 30 minutes, covered with a towel. Dress the pizza with your favourite toppings.

Oven temperatures and functions vary with from oven to oven. I use the pizza function on my Ilve, which heats the lower half of the oven higher than the top, at 250 c FF. I also use the lower rack for faster browning of the crust. This takes 8- 10 minutes. Using a regular fan forced oven, pre- heat to 250c and place on the centre shelf, drop the temperature to 220 c and bake for around 15 minutes, then check on the base.

 About flour for Pizza. Information for Melbourne, Australia

I tend to use Baker’s flour, which is stronger than plain white flour, for my pizze because I have a ready stash. Plain unbleached flour works well enough.

  • Wallaby Baker’s flour by Lowan comes in 5 kilo lots and is readily available at Coles.
  • I tend to use Manildra Baker’s flour, which comes in larger 12.5 kilo bags and buy this at Bas foods, Brunswick or Costco.
  • Preston Market stocks 12.5 kilo bags of Lowan white and wholemeal Spelt flour.
  • Cervasi supermarket, Brunswick, stocks a fluctuating array of Italian flours as does Psarakos in Thornbury and Bundoora.
  • Always check the milling date  as well as the use by date of any flour you buy, and support retailers who stock the freshest flour. Retailers with low turnover often unwittingly sell flour that is close to the use by date.
  • If you wish to try Italian flour Tipo oo, which is a highly processed, refined white flour, the liquid needs to be reduced significantly. I haven’t had much success using that soft flour for pizza, but it’s great for hand-made pasta. Carol Field’s description below is useful for those mystified by the zeros used to describe Italian flour:

‘The Italian baker has five grades of grano tenero to choose from, although they are classified not by strength and protein content like ours but by how much of the husk and whole grain have been sifted away. The whitest flour has the least fibre. The lower the number, the more refined and whiter the flour, so that of the five categories, “00” is the whitest and silkiest flour, “0” is a bit darker and less fine, since it contains about 70% of the grain, and “1” is even darker. Darker and courser is “2”. For all the talk of the prevalence of whole grain in the healthy Mediterranean diet, only a fairly small percentage of Italian breads are made with whole wheat (Pane Integrale)…Millers simply take refined white flour, stir in a quantity of bran, and pronounce it whole wheat. The Italian Baker, RevisedCarol Field. p 18.

Pizza Cinque Tesori

Where’s My Toga? Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

The expression ‘Paese che vai, usanza che trovi’ is often spouted by Italians, as wise advice or an admonishment, I’m never sure which. The well-known English equivalent, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, means exactly the same thing and is the golden rule for all travellers to foreign lands. Tourists in Rome however, can take this saying literally, especially when it comes to food.  I’ll eat like a Roman any day.

Non sto male, that’s for sure.

Some of the Roman meatless classics you are likely to find include spaghetti alle vongole verace, carciofi alla giudia, insalata di puntarella and my favourite Roman dish of all time, Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe.

A bowl of cacio e pepe: the creamy Pecorino sauce hides within.

I’ve had a few attempts at reproducing an autentico Spaghetti (or Tonnarelli) Cacio e Pepe over the years with varying success. The dish has only three ingredients yet is not so simple to make. There are a few magic techniques to master for a perfect result. After trawling through a variety of Italian sites, I’ve settled on the advice offered by the Giallo Zafferano site ( beware the advertisement bombardment on this site ). Many non-Italian sites add such things as butter or oil which ruin a good Cacio e Pepe. Don’t be misled by these recipes.

When making this cheesy peppery dish, keep in mind that the sauce will use the hot, starchy pasta cooking water. By gradually adding a small amount of this hot liquid to the grated cheese, a thick, non grainy sauce will form. The other trick is to toast the ground peppercorns in a large deep sided frying pan followed by added pasta water. This will make a starchy, peppery bath to finish cooking the semi- cooked pasta. When the pasta is added, it will absorb the extra liquid, a method similar to making risotto. It’s a good idea to read the details below a few times before beginning. If confusing, refer to the Giallo Zafferano site and watch the video demonstration of the creaming method.

Ingredients. For two large serves for a main meal.

  • 100 gr Pecorino Romano
  • 220 gr Spaghetti number 12 /(de Cecco brand is nice)
  • 5 gr whole black peppercorn ( you might not use all of this)
  • sea salt for pasta water.

Tools. Pasta pot, deep sided large frying pan or large non stick wok, small whisk, bowl, mortar and pestle, tongs, wooden spoon. Yes, only three ingredients and a whole lot of tools.


  1. Grate the Pecorino.
  2. Boil the water in a pasta pot (use about half the usual amount of water to cook the pasta so it will be richer in starch) and salt well.
  3. When the water comes to a rolling boil, add the pasta. Timing is crucial here. If your pasta usually takes 10 minutes to cook al dente, set the timer for 8 minutes. You want the pasta to be slightly under cooked at this point.
  4. Meanwhile crush the peppercorns with a mortar and pestle or grinder. Pour half the ground pepper into a large frying pan or non stick wok and dry roast over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon or tongs.
  5. Add a couple of ladles of pasta cooking water to the peppercorn pan. Bubbles should appear due to the starch contained in the water. Using tongs, lift the semi- cooked spaghetti into the frying pan, keeping aside the pot of cooking water.
  6. Stir the pasta about, using a wooden spoon or tongs. When the water is absorbed, add another ladle of pasta water and continue stirring. Continue adding a ladle of pasta water as needed.
  7. In the meantime, when you think the pasta is almost ready – and this can only be judged by tasting along the way – prepare the Pecorino cream.
  8. Pour half the grated Pecorino into a small mixing bowl. Add a few tablespoons of pasta cooking water and mix well with a whisk. When it is creamy, add more Pecorino and a little more cooking water, whisking all the while. Keep going in this way, holding back a little grated cheese for the final condiment.
  9. Finish cooking the pasta, adding a little more cooking water if necessary, before adding the Pecorino cream. Briefly mix the cream by placing the bowl over the steam of the pasta pot hot water, and stir with the whisk. This brings the cream back to the temperature of the pasta. Turn off the heat and add the Pecorino cream, stirring continuously with the kitchen tongs until well amalgamated.
  10. Serve adding more grated cheese and a little extra pepper. Mangia!
Chef on break. Roman laneways and trattorie.

Do as the Romans do, eat Cacio e Pepe autentico.

Summer Buddha Bowls

Buddha bowls have made a mysterious appearance around here lately. They are deceptive little meals. Initially, they seem easy enough- shove a few things in a bowl, grab a fork or chopsticks and plonk yourself and filled bowl in front of Netflix, then veg out – literally. But once you get into the building stage, you may find yourself led down a culinary rabbit hole, creating more and more interesting elements to complement your initial idea.

Buddha bowls, otherwise known as macro or hippy bowls, have been around for a few years, spreading from the inner suburban haunts of the hipster to outer suburban cafés and the countryside. According to the urban dictionary, ‘Buddha bowls are packed so full that they have a rounded belly appearance on the top much like the belly of a buddha’. While I’m not one for succumbing to food trends, I love a hippy macro buddha bowl in summer, so long as certain conventions are followed.

A fine Buddha Bowl is one where the individual elements and flavours complement each other culturally and ethnically. I tend to apply this general principle to other plated meals too. I don’t like mixing Middle Eastern foods with Asian, or Mediterranean with Indonesian, though I have eaten some culturally mismatched foods in cafes which make me cringe. I like to start with a particular cuisine- Japanese, for example, then ferret around the pantry and fridge finding elements that build on that theme. You could add more guidelines: there should be contrast in colour and texture and the composition should be appealing to the eye and not look like a dog’s dinner. Try to include one grain, preferably a wholegrain, the macro element, and some form of protein- such as egg, fish, pulses, beans, or tofu, as well as fresh uncooked vegetables, something pickled, seeds or nuts, and a good dressing. Your bowl doesn’t have to be overflowing like a fat Buddha- a few contrasting elements with some good flavour is all you need.

Today’s macro hippy buddha bowl followed a Japanese path and tasted clean and sustaining. It  included:

  • brown rice, cooked, cooled a little, then dressed with sushi dressing and black sesame seeds
  • tofu chunks, fried, then glazed in a miso and mirin sauce
  • pickled cucumber and red onion with ginger for crunch
  • fresh mustard leaves, shredded
  • young radishes

It was one of my ‘holier than thou’ bowls, perfect for the post-Christmas season, the umami element, the warm miso sauced fried tofu, saving the dish from total puritanism. I also considered adding some torn nori. Steamed green beans tossed in browned sesame seed sauce might have gone well too, or a sliced avocado. On market day, a crunchy fried miso glazed small fish would be a good addition. The thing is to use what you have that sits comfortably within a particular country’s culinary framework and that includes using a neutral flavoured oil, and not olive oil, if heading down the Asian path.

When does a bowl become a share platter? New terminology for old ideas. The Medit bowl made from Puy lentils, dressed in olive oil and sherry vinegar, parsley, shallots, goat’s cheese, black olives, toasted almonds. Served with croutons.

Last week’s bowls included a Mediterranean bowl for two ( pictured above) and an Indian feast. To be fair, Indian bowls are as old as Buddha himself. While the rice and dhal are cooking, begin creating small add ons- baked cauliflower with whole cumin seeds, toasted almonds, hard-boiled eggs, and a simple raita, made from yoghurt and cucumber or mint. At this time of year, fresh mango chutney adds a seasonal sweet touch.

The Indian bowl. White rice, hard-boiled egg, baked cauliflower in Indian spices with toasted slivered almonds. Masoor Dal, tomato salad, Raita with mint, mango chutney.

Today’s pickle was made as the rice cooked. It goes well with Japanese meals and makes a nice crunchy change from the commercial pink pickled ginger. It is not one to store.

  • 2 small cucumbers, finely sliced
  • one red onion, finely sliced
  • 1 cup rice vinegar/ or apple cider if improvising
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced/grated ginger.
  • pinch of dried chilli flakes.

Layer vegetables in a small jar. Mix the sugar, salt and vinegar, stir until blended and pour over. Leave for one hour.

Part of today’s culinary rabbit hole- a crunchy fresh pickle.

Happy Holidays dear readers.

In My Kitchen, December 2017

I’ve been dithering around in my kitchen since returning from our long trip and am feeling totally uninspired. Where’s the menu and those kitchen fairies who clean up? Returning to an overgrown vegetable patch, and the loss of 13 chooks, courtesy of Mr Fox, has robbed me of fresh ingredients, my backyard larder and the inspiration for most of my meals. When I look back on my December posts from the last four years, I can see energy, seasonal fruits and vegetables, garlic braiding, Italian biscuits, summer fruit cakes and short breads. This year, none of those things have happened -yet. 

Making do with what’s available, I made a huge batch of dolmades using leaves from our grape vines. Blanched in boiling water for two minutes then drained, they are ready to rock and roll. Although tedious to stuff 65 little parcels, once made, they become a staple in the fridge for hot summer nights, preserved with oil and lots of lemon juice.

The berry crop is huge this year, especially the boysenberries. They make a sweet addition to home-made yoghurt, something cool and luscious for breakfast. Making the weekly yoghurt is such an easy thing. I’m finding that 1 litre of organic milk creates a firmer and tastier yoghurt than the cheaper milks. Yoghurt is added to tahini and lemon for a quick drizzling sauce for falafel, or as the basis of tzaziki, or whipped through puréed mango for lassis, or served on the side with red lentil dhal and a few stir fried greens.

Another frugal standby is Pasta e Ceci, one of my favourite soups. I ordered it twice while in Italy this year and on both occasions I was disappointed. I put this down to the use of canned chickpeas, which retain a bullet like texture when used whole in these soups, and the lack of depth in the accompanying brodo, which should have hints of rosemary, a touch of chilli and tomato and good olive oil. The old Italo- Australiane, the Italian women migrants who cooked for their families in the 1950s and 60s, brought with them the old contadine ways of  turning cheap ingredients into something deeply satisfying through slow cooking, herbs, and knowledge based on tradition. Modern Italian restaurant cooking has lost much of this old knowledge and has turned to economical shortcuts and speedy cooking. 

I have resumed bread making. Despite our local and wonderful artisan baker in St Andrews, I can turn out two large loaves for $2 and there’s no need to leave home. It’s a way of life now thanks to Celia.

Last week’s loaves. I need a new slashing tools. Everything is blunt.

And in my kitchen are these gorgeous gifts from Alberto’s family in Pavia, Italy. His grandmother edged this tablecloth and napkin set. The work is exquisite. Grazie ad Alberto, Dida, Stefania e Claudio per la vostra meravigliosa ospitalità e amicizia durante il nostro soggiorno a Pavia.

Hand crocheted edging by Alberto’s grandmother.

Two litres of Campari jumped off the duty-free shelves on my way back into the land of Oz. I developed a taste for Spritz in Como, but based on Campari, Prosecco and soda, rather than Aperol which is not so pink and a little too sweet. Summertime drinks by the pool? You bring the Prosecco.

Hand over the pick stuff.

Thanks once again Sherry for making In My Kitchen happen so smoothly each month. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for more posts on the kitchen theme: you might even find the C word in some of them.


Out to Lunch in Dordogne, France

I’m writing at the kitchen table, as I usually do, before dawn. The sun rises slowly, though here in the Dordogne region of France, dawn seems to drag on forever, like a long twilight in reverse. Morning is not much fun: fog and mist often continue until lunchtime when the sun finally breaks through and shoos the grey away. Jackets and scarves for the morning: t-shirts and sun hats for the afternoon. No wind spoils Autumn, no leaves quiver: the climbing vines on village stone cottages are turning crimson and pink.

Autumn in Dordogne, France
Autumn in the Dordogne, France

On days like this, an outdoor lunch calls, perhaps a picnic by the Vezere river or a drive to a nearby village, just in time to nab an outside table at a little inn for the menu du midi. For us it will depend on the offerings of the day, which are chalked up on boards at around 11 am. Some days the menu has little appeal: it’s often duck gesiersmagret de canard, salade d’ aiguilllettes, or fois gras – it’s a hard life for ducks and geese around here. As pescatarians ( vegetarians who eat some fish on occasion), we can be hard to please in this region so there’s always a back up plan.

Saint-Léon sur Vézère.  Three course menu for 18 euro. Pumpkin soup, pave of trout, tiramisu of pear with a zabaglione topping.  Demi litre of  Bergerac, 7 euro
Veloute de citrouille.
Pave de Truite.
Tiramisu with a difference. Fresh ripe pear, crumbled ginger biscuits, zabaglione cream

Packed in a little box in the boot of our car is a good goat’s cheese, a few tomatoes, a baguette and a bottle of Bergerac Rosé for our little field trips into the woods, rivers and villages of the lovely Dordogne countryside. If we pass a market on the way, we add a homemade walnut tart, a bag of apples, or perhaps a nice quiche. One way or the other, there’s always a good lunch.

Picnic by the Dordogne River
Confluence of the Vezere and Dordogne rivers. Limeuil.
Gateaux aux noix at La Bugue market. Walnut season.
I’m still cooking. Apple and strawberry tart. But why bother in the land of Patisserie.
Huge yellow tomatoes. French markets.
Another tempting spot by the Vezere river

In My Scottish Kitchen, September 2017

One of the most common complaints of the traveller is the dearth of vegetables served along the way in any type of eatery, cafe, restaurant or pub. Despite veggies being in vogue, we don’t see many on the plate, other than a token salad or a potato, the latter usually in the form of the dreaded chip. After 6 weeks on the road, we were longing for our own apartment or little house, just to be able to cook a pile of vegetables, a soup or vegetable bake, as well as catch up on some washing. It’s rather ironic really, that these simple domestic tasks become so overwhelmingly desirable when you no longer have them.

View from our York Kitchen. Had to pick some wild weeds along the way- purple buddlea is the local weed, growing out of walls and concrete paths. Adding a homely touch to the plastic ikea plants and slate tiled York roof tops.

Our first pot of soup, a leek and potato soup, seemed fitting for our little kitchen in Aberystwyth, Wales. Our York apartment, a spacious Ikea fitted out place in a converted office building, provided the means to cook, but as we were also visiting friends that week, we had little chance to use it. My dear friend JA made some wonderful salads and dishes loaded with veggies from her Lottie ( affectionate English name for an allotment garden), the most memorable dish being her Summer Pudding, filled with plump, ripe blackberries picked from verges, along with raspberries and blueberries cured inside a mold of organic white bread. Ecstasy. There’s an art to making these carmine concoctions that taste like berry velvet.

View from JA’s apartment, overlooking the Minster, York. JA’s Australian roots have given her a passion for freshly grown vegetables.

Now that we’re in Skye, our little stone cottage by the sea has enabled some real cooking to take place. But first, before driving across to the island, we did a big veggie shop in Inverness. Vegetables are much cheaper in Britain than Australia, so long as you stick to seasonal ingredients that are locally grown. My big bag of vegetables, including a cute Wonky cabbage, cost very little, necessitating a few little add ons, such as box of raspberries, some odd looking flat peaches, French butter, lovely cheeses, some Scottish and others a bit too French, and of course, a bottle of single malt whisky. All in the name of keeping up with the locals, of course. Or as the late Angus Grant, fiddle player from Shooglenifty would say, in the only words I have ever heard him sing, ‘Suck that mother down,’ during his live solo on the tune ‘Whisky Kiss.’

On special for 16 Quid. Going down nicely. In memory of Ian Channing.

Wonky vegetables are NQR shaped produce, an idea that has also taking off in Australia. We don’t need perfectly shaped vegetables thankyou, and we definitely don’t need them wrapped in plastic. Most of my bargain veggies came pre -wrapped or bagged in acres of plastic. I’m wondering if the ‘War on Waste’ campaign is happening in Britain and Scotland. The other aspect I found unusual about the local supermarkets was the volume of pre-prepared foods. You name it, it’s available, pre-cooked and ready to ding. Fish cakes, fish pie ingredients, including the sauce, pre-cooked mussels, all sorts of meals, mash, even mashed swede. I’m not sure that Jamie Oliver has made much impression on the English diet.

Wonky Cabbage, 45 p

I was hoping to find a farmer’s market on Skye to supplement these goods. It turns out that farmers markets are quite rare, but then given the climate, I can understand why. We found one at Glendale in the north-west of Skye, a longish drive. We arrived early to find 7 stalls huddled together against the wind: one lady had a pile of fresh organic chicken carcasses for stock, another chap had one small bag of rainbow chard and black kale, nearby was the cucumber specialist, with two kinds on offer, on another table were a few carrots and apples and further down a lady with some sticky buns. And in the midst of all this I found the lady from Tinctoria, a specialist hand spinner and dyer from these parts. She has been hand dyeing since the 1980s and grows her own herbs to make the most extraordinary colours. Needless to say, I wanted them all.

Green ball, dyed from Brazilwood then over dyed with Indigo, the pink is Brazilwood and the blue is from Woad. Not quite kitchen goods but probably made in a kitchen. Dyewoods are woods providing  dyes for textiles. Some of the more important include: Brazilwood or Brazil from Brazil, producing a red dye. Catechu or cutch from Acacia wood, producing a dark brown dye. Old Fustic from India and Africa produces a yellow dye.

My vegetable stash is lasting well. In my Skye kitchen I’ve made lentil and vegetable soups, swede, onion and Orkney cheddar bake, pan scorched green beans with garlic and lemon, ( loving the very skinny beans here), caramelised whole shallots in olive oil, butter and beetroot glaze, Cullen Skink full of undyed smoked haddock, pasta with veggies, mushroom risotto, cauliflower cheese and loads of salads. My cooking has taken on a distinctive Scottish style- the view outside my kitchen window, the rain and the ever-changing Skye light having a profound effect on my cooking and pastimes. It’s odd, given my gypsy tendencies, how homely and settled I feel here.

Simple foods, just vegetables, some butter and cheese. The swede bake layered with onion and Orkney cheddar was a winner.
A bag of shallots become caramelised in olive oil, with some fleur de sel butter, and a reduction of balsamic and beetroot dressing.
Cullen Skink, with smoked haddock, potato, leek, and parsley. Crofter’s bread and French butter.

Fat Raspberries, sweet and seasonal, lead to the obvious choice of dessert- Cranachan- except that I was rather heavy-handed with the single malt and the toasted oats. It ended up more like an alcoholic breakfast. Mr T has promised to pick some neglected black berries along the verges, down near Maelrubha’s well; before we leave this special place, I’ll try to make a more restrained blackberry version.

A heavy-handed Cranachan. Too many oats and way too much single malt.
Crafting and Crofting. My travelling project, a bramble berry scarf, in memory of Skye.

I could go on and on about the wonders of Skye and how inspired I feel here, but I’ll save it for another time, another ramble into the mist. The media file below depicts views from our cottage. It’s hard to stay sane around such ever shifting beauty.

Thanks once again to Sherry from Sherry’s Pickings for hosting this monthly series.

Tidal cottage on Breakish. I could stay here for a few months or more. Celtic dreaming.

Top Thai Restaurants in Chiang Mai

Good Thai, bad Thai, Australian suburbs all have at least one local Thai restaurant. Most Australians are familiar with the more common dishes on a Thai menu. We assume that when we travel to Thailand, the food will automatically be much better, more authentic and spicy. This is not always the case. You can read Trip Advisor or similar sites for clues. In Thailand, these recommendations are often written by people staying in 5 star Western hotels who are happy to pay 5 star prices for food, or backpackers who hang around cafes and juice bars who are more interested in the ‘chill’ factor than taste. During my last trip to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, I found another clue to bad Thai food in restaurants- simply look at the clientele. If a place is full of tourists of any age, you will most likely eat bland, over priced, ordinary food masquerading as Thai. There are exceptions of course, but choosing a restaurant on the basis of a sea of Western diners will usually lead to disappointment. Thai food will be better in your local suburban Thai at home. Watch where the Thais eat. They know where the food is good so just follow their lead.

Here are two of my favourites. They both happen to be vegetarian. The first, Ming Kwan Vegetarian restaurant, is one is frequented by locals from early morning until they finish (around 5 pm). Some brave tourists like ourselves love this place. Little English is spoken. You just point to the things that look good, then ask for a plate of rice, which happens to be wholesome red rice. The cost per plate is between 20 and 30 Thai Bhat ( AU$1.14 or less). The water is free. Favourite dish: the iconic Khao Soi soup, made with a curry sauce and coconut milk base, with some added textured soy meat, a handful of yellow egg noodles and topped with deep-fried crispy egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, coriander, a squeeze of lime and some ground chillies fried in oil.

A bowl of Khao Soi at Ming Kwan, Chiang Mai
One. Start with the soup
Two. Then add the toppings

My second favourite is Taste from Heaven. This place is frequented by tourists, expats and some locals. ( thus breaking the rule I espoused above). Nan has now opened two more branches in the Moon Muang area but I’ve only eaten at her original branch. The serves here are generous. The menu is in English. Beer, Wine and WiFi  are available as well as things like Vegan brownies, all being tourists draw cards. The food is sensational and medium priced. Most dishes are around 70 – 90 Bhat per plate, (AU $3 or so), and choosing is agony. I want it all. Return visits are a necessity. Favourite dish: Tempura battered morning glory vine with cashews, tofu and peanut sauce and the charred eggplant with chilled tofu salad. The sate of mixed mushrooms with peanut sauce is hard to pass by also. Hungry now?

Ming Kwan Vegetarian Restaurant. 98 Rachadamnoen Rd Soi 4, Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Taste from Heaven. 34/1 Ratmakka road (opposite soi 1) Prasing Muang Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Next post. Old Hong Kong.