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!
Books and winter go hand in hand. I was planning to stick to library books for inspiration but a few purchases have crept through the door. The cost of a good second hand cookbook is usually less than half the price of a new magazine. Savers second hand store provides most of my cheap finds, while the Book Grocer is a great source of remaindered books.
Many species of fish are at their peak in winter. The snapper were almost jumping at the Preston market last week, along with a winter specialty, a rare item, small gutted cuttlefish. I bought one large snapper carcass to make fish stock to freeze, one snapper to bake, and 1/2 kilo of cuttle fish to freeze. Five fishy meals for $19. I was very happy with this baked snapper recipe from Neil Perry. We devoured young Roger the Snapper with gusto.
I knit and weave this ancient yarn, heath tinted and Celtic hued, with tired hands, deeply immersed in a timeless pastime. Now mindfully, now mindlessly, knit one purl one, the art of ancient knotting soothes my disquiet. As the pattern turns more complex, a row of hieroglyphics looms ahead, demanding more attention, a knitter’s code from an another era. The emerging fabric begins to twist and turn in an interlacing helix as new cables form and cross paths. How did those women of olde translate designs from painted page or stone to yarn, the Book of Kells to knitting?
‘Knit with your hearts an unslipping knot’. Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra. Act 11, Scene 11.
We sleep, curled around each other like a loosely formed hank of wool, weaving hands, legs and toes, fingers threading through hair and soft skin: then we unravel, in search of cooler planes of sheet, only to reform like lost souls soon after.
Fishing and Knitting
My grandparents come from wild sea
One knits fine wool to wear
The other knots hard rope to fish
My grandmother was a quiet soul, her stern appearance not helped by her refusal to wear her dentures. She looked ancient before her time. She retreated to the front room early in the evening, to knit or read, or to keep warm in a softer space under a colourful crocheted Afghan blanket. Outside the winds roared across the strait, black ocean and wild tides tempered by isolated islands rising on horizon, Sphinx like, at dusk. Living in the oldest port of Victoria, she made a paltry income from her knitting. Heavy cabled Aran pullovers were bartered or sold to fishermen for a few shillings. Pure woolen garments were water resistant and insulation against the wild winds and inclement weather of Bass Strait. The textured cable pattern, apart from being decorative and evocative of another era, provided more thickness than a plain knitted garment. Perhaps she knew those cousins who ‘met their watery graves’ out at sea as they fished the wild Strait. Maybe she retreated into the rhythm of knit one purl one for sanity, privacy, a safe haven for hands and mind.
My grandfather was a boat builder who knew that sea, its tides, anger and calm. He worked with the sea and on the sea. In his spare time he tied knots from ropes, strong yarns of another kind. In his old age, he taught me to twist fine wool into chord, to create little pom poms and other trims and tassels. His skills, like hers, were timeless.
The Little Black Doll
One year, my grandmother gave my younger sister a gift. This was odd, as she never really gave presents to her grandchildren- the wild sea and the fish, flounder fish as big as a plate, and wild prawns netted from the incoming tide in the channel, were gift enough. The gift was a small black baby doll made of hardened plastic. She had knitted a costume for the doll- a little outfit of yellow and green wool in the finest of ply. The shirt was in moss stitch and the long shorts were in basket stitch, each alternating square less than 50 mm, with tiny buttons sewn down the front. The tension was precise, the hand stitched joining invisible. I was jealous, not of the doll- I was well over dolls as an 8 year old child- but of the beautiful fine work that my sister received, and will most likely not remember. Today, when I knit in basket stitch or moss, I think of Grace, my grandmother, the finest of knitters, the quietest of souls.
Knitting in the 1950s
It would all begin with choosing the wool. Every suburban shopping strip had a little wool shop in the 1950s and 60s, stocking the latest wools and patterns. Now those shops have long gone. Making clothes for the family was not a pastime or a hobby- it was often a necessity. I’m not sure if wool was as expensive as it is today, I doubt it, but the cost for one garment was staggered through the handy system of Laybuy. The cellophane wrapped wool was put aside in the back of the shop, all in the same dye lot, with just enough balls for the project. Then a little money from the weekly budget was set aside to buy a few balls as needed.
We knitted as a family and could knock up a jumper in a weekend, especially if someone was off to a party. My mother would usually cast on, do the ribbing, the sleeves and the neck, while my sisters and I would knit the main body, perfecting our tension along the way. We produced plain garments in stocking stitch, usually with 8 ply wool from Australian companies such as Patons and Cleckheaton.
It was a cool weather occupation and the annual accompaniment to the onset of late Autumn or the first frost. Even today, as the weather begins to turn, I search for my wool stash and begin a project, even if only to make a cowl or fingerless gloves. My mother, now 96, with stiff, inward curling fingers, a Viking gene she tells me, is calling out for plain yarn to knit. Now it’s my turn to cast on for her and do the first row. I understand her need; it’s ingrained in our history, our DNA.
Knitting versus Kmart
I don’t have anything against Kmart, or other cheap stores such as Target or Big W. These stores have their place and provide basic and affordable goods. But somewhere along the way over the last 2 decades, these stores have made clothing so cheap that knitting has became an anachronism, a pastime of the well heeled. Industrial clothes are pumped out at such volume, exploiting cheap labour, that clothing is often bought on a whim and discarded without a thought.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures indicate about 500,000 tonnes of leather and textiles are discarded each year, amounting to 23 kilograms each, and only a fraction of this appears to be being recovered through recycling.¹
As pure wool or cotton yarn very rarely appears in most garments these days, this mountain of discarded clothing ends in landfill, a major plastic microfibre pollutant. The textile industry is the second largest global polluter after oil. Food for thought.
I hear my yarn calling, “to knit up that raveled sleave of (post election) care.” Do you enjoy Knitting and Crochet dear reader or have you taken up the Japanese art of darning? Does winter draw you to craft or barley soup? Is knitting meditation and when does it turn stressful?
Five years ago I began making sourdough bread. Little did I realise at the time that this would become an obsession. My days are now organised around the living dough: while bread making doesn’t take much time overall, you need to be monitoring its activity. I now dress for bread: an apron keeps my clothes in order while a little timer keeps me on track, the tick ticking in my pocket reminding me to stay vigilant. I wake eagerly, often rising before first light, not out of any obligation to tend to the bread but simply my own anticipation and excitement: at 5 am I can’t wait. I am attracted to the discipline of the craft as well as the science and yet I often stuff up. I am a novice: there is still much to learn. When I look back at photos of my bread from 5 years ago, I smile. They’re like my bread children- simple, perhaps a little clumsy, but also unpretentious and homey. They tasted fine despite their awkward appearance. My sourdough loaves these days look more streetwise, although there are many occasions when my shaping is sloppy, or my scoring goes haywire, or my new experiments don’t pay off. All failure is knowledge. It’s hard to explain that to a perfectionist (or a Maths teacher) but you can only learn from your mistakes. The ugly bread still gets eaten, even if in the form of garlic croutons or crumbed onto a vegetable gratin. The funny ones get named- Glenn Close ( badly slashed), Ugly Baby ( an off center boule ), Bob Menzies ( a loaf with one big ridged eyebrow), Happy Baby ( big open-mouthed grin) and Frisbee- a flatter boule, usually made from a large percentage of rye flour with less than desirable oven spring. Some breads snarl, others emerge with crispy ears, batards become bastards. And many emerge looking fabulously bespoke, dressed up artisan style and ready for a photo. Mistress of Slashing, ( technically scoring, but slashing sounds better here), Maree Tink, impresses me daily with her beautifully scored breads and patches of artistic char. If you’re keen to learn more about sourdough, join her Sourdough BakingAustralia group on Facebook or ask about her monthly workshops.
If I could pin point the most hazardous aspect of sourdough baking, it would be timing. Many fine guides will outline an excellent programme that will take you from cold starter to loaf in a 24- 36 hour time frame. These suggested regimes don’t work for everyone: controlling once’s enthusiasm or chaotic lifestyle is part of the learning curve. The weather plays havoc with timing and so does exhaustion. Once dinner is over, I no longer want to have anything to do with my kitchen. I am tired and the couch calls: it has been a long day and bread making no longer interests me. My dough babies need to be shaped and tucked into bannetons, ready for their rest in the fridge before 6 pm. They can happily stay there for 12 hours or longer. And yet it is a lesson I often forget and one that annoys me intensely when I wake at 3 am, like a wandering half mad Lady Macbeth, cursing the over fermented dough.
There’s a wealth of knowledge out there to tap into. One favourite free resource can be found at The Perfect Loaf. Maurizio’s recipes and techniques always work well for me: his suggested timing is spot on for those who can stay awake till 9 pm. Paul Merry, of Panary, is an Australian/ English baker located in Dorset. A professional baker for 40 years, Paul has always baked with a wood fired oven and has always used organic flour. His baking notes are a good resource. His recent post, Milling with Stones, provides an interesting appraisal of stoneground flour. Paul’s research is impeccable: his bakery and teaching studio is based in a working flour mill, Cann Mill, in Shaftesbury, UK, which gives him daily contact with the milling process and the commercial side of flour production. See my previous blog about Paul’s bread here. There are sourdough internet groups on Facebook and good books to borrow or buy. Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson is a must read.
The other learning curve involves the choice of flour. One of my recent concerns about bread flour supplies in Australia, and I am sure this also applies to flour supplies in most wheat growing countries, is the industry’s dependence on the herbicide, glyphosate. There’s nothing on your flour packet that mentions this and there probably won’t be for some time. At present, there’s no other viable weed inhibitor on the market. Some farmers are worried, while many do not believe there’s a problem. The science is muddied by big business. Perhaps Monsanto/Bayer need a few more nasty court cases before there’s a demonstrable shift in opinion and a less toxic alternative is developed. This article, by Erin Brochovitch, is a good read on the topic. The weedkiller in our food is killing us. The ABC’s investigation on Four Corners, Monsanto Papers, is also worth viewing. In the meantime, some organic and biodynamic flour alternatives can be found at the Preston market, for those bakers who live near the centre or north of Melbourne. For example, Powlett Hill biodynamic stoneground flour comes in a 20 kilo bag for AU$60. This is a huge bag and it might be worth sharing this with a bread making mate. At AU$3 a kilo, this bumps up my loaf costs to around AU$1.50 each plus the cost of oven heating whereas my previous budget buy, Manildra baker’s white flour at 12.5 kilo for AU$15 produced loaves for around 60c per unit. Finding out more about the flour I use is next on my agenda.
The other obsessional aspect of sourdough bread baking is its very tangible link to the past, to the bread makers throughout history, the Medieval and Renaissance bakers, the Scottish, Irish, French and Italian bakers who have passed on their methods, and to the the modern day artisan bakers who happily share the gift of knowledge and their starters. To all those before me who lovingly tended an ancient ferment and crafted loaves from nothing other than flour, water and salt, I share your passion and your pain.
April was busier than usual with children on school holidays, beach days, Easter, followed by Anzac Day. I’m rather pleased that May has come around and I can get back to my home kitchen full-time, with some mellow Autumn cooking, interspersed with trips to the library. Anzac day, April 25th, demanded a few biscuits to mark the occasion. It’s a baking tradition in my kitchen as it was in my mother’s until recently. My Anzac biscuits are flat and crispy, the way I like them. I pop them in an old Anzac tin in the hope that they might last a few days. They never do. The Department of Veteran affairs has firm rules about Anzac biscuits. You risk a large fine if you attempt to call them cookies or play with the original recipe, or misappropriate the name in a commercial business. While not patriotic at all, I still believe in the uniquely Australian/New Zealand aspects of this day. Anzac biscuits are so popular with my extended family, I should bake them more often. For flatter, brown and crispy Anzacs, slightly reduce the percentage flour and add more brown sugar.
I whipped up these yeasted buns for Easter this year: unfortunately there was little time to concentrate on feeding a leaven for a sourdough version. This lot had extra fruit and were glazed with quince jelly. Unlike the supermarket versions which can still taste fresh after a week, ( or maybe even a month), these buns are preservative free so they don’t keep for more than a day or two. The left over buns landed in a rich bread and butter pudding.
One vegetable that grows very happily in this awful drought is chilli. They ripen in autumn and will continue to enjoy life in the garden until the first frost arrives. I use a few fresh, but the bulk of the crop is dried and ground into flakes for the year ahead. I also make chilli oil. Small batches are better as the oil can go rancid. This small jar will last a month or so. A nice drizzle for a pizza or crab pasta.
It’s garlic planting time. When you see sprouting garlic around the markets, you know the time is right. I usually plant 300 each year. This basket of 100 is a mixture of my own garlic and some Australian grown garlic from the market. Three separate plantings over May will ensure a staggered pick.
The chooks are pumping again, and suddenly I have far too many eggs. I have sent Mr Tranquillo the recipe, again, for Crème Brûlée, purchased some second-hand shallow terracotta ramekins, and I have also given him a blow torch for caramelising the tops. It’s his favourite dessert so I’m hoping it becomes his signature dish. I really do like it too.
Autumn also sees the return of pasta making in my kitchen. Three eggs and 300 grams of flour, preferable tipo 00, or a mixture of tipo 00 and semola rimacinata, or just plain flour if that’s all you have: no oil, no salt and no other additives, according to Italian nonne. This will make you a truckload of fresh pasta. I fiddled with some parsley leaf pasta in these lasagne sheets. Not worth the effort and such a 90s thing to do.
It’s pastie time again. The filling in these pasties was fairly Cornish- onion, carrot, parsnip, potato. I found this puff pastry hard to digest. The sheets were left over in my fridge. For my next lot, I’ll focus on a good home-made short crust pastry.
There’s always soup in my kitchen. We don’t wait for Autumn or cooler weather to make good soup- we have it all year round. I am passionate about the building of a good soup. My soups are never randomly made. I like colour combinations, creating different flavour bases via a finely chopped soffritto, and seeking pleasing presentations so that you mangiare con gli occhi, or eat with the eyes before tasting the soup. Today, I wanted to paint a monochromatic soup in white and pale green, a contrast to today’s earthy dark rye bread. After building a soffritto of finely chopped garlic, fresh rosemary, a few anchovies and a pinch of ground chilli, I added a pile of cooked cannellini beans, shredded pale green cabbage ( wongbok cabbage which cooks quickly), and a handful of Pantacce pasta. A little grated Parmigiano Reggiano at the table and buon appetito. It’s ready.
Another cold day soup was built with Autumn colours, a typical Ribollita style soup. The soffritto build included onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Once softened in EV olive oil, I added borlotti beans, more carrot, shredded cavolo nero, and some halved cherry tomatoes. This dense soup was served with a hunk of white sourdough.
A new cake has come into my life. I love flourless cakes that aren’t too cloying. This one has four ingredients ( butter, sugar, walnuts, eggs) and can be whipped up in a few minutes. It is dense, is a great keeper and très French. The recipe for Walnut Cake from Perigord can be found here.
That’s a quick roundup of the kitchen treasure this month. Thanks as always to Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for the link up to In My Kitchen.
I’m not sure about the title of this post. The word artisan, or artigianale in Italian, has become the word of the decade. Once indicating a handmade product to distinguish it from the quotidian factory or machine-made version, it now stands for something else, something more desirable and elite, carrying with it a certain snob appeal and a price tag to match. Kevin McCloud, of Grand Designs fame, sprinkled his series with the terms artisan, bespoke and atelier, giving rise to various Kevin McCloud drinking games at the time. And so while I’m loathe to sound like a braggadocio,¹ I accept that the term ‘artisan’ may not carry the same overtones of wank that it once did. And so the title remains.
I received a copy of a wonderful book for my birthday, Artisan Sourdough MadeSimple, by Emilie Raffa. The book is a gem, a wonderful addition to my bread book library. I’ve known about this book for some time- many of the sourdough bread makers I’ve met through Celia’s blog, Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, have also bought this book. The opening bread recipe is identical to the one I use everyday- I think Celia and Emilie may have collaborated on this basic loaf. The other wonderful bond we share is our sourdough starter. Some years ago, Celia sent her starter around the globe, to Emilie in New York, to me in Melbourne, and to hundreds of others, and in doing so, created a bread making community, all using a clone of her bubbly starter, Priscilla. I’ve also shared this starter as, no doubt, many others have too. Perhaps there are now thousands of Priscilla clones out there. Emilie’s recipes are straight forward and accessible: the book is useful to the beginner and the experienced sourdough baker. Once the basic recipe is mastered, outlined in detail in the first chapter, the proceeding chapters explore sweet and savoury artisan loaves, pan loaves and sandwich breads, whole grains and specialty flours, foccaccia, rolls and flatbread, bread art, leftovers and a few extra recipes.
My plan is to work through each recipe and settle on my favourites. The two loaves I’ve made to date have both worked really well. Emilie’s Golden flax and spelt sourdough is a good everyday loaf, while her Cinnamon Raisin Swirl brings back childhood memories. It is a fitting loaf for Easter and an alternative to hot cross buns. And it’s fun to make. Don’t be put off by the longish recipe below. It really is rather easy. This is Emilie’s recipe, though I have Australianised the ingredient list.
Cinnamon Raisin Swirl
Before starting the recipe, feed your starter over a day or so till active and bubbly.
50 g bubbly active starter
365 g warm water
480 g bakers flour ( bread flour)
20 g wholemeal flour ( whole wheat flour)
9 g fine sea salt ( not iodized)
65 g raisins
65 g walnuts
50 g sugar ( I used caster sugar)
6 g powdered cinnamon
Make the dough: In a large bowl, whisk the starter and water together with a fork. Add the flours and salt. Cover with a damp towel and let rest for 30- 60 minutes.
Meanwhile, while the dough is resting, soak the raisins and walnuts in just enough water to cover. Drain well before using.
Add the fillings: Add the raisins and nuts to the bowl. Gently knead the fillings into the dough to incorporate, about 1 minute. The dough will start to feel slightly sticky at this point; add a sprinkle of flour to adjust the consistency if needed.
Bulk rise: Cover the bowl and let rise at room temperature, 21°C, until double in size, about 8-10 hours.
Shape and rise: Remove the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Let it rest for 15 minutes. A longer rest at this stage will relax the dough, making it easier to stretch into a rectangle. Line a 25 cm oval proofing basket with a towel and dust with flour. Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Set aside.
With floured hands gently stretch the dough into a long rectangle, about 40 x 20 cm. Lightly brush the surface with water. Then evenly sprinkle the cinnamon mixture over the top, leaving a small border at the top, bottom and side edges. With the short end facing you, roll up the dough into a lob, pinching in the ends to seal. Place it into a basket, seam side up.
Second rise. Cover the dough and let rest until puffy. ( 30- 60 minutes) Preheat the oven to 230 C. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the size of your pot. Place the paper on the bench, gently invert the dough onto the paper. rub the surface with flour and slash diagonally, making two or three cuts, keeping the depth shallow to preserve the filling. Use the parchment to lift the dough into the baking pot.
Bake the dough on the center rack for 20 minutes with the lid on. Remove the lid and continue baking for 40 minutes. When finished, remove the loaf to a wire rack and cool before slicing.
( Note, I found the loaf required less time with the lid off)
¹Braggadocio- empty swagger. Originating from Spenser’s Faerie Queene, 1596, the name given to his personification of vainglory. English writers at the time were taken with sprinkling Italian words throughout their works. From the Italian, braggadocio, meaning bravado, haughtiness, boaster, braggart. “I wrote the Art of the Deal. I say that not in a braggadocious way,”Donald Trump 2016. Now who would ever want to accuse Trump of braggadocio?
Emilie Raffa, Artisan Sourdough Made Simple. A beginner’s guide to delicious handcrafted bread with minimal kneading. 2017. I highly recommend this book to all my sourdough making friends and readers.
My annual family holiday, from the end of January through to the end of April, involves maintaining two kitchens. It’s a schizophrenic life involving a disciplined routine. Three days by the sea, four days back at home, or vice versa, is very manageable now that the drive takes only 95 minutes or so along two freeways.
After the trip, we unload a few things from home and then drag our chairs down to the beach. The sea is so calming and hypnotic and instantly relaxing: it’s worth the effort. On warm nights we set up the dinner table on the sand or in front of an old boat shed and watch the ships cruise by. On cooler evenings, we have a quick aperitivo and a snack by the sea, watch the sunset, then return to the warmth of the caravan annex.
The food is simple: we eat a lot of locally caught fish and Mt Martha mussels, supplemented by my vegetables and preserves from home. I’ve found some lovely fresh fish sold in a seaside van at Safety Beach. The caravan operates from Friday afternoon through to Sunday. I always end up choosing the sweet gars, a fish that is overlooked by many Victorians who are scared of bones. There’s a trick to bone free garfish eating. Once they are cooked, prise open the fish, grab the head and lift it gently towards the tail. The whole bone structure will come away, leaving the sweet fish fillets on your plate. The other trick with gars is to coat the fish in seasoned rice flour and gently fry them for only two minutes on each side. The flesh is so delicate, it only needs a simple sauce. Once cooked, remove fish onto a serving plate, add some butter to the pan, turn up the heat, scraping all the fishy bits into the butter, add lots of lemon juice and parsley, then pour the sauce over the fish. Buon appetito.
The local mussels are readily available in fish vans as well as at the Dromana supermarket for around $8 a kilo. I love these mussels and limit myself to a kilo a week. The classic French Mouclade is my favourite recipe at present. There’s just a hint of old-fashioned British curry powder- think Keens or Clive of India- and some creme frâiche /sour cream, shallots, butter and all that salty strained juice. Did you know that Mouclade hails from the seaport of La Rochelle? These days when I eat Mouclade, I can’t help thinking of Das Boot! Have you seen the original film and the new series?
My beach kitchen is not entirely basic. I have everything a girl could want in terms of implements, gadgets and serving ware. There’s a small stove top inside a caravan which I never use- cooking and sleeping in the same space doesn’t appeal. There’s a canvas annex with a two burner stove top, and a small Weber BBQ outside. I’ve finally mastered the art of making pizza in the Weber. It’s amazing how good food tastes when you cook and eat in the open air- even when the nights are chilly.
I’m looking forward to the next two weeks down at the beach, with lots of hungry grandchildren in search of their favourite soups. The cooler weather will be accompanied by spectacular sunsets: the slow cooker will come out of hiding for the Easter season by the bay.
Sunset views and Pinot Grigio.
I love shells
Making decor in my kitchen del mare
Local garfish, simply sauteed, then sauced a la meunière with butter parsley and lemon’
Portsea hotel. Great view. Which table will we choose?
Portsea hotel Pizza
Thanks Sherry once again for hosting this monthly series. Participating bloggers all have a very different take on their approach to life in the kitchen. These can be found at Sherry’s Pickings.
At last there’s a break in the weather, a cool snap with a little rain. Is it time to rejoice or was that last shower just another drizzle of hope? This summer and autumn have been hot and dry, pleasant weather if you’re by the seaside, but not so kind for those who love their gardens and farms. An omen of what’s to come? To date, we have had around 60 ml of rainfall over the last three months. The tanks and dams are low, the fruit trees are dropping their leaves too early: rabbits crawl up and over fences in search of something green to eat, starting with their favourite snack, the ring- barking of fruit trees before looking for small gaps in the well fenced vegetable patch. The figs look like hard little bullets and have given up the battle.
Midst our paddocks of desiccation, there are some welcome surprises. The quinces are fabulous this year, picked just in time before the birds got desperate. Such an old-fashioned and demanding fruit, I love the way they turn from hard golden knobbly lumps into the most exotic concoctions. How do you describe the flavour and colour of poached quince?
With the sound of the rain on the tin roof, my thoughts turn to food and preserves. Quince jelly, quince syrup, perhaps to use as an exotic base for gin, a torta of ricotta and quince cubes, quince ice cream, the syrup swirled through a softened tub of good vanilla ice cream, perhaps some Spanish membrillo.
Long thin eggplants have been fruiting for months. While not as useful as the fat varieties, they grow more abundantly in our micro-climate.
The Pink Lady apples are the star this year. We grow 13 varieties of apple, and each has its year. The crop has been well protected by netting, though the desperado cockatoos are beginning to notice. Picked and stored in the fridge, they are reasonable keepers.
With the change of season, I hope to return to my usual pattern of posting and cooking. There will be more recipes coming and anecdotes of one kind or another, simple stories about the beauty of life. As the saying goes, ‘I’ll keep you posted’.
From February through to April, my vegetable garden is at its peak: each week brings another tidal wave of fruit and vegetables through the back door and into the kitchen. The years of weeding, nurturing, staking, mulching, seed selecting and composting have paid off. Our vegetable garden is now nine years old and I often think it has a life of its own. Things pop up of their own accord, though I do have a small hand in this, allowing the prime specimens to go to seed. Time means nothing once I cross the threshold of the vegetable garden gate: it’s another world, another time zone, a spiritual place. I often enter with the simple intention of gathering a posey of parsley, then am overcome by something intangible. It is la terra del tempo perso, the land of lost time, but that time is definitely not wasted. The crops and the earth itself have ways of communicating their needs, more so in these challenging years of drought and changing climate.
Sometimes I look at a bed of struggling vegetable plants and I know that by adding a few shovels of well-rotted compost, the plants will thrive within a day or two. Compost is garden gold, especially here in the Shire of Nillumbik, the ‘land of shallow earth’ in indigenous language. I have 5 large bins in various stages of decomposition. The connection between compost and the kitchen is an important one. It is up there with the other daily kitchen tasks of recycling all waste that we generate through our consumption-plastic, glass, aluminium and paper- except that food waste has a much simpler solution. In my kitchen, a tall bucket lives inside a pull- out drawer under the sink. Anything that my chooks don’t fancy goes straight into the compost bin. This includes vegetable peelings and food scraps, fish bones, fruit skins, egg shells, newspaper wrapping, cooking oil, paper towels, tea leaves and spent coffee. Other paper products are added such as dockets and plain envelopes, non inked cardboard containers, and other plain paper packaging. It is one of the most important practices in my kitchen and is an ingrained, lifelong habit. I would feel incredibly guilty if I didn’t use this important resource: it would be akin to throwing away good food or wasting money. And my beloved vegetable garden wouldn’t thrive. Composting is an aerobic process that reduces or prevents the release of methane during the breakdown of organic matter so long as it’s done correctly. To not compost contributes to global warming, not to mention the costly exercise of councils having to take away waste that is a such a valuable resource to the home gardener.
‘Food waste makes up a big chunk of general household rubbish that finds its way to landfill. Not only does sending food waste to landfill cost the economy an estimated $20 billion a year, it produces methane — a potent greenhouse gas — when it rots.’¹
Worm farms also work well, though after killing my worms one very hot year, I haven’t returned to that practice. My recipe for compost making can be found here.
The Roma tomatoes are most fruitful this year, and are wonderful in this Retro Tomato soup. I’ve added a couple of grilled prawns on top for a bit of flash frugal: they ceremoniously sank for the photo.
Sometimes I lay out an array of garden produce and let it talk to me about lunch. Today’s pick included carrots, corn, silverbeet, beans, and zucchini. The lovely Kipfler potatoes come from Hawkes, a farm in the hinterland of the Mornington Peninsula. The rest is from my garden. After removing the corn from the cob, the denuded cobs can be boiled with a little salt and fresh bay leaves for a corn flavoured stock. Just like that hilarious book on pig eating, Everything except the Squeal, I feel the same way about my garden produce and try to use every part of the plant. The chooks hang around the orchard fence waiting for lettuces and other greens that have gone woody in my garden. Only then will they lay good eggs, as their grassy run is now sadly lacking in green grass and shoots.
Another marvellous find this week at Hawkes farm was a 4 kilo bag of just picked strawberries for $5. These are marketed for jam making and are often too ripe to sell. I usually make a big batch of jam but this week’s lot was in perfect condition- just oddly shaped. After hulling, I froze them in one kilo lots. Hawkes farm uses environmentally friendly packaging: this bag is made from corn and is compostable: no plastics or nasties have been used in the manufacture. The bag is now in our compost bin- it will be interesting to see how long it takes to vanish completely. I’m trusting the label which claims it meets Australian certified compostable standards which are more stringent than those of Europe. A nearby business in the village of Hurstbridge, Going Green Solutionssells Compost- a- Pak products in packs of 50 for AU$20. At 40c a pop, I hope I can re-use the bags a few times, especially for freezing bread as well as the annual crop excess.
I love kitchen gadgets that work well and this Nutriblender from Aldi is a gem, especially given its powerful 120 watt motor. The motor churns through the fruits and veggies in under 8 seconds. Breakfast covered, and a great way to use our soft fruits that don’t store so well.
The cucumbers are still prolific this year. A few cucumbers, some half peeled, plus yoghurt, salt, spices, and mint, are thrown into the jar of the new blender, buzzed for a few seconds, then voilà, summer cucumber soup. Just chill it.
This year our fruit tree netting has been very effective in keeping out the birds. To date, we’ve harvested early peaches, three varieties of plums, early varieties of pears and apples and now, the table grapes. The sultana grapes are small and sweet, while the fat purple grapes have an interesting history. A little pot with a cutting was given to me by Vittorio, 8 years ago. A Siciliano who migrated here in the 1960s, Vittorio used to sell seedlings and small plants at a nearby market. This grape cutting was originally taken from a vine that had grown in his village. It probably is an ancient clone but we call it Vittorio after that lovely, generous man.
Finally, returning to the dilemma of recycling, which is central to all our lives, especially in our kitchens, where we now sort and store our daily refuse, our local Council has just advised that our recycling will go to landfill this week, or we can ‘hold it back’ until a solution to the recycling crisis is found. Other shires around Victoria have openly announced that all recycling will now go to landfill. Will this be the tipping point that brings about change in our consumer patterns?
Thanks once again Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for linking our kitchen posts in the monthly series In My Kitchen.
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.
Silverbeet dolmade, stuffed with Mujaddara
Stuffed silver beet rolls
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?