In My Kitchen, November 2018

It’s around 5 pm and my mind reluctantly begins to address the question of dinner. Lacking inspiration, I pour myself a drink, an encouraging white wine and immediately think of risotto, a dish that asks if it may share some of the bottle. There are tons of broadbeans ( fava beans) and leeks in the garden and plenty of herbs: a risotto primaverile could be the answer. At other times, I do the common thing and google a few ingredients in the subject line, hoping for an instant answer, fully conscious of the fact that random internet recipes are unreliable and are simply another form of procrastination. I often ask Mr T what he would like for dinner. In our household the answer always comes back as a one word statement indicating a particular ethnic cuisine. “What about some Indian?” (or Thai, Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, French, Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese, Japanese)? he responds. Vietnamese is off my cooking list- I save that cuisine for at least one economical dining option when out and about. When Melburnians eat, they choose from a huge array of influences and are familiar enough with many cuisines to cook them confidently in their own kitchens.

Risotto Primaverile. Inspired by spring vegetables and white wine and of course, Italy.

It’s one of the reasons why I love Melbourne so much. Sitting in the A1 Bakery yesterday, a cheap and cheerful Lebanese restaurant in a vibrant inner suburb, we were surrounded by Australian people of the world, dressed in all manner of clothing styles, from Hijab to Hipster. The decor is eclectic and a little quirky. Above the counter stands a large statue of the Virgin Mary, draped in all her blue and white Catholic glory, an outfit not dissimilar to that worn by some of the customers, while displayed in front of her is a long row of 1 metre high golden hookahs. An odd assortment of pictures decorate the far walls:- a primitive painting of Ned Kelly, the Irish- Australian bushranger legendary hero, an oil painting of Saint Sharbel, a Lebanese Maronite saint dressed in brown monastic garb, a large velvet rug featuring some knife wielding Ottoman Cossacks, and a childlike painting of a cockatoo. The place is always noisy and very busy. On a nearby table, a large group of girls are enjoying a shared lunch together: they have just finished their final year school exams and are celebrating at one of Melbourne’s most affordable eateries. They are Middle Eastern, Turkish, African and Asian Australians. A couple wear glamourously draped head-dress over their teenage uniform of jeans and t-shirts. They speak Melburnian – time to recognise that Australian English has many distinct dialects – and their youthful laughter is infectious.

Below, my home-made falafel, this time with more Egyptian influence and lots of herbs

 

My next door neighbour in the city has just returned from her annual holiday in Greece. For the last 22 years she has tried to teach me basic Greek. We chat in a mixture of broken English and, in my case, almost non-existent Greek – a case of trying to recognise as many Greek roots and suffixes or Italian sounding words, over a some warm Tiropsomo, a fetta cheese bread snack. Like a little bit of Ouzo, says Anna at any time of the day. Oooh, my favourite Greek word: yes please. She pours herself a thimble full while I receive a good little glass, enough to change the flavour of the day. Cheers, Stin ygiasou . She is now 86 and I want to spend more time in her kitchen. Greek influence in my kitchen extends to old favourites such as Spanakopita, that famous greens and fetta pie, Gigantes, the best of bean dishes, home-made taramsalada and dolmades. I’m keen to learn a few more Greek tricks.

Crostini with smashed broad beans and Greek Fetta. Italy meets Greece via Sicily often in Melbourne. Pick one kilo of broadbeans ( fava), shell them, boil for one minute then remove tough outer casings, mix and smash, season well. Top grilled sourdough with mixture, then add some crumbled sheep fetta, olive oil and mint leaves.

The annual Spring BBQ at Barnardi’s place took place recently: this is one of the culinary highlights of my year. When I arrive at most parties, I usually reach for a glass of wine before perusing the food offerings. At Barnadi’s, I head straight to the buffet table- the anticipation of his traditional Indonesian food is so overwhelming, I become outrageously greedy. Barnadi is a chef who once ran a famous Indonesian restaurant, Djakarta. Lately, he has returned to his roots and is cooking more traditional Indonesian recipes. The Australians attending this event all share a diverse background- Indonesian, Thai, British, Greek, Italian and Swedish, a healthy Melburnian blend. The dessert table included a tray of sticky rice green and pink Indonesian cakes, some Javanese Gembong, a rich Spanish flan, a chocolate cheesecake and a Hummingbird cake for Adam’s birthday.

Barnadi’s sweet creations, photo courtesy of Adam. The long dish second from the left contains Gembong, my favourite Javanese sweet, sold in streets of Cipanas, West Java.

 

My mother recently moved into an elderly care facility, commonly known as ‘the place’. The first thing we checked out was the menu. The food is fabulous and varied: the chef, who once had his own restaurant and is of Indian Fijian background, has a great approach to the menu. He hopes to eat this well when he is elderly and so he cooks as if he were a guest at the table. Yes, it’s Karma, we both agree. Visitors can eat with the residents with notice, and there’s always a spare dessert available when visiting during meal times. They are sensational. Each member of staff, from manager to cleaner, is genuinely caring and friendly: they smile, dance and chat to all. These Aussies have Chinese, Malaysian, and Filipino backgrounds and I am so thankful for their loving care of my mother.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite Australian comedy clips, each with a multi cultural theme.  Laugh or cringe. Thanks Sherry, from Sherry’s Pickings, for hosting this monthly series.

A Beet in Time. Beetroot and Caramelised Onion Relish.

Once upon a time, here in Australia, there was the beetroot. It was boiled, sliced, then pickled, and added to a salad sandwich, placed on top of a hamburger ‘with the lot’ or served in a salad alongside its summer friends, the tomato and Iceberg lettuce. This was the era when Olive Oil came in a small jar from the chemist and was used as a skin moisturiser!  Salad dressings were rare, except for a sharp home- made mayonnaise which was based on condensed milk, vinegar, and mustard.

Many older Australians still favour their beets cooked in this way: after the initial long boiling, the beets are skinned, drained then sliced into a container, while alternately sprinkling each layer with sugar and white vinegar. Not a summer goes by without my mother ( at 94 ) calling for a bunch of beetroot to make this light preserve. This method can be applied to any vegetable for a quick pickle.

New Beetroot relish
Beetroot and onion relish

Like most modern cooks, I enjoy the more earthy taste of the beet without the added sugar and vinegar. Around  8 years ago, fresh-baked beetroot and fetta or goat cheese salad topped with walnuts became the dish to change our view of beetroot. My young visitors devour versions of this salad yet avoid the retro pickled version. The composed beetroot salad has put this old-fashioned tuber back on the culinary map.

beet
Beetroot and onion relish. Easy and fast.

The recipe below for beetroot relish takes the humble root back to the middle ground. The ruby brine of retro sliced beets is absent but some of the agrodolce elements remain. This is now a new favourite for summer sandwiches and rolls or as part of a classic Ploughman’s lunch or as a counterbalance to a rich cheese dish, such as a double baked Stilton Souffle

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 large brown onions ( 800g) sliced thinly
  • 1 1/2 cups ( 330 g) firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (375ml) cider vinegar
  • 3 large fresh beetroot ( 600g) grated coarsely
  • 1 teaspoon coarse cooking salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Method

Heat the oil in a large saucepan; cook onion, stirring about 15 minutes or until the onion is softened and caramelised.

Add remaining ingredients; stir over high heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes or until the beetroot is tender and the relish is thick.

Spoon hot relish into hot sterilised jars. Seal immediately. Label and date jars when  cold. Makes four cups,

Store relish in a cool, dark place for at least 3 weeks before opening. Refrigerate the relish after opening.

recipe from The Australian Women’s Weekly Preserves. 2011.

Sweet relish
Sweet relish

Beetroots and Italy. The Italian word for beetroot, Barbabietola, is so expressive, visually conveying the trailing beard, or barba, from the end of the bietola (beet/silver beet/chard) and its root. Try saying barbabietola, placing an equal stress on each vowel- it’s a little tongue twister for many, like the start of the old Beach Boys song, Ba-Ba-Ba, Ba-Barbara-Ann. Beets were favoured in the Roman era and used for food and medicine. These days, Europe grows 120 million tons of sugar beets and produces 16 million tonnes of white sugar, extracting a sufficient quantity to meet 90% of demand. This is a different crop to the red variety. While the edible barbabietola may occasionally turn up in a risotto, it’s use as a relish is not part of Italian culinary history. It is occasionally used in recipes, however most of these are modern and derivative, appearing in magazines such as Donna Moderna or Sale e Pepe and not in traditional collections.

barbabietola dal orto.
Barbabietola dal orto.