In My Kitchen, June 2021

Here we go again, lockdown number 4 in Melbourne. From whence it came and who’s to blame? That’s the name of the game, again! I can vividly recall the range of emotions and behaviours that accompanied each previous lockdown. During lockdown number one and two, I settled into a new set of routines that were pragmatic and budget centred. We stocked up on beans, pulses and grains, not toilet paper, and got on with the business of surviving safely. We walked more for exercise, and I cooked more for others- soups, pizzas and bread to send to adult children and grandchildren down the road. They often shopped for me: the care went both ways. It was a time of sharing and there was a sense of generosity and reciprocity in the community. And for many, pride in our State leader, along with a sense of common struggle. We would stay safe, we would stay at home and we would get vaccinated once it became available.

This time around, I’m struggling to conjure up the same emotions. This time I’m fearful and angry. Angry at the lies that are told by the fat rogue at the top, our own Trumpian shouting clown, and annoyed at vaccine hesitancy in members of our community, though things are slowly improving on this score. It goes without saying that if more people were vaccinated ( fully) the virus could not shut down a whole community. This time there’s no financial support for our workers, epecially those in casual employment, though some is offered to businesses by our State. And this time, many children, back at home without their school mates and caring teachers, are more anxious. This virus strain is more virulent. I’m still very focussed on life in my kitchen- that one room, along with my garden, is my sanity saviour in the end. 

Every June, my pantry stash of garlic starts sprouting green shoots. In order to extend the supplies to November, when the first harvest of new garlic appears, I’ve resorted to freezing it in handy batches. One of the hacks I found involves peeling and roughly chopping the garlic in a food processor, then popping teaspoons full into mini patty pans, covering with a little olive oil, then freezing them inside a muffin tin. Once frozen, they are removed and placed into zip lock bags and stored in the freezer. Pull out a little round or two and throw into the pan. The only annoying part of this hack is peeling the garlic.

One of the things I never managed to do during lockdowns 1 to 3, was to sort out my lovely collection of serving ware into categories. It was satisfying to put the Asian bits and pieces together so that my Doutsa, as I like to call him, ( kitchen hand in Sichuan) can find them. There are old Vietnamese fish patterned bowls, Chinese oval serving platters, Chinese rice bowls and many delicate little Japanese saucers. All rather out of date but timeless, collected second hand along the way.

The bread making continues. On a Winter’s day, a north facing window is a baker’s best friend. Sunbaking below we have a 500 gr bowl of pizza dough, a large bowl of sourdough wholegrain dough and a starter sharing the ledge with a sleepng Buddha. It does get rather hot, so they are moved once they’ve started to rise.

On occasion I’m left with a spare sourdough loaf, due to a stuff up in pick up or drop off, which is annoying. There are two solutions- make lovely oiled croutons to freeze or remove the crusts, blitz in the food processor, toast in the oven, blitz again, bag and freeze. Waste not, epecially during lockdown. I know I’m going to love these crumbs on top of a vegetable gratin. Much better than a bag of shop bought saw dust.

one loaf of stale sourdough = the best crumbs for the future

The lemon trees are at their best in winter. One of the top priorities is making a batch or two of preserved lemons. I love using the salty peel in tuna cakes, mashed potato and smashed baked potato. Whatever fish you use to make your fish cake, preserved lemon takes them to another level.

Preserved lemons are so useful.
Tuna burger/cake/pattie on a coulis of San Marzano and oregano. ( stash from the freezer) along with a winter salad. We still have tomatoes ripening in the window, and always have tons of garden greens.

Some other dishes that passed through my kitchen recently are pictured below. Some of these will land in my lockdown cookbook that I’m slowly assembling.

Vegie pasties, lightly curried, the vegies bound with a little red lentil dal. The pasta frolla or buttery shortcrust pastry is not my favourite thing to make, but I plan to get over that.
This is one of my favourite pasta dishes, especially when red capsicums/peppers are cheap and plentiful. Sadly I can never grow fat capsicums. The sauce is creamy, based on almond meal. Here it covers Paccheri, a rather large shaped pasta.
I love my Vietnamese clay pot and find it so handy for a speedy dinner. The rice is cooking in the ricemaker, the tofu has been pre-fried. Into the clay pot goes ginger, garlic and spring onions, then some mushroom XO condiment, some sliced mushrooms, greens from the garden, the tofu and the sauces. ( light soy, kecup manis, oyster, water ) and thickened with cornflour just before serving. Extra rice is always cooked for tomorrow’s fried rice.
Yesterday’s plain rice is today’s fried rice. Old school fried rice, includes garden cabbage, supermarket frozen prawn, aromatics.
This is not my cellar. It belongs to Bill Calabria of Calabria Family wines in Griffith. We travelled to Rutherglen and then Griffith for a week, and returned with some tasty and unusual wines. I loved this cellar.

Dear reader, thanks for your support over the last 8 years. I’ve been rather neglectful of my blog and although I have many travel stories to tell and recipes to share, I’m struggling with sitting at the computer for too long. This monthly piece, In My Kitchen, appeases my urge to write, and calms my rather angst ridden brain. Thanks to Sherry at Sherry’s Pickings for continuing to host this blog gathering. It’s the prod I need.

Farewell dear Kim, of A Little Lunch. Your stories of your kitchen life were delightful to read and your comments were always warm and wise. Vale, and deepest condolences to your family from this blogging community across the sea.

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

Chinese Fish Fry. Everyone’s Friday Favourite.

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Have I mentioned before how much I love fish? These days, the onus is still on the purchaser and consumer of fish, both for home cooking or when ordering fish in restaurants, to ask a lot of questions. As fish lovers, we need to protect our endangered species and to eat more fish that are considered sustainable. Ms Sandra, aka the best cook in Melbourne, of Please Pass the Recipe, informed me of the sustainable seafood guide phone app- a handy thing to have on your phone when shopping for fish. http://www.sustainableseafood.org.au/pages/download-the-free-app.html. I also like this site, Good Fish, Bad Fish http://goodfishbadfish.com.au/ which is a very user-friendly site for home research within Australia.

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I love mussels and squid and fortunately, both these seafoods are highly sustainable, but not everyone fancies these two species, especially the little visitors and some of the grown ups too!  When it comes to a sustainable, sweet tasting fish, that everyone in the family adores, I can’t go past flathead. If prepared as part of a Chinese banquet, a little goes a long way.

Kids love this uncomplicated dish.
Kids love this uncomplicated dish.

For this recipe, choose a fish in your area that is boneless when filleted and not too strong in taste and of course, sustainable.  If buying fish whole, a better choice really, have the fishmonger fillet it, then ask for the head and carcass to make some excellent fish stock to freeze, then you have the basis for some wonderful fish risotto or seafood paella or seafood soup. A fish can go a long way.

This recipe comes from China the Beautiful Cookbook, 1986. I have only ever made this single recipe from the book. The recipe has done the rounds of my extended family and I hope it suits yours too. It uses commonly found pantry ingredients so, once you have the fish, you’re up and running.

Zhua Chao Yu – Grasping and Frying.  A fried fish dish from Beijing. ( Quantity for two if served with another dish, such as stir fried bok choi)

  • 315g white fresh fish fillets
  • 1 cup cornflour
  • oil, preferably peanut oil for frying.

Sauce

  • 2 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 2 slices ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon brown vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
  • pinch salt/pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
  • extra spring onion for garnish.

NOTE- I often double the sauce ingredients for a richer, thicker coating.  The first two ingredients will be stir fired. Pre- mix the rest in a large cup to speed up the last stage of cooking.

Method

  1. Cut the fish into long thin strips. Mix the cornflour with enough cold water to make a paste. ( you could use tapioca flour or rice flour for the coating)
  2. Heat the oil in a wok to smoking point the reduce the heat. Dip the fish slices into the cornflour paste and deep fry 8 pieces at a time for around 2 minutes until golden and crisp  and cooked through.  Lift out and drain  on paper towel and keep warm while making sauce.

First stage of the dish- fry the fish in a light paste of cornstarch and water.
First stage of the dish- fry the fish in a light paste of cornstarch and water.

Making the Sauce.

Very finely chop the spring onion and ginger. Heat the wok and add a little of the used oil, then stir fry the onion- ginger mixture for about 45 seconds then add the rest of the pre-mixed sauce ingredients and heat through. when the sauce begins to thicken, slide in the fried fish and stir fry, turning the fish carefully until coated with all the sauce.

second stage of cooking
second stage of cooking

Serve at once, add more spring onion, as part of a banquet or with rice.

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For Rachael and Louise, who used to make this often.