In My Kitchen, January 2021

It goes without saying that we are all rather pleased to see the end of 2020. As a friend Cristina, from a Un Po’ di Pepe succinctly points out, Addio 2020 is too polite a term to farewell the year from hell: she offers some fitting Italian sendoffs including the colourful Vaffanculo 2020. I’m not prepared to make any commitments or plans regarding this New Year. Should 2021 be any different? This will depend on the successful uptake of the vaccine and its availability worldwide. Meanwhile the main threat to our planet, global warming, still crouches in the other corner, ready to spring back into action with more destructive weather events around the globe. At this time last year, Australians were far more passionate about taking radical steps to deal with the urgency of global warming. If there’s one positive outcome from Covid-19, it’s the reduction in emissions as a result of minimal air and car travel during 2020. The skies are still silent, and only recently has the road traffic snarl returned to its pre- Covid level.

Looking back over the year 2020, there were more kitchen highlights in my life than usual, since I spent most of the year in that room. I came to enjoy winter at home, improved my bread shaping techniques, sourced some wonderful flour via online shopping, and shared more shopping activities with others. I discovered a reliable fishmonger who was prepared to deliver to our fringe country area. The woodstove provided a permanent source of hot water for beverages while the small baker’s oven below was used to reheat food. Because we were home for most of the year, we wasted less food. We didn’t dine out- except for a rare take away treat of fish and chips from our nearest village. It was quiet. Home life became far more rewarding (I’m excluding house cleaning from this broad statement ) and the car was rarely used. We recently installed solar panels and look forward to the benefits over the coming months. Maybe being forced to change one’s behaviour, courtesy of Covid, is one small answer to solving the climate crisis.

Looking backwards, highlights from my kitchen in December 2020 included:

Lobster for two, with a warm butter sauce infused with garlic.

For the first time in many years, Australian lobster became available to locals as the two major supermarket chains bought the annual Western Australian quota and marketed lobster for $20 a piece. They were small, and came precooked and frozen, thus sparing the need to kill the delicious beast humanely. Thanks to the ongoing trade war with China, (whose trade war it really is and why we’re having one is a long story ), the usual Chinese market for lobster suddenly disappeared. It seems rather odd to me that in ‘normal’ years, Australians are not able to buy an affordable Christmas crustacean. I remember the stories my grandparents told me about their Friday night treat, a crayfish and a bottle of beer to share. They were solidly working class with rarely a shilling to spare. Lobster, more commonly referred to as crayfish in those days, was considered working class food during the 1930s. It is now the food destined for the wealthy in Hong Kong and China. Long live the trade wars that allow Australians to eat locally caught foods.

Festive Breads

These two sourdough breads saw us through the week after Christmas and both are my favourites. I try not to make them too often. The dark rye bread teams beautifully with any smoked fish, along with dill pickles. It is also perfect for breakfast with Seville Marmalade. One of my goals for 2021 is to master the art of smoking fish. Other than wholemeal rye, the flavours include anise and fennel seeds and orange rind, with molasses providing colour and caramelisation to the crust. The other loaf is a Panmarino, a white loaf flavoured with fresh rosemary and encrusted with salt flakes. It is loaf supposedly evoking the bread of the D’Este family of Ferrara in the late 13th century. I’m still playing with this recipe, but if you’re keen to make it, the recipe is here.

Baklava instead of Christmas pudding.

I was quite happy with this baklava but felt that the inclusion of honey in the syrup tended to dominate the flavour. I added both walnuts and pistachio in the mixture. Have you ever tried to chop pistachio nuts? It’s not a job I can recommend, and even the very patient kitchen hand, Mr Tranquillo complained. This dessert lasted well for a week and I ate most of it for afternoon tea in the week following Christmas. Couch, book and baklava- I can highly recommend it. Prosecco may be added.

Vegetarian Sausage rolls

I made a huge batch of vegetarian mini sausage rolls for my daughter’s Christmas catering event. At some point in our tradition, sausage rolls crept onto the menu as a substitute for those who don’t/can’t eat the seafood starters, or for fussy kids, or committed vegetarians. These were popular with all her guests, regardless of their food preferences, so I guess they’ll stay on the menu. The recipe can be found here, though I’ve slightly adapted it since then.

Mango Fundraising time

Every year, some of the local schools organise a mango fundraiser. This year our mangoes arrived in early December, supporting the after school drama programme at Eltham High School. Some are still lolling in the fridge and will soon be pureed and frozen for a summer mango mojito.

I’m so glad that Christmas is over. January is one of our busiest months as all the garden and orchard produce lands in the kitchen in abundance. The garlic, 225 bulbs, has been stashed in the dark for the year ahead, 12 kilo of peaches have been picked to date and the zucchini are being transformed into pickles, a good summer condiment to serve with feta or cheddar cheese on busy days. Thanks once again Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for continuing with this series. It has been such a wonderful place over the years to connect with like minded people.

Covid Kitchen, July 2020

My overwhelming sense of pessimism is now off the Richter scale. And while the kitchen is still central to our health and well being, it has become a place of drudgery. Any comparison to a glass half full or empty is now meaningless. There may be a few drops left in the bottom of that metaphorical glass, and while I do feel grateful for all that I have, knowing this does little to improve my world view. Things are bad, and they’re likely to get worse. I keep recalling the rise and fall of dynasties in ancient China, where dynastic change followed a sequence of events which built up over time, and included plague, flooding and natural disaster, famine and food shortage, insect infestation, poverty and inequality, ineffectual, corrupt and cruel leadership, followed by war, more famine and the eventual rise of a strong leader committed to change. I sense we are on a similar trajectory. This outlook can be quite crippling when it comes to writing and guarantees a sleepless night. I know I’m not alone in holding this view.

Chestnut haired angels delivering groceries. it’s now a drop and go affair.

I’m trying to address this daily terror. I read far too much most days and remember very little. I’m sleeping in more, and personal grooming has taken a nosedive. One helpful routine is to write down at least one inspiring quotation each day in the diary. This delightful quote from Kurt Vonnegut, in a letter to school students, inspired my return to the keyboard.

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Another useful routine, mainly to counter the daily grind of cooking two meals a day for the last 4 months, is to write a weekly menu, based on the items available in my fridge and pantry. Included in the list will be a few new recipes, largely from cookbooks, rather than internet sites. It’s time to go back to those lovely books and I do have far too may. These meals are substitutes for restaurant dining, a date night at home. I also try to vary the menu from week to week, and include one Indian curry, a few pasta meals, a pizza night, one fish meal if I can get my hands on some, classic old style comfort dishes, as well as soups and salads. At present, we seem to have a glut of pumpkin, eggplant and red capsicum, so the focus will be on these ingredients for the week.

I’m attempting to improve my sourdough baking, aiming for a more disciplined approach to shaping. This is another form of artistic expression for me during this lockdown, mark 2.

The other daily delight includes bird visitations. I often hear Mr T chatting outside, and have often wondered if he was finally losing the plot. But no, he’s chatting to birds, they follow him around like pets, and watch him through the kitchen window as he washes the dishes. Some are special messengers and others are after some seed. Their visits keep us sane and help us ignore the negativity out there on social and regular media. It’s like slime seeping through your kitchen door.

Time’s Winged Chariot and Quince Jelly

Time now marches through life like a merciless drill sergeant, or dawdles behind like a whining child depending on how you now find yourself. Days have lost meaning, a weekend for workers fast becoming a redundant notion, as time turns into a series of statistics- the day’s death rate, the increased spread of the covid 19 virus, the daily rise in numbers, the shape of the curve, the waffle and contradictory chatter on the airways clouding all sense and reason. Dear Italia and the people of Lombardy, their statistic is about to become ours. Easter holidays, no longer holy, as longed for days of family gathering will pass without much fanfare. No chocolate eggs, don’t risk the shops. Hot cross buns? Make your own, you have the time now if not the will. Use the ingredients on hand in your pantry. The old Venetian ‘quarantina‘ makes more sense as a measurement of time: forty days, not a fortnight, but perhaps much longer if you’re still living in the land of days and weekends, still congregating at the beach, the river or renting weekend houses, shopping for fun not necessity, still in denial, joining another queue with strangers. Wake up Australia. The time is now.

For those who measure time by the slow drip of quince juice from a jelly bag suspended over a chair, making quince jelly is a seasonal and timeless pastime, resulting in the colour of Autumn’s bounty trapped in a jar. If you manage to score a bag of big gnarly quinces from someone this season, wash your hands after collecting the bag, wash the quinces well, and follow the most simple recipe on the internet you can find. There are only two ingredients required- quinces and sugar. I’m assuming that the toilet roll hoarders haven’t bought all the sugar, but then in my mind there’s a warped correlation between the two.