Cooking Siciliano and the Oregano Festival

I can’t imagine a garden without herbs. Or cooking without herbs. Or life without herbs. If I were marooned on a desert island and had just one food request, I would choose fresh herbs. And if then forced to choose only one herb, the answer might well be oregano.

Dried oregano from last week’s pick.

Although a perennial herb, oregano has distinct seasons. It shoots up in Spring, producing tall hard stems with bracts of pale mauve flowers. It’s best to harvest these stems once in full flower and hang to dry. If you’ve ever bought a packet of dried wild Greek or Sicilian oregano, you’ll notice that the flowers are favoured. By harvesting the mature stems, the plant will reinvigorate for summer and beyond. It is alive in winter, but not so productive.

Today’s pick, ready to hang.

Every time I gather bunches of oregano and string them up, I can almost taste the savoury crunch, salty sea air, pizza, fish, pickled olives, capers and the Mediterranean all rolled into one little sensation. I first tasted this herb in 1968, the year I first ate pizza. A few years later, as a cash strapped student with two infant children, my favourite weekly treat was a bag of oregano laced olives from the little Greek grocery shop on the corner of Canning Street. I am still searching for that same taste, that excitement that transported me away from my childhood diet of bland British/Australian cuisine, and into the firm embrace of Cucina Mediterranea.

Dried oregano, bagged for the ‘export’ market and oregano salt,

When making a simple pizza sauce (with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes, fresh or canned) I invariably choose to add dried oregano. When cooking fish, a simple fillet of flathead, a snapper or a pesce spada alla siciliana ( swordfish), oregano usually stars in the sauce. Its earthy, slightly bitter flavour bonds well salt, garlic and oil. Fresh oregano, olive oil and vinegar is a perfect dressing for a warm potato salad or is the final blessing, along with a squeeze of lemon, on fried saganaki or halloumi.

Pan fried flathead, dusted in seasoned riceflour, cooked in EV olive oil, dressed in salmoriglio.

I often feel enslaved by my food memories, though it’s a pleasant kind of servitude. One other vivid recollection involving oregano is the day I first tasted Salmoriglio, that famous Sicilian sauce and marinade. We were sitting in a little restaurant in Palermo. It was late Spring in the year 2000. The decor spoke of that era- terracotta paving on the floor, Mediterranean tiles on the walls, and colourful Italian made platters and plates. We ordered Pesce Spada, grilled swordfish, dressed with Salmoriglio. It came with oven roasted potatoes and grilled red peppers on the side. To this day, it is the fish sauce of choice.

Flathead alla Siciliano.

Salmoriglio

There are a few variations on the theme of salmoriglio. Some recipes add capers or anchovies. I think the following recipe comes closest to that taste true of Palermo. It can be a sauce or a marinade for vegetables. The sauce is best used straight away or within 24 hours. I made it last night for a sauce to go with pan fried flathead fillets, and today I used the remainder to marinate some zucchini and tiger prawns, which were then grilled.

  • 6 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, removed from woody stems
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • course sea salt flakes to taste
  • juice of one large lemon
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 6 tablespoons EV olive oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons hot water

Mash the leaves with a pinch of salt flakes and garlic in a mortar and pestle. Pound well to amalgamate into a rough paste. Add the lemon peel and oil. Continue to pound then add the lemon juice and a little hot water, mixing well to make the sauce creamy. You can gently warm this sauce if you wish. If you make it in a food processor, the sauce will have a dense consistency and will not be so rustic or tasty.

Gamberi e Zucchini alla Griglia con Salmoriglio.

Oregano Salt Recipe.

  • 1/4 cup of dried oregano leaves
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt crystals.

Grind in a coffee or spice grinder and store in a jar. Add to baked vegetables, fresh tomatoes, Greek potatoes.

So what food would you choose on your desert island dear reader? My choice of oregano assumes that I will also have a fishing rod.

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Rewriting Tradition. Easter Cuisine Old and New. Part 1

I rang my 13-year-old grandson to ask if he had eaten any hot cross buns today. He sounded disinterested and replied ‘no’, in a polite but bemused way. I could almost hear his brain ticking over, perhaps with a ‘What the ..? Has Nanna finally lost the plot, ringing me about Hot Cross Buns?’ After all, the kids have been eating these buns since Boxing Day. That’s when they begin appearing in Australian supermarkets. By the time Good Friday comes around, the novelty has worn off. So much for tradition.

Ready for the oven

I then rang my eldest son, and asked him the same question. At least he is perfectly aware of the symbolic nature of these buns. No, he had also had his fill of the supermarket product along the way, and was whipping up some scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. Yes, another pagan in our midst. I am the first one to appreciate the secular nature of our society: I am not only a ‘collapsed’ Catholic but also don’t count myself as Christian. Having said that, I don’t see much point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, these buns are a seasonal and festive treat and it’s important to explain the meaning of the added crosses to the young folk. History and tradition form a part of who we are. At the same time, we happily appropriate any Buddhist and Hindu rituals that may suit us along the way.  Buddhist meditation becomes mindfulness ( and loses a lot in translation), Diwali is taking off in Australia and Chinese New year is popular too. Australia is a wonderful melting pot of cultures, but as we grab hold of the new, we should also at least understand the old, and adapt some of those traditions to our modern taste.

Just glazed. Who prefers the top half?

I now make hot Cross buns annually, just a dozen. The yeasted variety is light and perfect for our Autumnal weather. Next year I will increase the amount of spice in the recipe I used. They cost very little to make and are far more digestible than the common supermarket variety. If you are a beginner at yeasted baking, try Celia’s recipe here. It is foolproof and very straightforward.

To serve with butter, not margarine.

The other fond tradition I hang on to is my dedication to cooking smoked Cod on Good Friday. This is an old Irish Catholic Australian thing. Most Scottish descendants did not have this bright yellow dyed fish imposed on them as youngsters on Good Friday. If you feel slightly ambivalent about smoked cod, go to the fish market and buy the real thing  from the Shetland Islands which tastes peaty and less salty. I buy it at the Preston Market, from one fishmonger who has, by 9 am on Easter Thursday, queues 5 deep. I am told by Sandra that it is available all year round at the Prahran market.

Fish pie includes Shetland smoked cod, flathead and shrimp

One way to enjoy a piece of good quality smoked Cod is to forget your grandmother’s recipe, which consisted of an overcooked piece of fish, served with white parsley sauce, alongside boiled vegetables. Maintaining the tradition but stepping it up a notch or two makes the elements of this dish more appetising. Make an Easter fish pie, incorporating the poached smoked cod, along with poached white fish and a handful of shrimp, in a white sauce, and top with buttery mashed potato. The sides? A tossed green salad with lots of mustard in the dressing, another Irish note.

Three serves later….

This post was inspired by my friend Peter’s comment a few days ago. Peter lives in tropical Far North Queensland, where some of these culinary traditions would seem totally out-of-place.

“Enter the 60’s & 70’s: Traditional Good Friday cooking of smoked cod, which was smelt from miles away on the farm, still lingers in our psyche. We (all seven kids) all started to gag at the thought of having to consume his hideous boiled, vile muck served with over-cooked spuds and grey cabbage. Tradition beheld that we all sit at the kitchen table and dare not complain as the Compassion donation box was placed in the middle of the table with forlorn starving African children’s’ faces staring back at us which reflected those much worse off than ourselves. If only our parents knew that when we took those money boxes back to school they were much lighter by many pennies and the occasional thrupence than when they left their position placed strategically near where food or indulgent entertainment was involved. When visiting childless Aunts and Uncles visited our eyes bulged as they loudly dropped loose change into said box and we immediately tallied up how many kangaroo or umbrella toffees on a stick , yard-long licorice straps of triangular frozen Sunnyboys we could buy at the tuck-shop on the next school day. I’m sure tens of thousands of children in Africa died of starvation by we greedy Catholic kids but obligatory confession ultimately absolved us even if we had to lie to the priest to protect our guilt. So now we celebrate Easter by holding a “traditional” Bad Friday by sharing all the amazing regional and seasonal foods abundant in our region. Last week-end was the annual sugarcane and banana plantation pig shoot – sponsored by the local pubs. We bar-hogs waited for hours until the slaughtered swine were unceremoniously chucked off the blood-splatted Utes by the shooters whose faces were akin to orgasmic stimuli at the thought of winning the $25 stake. The weigh-in is a serious event all greased with gallons of booze and much humourous joshing . However, those of us on the peripheral could only see that these beasts can’t possibly go to waste and commence bartering for the whole hog. My point being is that this Bad Friday’s fare is a 57 kilo pig on a spit to be shared with all the local collapsed Catholics, a few bevvies and lots of stories about how we all ended up in the wonderful wet tropics of Far North Queensland – and not a hot-cross bun in sight. Ahh! Bliss!!”

Thanks Peter for making the effort to add such entertaining recollections to my posts. I am sure many Australians of a certain age may have similar memories.

That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion…..

In My Kitchen, a Very Fishy Post. November 15

There have been lots of fishy things happening in my kitchen this month, or should I say, in cabin kitchens along the East Coast of Victoria and New South Wales. I love the challenge of cabin kitchens: they are all so idiosyncratic and designed for the user of microwaves or non cooks. Challenges include how to drain pasta without a colander, chopping on thin plastic boards that have warped into canoes, looking for a non-existent grater and salad bowl and dealing with an oven that doesn’t cook.  But I’m jumping ahead.

Let me introduce you to the first kitchen I popped into on my coastal road trip. I met up with Maree, from Around the Mulberry Tree, in her kitchen in Trafalgar. She was having a garden open day and I just happened to be passing by. Her garden was looking magnificent with its well designed chook house and wicking beds, but I was keen to see the progress on her kitchen renovation and her ‘toy oven’, in which she makes beautiful sourdough loaves! I can report that it is all true, and it just goes to show that with a bit of imagination, a good loaf can be made in a tiny little pie warmer of an oven! Neither of us are too keen on having our photos on our posts: I think this one sums it all up.

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In Maree’s kitchen, the blues sisters.

The first night in our Lake Tyers kitchen we feasted on a seafood paella or Paella de Marisco. The seafood co-op at Lakes Entrance provided the goodies for this- fresh squid, prawns ( from South Australia) and a few scallops. I used the prawn heads and shells to make a quick prawn bisque for the stock. I love the first stage of making paella when the smoky pimenton is added to the stock. bbb

Travelling with me always are these ingredients, as well as a good pan with fitting lid, a decent knife, a pasta pot, and fresh herbs and spices from home.

Caasp-arra rc,,,
, Calasparra rice, saffron and smoky pimento – the key items for a good paella.

The kitchen in Lake Tyers was pretty good as far as cabin kitchens go except for the dodgy oven which only worked on the grill function. This was the setting for our scallop feast.

1-2015-10-25 19.51.13_resizedThe kids were happy to eat their way through piles of flathead tails, also readily available from the local seafood co-op.  A large bag of panko crumbs from Costco and eggs from home are also part of my travelling kit.

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Flathead tails, with panko crumbs. Hands up who wants more!

Eden was the next stop for seafood along this route, with blue mussels available near the jetty and a local smokehouse. Kyle bought a bag of smoked mussels: I like his cooking style. Pour the smoked mussels out of the bag and into a bowl, and compete to see who gets to eat the most. No photo for this treat as they disappeared in a flash.

The lakes of Pambula provided the next briny piatto del giorno. Two dozen oysters, freshly shucked, only required a picnic table, a lemon, and a loaf of ciabatta. Needing lemons?  Head to the country op-shops for cheap home-grown bags full.

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Sydney Rock oysters from Pambula Lakes.

Heading back down south, and passing my favourite Co-op again, these pretty creatures were available for $13.50 a kilo. Packed on ice, they are now in my home kitchen and will give us at least three more meals. Calamari and squid are the most sustainable seafood species you can find in Australia.

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shiny calamari ready to be cleaned.
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calamari, stir fried chard, garlic, chill, kecap manis, lemon, sesame oil.

Thanks Celia once again for hosting this marvellous monthly series. You may find more like-minded souls at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, Living well in the Urban Village.

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.