Just when I thought we had turned the corner, and winter had signaled an early arrival, along came a big sunny weekend, throwing me back into the sensuality of summer and late autumn. There’s a hot breeze blowing today: outside a lawn mower buzzes somewhere in the distance and the roar, now approaching now distant, of weekend Harley motorbike riders echoes along the valley below. If you listen carefully, there are insects too, a neighbour’s dog, and other domestic sounds, but still no jet noise above.
My kitchen routines happily shifted into winter mode last month. After the first cup of tea, I get stuck into things early- soaking the beans, feeding the sourdough levain or baking bread, making stock with leftover bits of vegetable, and deciding on the two meals of the day. Anzac biscuits always appear in April and the first of the Nanna soups are made, an old fashioned thing based on Mckenzie’s soup mix, the most comforting of soups. It’s a seasonal shift and one I really enjoy. But with this recent May Indian summer, we are back working in the vegetable patch, getting sunburnt, layering compost, and picking the last of the borlotti beans, small zucchini and yellow cherry tomatoes. Another bucket of late picked figs arrives to laze about on the north facing windowsill- if we leave the doors open, European wasps find their way straight to the ledge to seek out that ruby jammy flesh. The long lasting red peppers keep ripening. I’m yet to find a recipe for these but may dry some, make some Biber Salcasi or preserve them sott’olio, under oil. The summer – autumn season has been hugely productive this year but now I’m looking forward to the chards, bitter leaves, snow peas and brassicas of the coming season.
This month’s In My Kitchen is largely a photo post of the food that I enjoyed picking or cooking recently. As I read the posts of other contributors, especially those of my North American friends, I can almost hear that big sigh of relief and joy as they embark on their first dinner party or interstate family visit, now that they’re immunized. ( See Mae’s post here) It’s a liberating feeling for sure and I feel much the same way. Thanks Sherry for hosting this monthly roundup. See Sherry’s Pickings for other like minded kitchen posts.
This month’s In My Kitchen post takes the form of a small, April journal, interspersed with photos of ingredients and dishes that entered or exited my kitchen recently.
At the Beach, Easter ’21
I’m lying on a comfy bed inside my caravan on Good Friday afternoon. The day is hot and still, though the cooling sea air finds its way through the windows and ceiling extractor, making a little lie down even more enticing. The small space is darkened by blockout curtains: it’s womblike, cocooning, soothing. Someone is tuning a guitar in the distance, followed by a sampling of acoustic bluegrass notes. Wattle birds make scratchy chatter in the nearby banksia trees. It’s not quite #vanlife because it’s a caravan and I’m probably disqualified anyway. I think it must be the small space that is so appealing about a van, reminiscent of the cubby houses I used to build in my childhood, with planks of old timber, worn blankets smelling of shed and dusty hessian bags.
There’s not much to do except walk, read, write or plan the next meal. Fortunately, some good things, like hot cross buns, were made at home and brought to the beach camp to share with others. This year’s hot cross buns were a big hit with me, and I’m a very fussy customer. Over the years I’ve attempted quite a few different recipes and I may have finally found one to suit my discerning palate. The two recipes I used this year were similar with regard to ingredients but differed in technique. I’ve learnt quite a few things along the way, and am happy to say that the 32 buns were all eaten, with praise offered by my appointed samplers, Daisy and Helen. Sourdough buns last much longer than yeasted buns. Cinnamon affects the rising action of sourdough so should be added later, or at least after an initial autolyse. Butter is better added in chunks rather than melted, and is also best added at the end of the mix. In hindsight I preferred using a stand mixer for the dough over the hand built version, given the wetness of the mix and the delay in adding the butter. An overnight proofing in the fridge makes the dough much easier to shape. Allow 24 hours once you begin your mixing and monitor ambient temperature: around 23c-24c is ideal. I’ve finally invested in a thermometer/hygrometer, an important tool in the bread making process. I may make some Not Cross Buns to practise my technique throughout the year.
If you’re not into sourdough, yeasted hot cross buns are fast and easy to make, assuming you have a hungry horde to feed, as they don’t keep very well. Why bother making your own buns? The answer partly lies in the image below, taken from a Coles packet of HC buns. Bakers Delight and Brumby’s buns are also loaded with numbers too, with 27- 32 listed ingredients. Small independent bakeries are more likely to make buns without a bunch of numbers: they are more expensive but then, they’re meant to be an annual treat. Real butter goes on top of a good bun, not a mixture of oil, dairy and numbers, known as spreadable butter.
Coles Hot Cross Bun Info
The best shared meals at the beach are fairly well planned. We either decide on a particular cuisine or theme. Indian nights are good value, with family members bringing their favourite curry, which drives nearby campers mad with desire as the onions and spices slowly cook. Pizzas done in the Baby Q Weber work well but are very slow, giving new meaning to the notion of slow food. I usually bring 8 balls of 48 hour fermented dough from home for our beach pizza night, but supermarket pizza bases work well enough when desperate. My favourite flour for pizza, buns and bread is Wholegrain Milling’s organic stoneground baker’s flour which I buy wholesale in 25 kilo bags.
April 11. Thoughts from the couch on a wet Sunday.
I’ve been reflecting on the idea of the anti-cook, and whether I might become one. You know those days when a bowl full of numbers in the form of a packet of Indomie, a popular Indonesian instant noodle brand, is all you can imagine. Adding a chopped spring onion is going too far down the road of kitchen mess. Or a cup of instant miso soup for an overdose of salt, the zen answer to bonox. There’s no shortage of good food here: I have a garden full of it. But putting it all together requires a herculean effort as well as a desire to eat well. No one told me that one of the side affects of the Covid Jab is loss of appetite and a disinterest in wine. This is outrageous! Why didn’t they tell me on the carefully printed side effects sheet? Along with kitchen apathy comes a keen desire to spend more time in a horizontal position watching streamed TV series. An Easter Lindt chocolate or two and a heat pack are my new daytime friends. If you’re over 50, join the club and suffer a few days of sloth and achy joints, or perhaps smoke one, but don’t become vaccine reticent. That packet of Indomie has 17 mysterious additives which are more likely to cause more blood clotting than the Astra Zeneca Jab. An anti- cook I may become, but I’ll never be an anti- vaxxer. I’m part of the herd, and hopefully part of the solution.
Thanks once again Sherry for hosting the IMK series. At present I like writing more than cooking and so my contribution may seem a little curlballish, or googly to use an old cricket term, but that’s life. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for more inspiring world kitchens.
As often is the case, my February kitchen post will look a little like a tour of the orchard, as this month is most fructiferous. This abundance is due to a few factors: the orchard is now mature and is producing far more fruit than we can ever use, the garden has finally developed its own microclimate, and most importantly, we have experienced an unusually high rainfall in our locale, the second highest in our 40 years of record keeping. The birds are not so interested in the fruit crops- ripe nectarines have fallen to the ground: no cockatoo or parrot gives them a second glance. The rabbits, the most destructive creatures during years of drought, are not interested in ring barking, and the grass is still green in the paddocks. We now have 64 fruit trees, which includes two nut trees and 10 olive trees. Much of that fruit travels through my kitchen between January and April. Some is left on an outside table for friends and family to help themselves. This season is a rarity, and in these times of the pandemic, where we go in and out of lockdown (another one was announced today in Melbourne), this glut is a blessing. I sometimes feel like Anna Frith, as she roams through orchards of unpicked fruit in that extraordinary novel, Year of Wonders, set in 1665 during the plague in Eyam, England. ¹
Apples ripen in waves, with heritage apples producing in different months. I was mulling over the word ‘heritage’ this morning as I stood in the early morning rain taking photos of my Rome Beauty apples. Has ‘heritage’ become the new wank word of the fruit and vegetable kingdom, just as artisan, bespoke and atelier became overused in the last decade? I’ve become a little suspicious of the word ‘curate’ too, overused as it is in the shallow lands of the advertiser. But here I am with lots of old style apples, so I guess the word ‘heritage’ may stay.
The pears are nearly ready to pick with only two varieties coming in- the Beurre bosc (a great keeper) and Clapps (a poor keeper). The latter will be be used the moment it’s picked, in pear clafoutis, pear and almond torta ( my handy recipe here), or gently poached in saffron and wine.
The tomato glut is easier to handle. Three kilos will make a wonderful rich soup ( my recipe here) and another kilo or so lands in a gazpacho. After that, they are sauced, or eaten on toast. I’m happy to have too many.
I feel like a child again when I enter the dark world of the quince tree, the heavy hidden fruit inviting me to dream, not so much of the kitchen but of Renaissance painters of fruit.But it’s not their turn yet….
Thanks Sherry for indulging me in my fruit fantasies, The fruits do get cooked in my kitchen but my photos of them hanging about in their wondrous world, waiting to be picked, looked a lot more interesting than my plates of food. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for more kitcheny thingsthis month.
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.
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.
It is only in very recent weeks that we have returned to some semblance of ‘Covid Normal’ here in Melbourne. This has had a huge impact on my life in the kitchen. While the meals I prepared for two were interesting, healthy and varied over the long 8 months of no socialising, I managed to lose the desire to cook for larger groups, or provide for little gatherings at home. I’ve lost confidence in cooking: I now prefer spontaneous meals, rather than planned events. A corollary of this is that I no longer write blogs. Let’s hope this little post will be akin to dipping my big toe in cold water before diving right in.
One thing I’ve noticed, now that I’m able to travel more than 5 kilometers from my residence, is that food shopping has become rather special: it’s louder, brighter and more tempting than previously, akin to a 3D technicolour movie experience after a life of black and white. The local supermarket supplied me with the basics during the ‘iso’ months, but I’m excited to be travelling to my preferred food outlets again. Years ago, one relied on the inner suburbs for more interesting goods, be they Middle Eastern, Indian, Italian or Greek. With the gentrification of the inner suburbs and consequent rent hikes, more interesting food supplies can now be found in developing suburbs on the fringes. Fortunately for me, this means a drive through our back hills and dales which ends up being relatively close.
My vegetable garden is booming. There’s nothing better than fresh stuff picked on the day of cooking. This year I’ve planted two types of zucchini – Romanesco are producing well at the moment and I love the more delicate flavour of this variety. Blackjack zucchini are in flower and I mainly use these for pickles and soup. Two of my late cauliflower have grown into florets- something I find more desirable than creamy heads. These stalks are really nice in stir fries or battered with besan flour. I’m planning to save the seed of this non heading variety
I took a month off sourdough bread baking- to match my month of doing nothing much except watching Netflix. But happily I’m back into it with a vengeance, especially now that I can order from a wholesaler who supplies top organic flours. During covid, I relied on Amazon for flour deliveries, but can now travel to pick up the good stuff.
We recently enjoyed a short getaway to Western Victoria, once the metaphorical ‘Ring of Steel’ was lifted from Melbourne. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Bakehouse in Portland, where Kim bakes the most amazing sourdough goods. There are wonderful breads to choose from, but her sourdough patisserie goods are irresistable too. The range changes daily- fresh bombolini, danish, brioche, croissants and more- all light and buttery but made with a sourdough levain. The Bakehouse Portland is only open from Thursday to Sunday, and it’s best to arrive early. Her bakery is at the rear of 31 Percy Street Portland, VIC, Australia. Once inside the shop, you are transported to a classy French Patsisserie: I was surprised to learn that Kim began making sourdough only 5 years ago and learnt mostly from youtube and instagram, and not in Paris. There’s hope for us all, you just need the passion. If you’re travelling through Portland, do not miss this bakery.
The youngberry bush is flushing daily. I think it’s time to make jam again.
There are always a few dozen fresh eggs in my kitchen. I sell around 5 dozen each week which subsidises the cost of grain and fresh straw. My girls have a good life runnning through the orchard and hiding in the berry bushes. One strange thing that happened during lockdown was the secret expansion of the flock and the hatching of chickens. Yes we do have rather too many, but who can resist a lavender coloured Pekin Bantom with attitude?
This year’s garlic crop is curing in the shed. It takes a month or so to correctly cure garlic for long storage. The harvest is now finished, with a count of 230 garlic bulbs, enough to keep the vampires away for next year. Thanks Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for hosting this series. You can follow Sherry’s link for more worldwide in my kitchen posts.
The season has been fruitful, especially with an abundant supply of all kinds of citrus, though this colourful presence is slowly coming to an end, with Blood and Valencia oranges the last varieties to pick. In Spring, the trees will return to flower and leaf production for next year. We have around 14 citrus trees but there’s always room for more. Most were planted around 10 years ago, with productivity hampered by drought, wind, rabbit infestation and severe frost. They’ve now reached a stage of maturity where they can withstand most conditions.
There are two citrus trees producing oddities. These knobbly, thick skinned fruit grow on thorny wild trees. One wild tree used to be a grafted Kaffir lime tree. After dying in the recent drought, it re-sprouted, reverting back to old root stock below the graft. Although incredibly bitter to taste, the fruits are exotic, brightly coloured and decorative. They remind me of the Renaissance fascination with formal citrus gardens and the collecting of rare and unusual specimens. The paintings by Bartolomeo Bimbi and Giovanna Garzani, reveal this fascination for depicting bumpy, disfigured lemons and other rare agrumi.
On that subject, The Land Where Lemons Grow, by Helena Attlee, documents the history of the Italian fascination with citrus and is a great read. Thank you Beck, at In Search of the Golden Pudding, for recommending this. In terms of food writing, it’s up there with Delizia! An EpicHistory of Italians and their Food, by John Dickie and Honey from a Weed, by Patience Gray.
In My Kitchen there’s always cake: the peasants have no fear of starving. I make a cake weekly: in this cool weather, it keeps well under a glass dome sitting on the kitchen dresser. I often halve them and send some away to other cake loving peasants. Most double as pudding: a couple of slices gently warmed in the remaining heat of an oven, served with something wet ( cream, icecream, custard) have kept us sane during winter and the lockdown. I’ve now made two versions of the Seville orange marmalade cake, pictured above. The recipe can be found here. The second version pictured below is a classic Middle Eastern orange and almond cake, glazed in marmalade. I think I prefer the first version. Excess marmalade can be used as a glaze in many ways. Maybe a chocolate cake could turn Jaffa-esque when topped with an orange marmalade glaze? Or a little Seville marmalade stirred through a rice pudding? Served with Halloumi? Liquified then added to a G&T?
The little pasta dish below looks quite plain, belying the richness and intense lemon/orange flavoured sauce hiding within its folds. The sauce includes fine slivers of peel from an orange and lemon, which are boiled to soften, and the juice, a little onion, a knob of butter, cream and seasoning.
The egg noodles from Mantovanelle come very close to those made by hand at home. These tagliatelline are my favourite comfort food. Cooked in five minutes, this gives you just enough time to quickly construct a sauce. Once the pasta hits the boiling water, my large non- stick wok is fired up and ready to go. In goes the EV olive oil, a little garlic, followed by fresh things from the garden, small stems of broccoli, young leaves of kale, some herbs, a few tiny unshelled broad beans, a dash of wine, perhaps some smoked salmon chunks, a few dashes of cream, seasoning and finally the cooked noodles. It’s a merry little dance around 2 stove jets. When the long lockdown ends in Melbourne, I look forward to returning to my favourite food shops which are further than 5 kilometres from my home. Since early July, strict travel distance rules have regulated movement in Melbourne. This pasta will be at the top of my shopping list.
The winter garden has kept us in fresh greens and now that spring is here, broad beans are slowly appearing.
Another day, another pasta. Rigatoni paired with a vegetarian ragù. The sauce included some mushrooms, dried porcini, herbs, left over thick lentil soup, a little miso, and tomato passata.
In these times, I often find myself looking back rather than forward. I cannot think of anything at present to look forward to- no short drives in the country, a family gathering, dinner with friends, travels overseas, visits to the city, a Vietnamese meal, a trip to the library- it’s a life without anticipation. Often, our next meal is the highlight of the day. The arrival of a book in the post, or a food order from Mt Zero Olives, is an added bonus. In this era of hard lockdown, the future has become blurred. Last night, as we were eating dinner, a spaghetti cacio e pepe, the conversation inevitably led to Rome. Where did we eat that last Roman cacio e pepe, where would we stay next time, an apartment in Trastevere again ( too busy) or over in Testaccio ( interesting suburb) or in centro? Through reminiscing, we came to the realisation that we would not be returning to Italy, or indeed Europe, and perhaps not to our favourite haunts in Asia. This is not meant to be a maudlin observation: I am a pragmatist at heart. Looking back over some of my old posts has given me a chance to relive some of those travels: like writing a detailed journal, blogging is a worthwhile pursuit in this sense. Unlike Facebook or Instagram posting, blogging provides a permanent and accessible log into the past. In the same way, participating in the monthly In MyKitchen for the last 7 years has produced another kind of documentation. Over the years my kitchen posts have gravitated towards seasonal food and simple dishes. My previous September posts expose another story: I’m usually away. Thanks Sherry of Sherry’s Pickings for continuing this series: it has been an interesting journey.
This month, I’m inviting you to step inside my kitchen. No one else can come inside these days, but you’re all welcome. It’s one long narrow room that incorporates a kitchen, a small pantry, a long table of 2.8 metres, a wood fired baker’s stove and two old sofas. Above are high beams and clerestory windows and plenty of natural light from the windows facing north and east. All are double glazed making the room easier to heat in winter and naturally cooler in summer. I would argue that retrofitting old windows and upgrading to double glazing is one of the most important energy saving moves you should make, regardless of where you live. Although we have other rooms in the house, we have chosen to live in and heat this single space, along with our bedroom which has a heater set on 17º c for 8 hours overnight. Our kitchen/living space heating consists of one small but very efficient wood stove and one split system inverter. Things are nice and toasty, even on days when the temperature ranges between 0º c and 10ºc outside. We monitor our power usage and note that the winter costs are much lower since adopting this single living space approach. Sig Tranquillo chainsaws fallen trees from the forest on our property which supplies the wood heater, another major cost saving and a gym workout for him.
Melbourne is now in stage 4 lockdown, due to the surge in numbers of corona virus in the state of Victoria. This is one of the most stringent of all lockdowns, and the world will be taking notes on the effectiveness of such a move. Mask wearing is compulsory, no one can travel more than 5 kms to shop, only one person from each household may do this and only for one hour, a night curfew operates from 8 pm to 5am, exercise must be undertaken locally, and only essential businesses may stay open. The vast majority of Victorians are doing the right thing and are determined to make this work. Of course, the media will highlight those who break the rules, and give way too much oxygen to the Karens and Kens of this world: anything newsworthy to feed the coffers of the Murdoch Press.
In My Kitchen is Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, who appears at 11 am, or later on really bad days. Dan has been doing these updates for months: most Victorians admire and respect him. I moved the TV into our kitchen/everything room at the beginning of the pandemic to save on heating. Before the pandemic, we weren’t so glued to the big screen in the daytime.
french onion soup, vegetarian.
old fashioned soup mix soup.
In my kitchen is a Nectre Heater, an Australian made wood heater that is very environmentally efficient and effective. We use it primarily for heating, but also to cook stock and soups, heat the kettle, and warm leftovers and puddings in the little baker’s oven below. I often use the top to toast bread for bruschetta.
In my kitchen, there’s plenty of research happening. Sig Tranquillo is working on a Scottish history project. Sometimes his clutter fills the large table. Meanwhile, I’m finally back into full time reading and the books are piling up. I can highly recommend, Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water. A memoir of sorts, Flyn journeys from Scotland to Australia to investigate the travels and massacre of the Gunai indigenous tribe by the explorer, Angus McMillan. It is essential reading to all those who live in Gippsland, Victoria. More about this book in a later post. The local library sent my books by post but I feel that this is one book I must own. Books, computers, phones, diaries,and notes get swept to one end of the large table at meal time. Oh the clutter.
On sunny days we venture outside for lunch and have now established the routine picnic day, every Friday, on the platform under the old half built chimney. Picnic days can be dangerous, especially when the musical instruments appear.
Tranquillo and the cowgirls
Somedays it’s wine for lunch and a loaf bread. anything else is a bonus.
I’m adding my post to Sherry’s In My Kitchen series this month, despite it’s lack of novel kitchen stuff. Life is up and down here. I hope, dear reader, wherever you may be, that you keep safe and wear a mask.
Header photo. Turnips from the garden. Despite their vibrant colour, they always remind me of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
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.
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.
Zuppa del giorno. Celery and spinach crema with a Michael Leunig face.
Hokkien noodles, tofu, bokchoy, well sauced.
linguini with mussels, fennel and saffron. Recipe by Karen Martini.
Torta di cioccolata e nocciole
Saffron pasta, gold band snapper, garlic, chilli oil.
gemelli with brocollini, marinated goats cheese and walnuts.
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.
Sometimes it occurs to me that writing about food seems inconsequential, perhaps even pointless, when the world has become so dark. I’m also aware that blogging is a pastime for the well- off, those like me who have more time, money, food, and housing security than most people in the world. As our world staggers from one disaster to the next, the deep and underlying fissures in society are being exposed. Environmental disasters caused by climate inaction, the current pandemic which has not yet run its course, imbecilic, corrupt and dangerous national leadership in many countries, shifts in global trading patterns, a potential American civil war, ongoing structural and institutional racism, gender inequality and political manipulation in the elections in so called democracies- the list of modern ills seems infinite. The only safe place is in the kitchen, where the focus is directed towards family, nourishment, and the preservation of ancient food cultures.
Although I’m still reticent to venture out, especially for the time wasting amusement gained by shopping for more things I don’t need, whether they are new or pre-owned, I have enjoyed buying a few things online, including some kitchen ware, and may continue to shop this way in the future. I was also delighted when some social gathering restrictions were eased and I could see my family again. No hugs yet but at least we can eat and drink in the same room. We have also enjoyed one dinner away from home with friends. Sitting at distant ends of the table, the large vegetarian lasagne was a joy to behold and eat- at last something not made by me or Tranquillo.
My granddaughter, Daisy, has been a delightful presence in my kitchen. “Can I help?”or “What are you cooking?” are some of her words that I love to hear, as is the sound of her small cooking stool being dragged into place at the bench. She chops, crumbs, mixes, and tastes for correct seasoning and balance. She prefers anchovies to sweet things, and can wax lyrical about her favourite dish, a white bean and silver beet soup. From the age of two, her refined sense of smell has led her to the kitchen: she’s a natural chef with a strong desire to learn. Now that she is ‘allowed’ to come here for her home schooling, we’ve enjoyed more time together in the kitchen: this has been the up side of the pandemic for me. After we finish the set school tasks, we reward ourselves with some good cooking. Last week she made her own Kolokithopita, mastering the triangular shape, while I rabbited on about equilateral triangles, trying to slip in some math. Kolokithopita is a Greek pie stuffing using pumpkin. I simply substitute some oven baked pumpkin for the spinach in a spanakopita recipe, adding lots of fresh herbs and chopped spring onions. Daisy likes making these mainly because of the smell of the warm melted butter used to paint the pastry sheets. What a nose.
I’ve been baking sourdough bread for 7 years, with four loaves baked weekly along with three large tray pizzas which are delivered to my extended family each Wednesday. Storage of flour and baking equipment was becoming a huge problem, along with RSI in my arms caused by the unusually high kitchen benches. I’ve been longing for a kitchen renovation but am fearful of the expense involved. The solution came in the form of an online purchase of an Ikea stainless steel trolley and a large bread making board. The lot is now wheeled to my dining table where I can work at the right height for dough handling, which for me is around 75 cms.
The lime trees are still covered with fruit. This week I’ve begun an Indian style lime pickle. Below, a bowl of sliced and salted limes, waiting for the next step. Meanwhile, home grown lemons are preserved in salt. Ancient preservation traditions from India to the Middle East.
first step in lime pickle
One of my favourite pasta dishes in winter is Pantacce, bietola, gorgonzolaenoce. I found a small piece of blue cheese hiding in the fridge, which I melted into some cream, tossed in a handful of toasted walnuts, and cooked the chopped silver beet briefly in the same pot as the pasta. The components came together in a deep frying pan. A more precise recipe can be found on my post here.
I posted these Friday Night Indian potatoes last week here: they were popular, and can be whipped up in no time.
Some time after I drafted this month’s In My Kitchen post, it occurred to me that this monthly world diary of kitchen activities could form a valuable record, documenting how cooking and food availability changes during a pandemic. It will be interesting to see if some items continue to be hard to source, for example flour, and whether the pandemic is followed by higher prices due to manufacturing interruption and a decline in agricultural output. It would be good if those joining in this platform could note their country and region when writing and perhaps comment on some of these factors too. Thanks Sherry from Sherry’s Pickings for enabling this connection throughout the world. I urge others to join in and to consider taking up blogging during these difficult times.
Francesca, St Andrews, Victoria, Australia.
So much for April fools day. No one expected the unexpected, a pandemic that may end up rivalling all previous plagues, changing the direction of our lives forever. In the meantime, I imagine that there is far more activity in everyone’s kitchen this month. No doubt you, dear reader, will be in lock-down like me or are semi- quarantined. This pandemic is, for many, a time to embrace older values, kindness, sharing, communicating more than usual but from a safe distance, cooking, baking, making music or going slightly mad. The handy phrase ‘cabin fever’ has never been more applicable. On the plus side, it is a reminder for many how much time we waste shopping: this break from consumerism is not such a bad thing. For those who have lost work and income, I hope that you get through this difficult time and are adequately supported by your government. This will not be the case in many countries.
My shopping list is now tiny: my granddaughter shops for us once a week. I exchange, at a safe distance, a container of home made soup and the money, left on a metaphorical pile of Celtic stones. I feel like a villager from the famous Eyam village, sometimes referred to as the plague village. I’m fortunate to have a productive vegetable garden which supplies most of our fresh vegetables. But it is a labour of love.
Apparently there’s a rush on vegetable gardening in Victoria: I’ve heard that seedlings are as rare as toilet paper and flour. Plant seeds. They might only take a few weeks longer. Some vegetables are better grown from seed as they don’t transplant well. These include all root vegetables such as radish, carrot, and turnip, while rocket and all lettuce varieties appear within a few days and can be transplanted easily. You don’t need a special garden bed. Sow seed among your flowers and in your regular gardens. Make a drill with a stick, add some fine white sand or very fine soil, add your seeds, cover them lightly with soil or sand and keep moist. Within one week, and voilà, you’ll have seedlings. Parsley seeds may take a little longer, as it’s said they go to hell and back before germinating.
Every time I make risotto, I think of my dear friends in Lombardy. Alberto grows beautiful rice in the countryside near Pavia. His mother and Zia and Zio will, no doubt, be safe in the countryside. To date, 10,000 Italians have died from this virus, with most occurring around Lombardy. Make a risotto and offer a thought for this region- all that lovely Carnaroli, Vialone Nano and Arborio is grown in the Po and Ticino river valleys, in the fields near the Lombardian villages that now feature daily in the news. We are all interconnected.
My pulses are getting a workout this month. This is not an unusual ingredient in my kitchen, nor has it much to do with the pandemic. I have to admit that while others were hoarding weirdo paper products from supermarkets, I went to BAS foods and bought an ungodly share of lentils, chickpeas and beans. Sono colpevole, I am guilty of hoarding too.
The smell of chutney cooking in the kitchen is enormously comforting, reminding me of my matriarchal line and the old Irish-British aromas that would emanate from their kitchens in Autumn. This is a great way to use up less than perfect fruit, all those windfalls and spotted specimens.
The orchard keeps giving throughout the months of Autumn, thanks to some fortuitous planting of heritage varieties nine years ago. The Beurre Bosc pears are the best keepers and star when poached in wine, sugar and saffron. After the pears are cooked, I remove them and cook down the syrup for a while, producing a pear flavoured sticky wine.
My son enjoys making craft beer and is still able to purchase a freshly made wort, though this may change in the coming weeks. It is a noble pastime which takes place on our back verandah and in our shed. We have our isolation environmental protocols well in place since our lockdown, so he wears gloves and doesn’t enter the house. After the brew is ready, it is kept in a refrigerated keg. Yes, dear reader, we have cold craft beer permanently on tap, and though I feel this situation is a little unfair, I’m not complaining.
The following is a thought provoking video link from Italy, subtitled in English. Worth a peep. Meanwhile, if you’re short of interesting ways to cook pulses and beans, check my blog over the coming week as I plan to document my vegetarian adventures more frequently.