In My Kitchen, December 2020

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.

Bulgar Mejadra, the Palestinian version of Mujadarra, which uses bulgar wheat instead of rice. I prefer this version. Recipe from Falastiin.

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.

Today’s pick. Zucchini and cauliflower.

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.

Breakfast treats from the Bakehouse, Portland Victoria. Not in my kitchen. In a motel room.

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.

Berries in my kitchen

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?

What? is all she said.

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.

Melbourne’s Six Seasons

Put away your trumpet, there’ll be no fanfare for the dawning of Spring. In Melbourne, the month of September is changeable, windy and unpredictable. Sunny days are often preceded by blistering cold. Gale force winds rip through the hills, bringing down branches from bare winter trees while the ‘darling buds’, the blossom on fruit trees, bravely hang on. There’s nothing especially attractive or romantic about Spring: the arrival of Primavera is invariably disappointing. Early Spring is like a moody teenager: all that white and pink confetti blossom helps to create a sense of hope and promise, yet the new season is accompanied by immaturity and mood swings. It’s a season on hormones. I’ve often returned to Melbourne in late September to be disheartened by the cold and windy weather.

This year I experienced my first Melbourne winter for 10 years and was surprised by the vibrant colour in the garden and the calm weather throughout late July and August. It isn’t surprising to learn that the Wurundjeri – Melbourne’s indigenous people who have lived around what is now Melbourne for thousands of years- have a calendar consisting of 6 seasons. The period from late July to the end of August is a distinct season in the indigenous calendar: it’s the time of nesting and first flowers. This year, this pre-spring season has been remarkably clement, sunny and still, with many joyous picnic kind of days.

One version of a graphic attempting to depict the Wurundjeri calendar. http://www.herringisland.org/seasons1.htm

 ” The division of the year into four seasons comes from Northern Europe, and does not fit Melbourne. We still think of winter as an unfavourable season for plants, when northern European trees drop their leaves and become dormant, but for our native plants, especially the small tuberous herbs, winter is a season of growth. At this time the bush is green, and the temperatures are rarely low enough to stop growth. The unfavourable season is high summer, when water is scarce, and much of the ground flora becomes brown and dies off. “¹

In the last two weeks of winter, I’ve observed new seasonal birds in the garden, attracted by the early pink/mauve flowering Echium. New Holland Honeyeaters, Eastern Spine Bills and Wattle birds have feasted on this large bush while on still days, hundreds of bees have had their turn. Once the honey eaters arrive, a seasonal indicator of sorts, I start sowing seeds, knowing that the sun’s angle will be perfect for germination inside my north facing window.

Native wattle trees have been in flower for weeks, with different species taking turns to paint the distant landscape with bright yellow patches of mini pom poms. The blue green leaves of the eucalypt drape and sway gracefully from tall healthy trees. They are in their prime in late winter. The native purple flowering creeper, hardenbergia violacia spent winter snaking its way along a fence while the mauve flowers on the tips of the silver leafed Teucrum Fruticans hedge have enjoyed this pre-spring season. Some non- native plants have also thrived in late winter, especially the euphorbia, a startling lime green show off, while the jonquils and daffodils, now spent, are a late winter pop up. One lone flag iris emerged under a pear tree. The citrus trees fruit in this little wedge of time between winter and spring- Navel, Washington and Blood orange fruits brightened the season. Now that Spring has arrived, they’ve finished their fruiting cycle, with energy directed to leaf and flower.

The late winter vegetable patch has supplied us with bitter salad leaves, chard, kale, turnips, green onions, leeks, broccoli, fennel and parsley. Spring will push these plants sky high: it’s now a race to eat as many of these liver cleansing greens as we can before they bolt to seed.

This year’s pandemic and subsequent isolation forced me to regard winter with new eyes: I can honestly say, it wasn’t so bad. And now, let’s see what this season throws at us. Life has become as unpredictable as Spring. 

¹ There are many diagrams and charts illustrating aboriginal seasons, each one varying from place to place. The diagram above best illustrates Melbourne’s seasons. Diagram and quotation from http://www.herringisland.org/seasons1.htm

 

In My Kitchen, March 2020

It’s impossible to write about my kitchen without reference to my productive vegetable garden and orchard- the two are so closely entwined. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, which is now over 6 years old, you may have noticed that my kitchen and cooking posts tend to focus on fresh produce. This is the essence of what food is about for me, the excitement and challenge of cooking radiating from the daily pick. As this season has been bountiful, my urge to work in the garden has strengthened. While others of my age often consider downsizing, I’m considering expanding the garden beds. Vegetable gardening is not only for food: it’s my yoga and gym, my meditation space and fantasy land.

One of the more exciting plant discoveries this year has been the Turkish snake chilli, a prolific bearer, and a kinky pepper to pick ( an old alliteration riddle comes to mind). A long and thin lime green pepper, it has a tendency to curl back on itself, looking a lot like whirling dervish, or a green man in a turban. One in 10 peppers will be hot, making them an interesting substitute for Pimento de Padron, the Russian roulette of peppers, when cooked in the same way.  Unlike the Padron peppers, which are tricky to germinate and slow to mature in my climate, the Turkish snake peppers grow well here and fruit early in the season.

Turkish Snake peppers, scorched and lightly blistered in hot olive oil, served with salt flakes.

The only unusual product I’ve bought recently, and one that is worth sharing, is this delightful stone ground flour from Tuerong farm, which featured recently on Gardening Australia. The farm is located in the Mornington Peninsula hinterland and is dedicated to growing small crops of heritage French and Australian wheat varieties. You can view the episode here.  The flour is available at Tuerong farm, or at Hawke’s farm in Boneo, or online, though it’s not always available. The khorasan makes a beautiful loaf.

I like soup at any time of the year, and each season brings new flavours to the table. When fresh local corn becomes available, I love to make this chowder. We call it ‘cholesterol corn soup’, given its butter, cream and cheese content, perfect for the first seasonal chill. The recipe comes from an old edition of The Vegetarian Epicure, by Anna Thomas, 1972, back in the day when the ‘C ‘word wasn’t such a worry. I’ve never fiddled with the original, so soothing and comforting is this dish.

Corn and cheddar cheese chowder

Another recent chowder occurred when I discovered some big, fat tiger prawns in my freezer- remnants of the festive season. This one was a splurge, requiring a small smoked haddock as well.

Smoky chowder, with smoked haddock, leek, potato and prawn.

This season, I have developed a passion for photography, and tend to photograph the daily pick in the same little spot in my living room, where the light is moody and a little dark. Most of these photos land on my Instagram page, @morgan.francesca each day, and may account for my overall slackness in writing. As I pay a princely sum for this WordPress page, it’s time I got back to writing more frequently, though I can see why many take the easier, often wordless, option of Instagram. Time to return to the word image.

Jonathon apples, the second variety to harvest.

Early pears, not the best keepers.

Breakfast for a queen. Porridge with poached quince.

Let the grape harvest begin.

A monthly link up event, focusing on kitchen happenings, takes place via Sherry’s Pickings. The theme can be interpreted loosely. Through this monthly blogging event, I’ve met some wonderful kindred spirits.

 

The Zucchini Cookbook

My joy in cooking is directly related to the level of productivity in my vegetable garden and orchard. This year’s summer crops are inspiring, despite the difficult and dangerous weather we’ve experienced this summer in Australia. I can only put this abundance down to a few things- the time spent monitoring the garden, good compost, mulch and water, the latter, in our case, pumped from a dam to a header tank. Each day, it’s simply a matter of combining the day’s pick with some pantry staples to make deeply satisfying meals. The first and most prolific summer vegetable, the zucchini, will come first in my Summer Cookbook, a reverse alphabetical approach. They are a versatile vegetable, lending themselves to slow braising, frittatas, ratatouille, fritters, sweet cakes, pasta sauces, soups, Greek pies, and shapes to be stuffed. This year I’m growing three varieties: Blackjack ( Black beauty), a dark green fleshed fruit, a good keeper, adding colour to soup and fritters, Cocozelle, an Italian heirloom variety, which is striped and long, the flowers more likely to cling to the young fruit, making it a great one for tempura battered zucchini flowers, and the pale green Lebanese zucchini, a good one for braising. I prefer to pick zucchini when very young for most dishes. Medium sized zucchini are set aside for soups and the large ones go straight to the chooks or are dried for seed collection.

Three varieties of zucchini.

My latest simple recipe, Grilled zucchini with Marinated Goat’s cheese, is a great addition to the summer table.

Ingredients

  • five or more very young zucchini, halved vertically or cut into three lengthwise. Note, if you shave these into thinner strips, they will char to quickly and virtually disappear on the BBQ.
  • good olive oil
  • 2 large garlic cloves, smashed into a paste
  • fresh marjoram leaves
  • Meredith marinated goats cheese or equivalent product
  • a pinch of sea salt flakes

Light a hooded BBQ and get the temperature above 250 º c. ( you could also use a kitchen iron grill ). Toss the cut zucchini long pieces and toss in a little EV olive oil in a bowl. Add the garlic paste to a separate small bowl of EV olive oil. Using tongs, place the lightly oiled zucchini directly onto the BBQ and close the lid. Raise the lid after a minute or so and turn the zucchini strips. When nicely done on both sides, add to a serving bowl, and toss through some of the garlic paste oil. Add salt and pepper, fresh marjoram leaves and a few hand torn cubes of marinated goats cheese, as much as your conscience allows. Serve alongside other summer dishes.

grilled zucchini, marjoram, marinated goats cheese, with grilled garlic mushrooms, and thyme, potato salad, overnight cucumber pickle, pide bread

Looking for more summer zucchini recipes? The links here will take you directly to some of my older recipes on the Z word.

From Garden to Soup

Stepping back into my vegetable garden after three months away, I’m immediately overcome with horticulture shock. It’s not only a sense of disorientation and sadness over neglect, but a looming frustration that the work ahead might be too difficult. The cavolo nero plants are now treelike, with thick grey trunks and yellow flowers waving in the breeze high above my head. The bees are happy. Mizuna lettuces resemble a triffid forest, delicately frilled in maroon and topped with more yellow flowers. The coriander, endive, parsley and chicory follow on their march towards the sky. There are weeds galore, some trying to smother the garlic, requiring gentle hand pulling so as not to disturb the still emerging bulbs of our precious annual crop. Most weeds are valuable additions to the compost bin: they might not be edible, but many have sought out valuable trace elements in the soil. Those in flower are drowned. Beds full of broad beans support each other like good friends, their black eyes winking with promise, roots setting nitrogen in the soil.

Once the borders are clipped, the pathways revealed, the beds pulled into shape, the snow peas supported and tied, and edible greens harvested for pies and soups, I can see my way forward. My vegetable patch, my precious orto, is a labour of love, it’s a statement about the value of fresh food, and it’s an act of defiance against the capitalist diet.

Ingredients for a Garden Soup. Minestra dell’Orto

  • 1/2 kilo fresh borlotti beans, podded or substitute dried borlotti if fresh are unavailable.
  • 3 cloves garlic, 2 finely chopped,
  • fresh rosemary branch
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 celery sticks, finely chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons EV olive oil
  • 4 large silver beet leaves, finely shredded, or more if small
  • 3 handfuls big pasta, such as mezzi rigatoni
  • homemade vegetable stock ( ingredients listed separately in method )
  • salt, pepper to taste

Steps for a tasty spring soup

  1. Make a vegetable stock from chopped carrots, onion, celery,bay leaves, parsley stalks, mushroom stalks. Cook for 30 -45 minutes.
  2. Pod the borlotti beans, add to a pot, with one whole garlic clove and one small rosemary branch. Cover with water, bring to the boil, lower heat and cook till beans are soft and liquid is brown and thick, around 30- 45 minutes. If using dried beans, soak overnight, then cook until soft. Time will vary depending on the age of the beans.
  3. Make a soffritto with one chopped onion, two chopped garlic, chopped celery in the olive oil. Add a little dried chilli and more finely chopped rosemary to the mix if you like. Cook on gentle heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened but not coloured.
  4. Add the silverbeet ( chard) and toss around for a minute or so to coat in oil. Then add the cooked beans with some of the cooking water. Add stock, enough to well cover the beans and silver beet. Bring to the boil then reduce heat and cook for five minutes or until the greens have softened. Add salt.
  5. Add the pasta, making sure there is enough liquid in the pan, and cook until the pasta is al dente.

Serve topped with a drizzle of good olive oil, grated parmigiano reggiano and crusty bread.