It’s challenging to write about my kitchen exploits without resorting to the L word. L is for lockdown, of course, and Melbourne has had it’s fair share, with 234 days since the pandemic began, but who’s counting. One of the crazy things that happens when we come out of lockdown is the excitement of shopping for food in a venue of one’s choice, which for me simply means anywhere but the local Coles supermarket. It’s like panic buying in reverse. The post -lockdown shopping list is always a huge one. My haul just after Lockdown 4 lasted very well and took me through to Lockdown 5, thanks to the spare fridge running in the laundry. My solar power app indicates that my fridges hardly make a dent on my power consumption. Unlike that wonderful cultural habit seen in parts of Asia and the Mediterranean where shopping for perishables takes place on a daily basis, lockdown style shopping is the antithesis.
I know that my food preferences have radically altered since 2020, the year when life changed for everyone. We eat more simply than ever, waste less, and write a weekly menu which we follow unless I get side tracked. I rarely eat out these days, but when doing a big post lockdown shop, I always buy the same treats for lunch- a big fat samosa or a freshly made gozleme.
Over the last two months, we’ve probably eaten more Asian than Italian food and I’ve developed a real fondness for cooking in a Vietnamese claypot.
Claypot cooking- Vietnamese style fish in caramel sauce and fresh herbs
I’ve also discovered an excellent fish sauce, Nước Mắm Nhĩ 3 crabs fish sauce which has more depth of flavour than the cheaper brands. The search for a better quality fish sauce began after I read ‘New Flavours of the Vietnamese Table ‘ by Mai Pham, 2007. There is a traditional saying about fish sauce, ‘without good fish sauce, the father’s daughter will not shine‘. Mai Pham says she has always been struck by this saying.
” On one level, it points to the Vietnamese view of the universe and how everything is seen from the family’s perspective. The implied pronoun- in this case ‘she’- is replaced with the ‘father’s daughter’. On another level, it suggests that without good fish sauce, the quintessential sauce of Vietnamese cuisine, food can never taste good, no matter how talented the cook. “
I know, dear reader, that, like me, you’re probably thinking that the daughter’s skill as a cook would make her more marriageable, and that her role in the traditional family was defined by this. Nevertheless, this particular fish sauce is good, and you only need to use a few drops to transform all sorts of dishes that require a little salt. It makes a wonderful nuoc cham dipping sauce, but I also add a few drops to an Italian style pasta with prawns. But please don’t tell the Italians. Non autentico ma buono!
Another very tasty addition to this spaghetti prawn dish is prawn oil. This is a trick I learnt from Adam Liaw’s ‘The Cook Up’ on SBS. After de-heading and shelling your prawns, gather the heads and shells, fire up a wok with a little oil, and toss the heads around until bright red, then slowly add more oil. The addition of a little tomato paste adds to the colour of the oil. Once made, drain the brightly coloured oil into a jug or jar, then start cooking your garlic and prawns in some of this oil, which will coat the strands of spaghetti with a umami loaded pink gloss.
In My Kitchen, Vietnamese noodles and Chinese condiments.
Above are some of the ingredients that add excitement to my non supermarket shopping. I tend to use the rice noodles in Char Kway Teuw, my favourite Malaysian dish, or in Thai Drunken noodles or Pad See Ew. The Sichuan Chilli Douban sauce is reserved for that Sichuan classic, Fish Fragrant Eggplant, while the little jar of XO mushroom sauce is a wonderful base for any claypot concoctions such as mushroom and tofu.
Indian lunches are always welcome on a freezing day. I prefer a main meal for lunch, with a simple soup for dinner rather than vice versa. This is one of the changes that came about since lockdown- big lunch, small dinner. The main dish here is Moong Dal with spinach, accompanied by lemon rice, and a left over Muttar Paneer from the previous day. Did you know that dal means ‘split’ in Hindi? And Moong/mung means yellow, though whole Mung beans are green. As a general rule, dried split beans don’t need soaking while whole beans do.
Eating with the eye is a rather important idea, especially when serving a simple cheap meal such as pea soup. These large yellow dried split peas, unlike the tiny yellow moong dal, definitely need pre -soaking. This is a vegetarian version of that classic pea soup I grew up with, which was loaded with salty ham bones or hocks. In this version, the flavour comes from the vegetables, ( onion, parsnip, celery, carrot, swede, turnip and parsley) the salt from a small rind of parmesan, the latter added after pureeing and re-warming. The extras on top add more flavour and texture- garlic sourdough croutons and fresh marjoram leaves.
Above is my cake of the year, one that will be repeated often. The mandarin almond syrup cake recipe can be found here. Almond meal is on the list for my next mass shopping event. The mandarins are fattening up in the orchard.
During one of those treasured spaces between lockdowns 4 and 5, we headed into the city with Daisy and visited every Korean and Japanese shop in Melbourne’s CBD. She was keen to eat at a Sushi Train restaurant, one of the highlights of the day, after spending her hard earned pocket money at the expensive KPop store. This is my little non- kitchen addition to this month’s post, though it is food related. My message to all – enjoy these moments of freedom, the breathing spaces outside of lockdown, which is how we measure time now. Do something special, especially with the little ones who’ve had their world turned upside down.
Thanks once again Sherry, for hosting In My Kitchen. It’s always a pleasure to put together these kitchen posts together each month.