Happy New Year, dear friends and readers. We toasted the New Year with Bellini made from fresh peach juice and Prosecco. This cocktail tasted so healthy I could happily drink it for breakfast. Salute.
January is a busy month in my kitchen as the summer crops pour in through the back door. After 9 years in our current abode, most of our fruit trees are now in their prime. To date, I have picked 10 kilo of white peaches. Another few kilo remain while the Mariposa plums are beginning to flush. The zucchini are in full swing- I never tire of a good zucchini soup. Last night’s pizza included a topping of grilled zucchini ribbons and other assorted treasure.
Yesterday’s lunch, La Mouclade, is my favourite way to eat mussels. Melbourne has several mussel farms- one on Port Arlington and the other in Mt Martha. Mt Martha mussels grow in deep clean water and are an organic and sustainable seafood.
Before Christmas I made heaps of cakes, breads and simple bowl meals. I intended to write brief posts on each of these but didn’t have time. The problem is, I love taking photos of food but rarely note down precise ingredients.
Some new Weck jars, found in Aldi, are perfect for making levain for sourdough. I baked like a banshee during December. A new favourite is the cranberry and walnut bread, especially when toasted for breakfast. Fortunately I froze about 8 loaves of different varieties, giving me a little bread making breathing space this month.
This is the month when things move outside. Daisy liked this Pizza Bianca and was impressed with the taste of capers.
Thanks Sherry, at Sherry’s Pickings, for hosting this series. Once again, may I say that it’s a great way to focus on all that happens in the kitchen, the engine room of the home. May the domestic gods and goddesses shine on you all this month.
Phew, I’m glad that’s all over for another year. Without a doubt, the best day of the year is Boxing Day. It’s a significant turning point in the Australian calendar, marking the start of summer holidays in earnest, a time to indulge in guilt free relaxation, simple foods, barbecues, books and trips to the beach. As much as I tried to avoid the Christmas mayhem this year, the gift giving merry-go-round, and the over indulgence in rich food, I admit I did succumb. I guess I’m too well-trained: Christmas, with all its trappings, is ingrained in my DNA. It’s a romanticised and mythologised Christmas that bears no resemblance to the modern-day version. Next year, I might run away.
In my retrospective analysis of that over- rated day, one bonus was that I avoided visiting large department stores. Most gifts were purchased online ( from some of those large stores) which were delivered to my front door. The extra shipping cost was far less than the return drive to the nearest bastion of commerce, not to mention the enormous saving to my sanity. No Christmas carols, no maddening queues, no parking angst. I also found a few gifts in a nearby village, two novels for my bookworm granddaughter, purchased in a newly established, tiny children’s bookshop. This shop needs supporting. I also found a hand made shoulder and neck heatbead pack from the local osteopath. The same village has a Japanese gift shop with an array of tempting goods, jewellery and clothing, a little gold mine of inspiring gifts for the hard to please at any time of the year. And my gift from Mr T were two young black Silky chickens from a livestock poultry cart at the local farmers’ market. I plan to support more small local stores in the new year.
Although Boxing Day is a secular holiday, it most likely has roots in St Stephen’s day. It’s derivation is worth noting in this modern day of online delivery service. In 19th century Britain, Christmas boxes ( gifts or money donations) were left out for post- men, errand boys and servants on the 26th December.
“In Britain, it was a custom for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This custom is linked to an older British tradition: since they would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and sometimes leftover food.”
During the Middle Ages, alms boxes were left at the door of churches to distribute to the poor. This, in turn, may have evolved from the late Roman/early Christian era, when metal boxes were placed outside churches and used to collect special offerings for the Feast of Saint Stephen, which falls December 26, or Boxing day.
I’m now wondering whether we should leave tips for those van drivers who bring our shopping to the front door. I remember a time when we would leave a gift of beer for our garbos, ( rubbish collectors). Recently a wine delivery courier arrived in a rental van, a charming and very chatty Sikh. His father came to assist in the weekend deliveries but didn’t speak English. The younger turbaned chap explained that his father had been visiting for a year, but the cost of an extension to his temporary visa amounted to well over $100,000. Our new postal carriers work harder than ever in this day of online shopping.
And like those masters of yore, I too have a surfeit of food when it comes to Christmas leftovers. Yet in this age of plenty, my palate yearns for simpler delights- a freshly plucked peach from our laden tree, a simple zucchini and basil soup, or a spoonful of leftover creme caramel flan, a simple thing made from our fresh hens’ eggs, a little sugar and milk.
I’ve been thinking about Western over indulgence lately, all that plastic, the indulgent gift giving, the accumulation of junk, the groaning table of food. We need to return to simpler practices. Will a shift in the economic tide bring with it an appreciation of basic things- a hand-made gift or a longed for book? Has the internet era killed the joy of Christmas in the young? What happened to toys? In the age of electronic device, do children still run and play? Do I need my sleep measured by an app?
I hope your Christmas went well, dear friends and readers. Was it merry or quiet? Are you glad it’s over? Do you love Boxing day too?
Boxing day, December 26th, is the most casual and relaxed day of the year: grazing on Christmas leftovers then lolling about on couches or deck chairs under a shady tree, what could be more pleasing? Summer is still benign. The following five days of sloth are Boxing Day extensions before pushy New Year budges in with its commitments, resolutions and calendar reminders. Those fireworks at midnight look and sound like a whole lot of fun to the uninitiated but what they really signify is the end of lazy days. Time to get cracking again folks, says that last fizzer. As it turns out, although I’m technically ‘retired’, January is my busiest month, as the summer vegetable and fruit crops mature and the kitchen turns into a preserving factory. In this small window of opportunity before this onslaught, I’m enjoying pottering about. Sometimes things happen in my kitchen and sometimes they don’t. Can someone kindly pass me a peach and a glass of Prosecco?
The peach season came and went. There is nothing in the world like the taste of a perfectly ripe peach, plucked from the tree, slightly soft and sun-kissed, whispering I’m ready. Miss Daisy tested the peaches in the days leading up to Christmas, her hand gently pressing the furry blushed spheres, as she reached up high inside the bird netting. She has learnt that when a peach is ready, it will drop into your cupped hand without any tugging. Many were eaten somewhere between the tree and our back door but a few made it into the kitchen. Daisy sat by the pool one day, eating her splendid peach, reminding me that some moments in time are unblemished and glorious. A few peachy shots followed.
Daisy is my cooking muse and I am hers. She has appeared occasionally in my posts over the last four years, mainly because she is almost a kitchen fixture when she visits. We feed off each other. She inspires me with her love of food, perfect sense of smell and curiosity and I inspire her with my creations. She knows the contents of my pantry like the back of her own hand. We make huge messes together which Mr Tranquillo cleans up.
Chickpeas are making their presence felt in my kitchen since I mastered the use of my pressure cooker. I bought a combination slow/pressure cooker around four years ago but all my attempts at using the pressure cooker function ended in disaster. As it turns out, it had a faulty rubber gasket: I discovered this only when Breville contacted all the owners of this defective product three years after its purchase. It had been sitting in the larder, swanky word for converted laundry space, gathering dust: it couldn’t even be recycled given its dodgy performance and was probably destined for the hard rubbish. Once Breville sent out the new rubber seal, the big black pot has spent more time chugging away on the kitchen bench and all is forgiven. I can now cook a pile of chickpeas, ready to use, within 45 minutes without pre-soaking. Chick peas end up in Middle Eastern Buddha bowls, Indian curries with tamarind and fresh coriander, Italian pasta and ceci soup and of course, hummus.
Just before Christmas, friends gave us a big bag full of perfect mangoes, part of the annual charity mango drive run by the local pre-school. A few left over mangoes went into this mango chutney. It’s tropical, spicy and jammy, but perhaps needs a bit more fresh chilli.
Bread making took a festive turn when I made a batch of Celia’s sourdough fruit bread. I used walnuts, sultanas, apricots and dates, and upped the spice a bit. I’m keen to use up the excess dried fruit I bought before Christmas. More of these fruit and nut studded loaves will be made during the early morning hours of January.
Before leaving Pavia in Lombardy last November, Alberto gave me a sack of his own freshly harvested rice, nicely packaged in festive fabric. Grown in the classic rice-growing zone of the Po Valley, the rice was milled in October in Novara, Lombardia. I can’t wait to try it and team it with something from the summer garden.
When I’m trying to escape the siren song of the kitchen, a fish and chip night is called for. As it’s a 12 kilometer return trip for a take- away, we don’t consider this option often. He drives, I cut up the lemons. On a lucky night, I might even throw a green salad together. Thanks Sherry for hosting the monthly In My Kitchen series. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for an inside view of other world kitchens.
The other day I noticed some of our peaches ripening on the bench too quickly. This is not normally a problem, given that I live with a fruit bat of a man who has an addiction to fruit, a dependence he has passed on to some of his grandchildren. The likelihood of finding fruit in prime condition, hanging about and ready to be eaten, is a rare event. He was being polite I am sure, knowing that I have a preference for summer stone fruits. Thank you kind sir, but I can’t eat 12 pieces of fruit in one day like the rest of you.
The slightly too ripe peaches were skinned, stoned, ( it’s beginning to sound like a medieval tale of torture- bring on the rack), then thrown into a blender, puréed and frozen into ice blocks. On Christmas Day, at around 11 am, they emerged once again and were shaved into the base of a crystal stemmed glass and covered with chilled Prosecco. Not quite a Bellini, more like a special breakfast beverage and one I can highly recommend.
The day started to improve dramatically. We began with a small pot of Manuka smoked mussel pâté on salted plain biscuits, a quickly imagined and executed festive treat, consumed only in the interests of sobriety. My simple Christmas vegetarian meal followed, Stilton and Walnut Double Baked Soufflé, the pre-planned part of our day. It was whipped up the night before, requiring minimal re-heating in the oven ‘on the day’, and accompanied by a few colourful trimmings, picked baby leaves from the garden and a psychedelic dollop of home-made Beetroot and Caramelised Onion Relish . These little puffy fellas were served with a Roaring Meg Pinot Gris from the Central Otago District of NZ. At this point, I was more than happy about losing my traditions, amongst other things.
And that dear friends, is how my quiet Christmas Day at home, senza famiglia, went. The dessert, a grown up trifle full of garden berries, followed much later on.
I’m posting my simple festive recipes here as they are most fitting for a light luncheon or entrée in any season. The soufflé recipe comes from Delicious Magazine.
The Smoked Mussell Pâté. Throw a handful of good quality smoked mussels into a blender. Add a couple of Tablespoons ( 1/4 cup) of cream cheese and a little sour cream. Blend until smooth. Add chopped chives if you have them nearby. Adapt the quantity to suit your numbers.
The Twice baked Stilton and Walnut Souffles ( makes 6)
300 ml milk
1 celery stick, roughly chopped
25 gr unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
25 gr plain flour
2 tsp English mustard
4 medium-sized free range eggs, separated
175 gr Stilton cheese, crumbled
50 gr walnuts, roughly chopped
leaves, chutney to serve
Heat the milk in a saucepan with the celery to just below boiling point. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 180C . Butter 6 X 150 ml ramekins/mini souffle dishes thoroughly and place in a deep baking tray.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, then stir in the flour to form a smooth paste. Remove from the heat and slowly strain in the celery infused milk, stirring constantly to make a smooth sauce. return to the heat and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring to thicken. Cook a further few minutes then transfer to a large bowl to cool.
Beat the mustard and egg yolks into the sauce and stir through 150 gr of the Stilton, the walnuts.Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl till they form stiff peaks, then using a metal spoon, fold a little egg white through the souffle mix to loosen it. Fold the rest of the egg white gradually into the souffle.
Divide the mixture among the 6 buttered ramekins, then fill the baking tray with boiling water so that it reaches halfway up the outside of the ramekins Bake for 30 minutes or until the souffles have risen and are cooked through. Carefully remove them from the bainmarie, cool,then chill until needed.
When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 200C. Line a baking sheet with baking paper and using a palette knife, carefull loosen the souffles from their ramekins. Turn each one out onto the baking sheet. ( if at this point , some of the mixture has stuck to the bottom of the ramekins, don’t worry. Just lift it off with the knife and gently place it back onto the souffles. They may look a little ugly and shrunken at this point also. Don’t fret- they puff up agina with the second baking.) Scatter over the remaining 25 gr of Stilton.
Return to the oven for 10- 15 minutes until risen and golden on top. Serve with watercress, or baby leaves lightly dressed and some interesting chutney.
The best part of this recipe is that it can be made ahead up to step 4, then wrapped in cling foil. They can be frozen for up to 1 month and defrosted in the fridge overnight. Or they can be kept chilled for up to 24 hours. When ready to serve, continue from step 5.
Tomorrow’s recipe – that beetroot and caramelised onion chutney.
I once owned many histories of Renaissance and Medieval Europe. Most of them mentioned the words Tradition and Change somewhere within the text, if not in the title itself. That period, perhaps more than any other in history, encapsulates this historical concept so well. Things don’t change suddenly. Old ways continue side by side with the new, traditions and beliefs endure, long past their relevance to the society practising them. A clashing of paradigms might take a century to resolve, only to be followed by a reactionary movement, another turn of the wheel, bringing about upheaval and further revisions to practice and belief, whilst simultaneously drawing legitimacy and cultural validity from older traditions. History is usually written and re- written from the perspective of the current paradigm: facts alone stand for very little.
Now what’s all this got to do with Christmas in Australia, I hear you ask? Some traditions keep dragging on, despite their increasing irrelevance to a largely non- Christian society. Most Australians recognise, and are comfortable with this basic fact, embracing Christmas as a secular holiday. Or many see it as marking the beginning of summer and a long holiday for families. But before being let off the hook, before descending on beaches and rivers to play in the sun, certain archaic traditions must be followed. Shopping takes precedence over all others, with a slowish start in early December, building up to an insane frenzy as the weeks march by, as glossy supermarket magazines extol the virtues of catering for a family, with visions of excess, not unlike those Renaissance feasts of old. Catering for large numbers is not something that comes naturally to most, so Curtis or Jamie or Nigella can show the fashionable way. They make it look so easy.
I’ve observed mothers going slowly mad with stress, bent on purchasing more and more each year for their children. Bucket loads of plastic crap, or designer labelled clothing, or the latest gizmo, or a better version of something that they already own, helps to create yet more landfill for future generations to deal with. The consumer obsessed are still shopping at 11pm on Christmas Eve, still hunting for the unattainable. It’s the season of sadomasochism, as those indulging in these pastimes gloat about their pain, yet are unable to disengage.
Stores ship in mountains of wooden tasting prawns from the frozen bowels of somewhere, grown especially large for the holy day/holiday occasion, costing twice as much and tasting unlike a prawn should. Prawns on steroids, no brine from the sea or sweetness of flesh. Decapitated legs sawn from Alaskan crabs now grace the window displays of our supermarkets. What happened to their bodies? Slabs of smoked salmon unfreeze before greedy shoppers’ eyes, cheap manufactured mince tarts and puddings appear two months before Christmas, only to be replaced by Hot Cross Buns in the New Year. Easter is similarly meaningless and just around the corner. Here are the large bright cherries, gassed up to artificial ripeness, yet more cheeses, more Pavlova, more hams and prosciutto, pigs, baby goats, lambs, chickens and ducks, and especially that Imposter, the Turkey, followed by more and more mountains of food, in search of new tastes and more waste.
I pulled the plug on excess this year. Gifts were still purchased, and a few lists were made. Simple little biscotti studded our pre- Christmas gatherings, as well as Lisa’s cardamom shortbread. A large Christmas cake, made early in December, was given to my mother, the keeper of our old English/Irish traditions: she has more use for it than I do . A last-minute pudding was made for my daughter, who catered for her in-laws this year. I tasted some of the left over pudding: it wasn’t like my mother’s, it didn’t have the taste of tradition, that secret ingredient, nor the advantage of slow aging in a cloth. The children rejected it: it didn’t contain any silver coins. My mother keeps old sterling coins and generously studs hers at the last-minute before serving, a tradition she has kept but one that I am happy to see die with the next generation.
The leftover coin-less pudding has been returned to my house, like a Christmas boomerang, reminding me that some traditions can’t change that quickly. Now it’s time to convert that fruity brandied reminder of times past into something that might be pulled out once again, renewed and reinterpreted, into something that is more suitable to our summer climate.
The following recipe is the traditional Australian way to deal with that left over Christmas pudding.
1 litre tub vanilla ice cream, slightly softened.
200 g left over Christmas pudding.
Amaretto to serve
Whizz the ice cream in a food processor until smooth, fold in the crumbled Christmas pudding and scrape into a freezer-proof container. Freeze for at least 2 hrs, or stash for longer. Scoop into bowls and top with amaretto.
My favourite Christmas read this year comes from Roger at Food Photography and France.
Postscript. After microwaving my plum pudding and serving with some brandy cream, I have to say it tasted dam good, so it will not be put into ice-cream after all, but stashed well in the freezer for a winter treat.