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.
Autumn in Melbourne, most would agree, is the best season of the year. Days are warm and still while evenings are crisp. A few small logs burning in the wood stove symbolise a seasonal turning point in the calendar: the first cosy fire is the most evocative of all. Other Autumnal markers are the slow ripening of the quinces, with a few falling each day, the late season heritage apples, the Rome Beauty and Akane varieties now ready, and the fat green olives beginning to blush purple-black. Keeping a productive vegetable patch and orchard may seem demanding to some- an abundant harvest can be a hard task master. This extra time in the kitchen is offset by time spent away from supermarkets. In my kitchen, the garden is featuring more each month and will continue to do so. Out of My Garden and into the Kitchen perhaps?
If you grow your own chillies, you will probably end up with way too many but really, count this as a blessing. There are little saucers of chillies lying about in my kitchen and on sunny ledges, slowly drying out for the year’s supply. Once ready, they will be whizzed in an electric spice grinder then stored stored for the year in jars. Some dried chilli flakes also go into the making of chilli oil, an essential condiment on a southern Italian table. Soup bowls proliferate in my kitchen. Because I love soup so much, I have preferred bowls for certain soups. Fine purees tend to go into old-fashioned 1940s small bowls, onion soup into rustic terracotta bowls, Italian bean and pasta soups lounge around in shallow but very wide bowls and so on. It’s obsessive I know, and my soup bowl collection is being reviewed as I address the issue of downsizing. A few new irregular shaped bowls recently snuck into my kitchen.
And when it comes to soup, the garden produce usually dictates the recipe. I always start with a soffritto, a very finely chopped selection of onion, celery, herbs and garlic sauted in olive oil, and then the soup is built on this base. It is artistic expression for me- not just a bowl of soup.
The soup that followed the picking.
I get nervous if the dried bean and pulse supplies fall too low. Sourced from Bas Foods, most of these are Australian grown and are packed fresh in the warehouse next door. There’s nothing worse than woody old dried beans: no soaking and long cooking will revive them. Another essential soup ingredient is Farro, and it’s great to see the Australian variety on the market made by Mt Zero olives.
Autumn fruits, and a few stored plums from late summer, make fine fruit crumbles. My favourite mixture is apple, plum, orange, lemon peel, sugar, cloves and marsala. This batch is ready to be topped with crumble.
As we have been running between two kitchens for the last two months, we have discovered some interesting fresh supplies near our campsite on the Mornington Peninsula. These mussels are grown in the bay off Mt Martha where the water is deep and pristine. They are not available commercially in Melbourne as Point Lonsdale black mussels tend to dominate the markets. They can be bought at Safety Beach and also in Dromana. They are really the best mussels I have ever tasted.
I made a quick smoky chowder last night and a few of these briny molluscs went into the soup. Today’s Pizza lunch demanded a few more- and I still have half a bag left for some Pasta con Cozze tonight. Not bad for $7.50 a kilo.
For the monthly series, In My Kitchen, organised and collated by Sherry, from Sherry’s Pickings. Strangely enough, this series keeps me on track and up to date with my garden life too.
Apologies to Eha, Debi and others for my earlier draft which suddenly appeared without my knowledge. Gremlins!
Most people these days would probably associate a ‘windfall’ with unexpected good fortune, a financial gain, perhaps a lottery win or an unforeseen inheritance. However, If you live with fruit trees in your back yard, a windfall is that day after a strong wind when fruit drops suddenly and the ground is strewn with ripe bounty. In the case of windfall pears, the window of opportunity is short. They are usually very ripe and need to be used quickly.
Our earliest pear tree, Clapp’s Favourite, originated from a seedling that occurred by chance in Massachusetts in 1850. It is reliable cropper with bright yellow skin turning red on the sunny side of the tree, with juicy white flesh. It resembles a William pear but the fruit is much larger and is not a good keeper.
With the recent windfall pears, I set to work before bruising set in. To freeze for winter, peel, core and dice the good usable flesh, then poach in a light sugar syrup- one part sugar to four parts water is the lowest sugar/water ratio you can use. Poach for a couple of minutes only then place the fruit in containers, covered with poaching liquid and leaving a few centimeters of head space before freezing. Not one to waste anything, I reheated the left over poaching liquid, added a pinch or so of Persian saffron then reduced the liquid to a thicker sauce. The resulting gold and pink syrup can live for a while in the fridge to use as a glaze or a simple drizzle over ice cream.
A classic Italian Pear Cake, Torta di Pere, is easy to make and keeps well in a covered container for three days. Lovely for breakfast or afternoon tea, it has a subtle pear and vanilla flavour, old-fashioned and comforting. I’m also considering the future of my remaining windfall Clapps pears- perhaps a pear, almond and chocolate cake or a Pear and Ginger Clafoutis.
Torta di Pere. Italian Pear Cake
150 g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
150 g SR flour, sifted
30 g corn flour/corn starch
1 pinch salt
90 g butter, melted
2-3 pears, peeled, cored and cut into small chunks
Icing sugar to dust and whipped cream or marscapone lightened with cream and a drizzle of reserved saffron syrup.
Pre-heat the oven 180°C. Cream the eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla. Sift the flour, corn starch, salt together. Add to the egg batter and stir well, then add the melted butter and stir until the batter is smooth. Grease and line a 24 cm cake pan with baking paper and pour in the batter. Place the pear pieces on the cake, gently pushing down each piece into the batter leaving a little exposed. Bake for 35- 40 minutes, until the top is golden and the cake is set inside. Leave to cool before serving. When cool sprinkle icing sugar on cake. Serve with whipped cream on the side.
If you are after some interesting fruit trees and live in Australia, Yalca has many unusual varieties. They are posted bare rooted in winter but you need to put in your orders well in advance. Our Yalca trees are thriving.
The orchard, summer’s sweet fulfillment, beckons each morning, before the heat sets in. With the passing of the month, more heavily laden boughs bend with the weight of fruits of the season. Long gone are the peaches, young berries and cherries of early summer: now is the time for slow maturing fruit, apples, pears, quinces, figs and plums. Today the ruby-red fleshed Satsuma plums announced their turn to be picked: not as sweet as the Mariposa plum of early January, but a close relative and a very good keeper.
Picking fruit is a kind way to wake up. I ponder the efficacy of the netting, and the man who meticulously netted, as I reach in to gently press the fruit, testing for perfect ripeness. An abundant season thanks to good spring rain, purple plums press against each other, nudging siblings for space on the bough, beautiful cheeks full of dark juice. As the basket fills, recipes come to mind- sweets of all kinds and savoury concoctions too, jams to put down for rustic winter crostate, spicy Chinese sauces, and poached plums to eat with yoghurt or labne.
I’ve made this tart often, and in the past with pears, apricots and cherries. It’s a seasonal standby. The apricot version is my most popular recipe on this blog. I’ve never had much success with growing apricots and so that version is a rare treat. Commercial apricots are picked too soon and never seem to fully ripen, tasting wooden and sour. This plum version is colourful and not too sweet. When choosing plums, make sure that they are juicy, fully ripe and are red fleshed. I should stress that they are not poached beforehand, but gently pressed into the top of the almond frangipane batter before baking.
Torta di Mandorle e Prugne con Amaretto. Italian Almond and Plum Cake with Amaretto.
125 g softened unsalted butter
150 g castor sugar
50 g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
375 g finely ground almond meal
2 Tablespoons Amaretto liqueur ( brandy works well enough here)
red fleshed plums, such as blood plums, fully ripe, enough to fill the tart
25 g flaked almonds
Preheat oven to 170 FF. Grease a 25 cm loose bottom tin and line with baking paper.
Cream butter and sugar in a stand mixing bowl, then add eggs one at a time and beat for 5 minutes until thick and pale. If the mixture curdles, throw in a little of the measured flour.
Stir in the flour mixed with the baking powder, then fold in the almond meal, followed by the Amaretto. Pour into the prepared tin.
Arrange halved plums over the top and lightly press down so they are partly submerged. Scatter the top with the flaked almonds.
Bake for 45- 50 mins. Cool in tin. Gently un-mould.
In summer, this tart keeps well in a covered box in the fridge. I reheat the slices a little before serving.
There is a season, turn, turn, turn, and right now it’s time to pick bucket loads of plums and deal with them. Most fruits have alternate years of bountifulness, with plum gluts appearing every second year. This year’s pear and apple crops look rather dismal in contrast. There are far too many plums to preserve. Some will be halved and de-stoned, then frozen. Others poached and popped into the freezer, ready for winter puddings such as crumbles, cobblers and charlottes. The first crops matured a few weeks before Christmas. Now the Japanese varieties are at their peak. We planted three different varieties 5 years ago- Formosa, Mariposa and Satsuma; all are sweet, dark-skinned and red fleshed, and all have been carefully netted and kept at picking height. My daughter also handed over most of her crop – 7 kilo to be precise. To date, I have made plum sauce, plum and port topping for a Pavlova, plum Clafoutis, and plum muffins, as well as Baked Plums with Labne, my favourite breakfast dish.
To kick off the Sagre delle Prugne, my plum festival, is this simple Chinese style plum sauce. Wonderful with Har Gow dumplings, or smeared on a big fat sausage, used in a Chinese stir fry, or as a substitute for everyday tomato sauce or ketchup. It went quite nicely with this morning’s potato and spring onion cakes.
Multiply this recipe if you are doing a large batch. My last lot of sauce, based on 5 kilo of plums, required a huge preserving pan, a worthwhile investment.
Chinese plum sauce.
1 kg plums, stoned and halved
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely grated
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Chinese five spice
1/2 teaspoon chilli flakes
Place all ingredients in a large saucepan over high heat. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring, for 30 minutes or until plums collapse.
Use a stick blender to blend until smooth, or put through a moulis, pressing well to extract as much as you can from the last skins. I prefer the texture of the latter method. If you think the sauce needs further thickening and reducing, return to the large saucepan and continue to cook down until slightly thicker.
Pour hot sauce into sterilised bottles. Seal, label and date.
Strangely enough, February is the busiest month of the year in my kitchen. It’s also the hottest month in Melbourne, although this year we have been spared ( touch wood) those soaring temperatures of over 40ºC. The kitchen frenzy comes with the flushing of major annual crops such as zucchini, tomato, cucumber, chilli and now plums. It’s a bumper year for plums. I have another 5 kilo waiting for me in the fridge. Our annual beach camp is interspersed with busy times back at home preserving and freezing crops for the cooler months, as well as watering the garden and clearing away the fire hazardous leaves and fallen branches. The Sagra delle Prugne is around the corner.
Meanwhile, we eat simply and cheaply. When not eating zucchini fritters or Moulin Rouge Tomato Soup, I turn to Vietnam for inspiration. Cá nấu cà chua, fish, tomato and dill soup, is perfect for a hot day. I found this recipe last year while in Saigon and now that summer has arrived, I am delighted to make it with my own produce. The fish market at Preston provided the economical red snapper for this dish. Light and sustaining, it tastes like a wet version ofcha ca la vong.
While at the market, I purchased a big pile of local Southern Squid for $5 a kilo. Yes, there’s an hour’s work gutting and preparing these for the freezer but my little ones love fried squid after a swim in the pool. The best day to buy squid is on the day the market opens for the week. In the case of our nearest fish market, that’s Wednesday morning. Squid needs to be super fresh to compete with is pricey relative, the calamari. How can you tell squid from calamari? Australian southern squid, the most sustainable seafood in Australia, has an arrow shaped tail, whereas the calamari has side wings.
At the same fish monger, I bought some fresh river shrimp from the Clarence river in NSW. These are tiny and eaten whole. They make an excellent beer snack with a little lime aoili. A tempura batter, made with iced water, baking powder and cornflour, protects them as they fry. A pre-prepared salt of interest is also a good accompaniment. I used Herbes De Provence with salt, a batch I made before Christmas. I love special salts and am about to make a celery seed salt and one from our chilli flush. These salts make cheating easy.
To mop up the big soups and fried things, one needs a large cloth napkin. These lovely cotton towels, seconds, turned up in a linen shop in Brunswick for $2 a set. I bought them all. They soften and improve with washing.
Last week I celebrated the summer zucchini plague on Almost Italian. This zucchini slice is handy and well known. I added almond meal to the mix for a lighter version. It comes with grated carrot, zucchini, chopped capsicum and herbs.
This hungry lad has finally learnt to make a good tuna pasta in my kitchen. It is an easy dish for a 12 year old to learn. Practice makes perfect Noah.
And what would be an IMK post without my little Cheffa, Daisy, who always drags her stool to the bench to help with anything I am making.
Good food does come at a price around here, not so much in monetary terms but certainly in labour. Thank you kindly Liz, at Good Things, for your gracious hosting of this monthly link up.