In My Kitchen, April 2017.

What I love most about writing these monthly posts for the series In My Kitchen is the opportunity it provides to photograph the busiest and most dynamic area of the house, the engine room of family life. In the past, I’ve approached IMK with far more discipline, usually with a theme in mind. This time three years ago, Asia inspired my kitchen roundup. My first ever IMK post was inspired by the colour green. Lately, I’ve become more random, letting my camera land on new objects that have drifted into my kitchen: some items linger, while others are just passing through. I also like to show a few daily meals that aren’t over styled or fussy, those needing further refinement or testing for future posts. Beautiful homegrown vegetables and fruit from my vegetable garden and orchard land on the bench or table daily. It’s often hard keeping up with nature’s bounty.

Vietnamese shopping bag

I love this shopping bag. I bought it last year in Ho Chi Minh City for around $4. It is made from a recycled fish food bag, covered in thick plastic, and lined on the inside with a small zipped pocket. It is wipeable inside and out and is much stronger than the ‘green bags’ which seem to multiply in the boot of my car.

I bought these little hand made dishes in the Dong Ba market in Hue, Vietnam. They are used to make Banh Beo.  Another $2 splurge, they came home and have hung around on the mantelpiece ever since. I haven’t even removed the pink plastic ties, which adds to the charm. They may find a use one day. I’m not really concerned about functionality if I like something.

Victorian skink, perfectly petrified.

One dead and perfectly preserved lizard turned up when I was cleaning somewhere or other. It is shiny, with a beautiful silver underbelly. It complements my feather collection on the old Australian kitchen dresser. The kids love it.

Give back the key to my heart.

Odd keys hang near the kitchen. This little collection consists of two small, useful keys which lock the cupboard doors of the colonial dresser. I found the other two large keys in the antique market in Arezzo, Italy, in 2011. They were the only things I could afford and the only things I could fit into my luggage.

You can’t have too many gratin dishes.

I must confess to another collecting obsession: gratin dishes. This lovely set by T. G. Green, unused and unfashionably maroon in colour, turned up at Savers for $6.99 the set. Note that everything I buy at this recycle store always ends in 99 cents. They don’t round-up by one cent and so I won’t either. The set is still in mint condition and I am having trouble christening it, so to speak.

Wild greens.

I like to stick to a meal budget and usually have a fair idea about the cost per dish. I absorbed this approach to meal planning from my mother. Although she never taught me how to cook, I was always conscious of her mental budgeting. As a young wife in the 1950s, she learnt this approach from her much older next door neighbour, Ferga, who instructed Mum that meals per person should not exceed a certain amount. One shilling it may have been at the time. Maybe Ferga learnt her kitchen budgeting skills from Mrs Beeton, whose Book of Household Management makes an interesting read, especially the very particular budgeting records. Most of our main meals at Castella Morgana come in at around $2 per person, unless I buy fish or am ‘entertaining’, something I rarely do these days. What a ridiculous word- entertaining!! Now before you accuse me of cheating, I will admit that this is only possible due to our productive vegetable patch, orchard and eggs from the hens. Our home-grown food is labour intensive, and so in one sense, it isn’t exactly free. And I’m not factoring in the cost of our Australian olive oil.

seppie fritte con rucola selvatica e balsamico

This dish of deep-fried squid, with wild rocket and a dressing of good balsamic, cost around $2.50 to make, with more than enough for two. Southern squid is the cheapest and most sustainable seafood product in Victoria, Australia, so long as you are ready to do your own cleaning and gutting. Fresh squid is soft and tender, unlike the defrosted rubber tubes in the supermarket that taste like condoms. Rocket, rugola selvatica, true to its name, grows wild around my vegetable patch. The batter was a quick mix of rice flour, ground chilli, salt and a beaten egg white. The most costly thing in this dish was the frying oil!

Fig clafoutis in my favourite old gratin dish.

When I make a family dessert, it tends to go down a well-worn path. Clafoutis or Far Breton or some sort of custard pudding with fruit. Fig Clafoutis makes good use of the egg and fig glut. It was tasty, but I’m still refining this dish, at least while more figs linger and slowly ripen on the trees.

 Tegame full of beans, storm clouds build on the horizon.

We do eat a lot of beans, an important protein for non- meat eaters. Last week my terracotta tegame came into the kitchen for a bean festival. I have mentioned this pot before. It slow cooks cannellini beans to perfection.

Pot of white beans and wild greens. I can live on this for tuppence. Just add good oil.

More beans below, this time a Greek gigantes dish, made from Lima beans, tomato, paprika, silver beet and a little fennel which turned into breakfast with an egg poached in the lovely rich sauce. My Greek neighbour often reminds me to put a big branch of wild anise or fennel into the pot when cooking beans. I have saved some of her sporos or seed and now have the stuff growing in my garden. I must watch that it doesn’t take over. I remember it growing wild along the verges of railway tracks as a child and the Italian and Greek women would wander along the edges and harvest it. I always wondered why and now I know. These days, I am enjoying gathering wild greens for our meals too- endive, cicoria, bitter green radicchio, rocket, cima di rape, fennel and other odd things found in the garden, some planted and others wild.

Gigantes with poached egg.

In the comfort of my kitchen, my heart goes out to the people of Queensland whose lives have been affected by the disastrous Cyclone Debbie. A reminder to all that donations do have an enormous positive impact on peoples lives: in Australia, the funds are used well. I can recommend the Salvation Army as one charity offering direct and immediate help to people affected by this disaster. You can donate by SMS text and the amount will appear on your mobile bill. How easy is that?

Hard to resist these colourful bowls.

I would also like to thank Liz, at Good Things, our gracious and efficient host, for continuing the In My Kitchen series over the past year. She is now handing the batten over to Sherry, another regular contributor to this series. Now seven years old, IMK seems to have a life of its own and I do hope it continues.

In My Kitchen, February 2017

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.

Vietnamese tomato and dill soup with fish.
Vietnamese tomato and dill soup with fish.

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 of cha ca la vong.

Chopsticks and Vietnamese fish, tomato and dill soup. Summer time in Melbourne.

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.

Hello Southern Squid. Five fresh squid for $7. Now to prepare them for the freezer. More summer jobs.
Arrow head on a Southern squid. I usually discard this bit. Not so the wings of a calamari.
Arrow head on a Southern Squid. I usually discard this bit. Not so the wings of a calamari.

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.

Shrimp tempura with lime aioli and a provincial salt.

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.

Japanese tea towels turned into napkins

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.

Succhini slice, enhanced with extras.
Zucchini slice, enhanced with extras.

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.

Kids in the kitchen
Kids in the kitchen

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.

hungry days by the pool.
hungry days by the pool.

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.