Fish-fragrant eggplant, Sichuan dreaming.

Fish-fragrant eggplant is a dish that came to me late. I’ve seen that tempting recipe pop up on screens and in books many times over the years, but only decided to make it after reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, a Sweet – Sour Memoir of Eating in China 1 For those who don’t know this dish, Fish-fragrant eggplant, yú xiāng qiézi, contains no fish and no other animal products for that matter. Along with Mapo Tofu, a dish I do make often, Fish-fragrant eggplant is one of Sichuan’s most famous dishes. Given that eggplants are available all year round, and that the special sauces required for this dish last well, it’s a dish that suits lockdown very well.

Ma Po Tofu, Cabbage and chilli, White lotus and Black fungas.
Local dishes made by the cook in our accommodation, a restored Tang Dynasty courtyard house in Langzhong, Sichuan. 2014

Dunlop’s memoir is seductive and a great substitute for travel in these stay-at-home times. After becoming disenchanted with her work at the BBC in London, Dunlop moved to Chengdu to study at Shanghai University, ostensibly to learn Mandarin and embark on research, until she became seduced by the local cuisine. Her passion for the culture and language of food enabled her to immerse more effectively in Mandarin as well as the local Sichuan dialect much more so than through her formal studies. She became the first Westerner to study at the prestigious Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. Although there are a few recipes sprinkled throughout the text, this is not a recipe book, though it does discuss Chinese food at great length, including the dynastic history of taste, the textural elements of Chinese food, the importance of cutting shapes, and the unusual concept of ‘mouth feel’. It is also a fascinating read for linguists or anyone who has attempted studying Mandarin: one can feel the mind and tongue rolling around the sounds of the cooking terminology which are noted in pinyin. Dunlop’s memoir paints a balanced portrait of Sichuan: she doesn’t omit issues such as environmental degradation and local corruption, but, in the end, her love for Sichuan’s friendly people, its culture and food shines through. It’s a great read, especially for those who are open to learning more about China and its people.

1.First published in 2008. This edition, 2019.

Fish- Fragrant Eggplant, a recipe by Fuchsia Dunlop

  • 600-700 g eggplant
  • peanut oil for frying
  • 11/2 Tbsp Sichuanese chilli bean paste ( see notes below)
  • 3 tsp finely chopped ginger
  • 3 tsp finely chopped garlic
  • 2/3 cup ( 150 ml) of stock
  • 1 1/2 tsp white sugar
  • 1/2 tsp light soy sauce
  • 3/4 tsp cornstarch, mixed with 1 Tbls cold water
  • 11/2 tsp Chinkiang vinegar
  • 4 spring onions, green parts only, sliced into fine rings
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and then crosswise. Chop each quarter lengthwise into 3 or 4 evenly sized chunks. Sprinkle generously with salt and leave for at least 30 minutes to drain.

In a wok, heat oil for deep frying. Add the eggplant in batches and deep fry for 4-4 minutes until lightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within, Remove and drain on kitchen paper.

Drain off the deep frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, and then return it to a medium flame with 2-3 tablespoons of oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir fry until the oil is red and fragrant: then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir fry for another 20-30 seconds until they too are fragrant.

Add the stock, sugar and soy sauce and mix well. Season with salt to taste if necessary.

Add the fried eggplant to the sauce, bring to the boil and then let them simmer gently for a few minutes to absorb some of the flavours. Then sprinkle the cornstarch mixture over the eggplant and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Next, stir in the vinegar and spring onions and leave for a few seconds until the onions have lost their rawness. Finally, remove the pan from the heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve.

My Notes A neutral oil like canola oil is fine to substitute for peanut oil, but don’t use olive oil in Chinese cooking. Wipe the salt from the eggplants before cooking and dry them with a paper towel. Chinkiang vinegar is black vinegar that is now widely available. Don’t substitute this for another vinegar. I found the best chilli bean sauce for this dish in a Chinese- Vietnamese shop and have added the photo below. Keep the cut pieces of eggplant fairly large to maintain that velvety pillow effect. Serve with steamed rice. This dish is plenty for two or forms part of a banquet for 4-6.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20210811_132449.jpg

Cad players, Lijiang, Sichuan, China
Hot night on the streets of Langzhong. Card players. Sichuan, China 2014

Fuchsia Dunlop has published many cookbooks on Sichuan Cuisine and is considered a world authority on that topic.

The header photo was taken in the foyer of a renovated Tang Dynasty house during our travels around Sichuan in 2014. It appealed to the Tretchikoff in me.

In My Kitchen, May 2021

Just when I thought we had turned the corner, and winter had signaled an early arrival, along came a big sunny weekend, throwing me back into the sensuality of summer and late autumn. There’s a hot breeze blowing today: outside a lawn mower buzzes somewhere in the distance and the roar, now approaching now distant, of weekend Harley motorbike riders echoes along the valley below. If you listen carefully, there are insects too, a neighbour’s dog, and other domestic sounds, but still no jet noise above.

My kitchen routines happily shifted into winter mode last month. After the first cup of tea, I get stuck into things early- soaking the beans, feeding the sourdough levain or baking bread, making stock with leftover bits of vegetable, and deciding on the two meals of the day. Anzac biscuits always appear in April and the first of the Nanna soups are made, an old fashioned thing based on Mckenzie’s soup mix, the most comforting of soups. It’s a seasonal shift and one I really enjoy. But with this recent May Indian summer, we are back working in the vegetable patch, getting sunburnt, layering compost, and picking the last of the borlotti beans, small zucchini and yellow cherry tomatoes. Another bucket of late picked figs arrives to laze about on the north facing windowsill- if we leave the doors open, European wasps find their way straight to the ledge to seek out that ruby jammy flesh. The long lasting red peppers keep ripening. I’m yet to find a recipe for these but may dry some, make some Biber Salcasi or preserve them sott’olio, under oil. The summer – autumn season has been hugely productive this year but now I’m looking forward to the chards, bitter leaves, snow peas and brassicas of the coming season.

This month’s In My Kitchen is largely a photo post of the food that I enjoyed picking or cooking recently. As I read the posts of other contributors, especially those of my North American friends, I can almost hear that big sigh of relief and joy as they embark on their first dinner party or interstate family visit, now that they’re immunized. ( See Mae’s post here) It’s a liberating feeling for sure and I feel much the same way. Thanks Sherry for hosting this monthly roundup. See Sherry’s Pickings for other like minded kitchen posts.

Late pickings, transitional season.
Daily pick, the greens. Parsley, lettuce, kale.
the best bean to grow, for beauty and taste, the Borlotti.
Lemon and almond ricotta cake, late window ripened figs.
Autumn apples and rhubarb.. The beginning of a crumble or pie?
Yesterday’s lunch, five spice tempura battered squid on an Asian garden salad
Today’s lunch, Warm pumpkin salad with Halloumi, lentils, rocket, and za’atar.
Stocking the pantry with winter staples: carnaroli rice for risotto, bulgar wheat for Turkish meals, lentils for soups and dals, couscous for a break from potato, besan flour for pakoras.

Simplifying Italian Tomato Passata

It’s tomato time once again and that means passata making month. We grow a wide variety of tomatoes each year, but always reserve two beds for saucing tomatoes, either Roma or San Marzano, both cultivars of egg shaped tomatoes. This year I grew San Marzano from seed, starting in late winter. I planted out 12 seedlings and made sure they were well spaced, at around 35- 40cms apart, which guarantees a bigger crop. They are situated in full sun all day, another factor in considering the siting of your tomatoes. San Marzano and Roma tomatoes store well as their thick skins prevent early rotting or splitting. In the height of the fruiting season we harvest around 5 kilo per day: I’m pleased to see the crops slowing down now dwindling to around one kilo per day.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20210314_115030.jpg

Dealing with this constant flushing means addressing sauce making in a very different way from the big annual sauce making day favoured by many. I don’t have a cool room or sufficient fridge space to store masses of tomatoes so we make sauce every second or third day. The following approach takes around 10 minutes of preparation, and minimal equipment. The resulting thick sauce captures the taste of summer to use throughout the colder months. The sauce consists of tomatoes only, no basil, herbs or garlic. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20210314_115342.jpg

What you need:

  • 3 kilo of San Marzano tomatoes or similar egg shaped tomatoes
  • a large heavy based stainless steel stock pot
  • an old fashioned mouli or passatutto ( metal hand cranked food mill) with larger holed disc.
  • rectangular plastic storage containers

Weigh the tomatoes and wash them if necessary. Remove ends and half, or quarter if very large. Throw them into the stock pot and cook on high heat for approximately 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure they don’t catch on the base of the pan. Place your mouli over a bowl. Pour the mushy tomatoes into the mouli. Once all the juice has fallen through, turn the mill to extract the remaining pulp. Scrape the thick pulp from beneath the holed plate and add to puree. Discard the skins and other left overs in the mouli. Return pulp to the stock pot and cook on medium heat for around 30- 40 minutes to reduce and thicken. When cool, place into plastic storage containers. Label with date and freeze.

Yield. 3 kilos will yield around 1.5 litres or so of thick passata/two tubs of 750 mls.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20210314_115218.jpg

My mouli is one of my most useful tools. It’s easy to clean, easy to store and fast to use. It’s the perfect implement when you want a certain texture to your food. Sometimes they turn up in opportunity shops so if you see one, grab it. They come with two or three interchangeable discs.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20210314_121957.jpg

Interesting Uses for passata.

I deliberately leave my passata plain so that it can be used in a variety of cuisines. Once defrosted, I cook half with some garlic in olive oil, dried oregano and a little tomato paste to use in the week’s supply of Italian dishes such as pizza, pasta, eggplant parmigiana, or Italian soups such as Pasta e Ceci or Minestrone. The remaining un flavoured passata is added to Indian or Chinese dishes. Last night I made a quick Indian sauce using passata with added garlic, some homemade tomato kasundi, and cream. This was used to sauce some lentil balls and became a quick version of Malai Kofta. It was a huge success, and consequently I now must make this year’s batch of Kasundi, which also uses another kilo of plain tomato thick passata. A few spoons of passata can be added to a stir fry along with soy or oyster sauce. Passata enriched with onion, garlic, chilli and smoked pimento is an excellent sauce for baked beans. And when tomatoes are sad and woody in winter, enliven them with a tub of passata to make a brunch shakshuka.

Ottolenghi’s Sweet Potato Chips

This summer I’m working my way through my most recent Ottolenghi cookbooks, Simple and Flavour, and finding quite a few classics to add to my repertoire. These sweet potato chips are a tasty, economical and quick to prepare and make a useful side dish or snack. Sweet potatoes store very well and are often cheaper per kilo than potatoes which is a bonus, especially during those months when only bland, tasteless potatoes are available. Sweet potatoes are not, however, a superfood, unless you need a huge injection of vitamin A. The superfood marketeers put this tuber in that mythical category. They are as healthy or unhealthy as a regular spud, depending on how you cook them. See the infographics pages here for more nutritional info.

Sweet Potato Chips, serves six to eight as a side.

I halved this recipe and still found we had rather too many. If you do cook the full amount, you may need more trays than suggested in this recipe, and two shelves, swapping half way through baking. The potatoes need to be placed in a single layer on the trays. Preheating the oven to 220º C guarantees successful baking in this short time frame. The potatoes can be prepared up to six hours ahead, up to the point of placing them in the oven.

  • sweet potatoes, 1.2 kg, peeled and sliced into 1½ cm thick chips. (see photos) 
  • 1 Tbsp sweet smoked paprika
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 30 g polenta
  • 100 ml olive oil
  • 1 Tbls sumac
  • flaked sea salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 220ºc, fan on.
  2. Mix the sweet potatoes in a large bowl with the paprika, cayenne, polenta, oil and 1 teaspoon of flaked salt. Once combined, tip the sweet potatoes (and all the oil) on to two large parchment- lined baking trays and roast for 25-30 minutes, stirring gently once or twice, until the potatoes are cooked, crisp and golden brown.
  3. Remove from the oven, sprinkle over the sumac and 1 teaspoon of flaked salt, and serve at once. 

Recipe from Simple, Yotam Ottolenghi, 2018

Me and Ottolenghi

I must admit, I have a love-hate affair with my Ottolenghi cookbooks. Over the years I’ve found his recipes to be needlessly complex, with long lists of ingredients that often clash. If you’re a traditionalist, his fusion approach can seem iconoclastic. Yet despite this, I keep putting my hand up for more. I now own 5 of his cookbooks: Plenty (2010), Jerusalem (2012), Ottolenghi The Cookbook (2016 ), as well as his recent editions, Simple (2018) and Flavour (2020 ). The last two are the best and the most useful. The recipes in Simple are geared to every day cooking, while those in Flavour are more exciting, pushing the ‘f bomb’ (Ottolenghi’s term for flavour bombs) to the limit. I enjoy reading his short preface to each recipe, advising what may be made ahead, substitute ingredients, and most importantly, how long the food keeps. This information is often sadly missing from many modern recipe books.

This summer I’m planning to work my way through Ottolenghi’s Simple and Flavour, two books that I bought during lockdown. My choice of recipe will be determined by what’s growing in the garden along with ingredients that are readily available. I hope to share the more successful recipes that get a tick from us, recipes that will become family favourites rather than one night wonders. The following recipe is a Middle Eastern take on the classic Italian dish, Pasta e Ceci (pasta and chickpeas). While Ottolenghi has chosen Gigli, a wavy pasta that means ‘lillies’ in Italian, any short pasta of a similar size and shape may be substituted. I chose casareccia, a good sauce carrying pasta shape that I keep on hand. 

Gigli with chickpeas and za’atar. Serves 4.
  • 45 ml olive oil
  • 1/2 onion ( 100g) fnely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 10 g fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
  • 25 g anchovy fillets, finely chopped 
  • 1 lemon, finely shaved skin of half, the juice to 2 Tbles
  • 480  g cooked chick peas, or 2 cans, drained.
  • 1 tsp soft brown sugar
  • 400 ml chicken broth – substitute vegetable stock if vegetarian
  • 200 g gigli pasta ( or other shape such as conchiglie, orecchiette, or my favourite all rounder, casareccia
  • 50 g baby spinach leaves
  • 15 g Italian parsley,, finely chopped
  • 1½ tsp za’atar
  • salt and pepper
  1. Put the olive oil into a large sauté pan and place on a high heat. Add the onion, garlic, cumin, thyme, anchovies, lemon skin, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper. Fry for 3-4 minutes, stirring often, until soft and golden. Reduce the heat to medium, then add the chickpeas and sugar and fry for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chickpeas begin to brown and crisp up. Add the chicken broth and lemon juice and simmer for 6 minutes, until the sauce has reduced slightly. Remove from the heat and set aside. You can make this in advance if you like and warm through before serving.
  2. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions, until al dente. Drain and set aside.
  3. Stir the spinach and parsley into the chickpeas: the residual heat of the sauce should cook the spinach., but if it doesn’t wilt, just warm the chickpeas gently on the stove. Transfer the pasta to the pan of chickpeas and stir to combine. Divide between four bowls and sprinkle the za’atar on top. Finish with a drizzle of oil and serve.

A few notes on this dish.

  • Cooking the first stage ahead makes sense, allowing you to throw the dish together when ready.
  • If you use home cooked chickpeas, you might find they don’t brown or crisp up- this isn’t important to the successful outcome of the dish. canned chickpeas are more bullet like and will, most likely, stay firm and brown.
  • I tend not to drain pasta as a rule, but simply lift it from the pot of water and into the sauce, with tongs or a pasta claw. In this way, some of the remaining salty water clinging to the pasta enriches the sauce.
  • I used chicken stock powder by Massel for the broth, which is completely plant based and useful for everyday stock.
  • If you want to turn this back into an authentic Italian dish, simply remove the thyme and the Za’atar, and maybe add some finely chopped tomatoes during the first step of cooking.

Simple, Ottolenghi, 2018.

In My Kitchen, June 2020

Sometimes it occurs to me that writing about food seems inconsequential, perhaps even pointless, when the world has become so dark. I’m also aware that blogging is a pastime for the well- off, those like me who have more time, money, food, and housing security than most people in the world. As our world staggers from one disaster to the next, the deep and underlying fissures in society are being exposed. Environmental disasters caused by climate inaction, the current pandemic which has not yet run its course, imbecilic, corrupt and dangerous national leadership in many countries, shifts in global trading patterns, a potential American civil war, ongoing structural and institutional racism, gender inequality and political manipulation in the elections in so called democracies- the list of modern ills seems infinite. The only safe place is in the kitchen, where the focus is directed towards family, nourishment, and the preservation of ancient food cultures.

Although I’m still reticent to venture out, especially for the time wasting amusement gained by shopping for more things I don’t need, whether they are new or pre-owned, I have enjoyed buying a few things online, including some kitchen ware, and may continue to shop this way in the future. I was also delighted when some social gathering restrictions were eased and I could see my family again. No hugs yet but at least we can eat and drink in the same room. We have also enjoyed one dinner away from home with friends. Sitting at distant ends of the table, the large vegetarian lasagne was a joy to behold and eat- at last something not made by me or Tranquillo.

Zuppa cereale, made with freekeh.

My granddaughter, Daisy, has been a delightful presence in my kitchen. “Can I help?”or “What are you cooking?” are some of her words that I love to hear, as is the sound of her small cooking stool being dragged into place at the bench. She chops, crumbs, mixes, and tastes for correct seasoning and balance. She prefers anchovies to sweet things, and can wax lyrical about her favourite dish, a white bean and silver beet soup. From the age of two, her refined sense of smell has led her to the kitchen: she’s a natural chef with a strong desire to learn. Now that she is ‘allowed’ to come here for her home schooling, we’ve enjoyed more time together in the kitchen: this has been the up side of the pandemic for me. After we finish the set school tasks, we reward ourselves with some good cooking. Last week she made her own Kolokithopita, mastering the triangular shape, while I rabbited on about equilateral triangles, trying to slip in some math. Kolokithopita is a Greek pie stuffing using pumpkin. I simply substitute some oven baked pumpkin for the spinach in a spanakopita recipe, adding lots of fresh herbs and chopped spring onions. Daisy likes making these mainly because of the smell of the warm melted butter used to paint the pastry sheets. What a nose.

Daisy at 10, with her fillo parcels. 2020

Daisy shelling beans, 3 years old,  2013

I’ve been baking sourdough bread for 7 years, with four loaves baked weekly along with three large tray pizzas which are delivered to my extended family each Wednesday. Storage of flour and baking equipment was becoming a huge problem, along with RSI in my arms caused by the unusually high kitchen benches. I’ve been longing for a kitchen renovation but am fearful of the expense involved. The solution came in the form of an online purchase of an Ikea stainless steel trolley and a large bread making board. The lot is now wheeled to my dining table where I can work at the right height for dough handling, which for me is around 75 cms.

Cheaper than a kitchen reno.

The lime trees are still covered with fruit. This week I’ve begun an Indian style lime pickle. Below, a bowl of sliced and salted limes, waiting for the next step. Meanwhile, home grown lemons are preserved in salt. Ancient preservation traditions from India to the Middle East.

One of my favourite pasta dishes in winter is Pantacce, bietola, gorgonzola e noce. I found a small piece of blue cheese hiding in the fridge, which I melted into some cream, tossed in a handful of toasted walnuts, and cooked the chopped silver beet briefly in the same pot as the pasta. The components came together in a deep frying pan. A more precise recipe can be found on my post here.

Pantacce, gorgonzola cream, silver beet, walnuts

I posted these Friday Night Indian potatoes last week here: they were popular, and can be whipped up in no time.

Rye sourdough, with unusual scoring. Almost an indigenous pattern?

Thanks Sherry once again for hosting this series on Sherry’s Pickings.

Friday Night Indian Potatoes

Some of you have returned to work, some of you never left, and some are still working from home. Despite the changing nature of work and the uncertainties that plague our lives, Friday night is knock off night, a call for simple food, perhaps fish and chips from the local take away, or the equivalent version cooked at home. I’ve always struggled with chip cooking, but can recommend these Indian fried potatoes as a quick and tasty substitute. These are irresistible on their own. Make a big pile and forget about the fish.

Indian style fried potatoes with 5 seeds. This recipe serves 3 as a snack or a side. Double the ingredients for a decent size, they will all be eaten in a flash, I promise.

  • 500 gr potatoes. I used Desiree potatoes today.
  • 3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons panch phoran, ( a blend of 5 whole seeds including cumin, fennel, mustard, nigella and fenugreek seeds)
  • 3/4 teaspoons turmeric powder
  • salt to taste
  • dried chilli flakes to taste
  • a handful of chopped fresh coriander

Method

Peel the potatoes and cut into chunks. Cook in boiling salted water until just done.

Place the oil and seeds in a medium non stick frying pan and fry over a low heat for a minute or so, then add the turmeric, chilli and salt. Stir about, the add the potatoes, gently turning them so that they are coated in the spices. Cook over a low heat for a few minutes, turning gently, then turn up the heat so that they form a nice golden brown crust on both sides. when done to your satisfaction, serve, garnished with chopped coriander.

Note- if you don’t have panch phoron on hand, raid the seeds in your spice cupboard and create your own blend.

Recipe adapted from Indian Food made Easy, Anjum Anand. 2007 a very handy collection.

Pakora, the Ultimate Snack

India has the most desirable array of street food and snacks. I love them all. Samosa, pakora, bhajii, bonda, aloo chat, and vada are just a few of the Indian treats whose names have become familiar to many Australians over the last 40 years. I enjoy going to the nearby Monday market ( or rather I did,  back in the pre-Covid  days when big junk markets were still operating ) just to visit the colourful Indian Sikh tent for a morning snack, usually a freshly made samosa, or even better, a plate of samosa chat, a plate brimming with hot chana masala, topped with a samosa, the pyramid draped with yoghurt, green and tamarind chutneys. Balancing the loaded paper plate while standing was always a fearful business. Samosa chat covers late breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea in one go. Most suburban Indian restaurants offer a few standard snacks as starters on their menus but there’s a catch here. Start with a few tempting aloo bhaji, samosa or pakora and there’s not much room for mains.

eggplant pakora, batter a mixture of besan and lentil flour, with green sauce.

Pakoras make the best afternoon tea or accompaniment to beer. I’m yet to meet someone who doesn’t love them. When I make pakoras, the wolves appear from nowhere. Lust and greed overcome good manners. Just have pity on the poor cook chained to the stove, making more on demand. If you are that cook, I advise you to keep a saucer of dipping sauce handy, so that you can eat as you go and not miss out.

the flour and spice for pakora before adding water.

Over the years, I’ve adapted my pakora batter recipe. In the 1980s, I used recipes by Charmaine Solomon and Jacki Passmore, my only Indian cookbooks at that time. Since then, my Indian collection has expanded, now numbering around 15 but who is counting. The variation on the pakora theme is enormous. Some recipes include a little self raising flour to the base of besan flour ( chick pea flour) providing more puff to the batter. Others add nigella seeds, ajwaiin seeds, garam masala, salt, sliced green chilli, chopped garlic, chilli powder. Everyone’s Indian grandmother has the most authentic recipe, I’m sure. I add a little rice flour to my mixture which gives the batter more crunch. Sometimes I play with a mixture of besan flour and very fine red lentil flour, especially when making onion bhaji, a close relative of the pakora. It’s easier to  just wing it with additions so long as you start with around one cup of besan flour in your mixing bowl. The following recipe is a good version.

Pakora Batter Recipe

  • 120 gr of besan flour ( or 100 gr besan plus 20 gr rice flour) 
  • 1 teaspoon ajwaiin seeds 
  • 1 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 2 teaspoons white vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix the ingredients in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and gradually add 275 ml of water to the batter while whisking. The batter should be thickish but loose enough to coat the back of the spoon and gently drip down. 

Heat some canola oil in a wok, or heavy based saucepan. Don’t skimp on the depth of the oil- your pakhoras need to be deep fried and must be covered. Test the heat of the oil by adding a little batter to see if it’s ready. Coat individual vegetable pieces, such as eggplant, potato onion rings, cauliflower or broccoli with the batter and deep fry until cooked through and dark golden in colour. If you are making mixed vegetable pakora, as shown in the picture below, chop 250 gr vegetables and mix through the batter before frying spoonfuls. My last combination included diced eggplant, finely shredded silverbeet ( chard) and thinly sliced and halved onion rings. 

Mixed pakora with green sauce.

Green Sauce Recipe

  • 25 gr mint leaves, chopped
  • 25 gr coriander leaves, chopped
  • 2 green chillies, chopped
  • 1 garlic chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 Tbls sugar
  • 1 teas salt
  • 125 g ( 1/2 cup) plain yoghurt

Place in a food processor and blend till smooth. Store in fridge for 30 minutes to allow the faavours to settle before use. Make the sauce before the pakora. If herbs are in short supply, serve with yoghurt or a commercial chutney, thinned down with yoghurt.  My kids like pakora dipped in soy sauce, totally inauthentic but still good.

eggplant pakora, batter a mixture of besan and lentil flour, with green sauce.

Notes.

The batter makes and excellent coating for deep fried, battered fish. I often add some turmeric if using with fish.

The recipes are based on two found in Spice Kitchen, Ragini Dey, 2013. 

A big loud applause to Melbourne’s Sikh Volunteers Australia, who make and deliver 650 meals each day to vulnerable people within the community. They are currently building a larger kitchen. They have a facebook page with details for donations and many happy photos. 

 

Sunday Pasties

It often seems like vegetarians miss out on all the fun when it comes to grabbing an instant treat from the local bakery. Here I’m talking about pies and pasties  with lashings of sauce. Most bakeries display one or two meagre offerings – a vegetable pasty, invariably disappointing and bland, with too much pastry that ends up all over your clothes, or the ubiquitous spinach and fetta roll, dried out  from spending too long in the pie warmer, a sad version of something that was once Greek. My local bakery produces a passable vegetable pie that comes with a reasonable amount of wet ‘gravy’. This is the one thing that is lacking from most vego bakery products- they are too dry and indigestible and lack that unctuous gravy that holds the filling together.

Lockdown blues, no cow bell sounds at the front gate. Time to make Pasties.

I tend to make pasties and pies in April, once the sky turns grey and the first fire crackles in the wood stove. Stay at home days, baking days. Pie making is more pleasurable with an assistant, as it’s not a bad idea to make a big stash for the freezer to tide you over the winter, or further months of isolation. One good standby iare these Lentil, Mushroom and Cheese Pasties. They freeze well too.

As is often the case, my recipe instructions are not precise. I don’t tend to weigh and take detailed notes of the things that I make, although I have a general notion of the quantities intuitively. If you end up with too many cooked lentils and feel that the ratio of lentil to mushroom is out, reserve some lentils and use to add to a soup. Cooked lentils keep very well in the fridge. 

Lentil and Mushroom Pasties

Ingredients, Makes 6 large pasties or 12 mini pasties.

  • 3 squares of frozen Puff pastry
  • 1 ½cups of Puy lentils. ( you can use any dark coloured lentils here, but puy lentils hold their shape and marry well with mushrooms)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 Tbs Olive oil 
  • 1 Tbs butter
  • 1 small onion chopped
  • 1 -2 garlic chopped ( optional)
  • 2 cups ( approx measurement) mushrooms, quartered ( I prefer those with dark gills as they add more juice and flavour)
  • dried herbs of choice or finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • salt, ground black pepper
  • one small beaten egg for pastry glaze.
  • other additions, such as include left over grated cheese 

Method

  • Preheat oven to 180c. Line two baking trays with cooking parchment, or grease well.
  • Cook the lentils in ample water, adding a by leaf, and cook till soft. Test them as some lentils, especially if old, take a while to soften. Drain the lentils completely, and reserve the juice for another use. 
  • In a large frying pan, heat the oil with the butter and add the onions. Cook on gentle heat till softened, then add the garlic. Cook till soft and translucent. 
  • Add the mushrooms and herbs to the onions. Cook until soft and cooked through, stirring around as you go.
  • Combine the lentils with the mushroom mixture in a bowl. The mixture should not be too runny, but you do want a little gravy.  If you feel the mixture is too wet, cook down further. Season well. Consider adding some grated tasty cheese. Cool the mixture.
  • Defrost 3 sheets of puff pastry and halve these on the diagonal for 6 large pasties. Have more sheets on hand in case you end up with extra mixture.
  • Beat egg for pastry glaze.
  • Add the mixture to the centre of each triangle, spreading a little towards the corners. You want the pasties to be well filled but allow for ease of folding and joining. Wet the edges with a pastry brush and join the seams, pressing down as you go. 
  • Place three pasties on each baking tray and cook until the pastry is golden. Cool them first if you intend to freeze them for later.
  • Serve with an old fashioned chutney and green salad. Or heat, wrap in foil, and take it on your travels, when you’re allowed out.

For Rachael P and her daughters. I’m singing that Tom Petty song, but substituting LOCKDOWN for the Breakdown chorus. Sing along with me while we bake: Lockdown, go ahead and give it to me…….

 

Lentil Sentimental and a Good Shepherd’s Pie

One of my friends enjoys telling the story about the night his parents came to dinner. It was during the late 1970s, at the height of the hippy era, when many young folk had a brief flirtation with vegetarianism, which for many, was embodied in the form of a lentil. Peter had just moved into his first share house. He proudly presented the main course, his signature dish at the time, a lentil curry. His parents were horrified, exclaiming loudly that they had not migrated all the way from Poland to Australia to eat lentils. Peter narrates this story like an episode from Seinfeld, and adds that his parents eat meat for every meal, with an occasional side vegetable in the form of either a pickle or sauerkraut. Underlying this humourous tale lies the strong historic association of lentils with poverty and hardship.

When I trawl through the food memories of my own childhood, there are no lentils. If pulses turned up at all, they took the form of split peas: a yellow or green split pea, married with a ham bone or two, made a thick, salty soup. Split peas were also mixed with barley, the iconic McKenzie’s soup mix, a pantry staple in many Australian homes in the past. It’s still a staple in mine today. My mother and grandmother always added a lamb shank, but I’m very happy using vegetable stock and/or stock cubes to flavour this old fashioned soup, which goes by the name ‘Nana’s soup’ regardless of the age or gender of the maker. It is the soup of everyone’s Nana.

Rachael, seven years old, Annapurna Range, Nepal, 1979

My love of lentils became more pronounced after a trip to Nepal at the end of 1978. We trekked through the Annapurna range near Pokhara with two young children in tow. The meal along route was invariably Dal Bhat, a Nepalese dish consisting of a mild flavoured soupy dal of red lentils, with rice and one or two vegetables on the side. ‘Eat that kids because that’s all there is,’ and they did because they were hungry. Whenever I make Dal Bhat today, I return to that adventure in the mountains of the Himalayas. The key to Dal Bhat is to keep it plain and simple.

Old fish- tail mountain, Machapuchare, Annapurna range, Nepal, 1979.
Andrew, 8 years old, Nepal,1979.

My lentil repertoire has become more sophisticated over the years though I return often to the classic Lentil Shepherd’s Pie. Everyone has a version, I’m sure. I don’t associate lentils with poverty or the hippy era. They are, for me, the most comforting food of all.

Lentil Shepherd’s Pie

On the surface, a lentil shepherd’s pie seems incredibly simple to make but many fail due to blandness or because they lack the traditional references. Modern versions might include the addition of sweet potato or parmesan in the mash. Other versions search for umami by adding miso or soy sauce to the lentil mixture. Play around if you like but I’m a bit of a stickler for tradition with this dish and prefer the old British flavours. 

My recipe is a descriptive rather than prescriptive and gives only a rough approximation of quantities.

  • Boil up some brown lentils, about 1½ cups should make enough for a pie for 4-6 people. Cook the lentils in 3-4 cups of water with a bay leaf and one onion, peeled and halved. Keep an eye on the liquid and top up as required. When the lentils are soft, drain them, catching the cooking liquid in a bowl beneath.
  • Boil some peeled potatoes, enough for 4 people. Add a little salt to the cooking water. When ready, drain and mash with butter and milk.
  • Cut up one large onion and gently fry in a pan with a mixture of olive oil and butter. Then add two chopped garlic cloves, a non traditional addition but a habit I can’t break. 
  • When the onion is soft and golden, add the drained lentils, Worcestershire sauce ( this is the key ingredient so add a fair bit- 2 tablespoons or more), some dried mixed herbs, a few slurps of tomato sauce, although tomato paste makes a good substitute, some of the thick reserved cooking water, salt and pepper. You are looking for a tasty dark gravy at the base of the lentils.
  • Put the lentil mixture into a buttered gratin dish, cover with the mash, and using a fork, make groovy patterns on top. Add small knobs of butter. 
  • Bake in a moderate oven until the top is golden and the lentil mixture starts to bubble from underneath.
  • Serve with bottled tomato sauce or any other condiment you fancy. I quite like a home made tomato chilli jam with this, my only concession to modernity.

See also The Lost Photos

Dear Reader, do you have any amusing lentil anecdotes from the past? Do lentils symbolise hard times for you?