Archive for July, 2009

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Oriental Empress gets her pot hot

July 16, 2009

stephhotpotThe online bods at SMH like to keep things lively in terms of the Empress’s weekly column (now it’s there, now it isn’t. Happily this week Steph is there in full living colour with a spot on Chinese hotpots. She writes:

Huddling over a huge communal bowl of steaming broth, poaching meats, vegetables and noodles may qualify as the perfect way for a group of friends to spend a winter’s evening. Some believe the poaching technique originated in Mongolia, while others argue it’s unlikely, given the people’s nomadic ways and the need for specialised pots and equipment. Szechuan residents are also strong contenders for the inventors’ crown.

So pop along to Good Living and check it out.  Incidentally, I’m excited today for a couple of reasons. First, I just ate the best lazy person’s lunch I’ve had in ages – a can (greedy!) of chickpeas mixed with the Empress’s famous tomato oil pickle and a dollop of yoghurt – oh my, it was good.

Second, we get to go goodfood hunting with her tonight – Uighur Chinese in Hurstville. Uighur food is amazing – kind of Turkish Muslim influence, I believe, yet Chinese. You may have only heard the word Uighur because of the recent horrific violence in China between Uighurs (Muslim folks) and Han Chinese. But don’t let that obscure the fact of peaceful relations here in Oz, with Uighur restaurants happily dotted through Chinatown and elsewhere. MMMmmm.

*Postscript: Speaking of the above, Sydney PEN (of which I’m a proud member) has put out a statement today condemning the astounding attempt by the Melbourne Chinese consulate to censor the Melbourne International Film Festival by demanding it remove a film about a Uighur activist from its program. Foolish of course (the film has now got huge publicity as the story is covered all over the mainstream media from here to Britain), but also creepy. Check out Sydney PEN’s statement here.

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Class act: Alan Hollinghurst’s venison

July 13, 2009

The Line of BeautyI’m loving The Line of Beauty, immersing myself in it at last after having avoided it for years because of Booker hype (how many of us, do you think, are turned off rather than on to a book by literary prize hoohaa?). But I’m having that thrill of discovery of a writer one instantly loves, knowing there are more of the author’s books lining up after this one to be enjoyed.

I so admire Hollinghurst’s psychological precision and the superfine texture of every passing moment. Tricky to pull off for long without making the prose drag, but right now it’s making me see how lumpen and heavyhanded are my own clumpings through scenes, and is particularly instructive for the novel I’m working on at the moment, which I now realise demands a much, much finer net in which to haul along its catch, if that makes any sense at all.

Anyway, of course this novel is all about class, being set in Thatcher’s England, when the young protagonist Nick is coming gloriously, though secretively, into his new love life as a gay man. He’s staying with family of his old Oxford friend Toby Fedden, Toby’s father being the up-and-coming parliamentarian Gerald. I am only a quarter of the way in, so have no idea what’s to come, but am loving the writing itself so much that I hope it takes a long time to unfold. But as Nick’s ultra-rich Tory hosts aren’t entirely aware that he’s gay, and his lover Leo is black and working class, I predict trouble at mill.

Last night I came to this passage about a long, ghastly dinner party full of homophobic old politicians, uptight matrons and pretentious upper-class claptrap. The beast in question comes from a family estate, prepared by the family’s ‘help’, Elena, in the afternoon and then served at dinner by pompous Gerald.

Elena hurried in from the pantry with the joint, or limb, of venison, plastered up in a blood-stained paste of flour and water. The whole business of the deer, culled at Hawkeswood each September and sent to hang for a fortnight in the  Feddens’ utility room, was an ordeal for Elena, and an easy triumph for Gerald, who always fixed a series of dinner parties to advertise and eat it. Elena set the heavy dish on the table just as Catherine came down from her room, with her hands held up like blinkers to avoid the sight. ‘Mm – look at that, Cat!’ said Badger.

‘Fortunately I won’t even have to look at you eating it,’ said Catherine; though she did quickly peer at it with a kind of relish of revulsion.

…. [later]

When the venison came in Gerald yapped, ‘Don’t touch the plates! Don’t touch the plates!’ so that it sounded as though something had gone wrong. ‘They have to be white hot for the venison.’  The fact was that the fat congealed revoltingly if the plates were less then scorching. ‘Yes, my brother-in-law has a deer park,’ he explained to Morden Lipscomb. ‘A rare enough amenity these days.’  The guests looked humbly at their helpings. ‘No,’ Gerald went on, in his bristling way of answering questions he wished someone had asked, ‘this is buck venison … comes into season before the doe, and very much superior.’  He went round with the burgundy himself. ‘I think you’ll like this,’ he said to Barry Groom, and Barry sniffed at it testily, as if he knew he was thought to have more money than taste.

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Becoming broad-minded…

July 9, 2009

driedbroadbeansHaving got my dried bean anxieties off my chest, I am happy to report that I am now running my fingers through those slippery little beauties at every opportunity (thankyou Steph for the advice to get over myself …)

Once I remember to do the soaking – pretty easy, you must admit – the course is set, and it forces me to actually make the thing I had planned. And everything I’ve done – okay, two things (a repeat of the cassoulet, but with dried beans, and this one) – are tres simple and delicious (even without a pressure-cooker, Empress…)

A couple of years ago we stayed a fortnight in a rented house in Puglia, in the south of Italy, with some educated friends who knew that although Puglia was in the daggy, bogan bit of Italia, it also had the most spectacular coastline, beautiful towns and THE most incredible food. Anything we bought at the supermarket was astoundingly good quality, from chooks to calamari, and if we bought at an actual market market, even better.

Anyway, there are two things I remember very clearly from the menu of one restaurant we went to in the elegant town of Lecce (earlier researched by Italophile Jane, who speaks the language beautifully and knows her food): a rich, tender dark casserole of horse meat, which was meltingly delicious* and a smooth, delicate but complex broad bean puree for dipping stuff into – ditto.

So I was very pleased recently to see this recipe for Pugliese broad bean puree with chicory in Gourmet Traveller’s Italian edition, and made it today. It is the simplest thing in the world (and note to the confused, i.e. me, broad beans are fava beans, apparently) but creamy and delicately layered in flavour and silky in the mouth. I haven’t yet done the chicory and garlic oil bit, but plan to in the next day or two.

Go ahead, make it – basically it’s a broad bean version of hoummus. Lemon juice, garlic, oil, salt, whizzed up with the beans which are earlier cooked in chicken stock. Really good. And aren’t dried broad beans so beautiful to look at, apart from anything else?

*Before anyone freaks out about eating horse, I see no problem with it if, like me, you also eat pork, lamb, etc etc. Morally it’s entirely equivalent – which, I admit, means it is deeply complicated and basically indefensible. But the separating of some animals from others for purely cultural culinary reasons is ridiculous. Same with dogs, crickets, rat, whatever.  If you eat a clever, sensitive animal like a pig, you can’t judge anyone for eating a dog or a horse. And if you feel fine about eating animals of lower ‘intelligence’, why is that? Okay, lecture finished…. sigh. Enjoy the beans.


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Neil Perry’s lamb, mint and pea pie

July 9, 2009

lambpie(or How I Got My Bottom Crispy)

I wanted to make some freezable food for a friend’s father who has been having a rough time, so I turned to an old favourite, this lamb, mint and pea pie from Neil Perry’s Good Food – it is a chunky, hearty little number full of comfort, but with the zing of the mint to give it a lift.

The only trouble is that I hate pies that have no bottom – in my book that’s not a pie, right?

And as I am no pastry-chef (my sister, on the other hand, makes the best flaky pastry this side of paradise) I pretty much always use the frozen stuff. (Except for one great pastry made with suet for rabbit pies – hmm, must get that one out again. Sooo delicious.)

Anyway, even with frozen pastry I have too often failed in the past to get a crispy bottom (vale Mrs Slocombe), and as the only thing worse than no base on a pie is a sludgy, undercooked one, I determined to get it right this time. And it worked – shortcrust pastry on the bottom, which I made sure for once to really thoroughly blind-bake, which also provides an excuse to use my lovely ceramic bauble pastryweights. And puff pastry on the top, well-brushed with egg wash.

And if I say so myself, these little babies turned out beautifully crisp on the base, reasonably rich on the innards and suitably golden on top. And if you cook them in these disposable aluminium trays you can chuck them in the freezer and then distribute to the needy as your heart desires.

PS: As I keep saying, just buy Good Food – it’s a great book; every recipe is a winner. Saves faffing around all over the internet…

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Creative genius: knit wit

July 8, 2009

armwarmers1Okay, so this has nothing to do with food, but it does have to do with creativity and originality and art and beauty .. so there’s a link, right?

These funky arm-warmers were made for me by a knitting genius friend-of-a-friend. I don’t know about you, but in chilly weather (and even in air conditioning!) I am plagued, when writing, by perpetually icy wrists and hands. All that sitting around and not moving, I suppose, and possibly rather too revealing of how my fingers do not fly over the keyboard when writing ….

Anyway, one day I was seized by seething jealousy at my friend Tegan‘s gorgeously funky woollen arm-warmers, made as a present by her friend Vikki.

armwarmers3So I begged to commission Vikki to make some for me, and here they are: personally designed, made to measure, perfectly fitted, above-the-elbow, pea-green-and-parsley, cable-knit, pure Merino wool, soft and cosy and funky and fabulous.

I love them, in case you haven’t got the message.

And speaking of knitting and art, check this out. Guerilla knitting – love it.

Oh and PS: Happy birthday Dad, wherever you may be.

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My dark secrets

July 6, 2009

Organic ChocolateSenor & I are backing off on the booze this month, albeit without going the whole Dry July hog as we did last year (now that was a looong month – can’t believe I even attended the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival and stayed off the vino. I see they’re being more humane this year, and putting it back to August where it belongs…).

We’re thinking of this month as Quite Damp July instead, cutting out the booze except for weekends (and yes, I do include Friday and Sunday!).

While I still find this midweek abstinence exceedingly dull, especially if socialising with friends over dinner, it’s a hell of a lot easier now I have figured out that my traditional bodily six-o’clock wine time alarm bell may actually be, apart from the signal for the welcome end-of-working-day reward, a craving for sugar as much as for the booze itself.

I discovered this because, in compensation for lack of wine, I have begun dosing self with a couple of pieces of dark chocolate and a cup of peppermint tea at 5.30pm. Presto. No ‘GodDAMN I want a drink!’ cravings, which I used to think were entirely psychological. So unless I have created a successful self-medicating placebo effect (can you placebo-fool yourself?), I think the ol’  bod actually craves sugar at the end of the day, and because I’ve never been a dessert person or had a particularly sweet tooth (or so I thought), the only real sugar hit I get is the vino. Interesting.

So – on to the topic and my new drug of choice: chocolate. Dark chocolate, to be specific. Not too sweet, but sweet enough to get a girl through the evening. At the moment I’m swinging between Green & Black’s Organic Dark 70% Chocolate, which is nice and bitter, and not too sweet at all;  and Lindt’s Excellence dark chocolate with chilli – a little sweeter than the G&B’s, and with that nice added mouth-warmth from the chilli.

I know there are serious chocolate connoisseurs out there, but suspect I’ll never become one of them – too much of a salt fiend to get seriously into the choccies. However, I did come across this nice piece  in the New Yorker, in which a chocolatier called Rick Mast, “New York City’s only bean-to-bar chocolate maker”, pairs different literary masterpieces with the appropriate chocolate, from Leaves of Grass to Pride and Prejudice to Walden. And here I found mention of something I might seriously like: a chocolate called 81% with fleur de selcan such a perfect combo really exist?! I’m not sure if this is a joke or no, but here’s Mr Mast on Shakespeare and my fantasy chocolate:

Othello, “Othello,” by William Shakespeare
81% with Fleur de Sel
This proud, lovesick Moor should be paired with eighty-one per cent dark chocolate, seasoned with chocolate’s version of the Venetian Sea, fleur de sel. The sea salt gives context to the sugar, intensifying not only the floral and cinnamon notes but also the sweetness. The complexity of the delicately salted chocolate may even surpass Othello’s jealousy, but at least your mouth will have a happy ending. Avoid your own jealous rampage by not sharing.

Hmm. Investigation needed, methinks.

Oh and if you are looking for a chocolate cake recipe, as it’s the only kind of cake I seem to make (apart from my new love, the whole l’orange variety…), I can vouch for the following two chocolate triumphs. These  both involve little more than melting some of the good stuff and bunging in ovens, but as usual I end up cooking these for much longer than the recipes say.

The first is the chocolate fudge cake in Yotam Ottolenghi’s fabulous eponymous cookbook (he of the excellent New Vegetarian column in the Guardian) – I highly recommend this book, as it’s full of surprising, flavoursome dishes that are incredibly simple to make but have beautiful complexity of flavour, and heaps of it is vego. Not to mention that the book is a beautiful shiny luscious thing in itself.

The second is Maggie Beer’s absolutely divine chocolate cake with whisky-soaked raisins and orange zest. Oh, my. I think this recipe title speaks for itself, don’t you? It’s from her book Maggie’s Kitchen, about which I have raved before.

OK. I’m feeling quite faint with all this cacao-bean chaos on the loose, so I must go and have another cup of tea and a good lie down. But while I’m resting, do tell me  all your dark chocolatey secrets? Favourites to buy or make? July is a long month, after all …


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Emerging herbs….

July 4, 2009
Basil, thyme, parsley day 21

Basil, thyme, parsley day 21

Why is growing things from seed so very satisfying?

Here are my newborn herbs, powering along on day 21. As Jamie predicted, the parsley has now sprouted and seems to be doing just fine.

As long as I can keep the baby basil alive, all looks good for starting my actual new herb garden in a few weeks when all the painting’s done… or maybe I should actually wait till August for the sun to come a little higher and warm the soil a bit more before I stick ’em in the ground?

Stay tuned for Cate Kennedy‘s garlic …

Parsley, in front; thyme at back - day 21

Parsley (front) & thyme, day 21

Basil, day 21

Basil, day 21

Coriander & mint, day 1

Coriander & mint, day 1

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Disdain, rebellion & pork in milk: how Elizabeth David changed my life

July 2, 2009

elizabethdavidbookThis week’s Guardian has a nice little piece about the spiteful annotations made by Elizabeth David on other people’s cookbooks. Irresistible, no?

I have an abiding love of Elizabeth David which is only tangentially to do with her cookbooks. The first time I ever heard of her was when I went to my university art teacher’s house for lunch, where his spiky, intelligent and beautiful wife cooked something rustic, garlicky, slow-cooked and to me, delicious in an unearthly way. I had never eaten food like it.

It seemed to me that day, sitting in that rambling country house full of Norman Lindsay paintings and art books and warm-toned, casually handled antiques, talking of art and books and garden-grown food and life, that this smell, this dish, this way of eating was somehow a portal into an entirely new creative life, a simpler-but-richer way of living than I had ever known existed, or aspired to. I was right, I think.

It’s not that my own upbringing was lacking in creativity – quite the opposite; I had a talented father who made half the furniture in the house as well as beautiful, ethereal costumes for school plays and other things, and a florist mother who routinely created beauty in small ways around our house (I have written about them here) – it’s just that food was never really a part of that creativity. Food, for my beleaguered mother, was a matter of filling up seven hungry stomachs every day in the most efficient and responsible way possible before escaping out into her beloved garden. The cooking got done out of love, but I don’t think she really ever enjoyed it. And who on earth could blame her?

But the food I ate at my painting & drawing teacher’s house that lunch time, I intuited, was somehow to do with art, not separate from it. It seemed to draw the very art from the walls, and the garden and the furniture and the conversation of that day, into one living whole. In an unspoken and completely unpretentious way, it seemed to somehow feed not only the physical but the artistic selves of these people.

I think the dish my teacher’s wife (who later became a friend too) cooked that day was Maiale Al Latte, or pork cooked in milk – I remember it because I found the idea of cooking meat milk completely astounding – and when I asked about it, the elegant chef said it was “just an old Elizabeth David thing”. I feigned familiarity with this person. Ah, I said, and nodded. And noted the words Elizabeth David, Elizabeth David, in my head.

A short time later, in a local op shop, I came across my first copy of Elizabeth David’s little Penguin paperback, A Book of Mediterranean Food. It was destiny. I took the book home and began cooking boeuf en daube a la nicoise and soupe au pistou for my uni flatmates, and began to fall in love with cooking.

I still have this book (that’s it, above) even though the pages have fallen out and the cover is ragged. I bought a new hardback version a few years ago, but I can’t let go of this one for sentimental reasons. Even though I only ever cooked a few things from it, and never have properly read David’s musings and impressions, this book seems deeply emblematic to me, in the way objects can represent those moments one has, as a young person, when you find a way of becoming your real self – that person you want to be. I treasure it still for that reason.

I know there are plenty of Elizabeth David fetishists out there, and I suppose I am one of them.

I absolutely loved, for example, that brilliant television biopic screened here last year, Elizabeth David: A Life in Recipes, not because it was an accurate portrayal – which those who know their stuff about her tell me it absolutely wasn’t, omitting any mention of her elite Tory childhood and patrician ways, for example – but because it was a film about the creative struggle, and about abundance in the midst of postwar miserliness, and saying yes to personal freedom in spite of society’s disapproval. And the price paid for all those things.

(As an aside, any writer who’s ever done a bookshop or library reading to an audience of four, two of whom are asleep and one of whom berates one for using, on page seventy-two, the word ‘squashed’ when they themselves would have chosen ‘crunched’, should clasp to their bosom the scene in this film when cookery writer ED goes to address a Women’s Insitute meeting. Priceless).

Anyway, back to the Guardian piece: apparently her archive of personal papers shows that Elizabeth was a right snidey-pants about other people’s cookbooks and recipes (and even the illustrator of her own books), keeping notes on their faults.

There’s a light dusting of yellow stickies with general comments to set the tone: “p166 This is NOT a tian [a Provencal mixed-vegetable gratin]”; “This is a useless book”; and “Chocolate in the Renaissance?” There are comments that should be engraved on every modern food writer’s heart: “Why say crispy when crisp is more expressive?”

Then, suddenly, you find yourself deep in sedition and heresy. Inside a copy of The Cooking of Italy (1969) by an American journalist Waverley Root: “Waverley Root is a pitiful phoney.”

On the legendary 1969 French book Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point, regarded by a generation of chefs as the bible of modern cuisine: “This is a really awful book.”

In a carbon copy of a private letter dated October 1983: “I have to tell you that really I never did care very much for the John Minton illustrations for my books. They are so cluttered and messy. They embarrass me now as much as they did in 1950.”

On a copy of Full and Plenty, a mercifully forgotten volume by Maura Laverty: “The kind of pretentious rubbish that has brought French cooking into disrepute as a snob’s preserve.”

Perhaps she was a vindictive snob, but who cares? These are personal papers, not published remarks (until now!). Or perhaps she was right. Regardless, I’ll always be grateful for whatever spirit of rebellion or snobbery (along with, doubtless, the Tory money) sent her from England to the Continent, into and out of her miserable affairs and her drinking and her stroke. And I’ll be grateful too, for what many have seen as her unforgivable disdain for the lives of ordinary Britons, because a generation and a lot of geography later, it was that same rebellion and disdain that made an everlasting difference to my very ordinary life.

So tell me, did you ever have a small but transformative culinary moment like mine? And which was the cookbook that changed your life?

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Fishy (and salty) business

July 1, 2009

stephsaltcodThe Empress’ Sydney Morning Herald Good Living column this week is on salt cod – mmmmmmmm. She writes:

Since the advent of refrigeration and better transport, there’s no storage imperative to salt fish. But try telling that to the Portuguese, who have bacalhau so firmly entrenched in their culinary repertoire there’s no turning back. Soaking in water renders the stiff, dried fish soft, palatable and ready to be made into any of the 365 recipes the Portuguese have devised for it. But salt cod isn’t only the preserve of the Portuguese. The French are also fans of salt cod, which they call morue, and transform into warm puree with olive oil, garlic and moistened bread.

She samples salt cod French, Portuguese & Italian style.  And it sounds good.