Archive for September, 2009


Oils aint oils

September 27, 2009

olive oilThe Lunging Latino’s remarks on his fave Italian olive oil in this post here reminded me of a conversation with my friend C recently, where she declared, having read a bit on the subject, that she would never again buy Italian olive oil.

Apart from wanting to support local olive oil producers and reduce the environmental effects of transporting stuff across the oceans, she told me that Italian olive oils are subject to so much adulteration and fraud that it’s difficult to tell if you are ever actually getting what the label says.

This startling conversation sent me to a disturbing New Yorker article from a couple of years ago setting out the slippery olive oil adulteration issue in Italy. The upshot, according to this article, is that owing to some dodgy labelling laws, lax governmental investigation, corruption and outright criminal fraud, some of the biggest olive oil producers in Italy (Bertolli, Nestle & Unilever, for instance) have sold adulterated oil from other countries as Italian extra virgin olive oil and collected millions of dollars in Italian subsidies designed to support domestic producers.  Olive oil labelled ‘Made in Italy’ apparently may be Turkish, Tunisian, Greek or Spanish, and may just as easily be adulterated with hazelnut, soy, canola or sunflower seed oil and even artificially coloured green to look like olive oil.

A few unnerving quotes from this article by Tom Mueller, which is well worth reading:

  • In 1997 and 1998, olive oil was the most adulterated agricultural product in the European Union, prompting the E.U.’s anti-fraud office to establish an olive-oil task force. (“Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks,” one investigator told me.)
  • For the past ten years, Spain has produced more oil than Italy, but much of it is shipped to Italy for packaging and is sold, legally, as Italian oil.
  • The [criminal] ring, which allegedly sold its products in northern Italy and in Germany, is accused of coloring low-grade soy oil and canola oil with industrial chlorophyll, flavoring it with beta-carotene, and packaging it as extra-virgin olive oil in tins.
  • Zaramella, a garrulous sixty-six-year-old former businessman, has made oil from olives grown on his small farm in Umbria since 1985. He began to study olive oil systematically when he found that the local farmer who tended his trees had been cutting his oil with sun-flower-seed oil. “Fraud is so widespread that few growers can make an honest living,” he told me.

Do read this article, as there’s lots more in it than I can reproduce here.

So now I’m thinking I’ll take on C’s policy and buy local olive oil, which presumably is free from this level of adulteration and corruption (okay, so this move was also prompted yesterday by a rather stunning supermarket special of three litre tins of Cobram Estate EV oil for $20 – I bought two tins) – at least for general cooking, if not dressings or other special stuff.

But, apart from your own tastebuds, do any of you know how to tell a good extra-virgin olive oil from a dud? And how can we be sure that our own fledgling olive oil industry is free from adulterated or bogus oils sold as EVO? Would love to hear more from you all about this slippery issue …


Podcast news: broad beans

September 24, 2009

broadbeanspodSaw my first fresh broad beans of the season the other day and couldn’t resist slinging a clutch into the shopping bag. Plan to have them with a little pasta for lunch today, perhaps.

I am only just learning how to eat these shiny little gemstones, but I love them. Karen Martini has an excellent recipe for linguine with tomato, prawns, peas and basil in Where the Heart Is, and I have used broad beans in addition to or in place of the peas (the secret is slightly mashing  everything, so the flavours meld rather than having the effect of separate ingredients rolling off the pasta the way lots of prawn/pasta things do).

And my buddy the Lunging Latino  introduced me to the deliciousness of very young broad beans fresh from the pod, simply dipped in very good olive oil and salt and eaten as a pre-dinner snack. (Correct, LL? Do pop in and clarify with any tips …)

But on the whole, I go in for the double-peeling. Time-consuming, but totally worth it. Just remember to buy an armful of pods, as the yield is pretty tiny. Pod the beans, blanch them in boiling salted water for a few minutes, drain and refresh in cold water, and then slip off the tough greyish skins to reveal these glossy, bright green sweeties.

broadbeansdoublepeeledAn old Steve Manfredi article here sings the praises of this buttery favourite – and he doesn’t even blanch them, but double peels when uncooked. Sounds tricky to me but I may give it a shot. He has a simple but lovely-looking recipe too for BBs with orecchiette, butter & Parmesan. Can’t go wrong.

Any other broad bean fans out there? What do you do with them? Do tell…


Hush our mouth? No way…

September 23, 2009

taped mouthNow, this is not strictly to do with eating or food, but it certainly is to do with all of us here at howtoshuckanoyster – and your ability to go on enjoying any blog you wish to visit around  the net. This message comes from GetUp!, the grassroots activist group I reckon does great work on all kinds of hairy issues that others are too chicken to tackle. As a member of the freedom of expression group PEN – and having experienced first-hand the enraging internet censorship that is done so heavy-handedly in China (our family and friends there can no longer blog or even use Facebook!) – I reckon any secret censoring that our government is planning ‘for our own good’ is not on, baby. They are proposing a mandatory internet filter which will operate without your knowledge, in every household in Australia.

The government is proposing this in the cause of child protection, among other things – but even child protection specialists oppose it!

So read on, and if you are worried, take action. Sign the GetUp! petition online and spread the word.

Did you know the Government is proposing an internet censorship scheme that goes further than any other democracy in the world? That’s why I’m one of over 100,000 Australians who have signed the petition to Save the Net. Will you join me?

This Friday, our petition will grace the pages of newspapers across the nation. That way the Government, who are due to make a decision any day now, will be left in no doubt as to how deeply unpopular this kind of censorship is in Australia. Can you help me make that petition too large to ignore?

Our Government should be doing all in its power to take Australia into the 21st century economy, and to protect our children. This proposed internet censorship does neither. The plan has even been slammed by children’s welfare groups, who say the filter is “fundamentally flawed” and simply will not work.

Can you join me and children’s welfare groups, internet providers, consumers, engineers, network administrators, and over 100,000 everyday Australians in defence of our freedoms? Let’s make sure this Friday’s newspaper ad has an impact too large to ignore.



Empress roundup

September 21, 2009

Another bit of falling down on the job I’ve been doing lately is omitting the Empress’s last two weekly columns – ! – and now am annoyed that it seems I’ve left her fish and chippy one too late to find online and post here. Bummer, because we were with her on one of those assignments – to wit, fish ‘n’ chip morning tea at the excellent Greenwell Point F&chipper whose name I can’t now remember.

Anyhoo – her column of last week, on Sydney’s best Lebanese pizza – or Man’oushe – is still up and running here so check it out quickly before Wednesday when no doubt it’ll be down to make way for the next instalment!

And I promise to keep myself nice and up to date from here on in.


A spana and the works

September 21, 2009

tassievegApologies for the lack of posts lately – I’ve been preoccupied with various things, not least some family-visiting travel up and down the land, from the tropics to the tundra. Okay, Launceston is not quite that cold, but our weekend there just gone did involve a significant temperature dive, quite a shock for your warmth-loving correspondent. Anyhoo, I’m back on deck now so prepare for possibly more posts than you ever wanted…

Back to Tassie. Luckily the company and the cookery (and the walks – it is beautiful there) were so much fun in compensation for the crap weather. At my brother’s place I had a bad case of vegetable plot envy, as S&J have a rather beautifully tiered, walk-through affair in their backyard, compared with our jam-the-veg-between-the-ornamentals-in-the-inner-city-courtyard approach. Pictured above is our haul from said garden on Saturday – an armful of silverbeet, a couple of perfectly white leeks, lots of herbs and other goodies.

An armful of silverbeet says spanakopita to me, no matter how much I know the real thing is made with English spinach, not silverbeet (or Swiss chard, as I believe they call it in northern climes). I just love those sauteed stems, so Jacq and I set about making a giant tray of Spana for dinner on Saturday. We pretty much followed the usual format, guided by the recipe in Stephanie Alexander’s orange book (or stripey now, I suppose) with a couple of alterations. I have replicated it at home today with a couple of other alterations, which in my book means this is a beautifully forgiving dish that allows lots of flexibility depending on what’s in the fridge.

spinachpieHere is what we used for the Tassie Spana on the weekend.

  • an armful of silverbeet (about two shop-bunches), stems separated from leaves, both chopped roughly
  • heaps o garlic – about five to eight cloves
  • two leeks, finely chopped
  • 200g feta cheese, crumbled
  • about 500g ricotta (or less, and some other cheese grated)
  • a giant handful of pine nuts (Jacq’s idea, inspired)
  • big handful currants
  • half a cup of chopped pancetta
  • half cup finely chopped mint (from Stephanie, and it’s a must – gives the whole thing some extra zip)
  • filo pastry – 10 sheets on the bottom, 10 on the top, brushed with butter every one or two…
  • 1 lightly beaten egg (I discovered this is quite optional after forgetting it – and now I think I won’t bother, but if you would like a little extra protein and bindability, go for it.)
  1. Saute the leeks, garlic & silverbeet stems over high heat till translucent and liquid has evaporated.
  2. Add the chopped leaves and cook till liquid is gone.
  3. In another pan, saute the pancetta till crispy, then sling the pine nuts into the pancetta’s oil for a few minutes. Add both to the silverbeet mix, and finish by adding the mint and currants.
  4. In a roasting pan, lay out the bottom layer of filo as directed, chuck the mix on top, then add top layer of filo, tucking the edges in and brushing well with butter at the end. Stephanie recommends slicing a cross in the top but not cutting through to the bottom – I forgot this both times but I bet it makes for crispier pastry. Totally fine without, though … Bake for 40 minutes in a moderate oven.
  5. Tuck in, accompanied by a green salad or whatever else takes your fancy.

One other advantage of this recipe is its adaptability for vegetarians in the household – for the ethically conscious Ms R we left one end free of pancetta (and toasted the pine nuts separately), while the rest of us hoed into the bit with the piggsy boost. Delicious all round, and a big hit even with kids, the youngest of whom, a discerning three-year-old, generously proclaimed that I was “a good cooker”.   What more can an aunty ask, I say.

Thanks for the lovely weekend, kids all.

Oh, and speaking of family:- happy birthday Al, and to Gracie for tomorrow …


More writing on food

September 21, 2009

My thanks to my friend Eileen, for alerting me to this meaty segment on writing about food from ABC Radio National’s Book Show. More surprising than I had expected, it’s a nice energetic discussion on fictional, poetic and other writerly food between Stephanie Alexander (whose new book The Kitchen Garden Companion I absolutely lust after), John Newton and Gay Bilson with Ramona Koval.

Gay Bilson is particularly literate, erudite and thoughtful. She’s a very interesting woman, I think, given her stepping away from her massive success as a restaurateur (Berowra Waters Inn, etc) into a more reflective, quieter and far more ascetic sort of life these days. As a result of this interview I shall be seeking out her own books, Plenty and On Digestion. She also writes for The Monthly, and has a strangely moving piece in this month’s issue about organ donation which begins by evoking mushroom harvesting. She is intriguing, I reckon.

The beloved MFK Fisher comes in for a surprisingly acerbic serve from both Gay Bilson, who says Fisher’s writing is self-regarding and “makes my toes curl” and Stephanie, who calls her writing mannered and says she gets the feeling of indigestion from Fisher! A good lively, highly literate discussion all round, liberally sprinkled with food quotes from Sybil Bedford, Hemingway, Ian McEwan, Henry James, Lawrence Durrell, Anita Brookner, Frank Moorhouse and invoking The Magic Pudding, Enid Blyton and lots more.

Download it or listen online here.


After the party: farewell The Cook and the Chef

September 16, 2009

maggie_simonWell, it’s finally here.

Tonight, very sadly, sees to air the last-ever episode of  The Cook and the Chef, the only television cooking show I have watched avidly since it began four years ago. I love the dagginess of it, the focus on the food and the recipes and the growers and food producers, rather than the celebrity of the presenters or the flash panache of the camera angles.

I love the aunty-nephew banter between Maggie and Simon, their contrasting tastes and techniques and styles with food. I love the greedy earthiness of their dive-in-and-taste-it methodology at the end of each show, and the honest love of food evident in their gasps and groans while they cup their hands beneath their chins for drips and crumbs. (I have even grown fond of Maggie’s idiosyncratic terror of chilli!) I love the general air of generosity, egalitarianism and passion that has infused this program since the start.

The sense of bounteousness isn’t just about the food itself, either. Both of them speak magnanimously of other chefs, cooks, providores and producers, but Maggie Beer in particular is renowned for her generosity in promoting people and places she thinks have something to offer.

I know of a particular story demonstrating this, when Maggie went to Shanghai to cook at M on the Bund, where our beloved bro-in-law Hamish (who is sadly mostly excluded from joining us here in howtoshuckland these days by China’s Great Firewall!) is executive chef. I am told that when she got up to speak after the Maggie Beer M On the Bund luncheon, almost the entirety of her address was taken up with singing the praises of Hamish and his staff rather than discussing her own role in the luch – and she has kept up the praise ever since.

And then I had my own brush with this munificence, when Maggie wrote to Hamish and Kate telling them how much she liked my book The Submerged Cathedral, which they’d given her to read on the plane home. You can imagine my breathless excitement at that news when they passed it on, knowing I was such a fan of her books and the show. Then the next day, I suddenly began getting texts from friends saying Maggie Beer was on ABC radio recommending my book. Asked in an interview about what she did in her spare time, she apparently began rhapsodising about reading, and mine happened to be her favourite book of the moment. So it’s very clear to me that Ms B is the type of person who will not let a chance go by to give a push to other creators she thinks might do with a helping hand.

I reckon there are two types of creative people – the ones who are fearful of losing the edge, protecting their patch, hoarding ideas, always competing and anxiously looking around at who might be getting ahead of them. And then there’s the other kind, who see their creativity as an ever-filling well, who know that no matter how much they give away, there will be more than enough to go around, and who genuinely get a kick out of sharing their knowledge, skills, and success.

And that is the spirit that has so enlivened The Cook and The Chef for all these years.

So tonight I will be sitting back with a glass of wine, watching and toasting Maggie & Simon for all the fun they’ve brought into our house. Hurrah for them.


Summoning summer: citrus couscous

September 11, 2009

couscous2One of the many salads we devoured last weekend on our tropical mini-break was a holiday favourite – we have eaten this on every summer camping or beachside weekend away for years and years, so whenever we eat this, it always feels like summer to me. It is spectacularly good with flaked smoked trout and a dollop of mayonnaise. I think the original recipe is from a Gourmet Traveller some years ago, but have no more specific source than that except my friend J, who first gave me the recipe.

The only other thing I know about this dish is that anyone who tastes it loves it, and it keeps happily for days and days as leftovers. So if you would like to summon up summer this weekend, go ahead and try it out. This quantity works well for six greedy grunters (us) or eight more sedate eaters.

Citrus couscous

  • 2 cups couscous
  • 2 cups orange juice (about eight oranges – best if freshly squeezed because you can use the pulp tooo)
  • 1 knob of butter
  • salt & pepper
  • 3 or 4 zucchini, sliced on the diagonal
  • olive oil
  • 1/2 bunch shallots, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 cup currants
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted (don’t blacken them too much like I did in this pictured one!)
  • 1 bunch mint, finely chopped
  • 1 bunch coriander, finely chopped
  • lemon juice to taste (about half a lemon’s worth is good)
  1. Bring orange juice to boil in a small saucepan with butter, salt & pepper. Turn off the heat and stir in couscous till well combined. Leave for at least half an hour.
  2. Lightly toast the pine nuts in a non-stick pan.
  3. Saute zucchini slices in olive oil until well browned and soft.
  4. In a large salad bowl combine all remaining ingredients, and season well. Add the cooled zucchini to the mix.
  5. Take the saucepan and gently comb and scrape the couscous until the grains separate – this takes a while and it’s important to be patient, otherwise you end up with big lumps. Empty the loose grains into the salad bowl as you go. Often the last thin layer has to be discarded.
  6. Stir other ingredients loosely through the couscous until well combined and check seasoning.


Salad days

September 7, 2009

This is a fly-by greeting from far North Queensland where we are holidaying for a few days – just back in Townsville from a stunning weekend on Magnetic Island, where the weather was gorgeous, the water pure and tropical, and the food, cooked by our bunch of friends, fabulous as always. Seafood, swimming, sauvignon blanc, sand and afternoon snoozes by the pool. Yesterday we swam at a beach where in the water with us was a turtle and a dugong, if you can believe that. Anyhoo, all this tropical stuff has reminded me that on my return I’m starting a new Salads page, for this approaching summer I decree will be the season of the salad. Gotta run and make tonight’s seafood curry. Stay tuned for salad days on our return….