Archive for September, 2010


I need your help with fictional food

September 29, 2010

I have a little quest, and I think all my beloved shuckers are just the folk to help me. I need to compile a list of novels in which food and cookery is central – can be any genre, any era, just so long as food is somehow inextricably linked to the story and the characters. Australian novels most particularly welcome, but all suggestions will be very warmly welcomed. As we’ve discussed before here and here, I am quite keen on bad food in fiction – and not so interested in the exotic school of luscious lyrical pomegranate/chocolat/cinnamon-and-jaggery-love (or as @cityoftongues rather more tartly termed them in a Twitter chat this morning, ‘chutney and incest novels’)  but still, all ideas welcome.

All this is in aid of a proposal I’m writing for some academic work on food in literature – and as the highly sophisticated, erudite and learned creatures you are, I just know you will have some contributions for me!

And by the way, I have some happy news. I can officially announce that my new novel, Animal People, has been accepted for publication by the wonderful folks at Allen & Unwin. It will be out toward the end of next year – October 2011 to be precise – giving me a gorgeously long lead time for editorial sprucing. I am so thrilled they will have me back.

Now, kiddies, I look forward to your fictional food suggestions!


A week away …

September 28, 2010

Soon I shall be back in earnest to report on the results of this year’s Allen & Unwin bakeoff – just as spectacular as last year’s, and the Empress and I once again had a groaningly good time of the judging.

But this week I’m away writing at Varuna, the Writers’ House. If you’ve never been here and you like to write, you really should make the acquaintance of this place. It’s the former home of the renowned Australian novelist Eleanor Dark, who was writing in the 1930s and 40s.

Varuna is a huge light-filled house on the edge of a valley in the Blue Mountains of NSW, Australia. The house is set in a large garden of exotic and native plants, complete – this week – with a dive-bombing magpie who makes sure everyone who comes and goes does so holding a book over their heads. It’s like some strange school of deportment, with squeals. I have been given the most glorious room – Eleanor and Eric’s bedroom with this adjacent sun-trap of a workroom. I get to stickybeak on all comings and goings as well as basking in the sun like a lizard. Oh, and write, of course.

I have had a long and happy association with Varuna and have been here many times to work on various books (as well as doing bits of work for the organisation itself, like helping to run this very good publishing forum coming up in October).

This week I am in the company of some very gifted writers – including our own Julie Bail, who is midway through a fab-sounding novel and whom you will know as a wonderful writer from her many astute and hilarious comments on these pages; and also my dear friend Lucinda Holdforth (who, I learned last night, among other distinctions has had the enviable privilege of a fan letter from the fabulous and very witty Leigh Sales about Why Manners Matter).

Alongside us in the house, working quietly away, are Glenda Guest whose first novel Siddon Rock won a squillion prizes last year including the big Commonwealth Writers’ Prize first book award, and the gorgeous Paddy O’Reilly, a short story writer and novelist of rare talent. We are going to have a week of working hard during the day and long conversations about writing over dinner at night with Peter Bishop, who has been the creative director of Varuna for many years but has now stepped sideways into a consulting role, to focus on his own writing. Already (we got here yesterday) the six of us are finding common threads, fears and preoccupations with similar structural issues and other matters of craft.

One of Varuna’s recent guests, Mark Welker, has made this stunning short video which shows exactly what it’s like to work here – the staring out of windows, the walks, the garden, and the burrowing inside your own slow, intense thinking as the weather moves around you. So until next week, enjoy this beautiful thing.


Leek chic

September 21, 2010

When Senor came home from a garage sale one day grinning and brandishing a battered copy of this book, I cheered. It’s a classic, as many of you well know, but one I had never gotten round to looking at. It went on the cookbook shelf – and was promptly forgotten, till last night, when I finally dipped in.

I had a hankering for something spicy and easy and lentilish for dinner, and became very taken with the sound of Charmaine’s Sri Lankan Paripoo, which is a lot less rude than it sounds. Basically, this is red lentils cooked in coconut milk with lemongrass,  spices (turmeric, cinnamon, dried chilli) and loads of almost black-fried onion, plus some pounded dried shrimp in place of the Maldive fish, which I didn’t have and in fact till that moment had never heard of. Luckily, our freezer yielded some dried shrimp (triple-bagged) and I used Persian red lentils in place of Asian ones. The Persians are lovely – a tawny pink version that otherwise in shape and size look very like the French-style blue lentils I use in almost all other dishes. I  am sure Sri Lankan purists would paripoo-pooh my choice of pulse, but phooey to them. It was grand.

Now the lentils were very fine indeed, but what really rocked my world was this easy leek accompaniment. I don’t know how it works, but this really simple dish gave the lentils – and the accompanying rice pilau from the Pakistan pages of the book (just to show what a complete cultural philistine I am) – an amazing zing.

The finely chopped leeks are simply slowly sweated down in some oil with chilli powder, more pounded shrimp, salt and turmeric. That’s it – and yet, somehow, this all merges and melds into a sticky, slightly jammy, sweet, sharp and spicy little sambal that I think would go perfectly with many different kinds of curries & rice dishes.  Charmaine doesn’t call it a sambal, so it’s probably completely wrong to describe it like that. It’s simply called Leeks Fried with Chilli – or Leeks Mirisata – but its texture is so jammy that it’s almost like a chutney rather than a separate vegetable dish.  And because she emphasises using the green part of the leek as well as the white, it ends up a delicate pale lemony yellow. Beautiful!

Whatever it is, I am in love.  And I bet you will be too – the recipe is right here, just below the lentils. The quantity in the recipe seemed huge, so I halved it and that was plenty for the the two of us, with a goodly amount leftover for lunch too.

V: Interestingly, I had a little Twitter chat today about this with @KathrynElliott from the fab blog Limes & Lycopene, which our shucking pal Julie put me on to ages ago. Kathryn (who you’ll have met here in the comments sometimes) says Charmaine’s Complete Vegetarian book has a version of Leeks Mirisata  which simply leaves out the Maldive fish/shrimp. Then I recalled our Hamish’s suggestion that umeboshi plums could make a good substitute for anchovies. Kathryn thought this a fine idea, and then her pal Lucinda (from Nourish Me and – stay with me –  the other half of the very cool online mag An Honest Kitchen ) weighed in via Twitter (@LucyNourishMe) to say:  “A finely chopped piece of umeboshi, some garlic and shoyu is a grand anchovy sub. Stinky and rich enough.” So there you are – if I were doing this leeky thing veg style, I would definitely have a shot at getting that combo in somewhere. And shoyu, I learn, is similar to tamari.

Phew. Took longer to type that than make it. So go to it – happy eating!


Beautiful baubles

September 20, 2010

Is there any fruit more wildly gorgeous, more sexily exotic than the pomegranate?

The first time I ever ate a pomegranate seed was a few years ago, when my friend Miss J flung a few seeds into a glass of sparkling wine. This might be old news to all of you, but I was astounded – the way they zing up and down forever in the glass, like tiny, ruby-red submarines! Gotta love a drink that also performs tricks. And then, of course, there’s the eating: the surprise of that sweet, sour, crunch and burst.

I hereby vow to use the pomegranate much more this summer, but I need you to help me figure out some new ways of using it. Pomegranate molasses is a key ingredient in lots of Middle Eastern dishes, as you will know, but it’s the texture of the seeds I’m really in love with. If you haven’t used the molasses and are tempted, just be warned it’s very strong – it has a wonderfully sour, complex flavour, but too much of it will really make you wince, so go easy.

Likewise, if a fresh pomegranate isn’t ripe the seeds can be horribly sour and have almost no juice at all, so try to make sure you get a ripe one. The riper it is, the darker and sweeter the seeds. You’ll see, for example, that my pomegranate pictured here has some dark seeds and lots of paler ones – the latter are barely edible and in fact this whole fruit isn’t as ripe as I’d really like. I’m told here that the riper the fruit, the darker the skin, and the heavier it feels in the hand. Another nice tip, according to the same source, is that the ripest pomegranate has slightly squared sides, whereas an unripe one is round as an apple.

In Arabesque, Claudia Roden gives a divine Lebanese recipe for roasted sliced aubergines brushed with pomegranate molasses, then slathered in a mix of yoghurt and tahini and scattered with pomegranate seeds and toasted pine nuts (and the pomegranate even features in the stunning cover photo of this book). You have no idea till you taste this how velvety and luscious it is.

But my other favourite for pomegranate seeds (actually called arils, I believe) is this Ottolenghi shaved fennel, feta & pomegranate salad. It’s a tart, crisp salad with lots of lemon and tarragon, but the creaminess of the feta beautifully offsets the sharpness of the other ingredients.

I also love Ottolenghi’s suggested method of removing the seeds. It’s important to use only the glossy red seeds, not the horrid white pith, and lots of people recommend a process of scoring the skin, immersing the fruit in water, breaking the flesh apart and leaving in water so the seed sinks and the pith floats to the top for removal. Then you have to sieve the seeds to drain them. Which all sounds rather laborious to me, and I much prefer the Ottolenghi method of simply halving the fruit at the fattest part, holding the cut side down in your cupped hand over a bowl, and whacking the upper side of the fruit, quite vigorously, with a wooden spoon. The seeds simply drop out into your hand and/or the bowl, with lots of juice. Too easy, chief!

If you haven’t yet tasted pomegranate, I suggest you give the fennel salad a try immediately, along with a tall glass of bubbles & baubles. And if you’re already an aficionado, tell me what you do with these beads of beauty so I can expand my repertoire.


How to make a vegetarian smile, pt II

September 17, 2010

The last entirely vegetarian dinner party I cooked was a wintry little number, but very satisfying, with a few  nicely contrasting elements I think. The mainstay was a mushroom ragu served on creamy polenta, paired with a side dish of a punchy green salad with lentils & goat’s cheese.

There are a couple of things that made this work well. First, both the ragu and the lentils used  the roasted vegetable stock, as I described ages ago here. This time though, I took a leaf out of Skye Gyngell’s book – her secret flavour weapons often include tamari sauce and maple syrup, so I added a tablespoon of each to the reduced stock. I swear this little combo, while not leaping out as separate flavours, really gives a layered depth and complexity to the stock.

Next was the assortment of mushrooms. I used about 600g of combined chopped Portobello, field and Swiss brown mushrooms, and later added – importantly – a good tablespoon’s worth of dried porcinis to the mix. Again, this gives a big hit of rich flavour.

Mushroom ragu with creamy polenta

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 600g chopped fresh mushrooms
  • 1 x can peeled tomatoes
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 1 cup roasted vegetable stock
  • 10g dried porcini, rehydrated & chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • grated Parmesan, to serve
  1. Heat oil & add celery, carrot, onion, garlic and some sea salt, sauté until soft.
  2. Add a good big knob of butter & a little more oil, turn up the heat and – gradually, in batches – sauté the fresh mushrooms with the mirepoix over a high heat until the mushrooms lose most of their moisture and are nicely browned.
  3. Add wine, tomatoes, stock and herbs and bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer.
  4. Add the chopped porcini and liquid to the sauce.
  5. Stir, then simmer uncovered for around 30 minutes (or even up to an hour),  till the sauce has reduced and thickened, adding another good slug of oil if it looks too watery. Add stock or water if at any stage it becomes too thick.
  6. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Not long before you’re ready to serve, make the creamy polenta – this is dead simple, as described here, but does take a little time. Just do the onion & milk bit ahead of time, and if you need to, have your guests chat with you in the kitchen while you stir.

Spoon the polenta into shallow pasta bowls, and top with a heap of the mushroom ragu (add a tiny swizzle of olive oil at the last second, if you dare), and sprinkle with Parmesan at the table.

Green salad with lentils & goat’s cheese

This zingy little salad can be made completely ahead of time and simply dressed & tossed just before you eat.

1. Sling half a cup of puy lentils into a pan of hot vegetable stock, and simmer for 20 minutes or till tender. Drain and return to the pan with a splash of olive oil till ready to assemble the salad.

2. Have some slow-roasted tomatoes (scroll down on the Essential Ingredients page) ready to go.

3. When you’re ready to serve, toss some good green salad leaves (specially good with some texturally springy ones, like curly endive and radicchio as well as soft lettuce) together with the scattered lentils and tomatoes in a bowl with a dressing of three-parts good extra-virgin oil to one-part best-quality balsamic vinegar. Then tear up some marinated goat’s cheese  (or even better, your homemade labneh!) and toss it into the salad in chunks. Serve in a bowl at the table.

Sweet ending

For dessert, I can’t recommend this whole orange cake highly enough – and because it’s made with almond meal instead of flour, it gives your guests another dose of good nutty protein. Serve it with some more yoghurt or cream on the side. Another almondy option is a frangipane tart, and although I haven’t made this particular one, there is a beautiful-sounding recipe here. Otherwise, I’d go for some other fruit-based dessert.

So there you have it – a simple but I think nicely varied vegetarian dinner menu for four, with heaps of punchy flavour and texture, and also providing a reasonably diverse mix of protein, dairy, carbohydrate and lots of other goodies.

I would love to hear comment from our vegetarian visitors about how this combination might be improved – and as well, keep your ideas for zingy vego dinner party dishes coming.



How to make a vegetarian smile, pt I

September 15, 2010

Earlier this year I happened to be travelling for a week in the company of two vegetarians, and was shocked by the severely limited options they had in restaurants.

In South Australia, a state famed for its quality gourmet produce (Maggie Beer and Gay Bilson live there, for godsake!), my companions were constantly given the evil eye by staff in cafes and restaurants for asking for non-meat options. I was stunned. As a meat eater, I realised how little attention I generally pay to whether a restaurant menu has more than one (usually pasta or risotto) vegetarian dish. And on my buddies’ behalf, I grew increasingly angry. For just as meat-eaters generally like to vary their diets with different kinds of protein and carbs, so do vegetarians. But time and again I saw these extremely polite and tolerant people being offered either a boring green salad containing no carbs or protein at all, or a bowl of pasta. And when you’re travelling and staying in hotels, that means eat pasta twice a day or go hungry.

The attitude of restaurant staff was another nasty shock – the suggestion that not everyone eats meat seemed to be taken as a personal insult, with the result that whatever was eventually provided was done so grudgingly, the food hastily shoved on a plate with minimal effort at presentation,  and dumped on the table with a punitive sneer, usually long after everyone else had their meals delivered. Take that, freak. And now pay for it.

Since then, I’ve asked lots of vegetarians what they think are the biggest culinary faux pas they’ve come across, either in restaurants or at friends’ houses for dinner. To a person, they have been keen not to sound critical or fussy, and said that any vego food cooked by friends is always fine, and a bowl of pasta or risotto is perfectly lovely. But their views on restaurants are another matter, as discussed in this week’s Sydney Morning Herald Good Living. I mean, it’s not as if a restaurant doesn’t have lots of great ingredients sitting there in the kitchen, and it is a pretty simple matter to chuck a few chickpeas or lentils in a salad or other dish. But I’m told vegetarians are still routinely offered seafood, things cooked in chicken stock, bacon (“You do eat bacon, right?”) or punished with rock-hard vegetables, vegie burgers dripping in meat juices or even – I kid you not – microwaved instant noodles. The ones in a packet. The ones that look and taste and smell like nuclear waste.

I don’t get it. If you’re a chef, I’d have thought that having some exciting and original meat-free dishes on the menu is all part of the fun of the job. My most stringently vego friend, tells me, for example, that she went wild with joy at the complex and interesting dishes to be found on the menu at our pal Hamish’s gorgeous M On the Bund restaurant in Shanghai.

Another thing I’ve been surprised by is how frightened some people seem to be of cooking for vegetarians at home. I do understand some fear of vegan cooking – without eggs or dairy the options are much more limited – but for your garden-variety vegetarian it’s really pretty easy. The most obvious route is the pasta or risotto option and I’ve done it many a time. But these days, just for interest’s sake, I try to come up with something a little more complex when vegetarians come to dinner, and provide at least a bit of protein (think nuts, the beloved lentil, dried bean or chickpea, or tofu & tempeh if you’re a bit more adventurous), a bit of dairy, some contrasting textures and some complex, kickarse flavours. A while ago, Stonesoup had a fantastic post on how to host a vegetarian feast, in which you’ll find lots of hints on cooking great veg food for guests. Interestingly, Jules’ musing on that topic was prompted by a veg friend bemoaning the ubiquity of vegetarian lasagne in her life, and others tell me that even in otherwise reasonable places, veg food tends to fall into the categories of cheesy stodge or textureless slop – which takes me back to the time I thought I hated lentils because of the flavourless yellow slop passed off as dahl in just-left-home share houses of old. Ugh.

Bah. Enough ranting. In the next post I’ll provide a menu for the last decent vego dinner I made. But in the meantime, I’d love your views. If you don’t eat meat, what makes your eyes light up on a restaurant or dinner party menu? And what makes your blood boil? If you are carnivorous, what are your best recipes for your vego mates?


Mission Impossible

September 11, 2010

When I made a version of Stephanie Alexander’s Crustless Silverbeet, Pine Nut & Olive ‘Tart’ for a friend recently, she recognised it instantly as a picnic favourite that her friend calls Impossible Pie. I have no idea what makes it so impossible, except the fact it’s basically a robust, chunky quiche without the pastry, which I guess leads to the cutseypie moniker. Whatever the reason, Impossible Pie has stuck  in our house, and it’s become a weekend lunch staple that easily feeds a gang of eight.

The original recipe is from this book here, which I still love to death. Stephanie’s version is entirely vegetarian, and very good too, but for omnivores  I have usually added a handful of chopped bacon or pancetta (for as the Empress is fond of saying, “there’s nothing in life that can’t be improved by bacon”). And I think next time I might sling in a few chopped anchovies too.

Speaking of vegetarians, I’ve been having a little Twitter discussion on the topic lately so look out soon for a post on how to make a vegetarian happy. And I’ve decided that as much as possible, from now on I’m including veg options for any recipes here, using this little green V symbol at the end.

Silverbeet Impossible Pie

  • 1 sizable bunch silverbeet
  • olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 3 tablespoons chopped bacon / pancetta
  • 3 tablespoons currants
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 12 black olives, pitted & roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon rinsed capers
  • 5 tablespoons breadcrumbs
  • 4 eggs
  • 200g natural yoghurt
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
  • a little butter


1. Wash silverbeet & separate stems & leaves.

2. Chop leaves into strips and stems into 1cm chunks.

3. Throw stems into simmering water for 2 mins, followed by the leaves for another 2 mins. Drain and cool under cold running water for a few minutes. Dry in a tea towel or salad spinner.

4. While silverbeet is blanching, toast pine nuts in a little oil until golden brown, then remove and toss into a large mixing bowl.

5. Saute onion and garlic with bacon or pancetta for a few minutes until bacon is crisp and vegetables are soft.

6. Pulse silverbeet a couple of times in a food processor to roughly chop a little more, then add to bacon mix and fry for a few more minutes.

7. Add the vegetables & bacon to the pine nuts in the large bowl, then add currants, olives and 4 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs. Season and leave to cool.

8. In another bowl, lightly whisk eggs and yoghurt together till well mixed, then add to silverbeet mix.

9. Lightly grease a glass or ceramic pie dish and coat the sides and base with the remaining tablespoon of breadcrumbs (add any leftovers to the mix), then plonk the vegetable mix in, top with the grated Parmesan and a few dots of butter.

10. Bake the tart in a moderate oven for 30-40 minutes or until it feels firm and the top is crisp.  Serve warm or cold with a green salad.

V: Just leave out the bacon


A moment’s grace

September 10, 2010

Does anybody ever say grace anymore? A while ago a friend confessed an unusual phobia: he lived in terror of being asked to say grace before a meal. The old fear of public speaking turned up a notch by the requirement for solemnity and reverence, I suppose. I forgot about that amusing moment until a few weeks ago when we dined with friends and their kids at a celebratory meal, and one of the guests said a few words of grace before we tucked in, and I found it a lovely gesture.

Even though I grew up in a solidly Mass-attending Catholic family, I don’t recall saying grace regularly at all – it was always said at Christmas dinner or some other special meal, but the idea of giving thanks for food on a daily basis was not big in our house.  Perhaps it’s more a Protestant thing? What about Judaism – in such a food-based culture I imagine it’s pretty standard? But whatever our religious or cultural origins, grace certainly isn’t said much among my circle nowadays, and even a quick Google search comes up with the name of a removal company before suggestions of how to say grace. Often thanks is given to the hosts or the cook, but that’s not the same thing at all as gratitude for the luck and grace that has brought the food (and the friends!) to the table.

All this has made me wonder if it might be possible to come up with some way of ritually expressing thanks for the enormous good fortune that brings such good, fresh food to our table in such abundance that we find it shamefully unremarkable. The trouble is that grace is traditionally said to God, and if you don’t believe in him there’s a bit of a problem. Alternatively, thanking The Universe or whatever is a tad too hippie-dippy (or ‘oogyboogy’ as my friend Peter the painter says)  for my taste and would surely embarrass my grace-fearing friend even more that the trad version.

But maybe we don’t have to thank any divine force in particular; perhaps all that’s required is simply to be thankful, and raise a glass in that gratitude.

Would love your thoughts. Did any of you say grace in your childhoods? What kind? Do you still do it? Or if you aren’t religious, have you come up with any other way of marking this kind of thankfulness?


David Mitchell on communal eating

September 3, 2010

Hi folks, so flat out with work at the moment I haven’t a second to blog – will be back soon but in the meantime, check out the delightfully idiosyncratic David Mitchell on the tender joys of communal eating. And thanks to GraGra for pointing me in Mr Mitchell’s direction.

Hope you get to do lots of it this weekend!