Archive for the ‘herbs & spices’ Category

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Jewel in the crown

January 29, 2013

Jewellery box saladHave you noticed how certain dishes can end up defining a time or a season in your memory?  In our house this seems especially true of salads, and of summer.  In the past we’ve had the Summer of Quinoa, and the Summer of Citrus Couscous (the latter remaining the strongest food memory of a road trip we took with dear friends to Perth and back over a decade ago, camping and couscous-ing all the way).

Well this summer of 2012-13 will most definitely be remembered as The Summer of the Cypriot Salad. Or maybe the Jewellery Box  Salad, as I’ve come to think of it. It’s so beautifully colourful and baubly to look at, I find myself gazing adoringly at it almost for longer than I spend eating it each time. It’s also become fondly known as the Freaky Salad because it uses freekeh (the nutty and chewy green cracked wheat which can be found in some health food stores, but can be quite difficult to get hold of ).

In my last post I think I mentioned how much we loved Hellenic Republic’s “Kipriaki salata dimitriakon – Cypriot salad of grains, pulses, nuts, yoghurt” that we ate during a visit to Melbourne in December.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it even days after we got home; the sign of a great dish, don’t you think?

A hunt around the internet yielded this recipe. However, the ratio of lentils to freekeh here didn’t really match my memory (or preference) so I tweaked it a bit to come up with an ever-changing version that we’ve made over and over. The restaurant version included a dollop of yoghurt and, I think, some cumin, both of which are delicious additions although I have tended not to bother with either over time.

It’s the kind of dish where quantities hardly matter, to be honest, so you will find your own way with whatever you have to hand. The only non-negotiable essential is the puy lentils, I think – and although I have made it without the pomegranate seeds, it is so very much better with them that I’m not sure I’d bother going without. The pumpkin and sunflower seeds are also quite necessary for the salad’s lovely surprising crunch.

This dish has two huge advantages apart from being swooningly good to eat. First, it keeps in the fridge for days and days and days without any noticeable fade in quality, and it is incredibly filling. I discovered just how seriously so for both factors  when we made a huge amount for a lunch party and then spent the entire rest of the week eating the leftovers for lunch and dinner.

So here we go – all quantities are debatable; I generally chuck in a handful or so of whatever I feel like. I do prefer a lentil-freekeh ratio of around three to one, even four to one. I find the salad can get a little gluggy if there’s too much freekeh. I have also very often used a handful or two of wild rice in its place, which works just as beautifully and has the added advantage of being fine for gluten-free folk.  This quantity should work for at least six people, but don’t quote me until you’ve tested it for yoursel

freakysalad2Jewellery Box Salad
viaHellenic Republic

  • Juice 1 orange
  • Olive oil
  • ½ cup currants – or combined currants, dried cranberries, raisins
  • ¼ cup capers, rinsed
  • 1 cup puy lentils
  • ¼ cup freekeh or wild rice
  • 1 cup nuts – pine nuts, pistachios, slivered almonds are nice
  • ½ cup mixed pumpkin & sunflower seeds
  • ½ bunch parsley, finely chopped
  • ½ bunch coriander, finely chopped
  • Juice ½ a lemon
  • Seeds of half a pomegranate
  • Salt & pepper
  1. Soak the dried fruit and capers in the orange juice while you prepare the rest of the dish.
  2. Cook the lentils and freekeh or wild rice separately in boiling water until just tender – I cook the lentils for about 15 or 20 minutes and the freekeh or rice for longer; you want them to retain a tiny bit of bite while still being properly cooked.
  3. When lentils are cooked, drain and then immediately sloosh with some olive oil and salt to give a nice glossy coating and stop them sticking. Add the grain or rice when drained and stir well.
  4. While that’s happening, toast the seeds and nuts in the oven or on the stove top – the usual advice about not looking away applies! If any of them really burn, throw them out and learn your lesson – the bitterness of burnt nuts will taint the whole dish.
  5. Remove the seeds from the pomegranate making sure to avoid the pith – the easiest method is the satisfyingly violent one detailed here.
  6. When the nuts are coolish, chuck all ingredients into a bowl and mix gently but thoroughly. Add more lemon juice or olive oil to taste, season well  and present with a flourish.

Now your turn – what’s been the defining dish of your summer so far? Any favourites to share?

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What I ate on my holidays

January 18, 2013

Salad days

It’s been 46.2 degrees Celsius here in Sydney today – that’s over 112 degrees for you Farenheit fans – at the end of my first week back in the office for a loooong time. Luckily this room is air conditioned  unlike the rest of the house, but I’m wondering what on earth to cook for dinner. Last time it got nearly this hot I made this, but I think I have a batch of Karen Martini’s amazing Syrian chicken in the freezer, so I think we’ll have that (actually it’s ours, not Karen’s – but the recipe is hers…)

January has been perfect salad weather so far. So in lieu of a very, very overdue posting – and just before I go and find a cooling bevvy in the fridge – I’ve decided instead of writing here I will merely present a pictorial history of my favourite bits of holiday cooking and eating. Salads, salads, salads and more salads, with the odd bit of protein thrown in. Have been inspired again by the wonderful Ottolenghi lads, as I was given this fantastic book for Christmas, but also have revived lots of old favourites. Hope to be back here soon with some recipes … if you’re in Australia, stay cool folks!

Oh look, the cool change is here! Aaaaahhhh….

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Leftover largesse: from bland to bling

September 13, 2012

Roast chicken lawar

Whenever I’ve invited people over for dinner and then find I have ended up with almost no time to cook, I tend to fall back on an old favourite in this house – roast chook.

This happened on Tuesday evening. I’d invited six pals around, having forgotten that the plasterer was coming to fix the many cracks in our 120-year-old house. Which meant spending Monday getting allll the furniture and paintings and whatnot out of allll the rooms (except the kitchen, thankfully) while they did their thing – and then on Tuesday ridding the entire house (including kitchen!) of its fresh coating of plaster dust, and hauling all the stuff back into place. All while noticing along the way that my generally sluttish housewifery meant all our belongings were in fact covered with their own rich patina of dust and grime, so all that had to be cleaned as well. Lordy.

Despite the house looking like the above at 10am, we managed to get everything back to order by six o’clock and dinner was had and all was lovely (especially including Senor’s chocolate pots au creme from Neil Perry via our friend F! Divine).

Anyhoo,  as I erred on the side of too much food and roasted two chooks for eight people, this meant two roasted chook breasts waiting to be used in the fridge the next day.

What to do with leftover roast chook? Normally I just pick at it for lunches and whatnot, but this time wanted to try something different.

My brainwave was to revisit my lawar love affair of this time last year, following our beautiful holiday in Bali. And now I reckon this must be one of the most delicious and easy ways to use leftover chicken – because you can make a whole meal from it even if you only have a tiny bit of chook. We had lots, but if you didn’t all you would need to do is just increase the beans or other veg quantities and away you’d go. We’re thinking it might be very nice with beans and cashews or tofu cubes, actually …

Once again I used this SBS Food recipe as the starting point, but this time I doubled the paste quantity so I could keep some of that fab stuff in the freezer. I also added a whole bunch of coriander to the paste, and used one small red birdseye chilli instead of two big ones. As before, I dry-fried half a cupful of shredded coconut till brown.

Rather than going the trad mortar-and-pestle route, I whizzed the paste up in the food processor because I prefer pastes with lemongrass in them to be very smooth. Also I am bone idle as you know and can’t be bothered with all that pounding.

So, into the whizzer went the paste ingredients:

  • 1 birdseye chilli
  • 12 cloves garlic
  • a sizable knob of ginger (about 5cm lump)
  • ditto of fresh peeled galangal
  • a little finger of fresh turmeric
  • roots & leaves of 1 bunch coriander
  • 6 candlenuts
  • 4 roughly chopped lime leaves
  • 12 eschallots
  • 1 chopped stalk lemongrass
  • a couple of teaspoons of shrimp paste
  • 2 tablespoons black peppercorns (ground)
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
  • juice 1 lime
  • juice ½ lemon
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • salt to taste
  • a few lugs of olive oil (vegetable oil if you wish to be more authentic)

After whizzing for a few minutes, it ended up as a very aromatic yellowish paste.

Next step was to fry off about four tablespoons of this – use as much or as little as you like, but it’s so delicious I say don’t skimp on the amount. I fried it for about six minutes, stirring now and then to stop it sticking, over a medium heat.

While that was going on I shredded the chicken breast meat and set it aside. The real recipe uses poached chicken mince, and you then use the chicken water to cook the beans in. But I just blanched the beans – about 2 cups of green beans, cut into 3cm lengths – in boiling salted water for a little over a minute.

Once the beans were just crisp and refreshed in cold water, I added them to the chicken with about ½ a cupful of thinly sliced red capsicum and the previously browned coconut.

Then I added the lawar paste and combined very thoroughly until all the chicken, beans and capsicum were well coated in the mix. At the end I added the roughly chopped coriander leaves and about a tablespoon of chopped mint, and served this with a wedge of lime on each plate for squeezing. You could serve it with rice, but the paste is so deliciously rich and thick we just ate it in a bowl on its own.

All in all, it was a damn fine dinner.  And it might have been extra good because of the satisfaction quotient involved in transforming quite ordinary leftovers into something much more special, which always feels a bit magical to me.

What about you – any good kitchen transubstantiation going on at your place lately?

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Lawar love affair

October 9, 2011

Komang's pork lawar (with blood)Well hello everyone … I am hoping you haven’t all taken your pots and pans and gone home!

Apologies for my long absence; things have been a little overwhelming round here what with trips away and novels coming out and people being nice and whatnot (how’s that for some of the most flagrantly unsubtle self-promotion you’ve seen in a while!?).

You know, I’ve just realised something. Having a book published, even though I’ve done it five times now, is a very strange experience. It’s exposing and flattering (sometimes) and mortifying and exhausting in fast-moving waves. I’ve decided it’s  like being a five-year-old at your own birthday party – you run round shrieking look at me look at me look at me and then when everyone does you’re so hyped up on sugar and presents and nervous energy you feel like throwing up and burst into tears.

But as soon as I opened this page to start typing I felt a lovely calm descend upon me, and I thought, Ah, I’m home. That’s my realisation: that I feel at home here on this blog, and I’m determined to spend a bit more time here in the next while.

So last time I was here I was off to Bali for a week – and I have to say it was the most relaxing holiday I’ve ever had. We lay around reading, sleeping, swimming, feeling our winter skins slough off in the tropical weather, and generally managed what every holiday is supposed to feel like but hardly ever does – a wonderful rest from ordinary life. Serenity, peace, and stunning physical beauty (Bali’s, not ours – thank your lucky stars I am posting no pics of us around the swimming pool as proof). And, of course, absolutely wonderful food.

All the pictures here are of food cooked for us by the gorgeous Komang, our host at the villa we stayed in at Sanur (feel free to email me for details because it was just fantastic). I have never, never understood people who go to a country like Bali, dine out at terrible and expensive Italian and French and Japanese restaurants and then come home whining about how bad the food was. We only ate Indonesian food the whole time, and had almost no average meals at all, and certainly no bad ones. In fact the least pleasurable night involved one of the most expensive and chi-chi restaurants on the island, which describes its food as ‘contemporary Balinese’ – it was fine (and the wine was incredible) but we should have stuck to our instincts and the local cheapo joints, all of which were way more fun and generally much better food.

Probably my absolute favourite – among so many good dishes – was a new discovery, a dish called lawar (pictured at the very top). Komang told us his version was made with pork (“but only the skin”), coconut and spices. His was a red colour that I initially thought must be from red rice or just the cooking method, but found no rice in it and learned on our return that this must have been from the pig’s blood, which is often included in this lavish ceremonial dish. But lawar can be made from all kinds of different proteins – this blog here, for instance, says:

No big religious or private celebration would be held without serving this ritual dish. Only the eldest, and most experienced men are allowed to mix the many ingredients. Many versions incorporate raw pounded meat and fresh blood in the dressing. Chicken meat can be replaced with beef, pork, seafood, vegetables or young jackfruit. 

There are recipes for lawar all over the web, which seem slightly different but generally are variations on the same theme; and there’s a great video by Kitchen Insurgency about making it for a big Balinese family feast here. I believe lawar is particularly a Balinese specialty, not made in other parts of Indonesia unlike almost all the other food we ate – but does anyone know more about it than me?

On our return, I tried to emulate some of our favourite holiday dishes in an Indonesian spread for Senor’s colleagues who ran his business so magnificently in our absence – and the pork lawar, indeed, turned out to be the hit of the night with everyone. Sadly I don’t have any photos of it as we gobbled it all too quickly. But I  just used pork mince – no blood, you will probably  be relieved to hear – mixed with green snake beans and the spice paste and coconut. It had a lovely fresh green and turmeric-orange colour scheme going on, and tasted as fresh and vibrant as it looked.

The most time-consuming part is the spice paste, a version of which seems to be used for almost everything Balinese, or at least everything I made that night  (fish sticks, roast chicken in banana leaves, as well as the lawar, along with some stirfried kangkung and some bumbu- the lemongrass & chilli sambal Komang served with every meal). But after the paste is made, the lawar is really just a matter of a quick cook, squidge and mix. So my plan for next time is to make a giant batch of the spice paste and keep it in portions in the freezer, just as I do with chermoula, and then whack this dish together for a quick midweek burst of Bali whenever I get homesick for the sound of gamelan and the scent of tuberoses.

I ended up pretty much using this recipe from SBS Food, partly because I knew I’d be able to get all the ingredients locally. But I used pork mince instead of chicken, and also just dry-fried a cupful of coarse grated coconut (I keep coconut in the freezer, along with all nuts) instead of going to the trouble of cutting up a fresh coconut and roasting it. The result was great, so I don’t think I would do the hard-labour version anytime soon. Oh and I also didn’t find ‘lesser galangal’ so just used ordinary for the whole lot.

Now, any of you have a favourite Indonesian dish – or any dish you’ve eaten on holidays and tried to replicate when you got home? Love to hear more about it, or even better – give us the recipe.

It’s so nice to be back.

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Use your mussels

August 7, 2011

It’s not often that Tim Winton gets together with my mother-in-law and Jared Ingersoll in our kitchen, but that’s what happened this week.

Tempted as I am to leave it at that, let me explain …

You may recall a little while ago I made this incredible – and, technique-wise, rather elaborate  – crab bisque from an Ingersoll  recipe. Soon after that we dined with Annie, my husband’s mum, who is a great cook and made the most delicious mussel soup for us (serving it from her beautiful old tureen). Annie’s bisque was just as velvety and rich as our crab version but, it seemed, involved rather less work. Getting the meat out of a mussel is rather easier than taking a hammer to a crab and picking out the shell, let’s face it, and I resolved to try it some time.

Meanwhile, returning home after a writing retreat, this week I checked out the Sustainable Seafood Guide produced by the Australian Marine Conservation Society – of which writer Tim Winton is patron (you really didn’t think I would be able to pull it all together, did you…).

I’m sorry to say that the SSG is a very depressing little booklet – you can buy a copy, or see the online version here.  Hoping for a few tips on the most ecologically sound fish to eat, I was completely stunned to find that almost every type of seafood I have ever eaten is on either the danger list (‘think twice’) or basically completely unsustainable (‘say no’). 

According to the AMCS we should Think Twice before eating wild version of prawns (also farmed ones), barramundi, blue eye trevalla, Balmain bugs, dory, flathead, lobster, ocean perch, among many others.

Even worse, the Say No list includes farmed Tasmanian salmon (or Atlantic or smoked salmon), imported farmed prawns, farmed barramundi, snapper, orange roughy (we knew about this one and haven’t eaten it in years), wild scallops, wild swordfish, farmed trout, wild tuna of various kinds, imported canned tuna, farmed yellowtail kingfish – among others.

Although wild fish populations are being decimated, if you were under the impression you were protecting the environment by eating farmed fish, as I vaguely was, think again.

As the AMCS and the excellent resource Good Fish Bad Fish explain, farmed fish are often  produced in open sea cages with potential for serious pollution and fish escapes into the wild, along with transfer of diseases into wild fish populations. Fish in sea cages are primarily “carnivorous species with significant reliance on wild fisheries to supply feed” – and up to 5kg of fish meal from wild sources is needed to produce 1kg farmed fish.

Other farming involves semi-closed aquaculture systems – like prawn farming – in which water is exchanged between the farm and a natural waterway. These pond systems are often located adjacent to waterways, where coastal wetlands and mangroves are reclaimed for development, resulting in “a vast loss of habitat which is critical for the juvenile stage of many species”. They can also pollute surrounding waterways, and like the cage fish, often rely on wild species to feed the stock.

More acceptable farming methods are the closed aquaculture systems – land-based ponds where there is no risk of pollution to open waters (although wild fish are still often used for feeding) – and “passive-feeding” open systems using sticks, ropes, racks and cages but natural feeding. The latter is used for oysters (hooray!), mussels and other filter-feeder species.

The Good Fish Bad Fish site is rather more cheering than AMCS site, with a brilliantly designed ‘seafood converter’ to push your dinner in a more sustainable direction. However, I can’t help but wonder if turning to the more flexible Good Fish Bad Fish because we don’t like the AMCS advice is simply burying our head in the sand of the sea floor even more. (That said, the GFBF site links to the AMCS site and other resources quite comprehensively, so they are on the same page.)

So far, so deeply dispiriting. But there is some good news –  there are lots of delicious seafood species on the AMCS  ‘Better Choice’ list – including various species of wild mahi mahi, moonfish, leatherjacket, King George whiting, oysters, mussels, squid, calamari, cuttlefish, octopus.

All of which brings me – slowly, I know! – back to my mussel soup. Inspired by Annie’s soup,  Tim’s commitment  and Jared’s recipe (as well as the quite magnificent lobster-topped soup tureen I was given by Annie and my lovely in-laws L&B for my birthday – thanks guys!), I adapted the crab bisque  to come up with an easy and very delicious spicy mussel version.

Before the recipe, a quick note on the texture – on this first attempt I began by using the mouli, then the stick blender, and finally the food processor, but the result was still a little fibrous, especially with strings of celery somehow escaping all pureeing methods. Next time I am going to simply puree all the vegetable and mussel mix before adding to the stock, which is what I’m advising in the recipe below. I would love to hear if you try it, and how it goes.

Spicy mussel bisque – serves 4

  • 1 teaspoon each cumin, caraway, coriander seeds and half a teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1/3 cup soft brown sugar
  • pinch chilli flakes
  • salt and pepper
  • 150ml vegetable oil
  • 1.5 large red capsicums, seeded & chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, squashed
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 stick celery, roughly chopped (it may be worth peeling this first if you can be bothered)
  • 1 medium fennel bulb, roughly chopped
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • ½  bunch coriander, leaves & stems separated
  • 1.5kg black (or ‘blue’ mussels)
  • 600ml chicken stock (I used homemade  – if you use packaged, lay off the seasoning of the soup)
  • (optional) 2 tablespoons Yalla harissa – I love this stuff and keep a pot of it in the freezer at all times for digging into to add extra kick to all kinds of dishes. If you don’t want or can’t find this, you could perhaps double the spice mix and chilli at the beginning for some extra kick

Method

  1. Toast the spices in a dry frying pan until fragrant, then grind in mortar & pestle or spice grinder.
  2. Heat a deep roasting tin in the oven or on the stove top and when hot, add the oil and all the vegetables except coriander leaves.
  3. Sprinkle the spices over the vegetables with the sugar, chilli flakes & seasoning and mix well and roast in a moderate oven for about 1 hour.
  4. Meanwhile, scrub and de-beard the mussels, then place in a covered pan over a medium heat with a big glass of white wine for about 10 minutes, or until the mussels are opened. Remove them from the pan to cool, reserving the cooking liquid.
  5. When the shells are cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the shells and set aside.
  6. When the vegetables are soft, smell good and are a little coloured, remove from oven.
  7. Transfer the vegetables and the mussel meat into the large bowl of a food processor and puree till smooth – or keep it coarse if you prefer a more rustic texture.
  8. In a sizable pot add the stock to the mussel cooking liquid, then add the puree and simmer gently for about 15 minutes.
  9. Add the chopped coriander leaves and harissa if using, stir to combine, and serve with crusty bread.
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Cruciferous crusader

June 13, 2011

Does anyone else find themselves eating significantly more meat in winter?

Sydney weather has turned utterly miserable in the last little while –  freezing temperatures, wild winds and absolutely bucketing rain. It’s fantastic cooking weather so long as you have a well-stocked pantry and fridge, because going out into the rain to forage is vile. I’ve been on a pastry roll (boom tish) during the past week, as I’m determined to improve my competence in that department and have done some experimenting with blind-baking pie bases versus not doing so, with gratifying results, which I’ll post about soon.

But while this weather is perfect for pastry and all that comes with it – rich meat pies, chicken and mushroom pies and so on – the downside to all this is of course the stodge factor, the high meat factor, and the accompanying risk of increasing boombalahdism.

So my challenge in the next while is to find some hearty and delicious winter dishes that depend more on vegetables than meat. I’m happy to notch up the carbs for a bit, because it just feels right to load up a little for winter, but having worked hard to lose some weight in the first half of the year, I would rather not blow all that by going too crazy with the carbs and fat and meat for the next few months.

Enter the humble Brassica family.

My favourite thing of last week was a cabbage accompaniment to some very good pork chops – an old Jamie Oliver number I posted about way back in the early days of this blog. It’s a delicious fatfest – pork, pears, potatoes and parsnip – and needs a sharp accompaniment to balance all that sweetness and stodge.

Cabbage is one of my favourite overlooked ingredients. I think we can all hark back to childhood for some reasonably ghastly memories of flabby, colourless boiled cabbage and that sad, defeated smell. But when it’s done well, cabbage can provide a wonderfully sparky lift to a meal I reckon.  And there is also the virtuous cancer-fighting glow that comes from consuming any member of the Brassica family (love that it sounds so like a contemporary primary schoolgirl’s name, except of course the spelling would need some adjustment.  “Brassikah! Come here! We have to go pick up Crucifera from ballet!”)

In the summer just gone I was introduced to an incredibly good shredded cabbage and Parmesan salad by Caro (she of the roasted cherry chutney and many other goodies on this blog), which I will tell you more about some other time. But this not being salady weather, this week I adapted a couple of different recipes to come up with the following side dish. I recommend it.  Oh and please forgive the low photo quality – all this getting dark at 5pm makes good evening photography an impossibility…

Cabbage with caraway and currants

  • olive oil
  • ¼ cup (or less) finely chopped bacon, pancetta or speck
  • 2 French shallots, finely chopped
  • few cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • ¼ head of shredded white cabbage
  • ½ cup of cup verjuice
  • large handful currants
  • 2 tsp caraway seeds
  • salt & pepper

Method

  1. Saute the bacon, shallot and garlic in a good splash of oil until soft.
  2. Add the cabbage and stir thoroughly to coat with oil, fry over high heat for a few minutes.
  3. Add the verjuice and stir to mix well.
  4. Add currants and caraway seeds, cover and cook for a few minutes more until cabbage is tender but retains a touch of crunch. Season & serve.

And now I’d love some ideas from you about hearty, warming, non-meat dishes for winter. What are your favourites?

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How to get your groove back

February 27, 2011

Regaining your kitchen mojo: the chicken stock method

This week, my dear friend Ms Manners remarked rather sadly that it seemed she never cooked anymore.

She works incredibly hard at a stressful job, her partner is a good cook and happy to do it. But these weren’t the only reasons she had virtually abandoned the pots and pans, she said wistfully. The major problem was that, despite being an excellent cook at various times of her life, it seemed now she had simply lost the zest for it, and didn’t know how to get it back. She’s lost her kitchen mojo.

We all know how this feels, right?  The day you try to come up with an idea  for dinner and decide that, think as hard as you might, there are only two possibilities, grilled chicken drumsticks or pesto, and you’ve had them both already this week. It’s not that you don’t want to cook other dishes – it’s that you simply can’t imagine what other stuff there might be to cook. The books on your shelves, full of recipes and ideas, are like holiday brochures: full of gorgeous places you might like to visit one day, but simply too distant, too exotic, too out of reach for now.

This is a very common syndrome, known as Culinarus Mojous Interruptus. It is characterised by a light melancholy and an overwhelming fatigue whenever the sufferer glances at the cook top. It can last for years, and the same cure doesn’t work for everyone. Fortunately though, there are a few remedies that, taken as directed, can slowly but surely restore the sufferer’s confidence and enthusiasm for cookery.

The other night I found myself in the throes of a syndrome at the complete opposite end of the spectrum; an episode of Culinarus Hyperstimulatus which manifested in waking at 3AM, insomniac with excitement about a bag of chook bones in the fridge.

This was partly inspired by my cooky brother-in-law (one of several!) marvelling recently over why people pay good money for tetra-paks of stock full of salt and perservatives when chicken stock was quick and so simple to make. I confessed I was one of these ninnies; I had not made stock for months, and I often use those cartons (my view remains that using packaged stock is pretty far down the list of culinary sins, so I have no problem with it).

But of course he’s right about it being so easy to make, and cheap. You can buy a bag of chook bones from chicken shops for around a dollar, but since I pledged allegiance to free-range or organic chook only, don’t eat all that much chicken anyway and often buy boneless thigh fillets, my supply of bones has diminished. Until this week, when I came to my senses and asked the lovely peeps at Feather And Bone to sell me some carcasses along with the whole chooks I ordered this week. A bountiful bag of four beautiful, fresh, meaty, free range chook skeletons arrived on my doorstep for the princely sum of $5.

As I flung these into two big stock pots along with the other bits and bobs, it occurred to me that maybe making a pot of chicken stock could be a first step towards regaining one’s vanished culinary mojo.

First, there’s no pressure to actually complete a whole dish, and surely there is no less stressful task than hacking up a carrot, an onion, a celery stick and a tomato and tossing it into a pot with a couple of herbs (bay leaf, thyme, parsley, whatever), the chook carcass and some water.

Second, the sensory delight of this little job is immense. For one thing, there’s the luscious smell – our front door was open to the street when I made mine, and I actually saw passers-by stop and peer into my hallway, provoked by the cooking aroma. Then there’s the visual beauty of it – the glistening little baubles of  fat separating and rejoining, the gentle steam, the gradual transformation of your wan bunch of ingredients into a potful of golden goodness.

But most of all, I reckon making chicken stock provides one with an instant and very rewarding Real Cook glow.

Partly it’s to do with the busy productivity of the water toiling and simmering away (while you get to read the paper and drink coffee). Partly it’s to do with the virtue factor involved in making wholesome good use of otherwise wasted vegetable crisper odds and ends – all those tough bits of leek, nubs of carrots, limp herbs and otherwise useless parsley stalks, mushroom trimmings and overripe tomatoes. And partly, of course, it’s the incredible usefulness of the result: a splash or a litre of gorgeous home-made chicken stock can enrich anything from a risotto to pasta sauce to tagine to poaching broth to bouillabaisse to minestrone.

I have mostly made stock by bunging the leftover bones from dinner into a little saucepan with the veg trimmings before the dishwasher is stacked, then simply turned off the heat before going to bed.  Recipes are everywhere and recommended simmering times vary anywhere from twenty minutes to four hours, so it’s pretty much a no-brainer, deadset simple thing to do. But I have to say there is a leisurely pleasure in the long-simmered type that doesn’t really shine through so much in the quick apres-dinner simmer. For me, anyway – I welcome dissent on this!

The other virtue of this stock remedy for getting your mojo back is that you can enter into the kitchen spirit without having to make it a performance – there’s no tricky timing to worry about, no dinner party stress, not even anxiety about a raised eyebrow from your partner, housemate or cat!

So, there’s my first tip for reviving Ms Manners’ enthusiasm for the rounds of the kitchen. Some others I’ve thought of while writing this post include:

  • Have a well stocked pantry & freezer. That way, when inspiration strikes there’s no dreary going to the shops involved. Let’s face it – supermarkets drain the life force out of the most committed cooks, so you don’t want that giant obstacle in your way. My pantry essentials are mostly listed here (and lots of good advice in the comments too), but of course there are much more obvious things – salt & pepper, spices, canned tomatoes, olives, anchovies, pine nuts, etc. For the freezer, my essentials are butter, couple of bits of chicken, some chorizo sausage, a couple of other good sausages, and loads of nuts.
  • Start small, start simple! Don’t try to cook a special dinner for eight until you’re really firing on all burners – you need to rebuild your confidence cooking simple but interesting things. Even if it’s just sparking up a salad with a few nuts or some lentils & goat’s cheese, start small and get the mini-buzz first.
  • Go to a grower’s market or a really good fruit & veg grocer, sniff the air and get inspired (I love Addison Road Sunday market at Marrickville for its lack of pretension, cruisy vibe and good veg stalls).
  • Use good equipment. No need for loads of gadgets, and nothing need be really expensive – but decent saucepans, at least one sharp chef’s knife and a sturdy food processor make otherwise tiresome chores easy and pleasurable. Would love your ideas on the basic essentials.
  • Watch a bit of Jamie Oliver. He has naysayers aplenty, but I love his exuberance and egalitarian insistence that anyone can cook good food. We have two of his books and they’re both great, and I am a huge fan of the 30-minute meals show that screened here recently. Always felt the urge to cook after watching.

Okay, enough from me; it’s your turn. How do you get your mojo back back after a holiday from the hob?