Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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Home on the range: Mr Slater’s aubergine

July 11, 2012

Regular visitors to this blog might recall that I am an avid fan of the aubergine.

And winter visitors to our house know that I am also a fan of roasted or oven-baked things of every kind, as it means I can justifiably keep the heat cranked … while Senor reclines in t-shirt and shorts in an oven-induced tropical torpor, I find this kind of temperature juust right…

I’m also a fervent admirer of Mr Nigel Slater, whose recipes and writing in the Guardian I have always loved for their elegance and flair. I have his wonderful veg book Tender, and I shortly hope to deepen my acquaintance with hm via the TV series showing on the ABC – haven’t seen the show yet but look forward to it, to see if he can replace Mr Fearnley Whosywhat in my affections.

I do feel I know him quite personally now, as recently my nieces Anna and Rosie, both budding fine cooks (cue gratuitous photo opportunity – there they are below, after teaching me how to make pasta), sat me down at their house to watch the rather wrenching film version of Nige’s autobiography Toast (they had seen it twice – their other fave watch-over-and-over again movie is Julie & Julia. You can see why we get along).

Anyway – this week my warm feelings for Nigel, the oven and aubergine converged in perfect harmony when I came across Mr Slater’s wondrous Baked Aubergines with Thyme and Cream in Tender, also handily online here at The Guardian. This rich, rib-sticking winter food is something the English do particularly well, I think, do you?

I have now made this twice – once as per his recipe, and once with a couple of very minor variations. Nigel salts his eggplant slices and then fries them in oil before layering with the onion and thyme and garlic, but given that one then swamps the whole thing with cream (oh yes) and also that I am lazy, the second time I just sliced the eggplant and grilled on the barbecue before layering. Or you could dry-fry them or brown in the oven with the same result, I think. I also added some chopped tomato to the onion & garlic, taking a little passegiata down the parmigiana route. The second time I made this I served a big dish of it with some slow cooked lamb and lentils to a table of eight, and everyone loved it.

Nigel’s pristine recipe is at the link above, but my slightly lazier version is this – to serve 8. And I promise, what it lacks in elegance it more than makes up in popularity …

Nigel Slater’s creamy baked aubergine – serves 8

  • 2 large eggplants, sliced 1cm thick & grilled, baked or dry-fried till brown and floppy
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 small bunch thyme, leaves picked
  • 600ml thickened cream
  • a couple of tablespoons of grated Parmesan
  • salt & pepper
  1. Saute the onion slices gently in some olive oil till soft, then add garlic and fry a few more minutes.
  2. Add tomato, cook till soft and combined.
  3. Lay half the eggplant slices in the base of an oiled baking tray, then spread most of  the tomato-onion-garlic mixture over the top.
  4. Scatter the thyme over and season this layer.
  5. Layer the remaining eggplant over the mix and then the last of the tomato mixture  (I didn’t do this the second time but it looks nicer and more golden if you leave some onion on the top so I will from now on).
  6. Pour the cream over the whole dish, making sure to go to the edges.
  7. Season, sprinkle with the Parmesan and bake in a moderate oven for around 30 to 40 minutes or until golden and bubbly.
  8. Remove from oven and allow to rest for a few minutes before serving.
Offcuts
Thought I might start to include a small list of other random things I’ve cooked lately at the end of these posts – this week’s list includes:
  • Yoghurt, my new hobby as you know.
  • The slow-roasted lamb served with this aubergine was very similar to this one, though with less liquid and just loads of garlic instead of the other vegies, and as the lamb was only a bt over 2kg I cooked it at 150 degrees for only about four hours – was perfectly falling-off-the-bone and delicious though.
  • Chicken stock (if I don’t have chook stock in the freezer these days I get a bit edgy – but the other day I didn’t think of it till mid-evening, so just chucked everything in the slow cooker till morning –  it was fab, and addressed recommendations I’ve recently been given by more than one good cook to barely simmer the stock and cook it much longer).
  • Our old standby fish curry with salmon instead of prawns & fish – love it – and this time I also made a very basic Charmaine Solomon mattar paneer  (peas & paneer cheese) to go with it (leaving the peas out of the fish one) and the always-fabulous CS leeks mirisata as an accompaniment.
  • Senor made two of Karen Martini’s amazing seafood pies and a huge batch of spag bol for some family friends who are having a rough few weeks. The rough puff pastry for the pies was mine, happily leftover and waiting in the freezer after my beef pies (see below). The seafood pies include Israelis couscous and lots of leek and tasted divine.
  • Another weeknight standby – pasta with cauliflower, chilli, anchovy & pine nuts – ours is adapted from a Neil Perry book but is a standard classic and very similar to this one.
  • And last, as I’m heading off for an intensive writing retreat with some friends next week I’ve made and frozen a few meals – beef pies (from my book but adapted from these ones of Maggie Beer’s), and Maggie’s quite amazing moussaka (more eggplant, hooray!) which includes a layer of pureed pumpkin and is one of the most delicious things you will ever eat – it’s from her Verjuice book which is a revelation.)
What about you all – any weeknight faves you wanna share? Or random triumphs that need boasting about? Eggplant issues? Love to hear your thoughts.

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Fuchsia fever: win a copy of Every Grain of Rice

June 19, 2012

As you might know, we are big fans of Fuchsia Dunlop at our house, ever since we came back from China the first time with her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook in our luggage.

Well, I’ve struck gold and so have you, because Bloomsbury has sent me two copies of Dunlop’s very gorgeous-looking new book, Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese home cooking, and one of these will go to one of you. Howbout it goes to the Australian-based reader (sorry, postage overseas would be a little prohibitive – it’s a lovely thick hardback!) who leaves the best comment on my last post, about why you love to cook? I think I’ll get our resident Chinese cooking expert, Senor, to pick the winner, in the next week or so.

One of the things to love about Every Grain of Rice is that the recipes are simpler than you might expect, and vegetable dishes are the star. As soon as you see these photos, I guarantee you will start salivating as I just have, over dishes like “Smacked cucumber in a garlicky sauce”, “Silken tofu with avocado”, “Smoked tofu with celery and peanuts”, “Stir-fried green soybeans with snow vegetable” and much more. It’s a beautiful book.

So go on – get cracking and leave a comment on Why cook?

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi giveaway

May 21, 2012

Sydney readers! I have been sent two double passes to give away to this beautiful-looking film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, showing at the Chauvel in Paddington.

The first two readers to email me at info@charlottewood.com.au get the tickets! The following info comes from the film people – I haven’t seen it yet but will be racing to get to it as soon as possible.

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is a quiet yet enthralling documentary that chronicles the life of Jiro Ono, the most famous sushi chef in Tokyo.

For most of his 85 years, Jiro has been perfecting the art of making sushi.

He works from sunrise to well beyond sunset to taste every piece of fish; meticulously train his employees; and carefully mould and finesse the impeccable presentation of each sushi creation.

Although his restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro only seats ten diners, it is a phenomenon in Tokyo that has won the prestigious 3-Star Michelin review, making him the oldest Michelin chef alive.

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI chronicles Jiro’s life as both an unparalleled success in the culinary world, and as a loving yet complicated father of two. Jiro’s incomparable work ethic is the driving force behind JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI, but the heart of this film is how that ambition has influenced his sons’ lives as well.

Eldest son Yoshikazu is the heir apparent to the sushi empire, but Jiro is not ready to retire or to relinquish any of his responsibilities. With a famous father guiding and critiquing every decision, Yoshikazu is unable to reach his fullest However, he is proud to learn from a true sushi master, thus revealing the inner struggle of how a dutiful son shows reverence to his father yet control over his own domain.

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI explores the passion required to run and maintain a legendary sushi restaurant, and one son’s journey to eventually take his father’s place at the head of the culinary dynasty.

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Lunch at our place

May 2, 2012

My beautiful nephew Henry Simmons made this book trailer for Love & Hunger – it pretty much represents the style of cooking and the emotional energy of  the book, and the way we like to eat round here. Casual, chaotic cacophony.

Thank you to Henry – and to the bookshops who are greeting Love & Hunger with such warmth and enthusiasm, like the wonderful Books for Cooks and Readings in Melbourne, and Collins Booksellers Cottesloe in Perth, the excellent Aussie online store Booktopia and my own beloved local indie, Better Read than Dead in Newtown, Sydney, who have made L&H their May book of the month.

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Oh, and a new site

April 6, 2012

It’s only a few weeks until my new book  about cooking – Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food – is published. Exciting! The book now has its own (simple, but sparkly) new website – check it out here if you’re interested. It also has a page listing events where I’ll be talking about Love & Hunger in the coming months (sometimes along with my novel Animal People which has just been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin literary award – yay!)  Love & Hunger is published on April 30.

 

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Vegetarian vacation: the verdict

March 6, 2012

So here we are in March, and after a month of almost-vegetarianism, Senor and I have returned from our holiday from eating animals.

The experience of avoiding meat brought a few surprises, a few hiccups – you may recall my VegFeb fail on day one! – and some interesting insights into our food culture and my own cooking. So, in the tradition of our primary school reports of What I Did On My Holiday, here are some things we learned from our vacation in Vegoland.

1. I didn’t miss eating meat at all.

Not once. Never. This came as a huge surprise to both me and Senor, as of the two of us I have tended to be the most enthusiastic meat eater in the past (we’re always the ones that the waiter gets wrong when he brings a big rare steak and a piece of fish to the table – have you noticed how waiters tend to give meat to men as a matter of course??).

But, despite my fears that I would have at least one or two cravings for a juicy piece of red meat, it was in fact seafood I thought of most. And then only in the most passing way. Now, that said, in the name of conviviality we did eat animal flesh a few times at the houses of friends – a few mussels and pieces of fish, a couple of spoonfuls of chicken, and one mouthful of an incredible beef-rib rendang cooked by our friend Ricky Ricardo. There was also one restaurant meal for each of us where meat dishes were part of the deal. So we clearly did not actually go off meat for an entire month, and vegetarians will rightly pooh-pooh the whole experiment on that basis.

But that said, never once did I wish I had meat of any kind on my plate, including the night we dined at Porteno, a fantastic Sydney restaurant that most punters think only serves meat. But they have the best vegetarian menu I have seen in a restaurant, and I highly recommend it. Senor did sit very sadly by as a dish of incredible looking suckling pork & crackling wafted past him, but I had no desire at all to eat it. As well, despite my earlier decision that anchovies were to stay on the menu, I only ate them once and found it very easy to leave them out of everything after that.

2. I have never thought so much about food

Any regular visitor to this blog will have discerned that I am, if not fanatical about food, then pretty damn obsessed. I am the kind of person who wakes up in the morning thinking about what to cook for dinner – it’s utterly central to my life. But despite this, I found the need to actually think about nutrition – specifically, about where my protein was coming from – a little dreary. We ate fantastically well most of the time, but I did find it a teeny bit boring to have to account each day for protein, and a teeny bit repetitive to keep turning to tofu or eggs when the variety of protein available from an omnivorous diet is so much greater – you get tofu, eggs, dairy and all the seafood, chicken, red meat and pork as well. A proper vegetarian will tell you the accounting for protein becomes unconscious pretty quickly I think, but there was one day in the month where I found myself feeling a little out of sorts physically, and when I thought about it I realised we had eaten no protein that day. After that it became a much more conscious task – and when travelling, a bit of an annoyance (see next par).

3. Our culture still resists vegetarianism

We ate out quite a lot during February, for one reason and another. Many times presented no problem at all – such as at Porteno, as mentioned above, and when I ate the most incredible “Soft white polenta with Mossvale mushrooms, morel powder, truffled pecorino” among other things at the fabulous Diece e Mezzo in Canberra.

But these two restaurants are pretty high end, and places where the chefs clearly take an interest in making vegetarian food that is as complex and sumptuous than the meat dishes, if not more so. I think at such restaurants, the vegetarian options are often the pick of the menu because the chefs take pride in lifting their game on veg stuff. But at the cafe end of the market, you’re often pretty screwed. Vegetarian food as presented in cafes and many restaurants seems limited to stodge and cheese – risottos, pasta dishes with cheese, or a green salad. Or, there’s one veg option and every single cafe does it. I got tired – within about a week – of rocket salad with roast pumpkin, pine nuts and feta. It’s a shame, because I used to love that. But not three times in a week.

The other thing is that mid-priced cafes and restaurants still seem to view vegetarians as annoyances, and make almost no attempt to include protein in veg-based dishes. The attitude seems to be that you can go without it for one meal, which is completely fine – but if you’re travelling, as we were to Perth for four days, this means you can go days without having any protein included in a single dish. So you order lots of side dishes instead. All of this was perfectly fine for us, because it was a temporary thing, but jeez I’d get sick of it if I were permanently veg. No wonder the vegetarians I know eat at home almost always. As for being vegan and having a social life – I don’t know how they do it. I would be depressed and lonely – and hungry.

3. I am such a whitey.

One thing that really surprised me and that I’m a little shamefaced to admit, is how much I unconsciously plan the structure of meals with meat in mind. That is, the meals I tend to cook most of involve The Meat – and then The Rest. If you think about cooking roast chicken, lamb shanks, poached salmon and so on, those meals always have just as much vegetable content as meat, but the mental and emotional focus is on the protein, with the other things lovely accompaniments.

Our friend Silas has put his finger on this with one of his many witty aphorisms – when a couple cooks a meal together for other people, he says, it’s invariably the case that “The Protein Gets the Praise”. Our whitey culture – even with a big whack of Mediterranean influence – still focuses on meat as the centrepiece of a meal. And I was very surprised at how much I actually found myself searching for a focal point of a meal (like a frittata, say) at the start of our month. By the end I had almost let go of the tendency, but it was startling to realise how much the structure of a meal matters to me.

Of course almost all non-Anglo cultures don’t have this preoccupation – shared dishes are the norm in Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern and even Mediterranean meals – and I wonder how much this has evolved because many of these cuisines come from countries where poverty has been widespread and meat scarcely affordable. This little discovery of mine is obviously no big deal, but I kind of got a kick out of understanding that I even had this bias in the first place. That’s one of the things I love about cooking – finding out stuff about one’s culture and oneself.

4. Texture matters

I have always been a sucker for big textural variety in foods, but when you have no meat you really notice it, I reckon. A former vego friend of mine who now eats meat a few times a week said he realised that he had gone for years without ever using a knife – that virtually all their meals had been eaten from a bowl, with a fork.

That comment goes to the heart of a particular horror of mine – bowls of slop. When we were busy during February, and the fridge was full of bits of leftovers, we found ourselves on more than one occasion tipping all the leftover bits into a bowl. It was perfectly flavoursome, and perfectly nutritious. But there remained for me this sad glumness to the look, to the feeling, of the meal. Bowls of slop are not good for the spirit, no matter how nourishing to the body.

So during February, I found that nuts mattered to me more than ever, and I made new friends with pumpkin and sunflower seeds. And the squeaky salty delight of smoky, pan-fried haloumi was something I looked forward to a few times a week. Crunch, squeak and crispness in a mouthful of softness – divine.

5. So near, and yet so far: why I’m staying omnivorous

At the outset we said we would not refuse meat if it felt impolite to do so in the company of others, and so there were at least a couple of times of sharing plates in restaurants – such as my night out with lovely writer friends at Yen for Viet or Senor’s at an amazingly generous friend’s 50th birthday party at Tetsuya’s – when we were very glad not to be permanent vegetarians. Another time we met friends at the beach and they brought sushi, and other times our friends cooked magnificent meals at their homes which were seafood or meat-based.

If we had asked for vegetarian options to be included, or declined to eat any of this, not a single person would have been annoyed with us. We have extremely pro-vegetarian friends, many of whom have spent long periods as vegos themselves.

But we ourselves would have felt the distancing effect of it. In a culture where meat is so much a part of everyday life, especially in the sharing of food between friends and family, I just don’t have it in me to separate myself from my peers in the way that true vegetarianism requires. Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, articulates a similar feeling when he tries out vegetarianism for a little while.

“What troubles me is the subtle way it alienates me from other people and, odd as this may sound, from a whole dimension of human experience. Other people now have to accommodate me, and I find this uncomfortable. My new dietary restriction thows a bit of a wrench into the basic host-guest relationship. As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don’t eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she’ll make something special for me, in which case I’ll feel bad. On this matter I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners.” 

I don’t think it’s bad manners to be vegetarian at all – in fact I have nothing but respect for anyone who is, especially on ethical grounds.

But speaking purely personally, I just don’t feel comfortable asking other people to accommodate my diet in their homes, or in our shared meals. And so – while we will continue to eat lots of veg food, and I am convinced, much less meat from now on – we’ll be staying omnivorous.

But that said ….

5. Some of the best things in life are vegetarian

We ate some of the best meals I’ve ever cooked during our VegFeb. These included an Indian feast for six prompted by my long-awaited purchase of this wonderful Madhur Jaffrey book; a lovely Mediterranean lunch for seven people and many, many meals just for the two of us – including Senor’s further adventures with fermented blackbeans, tofu and his beloved Fuchsia Dunlop via her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, and my own homage to the Diece e Mezzo dinner with a mushroom ragu with creamy polenta eaten on the couch in front of the telly last Friday night. That might be my new favourite comfort food of all.

I finish this long ramble with a recipe for a Fraud’s Frittata. I have always been crap at frittatas, because I have always managed to burn them on the bottom before they’re cooked on the top. Today, in a fantastic vegetarian cooking class for four given at my house by the wonderful nutritionist and teacher Kathryn Elliott (a new blog post on that soon!) I learned that the reason for my failed frittatas is, as usual, my impatience and too high a heat.  Kathryn’s beetroot and dill frittata was just amazing, cooked the proper way, in and from the frying pan.

But at one lunch for friends during February I did make this fraudulent frittata, basically treating it as a quiche,  baking it in the oven and finishing under the grill. I did heat the pyrex dish in the oven first, to make sure the mix hit the dish hot. As you can see from the look of it, this frittata was a big, boofy thing full of flavour and punch.

Roasted Vegetable Fraud’s frittata – serves 8

  • Olive oil
  • 1 red onion, cut into 8 segments
  • 2 baby or 1 medium fennel bulbs, sliced
  • 2 small potatoes, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup silverbeet, stems finely chopped & leaves roughly chopped
  • ½ cup kalamata olives, roughly chopped
  • 8 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons thick yoghurt
  • ½ cup marinated feta cubes, drained

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees C
  2. Drizzle the onion segments and potato and fennel slices in olive oil and roast on baking sheets for about 20 mins or until well browned.
  3. Meanwhile, gently fry silverbeet stems in a little olive oil until soft, then add leaves and fry until wilted.
  4. Set potato slices aside to cool.
  5. In a bowl mix roasted onion, fennel and chopped olives with spinach and leave to cool.
  6. Lightly grease a pyrex or ceramic pie dish with oil and heat in the oven for a few minutes.
  7. Remove dish from oven and scatter half the potato slices over the hot dish.
  8. Add beaten eggs and yoghurt to cooled vegetable and olives, stir to combine well, then pour into hot pie dish.
  9. Push remaining potato slices into the egg and vegetable mix, top with feta and bake in oven for 20 minutes or until egg is just starting to set.
  10. Place under hot grill for 5 minutes or until top is puffed and golden, then remove and set aside to rest for a few moments. Serve immediately or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

Love to hear more about your own adventures in vegetarianism, how you keep it up, or how and why you went back to meat.

And I promise the next post will be short and sweet!

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The Veg Report

February 4, 2012

It seems a bit early to report on my first week as a vegetarian seeing as it’s actually only day four of our VegFeb month, but what the hell.  I am already finding it an interesting experience.

Day one was – well, a great big veg fail, because I omitted to read a menu properly.

Senor and I were at Sydney Theatre Company to see Never Did Me Any Harm (which we loved – I thought it was a beautifully original production and I loved the slipping and sliding narratives and use of dance and text as well as speech) and sat down for a quick bite from the cafe menu there at the Wharf.

I ordered while S found a table, and I found some good veg stuff on the menu including a mushroom bruschetta with shaved Parmesan, an oxheart tomato bruschetta, some warm olives and a fig & goat’s cheese salad. The bruschettas & olives were very good (although it’s lucky we are including anchovies in our almost-veg adventure, as unbeknownst to me some big fat delicious ones were in the tomato & pesto mix).

When the fig salad arrived, S looked at me as if I was crazy. ‘What are we going to do about that?’ he asked, pointing at the plate. There were a few halved almonds dotted over the dish. I put on my special Patient Voice and said, ‘Sean, nuts are fine for vegetarians.’

Then it was his turn to employ a special Voice for the Stupid:

‘I’m not talking about the nuts, I’m talking about the pig.’

And there it was – four large, pink and curling satiny ribbons of prosciutto nestled among the figs and the rocket and the goat’s cheese. How could I have missed reading this on the menu? And how did I miss seeing it on the plate!?? And why did I even think figs would be served without some kind of cured pork – especially given that it’s a particular favourite combination of mine?

If there had been a non-vego at the table it would have been easy – just make them eat the prosciutto and forge merrily on. But now we were faced with the dilemma – knowing that restaurant rules would surely mean this beautiful stuff was thrown away if we didn’t eat it, or sticking to our VegFeb plan. Of course we ate it, and it was delicious.  But it was an interesting lesson in how much more carefully I need to be reading menus in the next little while. I can’t bear the idea of being one of those people who sits asking waiters about every ingredient in every damn dish, though. Which is probably one of the reasons I know I’ll never be an actual vegetarian. But I will be more careful about thoroughly reading, rather than quickly scanning, menus for the rest of February. And we have added a new rule – if we eat meat due to menu stuffups like this one, or to be convivially polite at a friend’s house, then we add another day at the end of VegFeb. Easypeasy. (Which reminds me – mmmm, peas…)

But the rest of the week has been fun, and lordy we have eaten well.  The day after VegFail (at least I know I’m not alone. A pal of ours, also doing a VegFeb version but stricter – i.e. no anchovies – was forced to eat meat on her day one, when the burger restaurant where she’d arranged to meet a friend offered no veg options, which seems pretty hopeless!) we had several folks round for dinner. I marinated and roasted some chicken pieces for them, which we served along with:

 

And followed with a traditional Middle Eastern orange cake with yummy sweetened labneh.

The leftovers from these kept us going for lunches for a few days. Dinners this week have also included this chickpea & cashew curry, and this very tasty silverbeet tart, minus the bacon and plus some sunflower seeds as well as the pine nuts.

After a few days I jumped on the scales, curious to see how quickly my new meat-free existence was sending me to Svelte City – and I’d put on over a kilo. Hmmm.

This salad was one I made last weekend prior to official VegFeb start, inspired by the fantastic recipes in Heidi Swanson’s book Super Natural Every Day (I’ve now bought three copies of this book for friends as well as my own, for the originality and big flavours in the recipes) and the first Ottolenghi book, both of which I love to death. One thing I’ve noticed with both these books is how often vegetables for roasting are cut into quite small pieces – which is of course fab for getting that lovely fat and crispness to a lot more surface area, especially with otherwise quite soft veg, not to mention a greater caramelised flavour through the whole thing.

So this salad was basically a matter of using a quarter of a pumpkin and an eggplant from the fridge, both of which were starting to fade. And I had just stocked up on lots of nuts from the farmer’s market. As I sort of made it up as I went along I don’t have a proper recipe, but from memory these things went into it. Quantities don’t really matter in a thing like this, obviously – whatever you feel like doing works.

  • pumpkin, skin on, chopped into 2cm squares & roasted in a light spray of olive oil in a hot oven for about 20-30 mins or till caramelised
  • eggplant, ditto
  • pine nuts, lightly toasted
  • pistachios, lightly toasted
  • pecans, roughly chopped & lightly toasted
Once these were cooled and tossed together, I made a dressing of
  • maple syrup
  • olive oil
  • orange juice
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • a splash of balsamic vinegar
  • chilli flakes
To be honest I think the dressing was a bit too acidic, so would probably do something about that next time. But it was still damn fine, and a bit of chopped coriander over the top finished it off nicely. We took some of that and a bit of other stuff round to some friends who had just moved house, so they had something other than takeaway to eat among the boxes that evening, and everyone was happy.

Now, I now you’re all great cooks with some fab veg recipes in your repertoire – don’t forget to point me to any particular favourites as I progress through the month.  I’m already excited about a couple of new things I’m trying this week – I’ll be back with further reports soon.

Oh, and PS: Just in case you’re interested, I have a piece on why and how I came to love oysters in the new (March) issue of SBS Feast magazine, which I believe is in the shops on Monday. I haven’t seen the final version yet, but because it is a kind of oyster love story it includes a photo of me and my beloved shucking oysters at our pals Jane & Brian’s place at New Year, which is kind of nice. Thanks to B for taking the pic. 
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Fish out of water

January 27, 2012

Our (almost) vegetarian adventure

Some of you already know about the culinary experiment I am forcing on Senor for February – the two of us are going veg for a month.

Last year it was Febfast, giving up the booze, which was a chore, to say the least. I expect to enjoy this February a whole lot more than last, for I have no doubt we will be eating very well indeed.

We’re trying out a version of vegetarianism for a few reasons, apart from my increasingly obvious lapsed-Catholic attachment to some annual ritual festival of denial – any other ex-Catholics out there with these weird lenten leanings?

First, I just want to see what it feels like to go without meat for a month, because I realised some time ago that I have never forgone meat (either red meat, or chicken, pork, bacon, chorizo, fish, seafood etc) for even one week, let alone a month. And even though I feel that we have cut down our meat consumption substantially, I took note of everything we ate while away last week – a holiday filled with delicious salads and veg dishes provided by excellent cooks – and realised that even then, not a day went by without some bit of animal flesh – fish, or ham, or chicken. So actually, the only thing we’ve really cut down on is red meat.

Second, I am hoping it will help us shift a few kilos of the blubber that returned rather insistently over the latter quarter of the year. As I said to Senor, I’ve never known a fat vegetarian, my eyes glazing over and mouth watering with images of all the butter and cheese (and organic ghee kindly delivered to our door by our friend Guy the other day!!) that we will be chowing down on. And then Senor most unhelpfully pointed out that we do know a couple of portly vegos, which sort of ruined my fantasy of the kilos dropping daily with zero effort on our part at all. But I still will be interested to see how it affects weight and general health and feeling of zinginess, to substitute meat with other things.

Third, I am keen to see what kind of a reboot my cooking repertoire receives from this change in routine. When I’m busy I, like most of us I’m sure, tend to fall back on the usual contenders for the evening meal – but this will force me to try new things and extend the range a bit, I hope. As well, one of the things I’ve always believed is that to make interesting, really flavoursome  veg food requires more effort than a meat diet does. And now I’m a full-time student (starting a PhD in Creative Writing, eek) I will be financially less well off but have more time and flexibility. If there is ever a time to do this, it’s now – in summer when salads are inspiring, when one doesn’t crave rich, stodgy food as I do in winter, and early in my studies when I can retain the illusion I have plenty of time to do everything.

Finally, there will be the nice fuzzy glow of knowing we’ve spared the lives of a few critters, but I can’t pretend that this is really high on the list of reasons. While in recent years I have thought a lot about my love of meat, and eating it has caused me guilt and unease, I have recently come to a position of moral acceptance that it’s okay to eat animals that have been humanely raised and which have not been made to suffer unnecessarily (hence shopping at Feather and Bone, and proper free range eggs and chooks and all that jazz that you probably all do as well). We’ve cut down a lot on red meat, as I’ve said, and become much firmer in a commitment to real free range pork and chicken (I think conventionally raised lamb and beef, in this country, have better lives than they do in wholly grain-fed operations like those in the US, and have better lives here than our pigs and chickens do, even accounting for beef being finished on grain), but we also try now to only buy red meat from either F&B for that reason. I do welcome any commentary on this, by the way, because I am always keen to hear more about ethical meat production.

All that said, and in noting that we’re only going veg, not vegan, we’re doing this with a few caveats in place.

The first and most important for me is that, while we’re telling all our friends and family about this trial and some have already booked us in for veg meals with them, we won’t be refusing meat at someone’s house if it feels rude to do so. Given that this is an experiment rather than a life choice, I won’t be imposing our vego status on our friends. And to me, conviviality and respect for the person who offers you food is as ethically important as respect for the life of an animal, as the fabulous Tammi Jonas has written about so eloquently here.  So there is bound to be the odd evening we eat a bit of meat rather than reject someone’s hospitality, though we’ll try as much as possible to minimise the chances.

Second – and this has no ethical basis whatsoever – I can’t give up anchovies. I just can’t. I love those little salty bombs as much as bacon, which I know I really will miss, for a hit of flavour in everything from chickpea salads to lamb roasts to onion tarts to antipasto. I completely accept the hypocrisy of feeling warm and fuzzy about a cow but not a fish, no matter how small. I hope I have never claimed to be free of hypocrisy (one of my favourite lines on hypocrisy is this, from the philosopher and psychologist Jonathan Haidt: “Stop smirking. One of the most universal pieces of advice from across cultures and eras is that we are all hypocrites, and in our condemnation of others’ hypocrisy we only compound our own.”  That came to me via Hal Herzog’s wonderful book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals).

So now, in honour of our beloved salty little fishy bombs, and in farewell to meat for a month, I offer you this recipe which includes anchovies. It’s a very slight adaptation of a Neil Perry recipe from Good Weekend some time ago, and it is excellent. He used blue eye trevalla but as there was none when I went to our local fish market I bought royal basa and it was good. That said, next time I would try harder to buy a more sustainable fish, given the bloody ethical minefield that seafood shopping entails (god it’s tiring, isn’t it?).

I added chickpeas and zucchini to this to make it a serious one-pan dinner of gorgeousness. I also used dried rather than fresh oregano (just a teaspoon). Highly recommended with or without those additions.

This will be the last fleshy recipe from me until March – but I hope to be posting at least a few updates of how we’re faring throughout vegetableFeb.

Neil Perry’s Roast blue-eye trevalla with fennel & olives

  • 1 bulb fennel, finely sliced
  • 1 red onion, finely sliced
  • 2 tablespoons oregano, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons thyme, chopped
  • 60 ml olive oil
  • 1 red capsicum, finely sliced
  • 4 tomatoes, chopped (NP peels and deseeds, but I am too lazy for that and almost never do it)
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
  • 6 anchovies
  • handful of olives
  • 1 tsp chilli flakes
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 4 x blue eye trevalla fillets – we used basa, but any firm white fish fillet would work
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley (I forgot this but it mattered not)
  • Additions: 1 can or equiv cooked chickpeas; 2 small zucchinis, chopped into 3cm lengths
  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees C.
  2. Toss fennel, onion, herbs, capsicum, tomato, capers, anchovies, olives, chilli flakes together in a roasting tin. Pour the wine in and roast for about half an hour, or until the vegetables are soft.
  3. Add the chickpeas and zucchini and return to oven for 20 minutes or so until zucchinis are just tender.
  4. Nestle the fish fillets into the mix, drizzle with a little more oil and return to the oven for about 10 minutes or until fish is just cooked.
  5. Remove tray from oven, leave to rest for about five minutes and then serve a fillet on each plate, topped with the vegetable mix, garnish with parsley and season.

Any of you ever done the vegetarian thing? I’m very interested to hear about it if you have, and if you still are, what kind of foods you missed when you first gave up meat – and if you went back to meat, what tipped your decision…

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Lazy Sunday: weekend cooking

November 28, 2011

Sunday is my favourite day for cooking, especially as the weather warms up. It helps that the Addison Road grower’s and farmer’s market happens on Sundays, and is within walking distance from our house. My favourite Sunday morning involves a couple of lazy coffees and checking out the recipes in the weekend papers for any inspiration, then tootling off up the road with my big ol green Rolser (we have had this old workhorse for over a decade, and it’s done service as an off-road camping equipment buggy and firewood collecting vehicle, among other things – it’s completely indestructible!) to fill up with market goodies. 

I especially like Sunday cooking if I’ve been away as I have been a bit lately – last week at the fab Varuna, The Writer’s House where I got to hang out with some excellent writers and artists (like this and this and this) and make a start on my new novel (ugh). Then tomorrow I’m off again, this time to Melbourne (would love any of you to pop in to this event and say hi if you’re free?) and then away again elsewhere on the weekend.

What with all the coming and going, a good solid Sunday’s worth of messing about in the kitchen not only means a fridge full of lunch goodies for the week, but more importantly it just makes me feel right. It’s the best way I know to get that home-and-grounded feeling that makes me feel I’m in my right skin again.

Yesterday’s market haul included a couple of kilos of organic tomatoes, some hot smoked salmon, a few eggplants, a little bag of dutch cream spuds, a bunch of beetroot, some zukes, a couple of gorgeous-looking red capsicums I couldn’t resist, a dozen eggs, couple of bunches of kale, onions, six mixed lettuce seedlings and some olive oil soap. At other times I might stock up on nuts and dried fruit, maybe throw in some good bread and a bit of cheese or yoghurt. I like Marrickville market because it’s relatively pretension-free, though it is growing a bit crowded for easy strolling these days …

Anyhoo – once home I bunged on the boil the chickpeas and white beans that I’d had soaking since Saturday, and thought about what to do with everythign. First stop was to chuck the eggplants on the barbecue for some good smoky baba ghanoush, swiftly followed in the food processor by the chickpeas for some hommous (I never made good hommous until I struck gold with the lovely Fouad’s foolproof recipe here, which I use every time).

Then I bunged the beetroots and capsicum in the oven for roasting. The roasted, peeled capsicum I tore into strips and tossed in with a salad of chickpeas, garlic, herbs, lemon & oil, and the beetroot I made into the salad below.

With the kale, I made half a fantastic dish – it was pretty good, but as I failed to include a couple of crucial ingredients I don’t want to post it here until I get it right! Ever have those moments where you’re halfway through a dish and thinking, ‘This would be great if there was just a little crunch … oh, that’s right. In the recipe there is a little crunch…’ So stay tuned for that one, which I’m going to try again tonight I think – with all the ingredients this time!

All this stuff made for a lovely impromptu Sunday night dinner with our friend miss J, my sister and her bloke whose birthday it was last week. Miss J made an incredible beetroot and chocolate cake – fudgy, velvety and gorgeous – in honour of the birthday boy, and I roasted a nice organic chook and served all these veg things on the side.

The hit of the evening was the beetroot, both in the cake and in this walnut, beetroot and feta salad. I have till recently been a bit confused about walnuts – for some reason they, alone among all the nuts, invariably give me a small, unpleasant and instantaneous pain in the upper stomach as soon as I eat them. Don’t really understand this and am loath to investigate too much in case I am banned from eating delicious things – so my preferred tactic has always been to grin and bear it.

Recently, though, someone on Twitter – I can’t remember who, so if it was you, remind me! – suggested caramelising walnuts in balsamic vinegar. This not only makes some deadset delicious crunchy bombs of divinity, but weirdly seems to have eradicated the gutbusting pain on ingestion. Everyone’s a winner!

Roast beetroot, balsamic walnuts & marinated feta

  • 3 beetroots, roasted in foil for about an hour or until tender
  • handful walnuts (on advice from Saint Maggie Beer I keep all nuts in the freezer now to prevent rancidity & pantry moth)
  • olive oil
  • about 2 tablespoons good quality balsamic vinegar
  • sea salt & pepper
  • 1 tablespoon or two marinated feta (I usually have a jar of this stuff in the fridge but it would be a piece o’piss to make yr own – must investigate!)
  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees.
  2. When beetroots are cool enough to handle, slip the skins off and cut into quarters or biggish chunks.
  3. Lightly toast the walnuts in the oven until just crisp but not coloured. As mine came straight from the freezer they took about 10 minutes but be careful not to burn them – burnt nuts are hideous and inedible. If your walnuts are whole, break them up a little with a wooden spoon.
  4. In a small frying pan over a medium heat, toss the walnuts in a little olive oil and the vinegar, cooking till the liquid has evaporated. Set nuts aside to cool for a few minutes.
  5. Toss the beetroot with the warm nuts, and season well with salt.

So there you have it. But I want to use walnuts more in cooking – I do love their superb crunch and slight bitterness – so if you have any walnut favourites let me at em. And what about your weekend cooking – get up to anything interesting? Do share …….

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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.