Archive for the ‘vegetable’ Category

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Cooking as conversation

April 27, 2012

I have just read Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen, a slender, amusing challenge to sludgy writing of all kinds. I read it in an evening and found it very bracing. It’s come at exactly the right time for me, as with my new book coming out I’ve been asked to write bits and pieces about cooking for various food mags and websites. Anxiety on the release of a new book always makes me feel rather timid just as you’re supposed to project lots of confidence, and as I think about what to write for these things I have felt myself teetering on the edge of a deep crater of magazine-speak about food. You know the kind of thing: “There’s nothing nicer than lunch made with seasonal produce, sharing good food with family and friends,” and so on. The sort of stuff that is accurate enough, yet utterly banal.

So when I visited the lovely people at Books for Cooks in Melbourne earlier this week (if you haven’t been here and you like to cook, you must! But beware – it is a seemingly endless rabbit warren of cookbook goodies, and they have an online store!) and found this handsome yellow volume I found myself clutching at it like a drowning woman. And I hope it’s going to save me from an infection of triteness, because it’s reminded me that all that is really needed for good writing is the truth. A dash of style helps, of course, but the very appealing thing to me about this book is Barnes’ confidence in his own cranky obstinacy. He’s hilariously uptight about recipe books and their instructions, attributing his pedantry to having grown up in a house where men had nothing to do with cooking, and the “late onset” of his own interest in it.

The result of all this…is that while I now cook with enthusiasm and pleasure, I do so with little sense of freedom or imagination. I need an exact shopping list and an avuncular cookbook. The idea of carefree marketing – waltzing off with wicker basket over the arm, relaxedly buying what the day has best to offer, and then contriving it into something which might or might not have been made before – will always be beyond me.

In the kitchen I am an anxious pedant. I adhere to gas marks and cooking times. I trust instruments rather than myself. I doubt I shall ever test whether a chunk of meat is done by prodding it with my forefinger. The only liberty I take with a recipe is to increase the quantity of an ingredient of which I particularly approve. That this is not an infallible precept was confirmed by an epically filthy dish I once made involving mackerel, Martini and breadcrumbs: the guests were more drunk than sated. 

..

My wrath is also frequently turned against the cookbooks on which I rely so heavily. Still, this is one area where pedantry is both understandable and important: and the self-taught, anxious, page-scowling domestic cook is about as pedantic as you can get. But then, why should a cookbook be less precise than a manual of surgery? (Always assuming, as one nervously does, that manuals of surgery are indeed precise. Perhaps some of them sound just like cookbooks: ‘Sling a gout of anaesthetic down the tube, hack a chunk off the patient, watch the blood drizzle, have a beer with your mates, sew up the cavity…’) Why should a word in a recipe be less important than a word in a novel? One can lead to physical indigestion, the other to mental.


What’s so appealing to me about this is my desire to argue with him throughout the book – a sure sign of engaging writing, don’t you think? But it comes from the fact that he seems to have given free rein to his true self – nitpicky, bossy, anxious and a little pooncy. Of course I have no idea what Julian Barnes’ true self is actually like, but a great energy bounces through this work that I feel it would be difficult to fake. And it leads to this feeling that one could really have a great conversation with this book – the opposite of boring public-relations talk of so much food writing, which is the equivalent of talking about the weather all evening at a dinner party. That kind of thing makes you want to dig your eyes out with a spoon, does it not? I think it comes from a desire to be liked –  always death to a piece of writing. 

Barnes also gives voice to lots of kitchen quandaries I have never seen written about before – like his passivity in the face of a surly butcher, for example, or the feelings of betrayal when a recipe’s instructions are belied by the photograph in the book (he has a particularly amusing beef with Nigel Slater). I loved it.

Another thing to love about this book is its brevity. I think it must be a collection of columns from the Guardian newspaper – anyone know? Regardless, each chapter is short and sweet and lively. Which has inspired me to rethink  this blog a bit – it seems to have morphed from a loose collection of short bits and bobs in the early days to a slightly more essayistic form lately. That has been enjoyable, but it means I keep putting off writing here because I feel I don’t have time to do it justice – and I miss it!

So I declare a return, for the next little while anyway, to shorter posts, with or without recipes that may or may not have anything to do with the post itself. Like the one below for a sort of zucchini gratin.

And while we’re on the topic of conversation, I am booked in for lots of events to talk about Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food, which seems to be trickling into bookshops now – official pub date is Monday. Two of the Sydney talks will be with two of the best cooks among my friends – Caro Baum, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival – and Steph Clifford-Smith, at Newtown Library. We are going to have fun (even if I am rather daunted by sharing the stage with Proper Chefs at SWF – eek!) and we would love to see any of you there.

I’m not sure how much to blab about my book here … while it definitely is on-topic, I can understand if you resent me using this blog as a self-promotional tool so tell me if you hate the idea of me citing events and media stuff here? I won’t be offended, I promise. But just before you tell me to shut up I will put a link to the podcast of an interview I did with the charming Joe Gelonesi on ABC Classic FM last week, and another to a chat at the lovely cooking blog of YA novelist Sophie Masson, with whom I had a wonderful natter about food when we met at the Bellingen festival recently.

Zucchini ‘gratin’

Julian Barnes would hate this recipe because I’m not even giving quantities – take that, uptighty whitey Barnsey! This is a dish from an old magazine recipe that I used to have in my clippings folder, can’t remember where it came from, and have now lost. But I just put it together the other night from memory and it was perfectly nice, and very easy. You need:

  • zucchinis, sliced
  • a few dollops of sour cream
  • breadcrumbs, lumpy!
  • thyme, leaves picked – lots
  • Parmesan cheese, grated
  1. Toss your sliced zukes in some boiling water for a few minutes until just tender.
  2. Drain well and mix with the thyme and as much sour cream as you like – I like it quite sloppy – and season well.
  3. Put this in an oven-proof dish while in a separate bowl you mix up the breadcrumbs and Parmesan – however much you wish of each, but enough crumbs to cover the top of the zukes.
  4. Chuck the dish into a moderate oven and bake for around 20 minutes or until the top is golden and crunchy.

We had this with roast chicken, some roasted fennel and carrots with chorizo bits. It was all very fine. 


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Conflict in the kitchen

April 6, 2012

Lately I’ve been thinking about culinary power plays between couples.

It’s my observation that, with couples who are interested in cooking, there often tends to be one party who does the fancy footwork and gets the praise, and the other who ends up at best as sous chef – or at worst, general dogsbody whose flourishes are relegated to taking the garbage out rather than the main course to the table.

Certainly in our house when friends come round I’m generally the one who gets to do the razzledazzling while Senor patiently stands by, either at front-of-house with drinks and hospitality, or – more shamefully for me – at the sink with the dishcloth.  In general this arrangement seems to suit both of us, and probably works fine in your house too. But it’s worth questioning, I think.

Because occasionally I have noticed, among some couples I know, that rather more of a power play seems to be going on, with the main cook subtly (or even overtly) intimidating the sous-chef so the latter never gets to develop their cooking skills, and the only meals they are allowed to cook are of the thankless, everyday, dinner-for-the kids variety. Meanwhile, the more confident Better Cook has all the fun. She or he gets to try new the new dishes, buy the expensive ingredients and the flashy gear and generally be the star of the show when friends show up for dinner. They also get to make the mess, then sit back for the praise and the wine while the spouse gets busy stacking the dishes.

I even know of one or two cases where the “Lesser Cook” is actively discouraged, even forbidden, to cook for friends by the Better Cook. None of this is stated up front, of course; it’s justified because ‘I like to do it’; ‘It’s easier for me’; ‘You get too stressed’ and other such furphies. In this way the roles become even more established. The Lesser Cook becomes rather patronisingly known as ‘good at salads’ or ‘a great help in the kitchen’, while the Better Cook can even indulge in a little kitchen martyrdom, sighing at having to do All the Work Again.

This situation is not good, people! 

When Senor and I first met over a decade ago he was not a confident cook. He is now. But in the early days of his culinary development, it took every ounce of my strength not to stand watching over his shoulder, questioning his choice of dish, his onion-chopping method, his balancing of oil and vinegar. No doubt I did a lot of that. And sometimes, to be honest, it’s still tricky – after all, when you do know how to do something it seems only sensible to instruct and educate someone who doesn’t.

The problem is that ‘educating’ can so easily topple over into criticising and intimidating and undermining. And it means the less confident cook remains dependent on the other for approval, unable to confidently produce a great dessert or even independently arrange dinner with friends. It’s a vicious cycle.

I learned that the best way to encourage Senor to cook was simply to stay out of the kitchen altogether while he did the choosing, shopping and cooking. And if there were a few wonky meals as a result, there have also been many more brilliant ones – he is more imaginative in the kitchen than I am, often more ambitious and energetic and certainly more amenable to trying new things.  If he asks for an opinion on how to do something I’ll give it, but otherwise I am now very happy to go read a book while he does his stuff.

I think the solution for us, has turned out to be only one cook in the kitchen at a time. Other couples we know have different arrangements – dividing kitchen labour by course, or by main-or-side dishes, or by occasion.

Over time it’s turned out that Senor’s & my repertoires have settled into a kind of genre pattern – he tends to do Asian cookery much more than I do, and is also much more of a dessert buff, while I lean more towards the simple classics. I am still the one who tends to cook more for our friends, but if he ever volunteers I am totally up for it.

Now, to a recipe.

This one is apropos of nothing really, except that I love peas. And I love leeks. And I love anchovies. And it’s the kind of side dish that can be made ahead, and eaten hot or room temperature or even chilled. And any sous-chef can make it on their way to turning the tables and becoming the King or Queen of the Kitchen.

Braised peas, leeks & anchovies

  • 1 leek, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 5 anchovies in oil, mashed
  • 500g frozen peas
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
  • a squeeze of lemon juice
  • salt & pepper
  1. Saute the leek, garlic & anchovies gently in a little oil until leek & garlic are soft.
  2. Toss in the peas and stock, bring to the boil and simmer until peas are tender and the liquid has largely gone.
  3. Season with lemon juice to taste, salt & pepper.

Now, tell me about your kitchen politics. Who does what in your house, and how do you divide the labour? Have you, like me, ever been guilty of culinary power plays, or felt intimidated out of cooking by a flatmate or spouse? Come on, spill …

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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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Black Beauty

January 18, 2012

Why is the taste of smoke so appealing, do you think?

I love all smoky-flavoured things. Bacon, of course, and you may remember my joy a little while back at discovering the amazing smoky power of the chipotle chilli (which I shall be running to very frequently during Senor’s & my forthcoming vegetarian experiment for February – more on that later).  And smoked fish, too, is a thing of beauty.

But it was my dear pal Steph, aka the Empress of the Chickpea, who introduced me to the wonders of deeply charred eggplant and the big whack of flavour that results. She taught me to burn eggplants into blackened oblivion to get the best baba ghanoush, and it was she who gave me this recipe for a gorgeous Asian minced pork salad ages ago. I just found it among my emails yesterday and the memory of it got my mouth watering, so I set to with the barbecue. Lordy it was good.

I find it easiest to char the eggplants on the barbecue, but if you have a gas hob you can almost as easily (though rather more smokily) blacken them directly on the flame, turning regularly to get the things good and papery and burnt all over. During this time – when you may find the scorching stalks smell remarkably like a smoking joint! – the flesh softens and softens, turning into the fabulously velvety, smoky stuff that makes me swoon.

I have rambled here in the past about my love of eggplant in general … the fresh ones are so aesthetically appealing in their squeaky, glossy purple bulbousness, and that stunning white  of the flesh when you cut them open. But the charred babies have a different but equally stunning beauty, I think. Once the blackened parchment of the skin is removed, with the fruit’s stalk still attached, the flesh spreads out into this raggedly beautiful flare, like a dirty ballerina’s skirt. Is it weird of me, to think that I could look at this all day?

But enough hyperbole, lest I start to sound like Nigella Lawson (please, please tell me if that ever happens, and then tape my mouth shut – or break my fingers). Here’s the recipe, as provided by the Empress, who I believe adapted it from a Madhur Jaffrey version.

I used two medium eggplants which were heavier than 220g each by a long way, and I used double the pork mince because that’s the amount I had in the freezer (from Feather & Bone, natch, so it was deeeeeliciously full of free-range fat and flavour),  and I used only half the chilli because we are wimps, but otherwise the sauce quantities stayed the same. Oh and I used a bit of leek because I didn’t have any green onion. Despite all this bastardisation it was unbelievably good.

Smoky aubergines in a lime sauce (with pork) – adapted from Madhur Jaffrey

  • 2 eggplants each 220g
  • 4 tablsp fish sauce seasoned w lime juice (see below)
  • 1 med onion
  • 1 green onion
  • 1 tbs veg oil
  • 100g lean minced pork
  • Salt & pepper

Leave eggplants whole, including tops. Prick lightly w fork to prevent bursting. Barbecue til black with soft guts. Cool then carefully peel skin off. If eggplant falls apart a bit just push it back into shape on the serving platter.

Make sauce:

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 4 tbs fish sauce
  • 4 tbs lime juice
  • 3 tbs sugar
  • 3-4 small red or green chillis

Dissolve sugar in 4 tbs hot water from kettle or in micky. Add all the other liquids to that as well as all solids, finely chopped.

Heat oil in wok, throw in onion. Stir once then add pork, salt and lashings o pepper. Stir and fry for about 5 mins to cook meat, breaking up lumps as you go. Stir through green onion. Spread pork mixture over eggplants then top with sauce.

Steph’s note: “MJ reckons this serves 4, I reckon 2, catering for one slim eggplant per person. You ‘ll probably have sauce left over too which is yummy slopped over any Asian salady thing.”

So in the one I made, a larger amount still served 2 greedy people for dinner, with just enough leftover for one lunch.

Mine. Right now. Ciao.

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From offal to octopus

December 21, 2011

I’ve been doing loads of food writing lately:  a couple of features for national magazines coming out in the new year, as well as a blog post for the wonderful Kathryn Elliott which I’ll put up here shortly. And I am about to start checking the first pages of my book about cooking coming out in May – all of which is very gratifying but has left little time for hanging round here, my most comfy corner of the internet. Coming back here is kind of like flopping on the couch in your trackydaks after being out in the grownup world…

One of the mag pieces was another foray into the world of offal  (I’ll let you know when it’s published so you can read the whole horror show then if you like), an attempt to overcome the aversions I spoke about a while back. And while I certainly received a comprehensive innard education this time round and the experience was well worth it, I’m afraid I haven’t yet been seduced over to the dark (in)side.

There was one excellent side effect though – cooking this stuff gave me a few ideas for new (offal-free!) dishes to try. The kidney I made from Stephanie Alexander’s recipe, for example, came with a truly delicious spinach in a marsala sauce, which I would never ever have come across if I hadn’t been forced to go there for the K-word. And while my tripe was not something to write home about by any stretch – again – the braising liquid and other ingredients were incredibly good. The whole time we ate it I was thinking how good it would be with octopus instead of tripe, and so I made it at the earliest opportunity. And my oh my, it delivered.

Braised octopus is one of those dishes you need to eat before you can fully understand its appeal – it’s good simple peasant food with layers of kickarse flavour, but a lovely sumptuous texture as well. A few weeks after I made ours we dined with the Empress who served the most delicious ‘French-style braised octopus’ from a Kylie Kwong recipe that’s handily online here. One of the things I have always loved about our Empress’s cooking is her confident, natural flair with a really simple dish. This one she served with a green salad and some excellent sourdough, and nothing could have provoked more blissed-out groans from the table. Lord it was good.

The other great thing about octopus (apart from its unnerving intelligence, capacity for problem-solving and using tools, not to mention camera theft – they really are going to take over the world, you know) is that it gets the thumbs up for sustainability, unlike nearly every other kind of fish and seafood we eat. And – bonus of bonuses – it’s cheap.  I am about to embark on life as a full-time student next year, which I suspect means this blog will be taking on a whole new shade of Dining Broke frugality, given that the vast bulk of our household spending goes on food and wine … so occy dinner is de riguer student food methinks.

Anyhow, here’s my version of braised octopus, mangled together from various recipes – the photo doesn’t show the white beans, which were an addition to leftovers the next day, but were so good I’m putting them in the final recipe.

Who says offal never gave me anything?

Braised baby octopus with chorizo & white beans

  • 3 rashers bacon cut into chunks
  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 head garlic, cloves roughly chopped
  • 1 stick celery, finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 400ml or more red wine
  • 2 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 bottle (700g) tomato passata
  • 1 litre chicken stock
  • 2 red chillies, split
  • 1 kg cleaned baby octopus
  • 10 halved cherry tomatoes or equivalent small tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • Half to 1 chorizo sausage, sliced & fried
  • 1 cup (or more) cooked /canned & drained white beans
  • Salt & pepper

  1. Heat some oil in a heavy based casserole and fry the bacon, onion, celery and garlic till soft, with bay leaves.
  2. Add wine, oregano, passata and stock and bring to the boil. Add octopus and simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. Stir in chopped tomatoes, white beans and chorizo rounds and cook gently for another 15 minutes or until octopus is tender.
  4. Check seasoning and serve in shallow bowls.

Have you made a version of this? Or do you have another cephalopod favourite you’d like to share?