Archive for the ‘vegetable’ Category

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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?

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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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Big hopes for small spaces

November 23, 2011

As I’m away at Varuna, the Writers’  House this week I thought I’d invite a guest post for this blog, something I’ve not done before. So a warm welcome and my huge thanks to Naomi Parry, aka @drnaomi, one of my lovely Twitter friends, for her review of  The Little Vegie Patch Co: How to Grow Food in Small Spaces.  I’ve had my eye on this one, along with Indira Naidoo’s The Edible Balcony, because I have always sighed at gardening books which promise much but assume everyone has an acre or two in which to work, as opposed to the reality most of us face. If you’re like me, you have a small city courtyard (or balcony) but are still keen to grow food. Our tiny courtyard is presently growing around 40 tomatoes in a pot, and around a dozen baby zucchinis in another, along with lettuces, silverbeet, herbs and eggplants scattered around the garden beds, and another couple of pots with an olive and a small fig tree. It is very possible to grow good food in tiny spots, but there is so little information around – so I for one am very pleased publishers are starting to recognise this gap.

Take it away Miz Naomi…

Guest post: Book review by Naomi Parry

The Little Vegie Patch Co: How to grow food in small spaces

I find this book irresistible. To start with, there are two cute young guys on the cover … but seriously, this is a practical book that shows us how to grow food in urban environments. It’s informed by the passion and experience of the authors, men of Italian descent who were inspired by their grandparents’ productive backyards to make a business creating raised garden beds for horticultural newbies. One of them has a background in advertising and it shows – this book is one snazzy package. But it is built on a sound understanding of the way growing at least a little of our own food connects us to the earth and improves our lives. Capomolla and Pember’s stories of childhood gardens, food and family members would keep anyone reading, from the planting chart in the front to the vegetable pictures in the back, and along the way they slip in a range of thoughtful observations about food production and the way supermarket culture erodes our understanding of the land that would please the most earnest advocate for slow food and urban gardening.

The Little Vegie Patch is generously illustrated and so gorgeously designed that it looks like a luxe cookbook, which only serves to make the serious message it carries all the more palatable. Yet it’s not solemn; there’s more than a touch of Andy Griffiths in the sections on manure and compost, and it’s quite clear that, for these guys, gardens are a place to drink beer and cider. I love its self-deprecating tone. Capomolla and Pember acknowledge silverbeet is easy to grow, yet you may still feel it is crap; they ask why the first people to eat chillies ever decided to eat them again and warn “the carrots you grow will look nothing like the long, fat, waxed things you buy from the supermarket. They will be bent, hooked, curved and stumpy.” And Pember, a naughty uncle, advises that children are most easily engaged in activities that waste water, so teach the kids to shoot pests off plants with water pistols.

Although it looks good and is a compelling read, The Little Vegie Patch is far from lightweight. It has useful and clear information on climate zones, sunshine needs, planting guides and soil structure, with growing guides for a decent – though not comprehensive – range of vegetables (missing are the lovely bitter greens so beloved of Italians, or much about herbs, and I would question why you’d bother growing a big hungry plant like sweetcorn or a sprawling bastard like pumpkin if you only had a tiny yard). But you can find information on veges in a host of other books.

This book comes into its own with its explanations of making raised beds, along with the mechanism for installing irrigation and the best timbers to use. Exact measurements and numbers of tricky things like hose elbows are provided, taking the stress out of trips to the hardware store. If you are interested in the finer points of no dig gardens, composting, worm farms, growing from seed (in ingenious loo roll planters!) and seed saving, Capomolla and Pember offer plenty of information, all with the sensible suggestion to start off growing the things you most want to eat.

There’s only one disappointing element, which is that although the blurb on the back of the book suggests it will help you grow food in pots on the balcony, it turns out that the “small spaces” mentioned in the sub-title are really just raised beds and a few accoutrements for the larger garden, such as potato stacks. I wonder why on earth publishers don’t think it’s important to go for truth in subtitling, but that’s not a reason to dislike this book. If you have enough space in your courtyard or backyard for a raised bed, or an apple crate, you’ll be very happy with this. It will never edge out St Peter Cundall, but I am sure he won’t mind sharing a shelf with these blokes.

Rating: 4.5 stars.

Title: The Little Vegie Patch Co
Author: Fabian Capomolla and Mat Pember
Category: Non-Fiction
Publisher: Pan McMillan
ISBN: 9781742610184
RRP:
$45.00
Publication Date: 1 September 2011

About the reviewer: Naomi Parry is a historian who specialised in child welfare and Aboriginal history for her PhD thesis. She has reviewed books for a range of journals and works as an academic. She lives in the Blue Mountains with her young son, an old cat and some middle-aged chooks and is a veteran grower of herbs and vegetables in urban and suburban environments. She also blogs about food and gardens (sometimes, as Dr Sister Outlaw) at www.progressivedinnerparty.net.

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Ugly ducklings: Brussels sprouts & chipotle

June 27, 2011

I have never understood why the poor old Brussels sprout is so unfairly maligned.

Even as kids in our house, when the standard treatment for all vegetables was boil till textureless, we never complained about Brussels sprouts, and to my knowledge everyone in my family still chomps down on them with enthusiasm. But I guess the earthiness could be off-putting for kids, and I suppose the occasional metallic sort of bitterness one can experience has given them a bad name. For many winters now I’ve been simply tossing some Brussels sprouts in loads of olive oil and hurling into the roasting pan with other veg, for as we know well on this blog, a little roasting makes everything taste better. And I’m dying to try the pasta recipe offered by Diana in comments on the cabbage post here

It wasn’t until I had eaten these babies prepared by my friend Silas a few years ago that I really fell in love with their gutsy flavour. He steams them, then halves and stir-fries them in the wok in very hot peanut oil until they’re quite charred and deliciously crusted with fried bits.  

It was this approach that I was inspired by last week after I made the acquaintance of a very fabulous new friend, the chipotle chilli. Now, I am very late to learn of this miraculous ingredient. I was alerted to it by a Twitter chat with the fabulous Kathryn Elliott and some of her friends, about vegetarian substitutes for this and that, and chipotle – smoke-dried jalapeno chilli from Mexico – was mentioned as a good substitute for bacon. I was intrigued, as a lack of bacon would be one of the most saddening things about embracing vegetarianism, I have always thought. So off I went to Herbies Spices to get myself a couple of packs of these amazing chillies.

If you have never smelt a chipotle, you are in for a treat – open the pack and the waft of delicious smokiness is overwhelming. Once I opened that packet I wanted to play with its contents immediately, and given that chopped bacon or pancetta has always been a fab thing to add to Brussels sprouts, I decided to give it a whirl. And I am so glad I did.  There seems a kind of poetic justice in the fact that these two ugly ducklings combined – the sturdy, no-nonsense sprout and the wizened, shrivelled lumpy brown chilli – create a thing of such beauty, not only to look at, with the brilliant green and ochre red, but to eat. The chipotle was beautifully smoky, with a mild, rich heat. Its melding with the earthy sprouts and a good squeeze of lemon just gave a great big whack of flavour.

We served it with some good steak and roast fennel. And we’ll be doing so again before too long. This served two gutsers, but could probably go further among those of more restrained appetites. The amount of chilli will depend on the size of the particular one you have, as they seem to vary quite markedly in size, and on the amount of heat you like. Experiment to find your favoured level of warmth. 

Brussels sprouts with chipotle 

  • 250g Brussels sprouts
  • ½ one large chipotle chilli, chopped and soaked for a few minutes in hot water
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
  • juice of ½ a lemon
  • sea salt
Method
  1. Steam or boil the sprouts until just tender – mine took 7  minutes – then drain immediately and halve lengthwise, allowing to cool.
  2. Heat the oil in a wok or non-stick pan until very hot.
  3. Toss the sprouts gently in the hot oil until very browned, almost charred, but taking care not to mess them around so much they fall completely apart. 
  4. Add the chilli and a little of the water to the mix and stir. 
  5. Add the lemon juice a little at a time, tasting all the while. 
  6. Add a liberal scatter of salt and serve. 
Has anyone else used the chipotle much in cooking? I would love to learn more about it, and what to do with it next. I am thinking grilled corn on the cob would be pretty darn fabulous with it – and am concocting all kinds of ideas for bacon-substitution in other dishes for my veg friends. All hail the chipotle! 
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Cruciferous crusader

June 13, 2011

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

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

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

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

Enter the humble Brassica family.

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

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

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

Cabbage with caraway and currants

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

Method

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

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

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Risky bisqueness

June 6, 2011

Smash it up: Jared Ingersoll’s crab & harissa soup

The other weekend Senor and I were looking for a punchy little entree to accompany a roast lamb dinner for friends, and he happened upon Jared Ingersoll’s recipe for this crab soup.

Unusually, the recipe involved roasting the blue swimmer crab along with other ingredients for a whole hour in the oven.  Simple enough, you think, and it is.  The only demanding bit  is that periodically through the cooking you are required to take ‘a heavy mallet or a rolling pin’ to the crab, smashing it to simithereens.

Have you ever used a mallet to smash a crab shell? I haven’t, but I have sat across the dining table from Senor and our friend Ms J years ago while they went beserk with a hammer on a mud crab as Mr J and I cowered in fear, doing our best to shield ourselves from crabby debris.  I recall that there followed many weeks of picking crab shell off  Mr & Ms J’s paintings and nearby soft furnishings  (I recall, too, Mr J’s and my anxious glances at one another on seeing how powerfully – and gleefully – our respective spouses wielded the blunt instrument).

Suffice it to say that if you want to make this soup, you must prepare for a splatter fest, given that the smash-up here involves not only crab but a soupy mix of roasted capsicum and onion and tomatoes.  I started out trying to prevent crab on the ceiling by leaning over the pan and hoping my apron would take the brunt, but eventually I just gave in and bashed away with the rolling pin, picking bits of crab and roasted capsicum and tomato off the walls and my face as I went, pitching the bits back into the pan as best I could. I even confess to a certain amount of pleasurable abandonment to the process after a while.

The hardest part of this recipe is not the bashing, but the last step. After you’ve whizzed the mixture (which by now includes fish stock)  with a stick blender to mash it all up as best you can, it’s mouli time. I have never used a mouli before, but bought one specially for this dish (I’ve been trying to think of an excuse to get one for a while now) and I would say that it would be almost impossible to make this soup without one – or without some other way of sieving the mixture so that, as Jared instructs, you “take time to squeeze out as much of the soup as you possibly can; only stop using the mouli when you are left with a dry crumbly mixture on top”.

If all this sounds like one giant headache, it kind of is. But the result, I must tell you, is pretty fantastic: a deep, velvety, richly spicy soup. The quantity, which looked small when we finally had the soup finished, was just right – it’s so rich and luscious that a little goes a long way. This recipe comes from the book Sharing Plates, which is full of good stuff including our favourite orange and quince cake recipe and is accompanied by a recipe for zucchini fritters that we’ve not yet tried.

Unfortunately we forgot to take a photo of the final result, so you’ll have to imagine for yourself  a rich mahogany-coloured, velvety-looking soup in a little white ramekin and a sweet, spicy, roast crab aroma in the air.

Jared Ingersoll’s crab and harissa soup 

Ingredients

  • 3 blue swimmer crabs (we didn’t kill our own although the recipe calls for live ones)
  • 1 teaspoon each cumin, caraway, coriander seeds and half a teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1/3 cup soft brown sugar
  • pinch chilli flakes
  • salt and pepper
  • 150ml vegetable oil
  • 3 red capsicums, seeded & chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 1.5 litres fish stock (I used half packaged fish stock and half homemade chicken stock)
  • 1 bunch coriander
  • a few sprigs of mint and of parsley
Method
  1. Clean and quarter the crabs, removing the finger-like gills but keeping the brown meat if there is any.
  2. Toast the spices in a dry frying pan until fragrant, then grind in mortar & pestle or spice grinder.
  3. Sprinkle the spices over the crab with the sugar, chilli flakes & seasoning and mix.
  4. Heat a deep roasting tin in the oven or on the stove top and when hot, add the oil and then the spiced crab mix.
  5. Mix everything together well, bung in the oven for about 20 minutes.
  6. Remove pan from oven, mix in the remaining ingredients and continue to cook in the oven for about an hour, periodically bashing the shit out of the crab with your rolling pin or hammer, as discussed above. I think I did it about three or four times during the whole process.
  7. When it smells good and everything is soft and a little coloured, put the pan on the stove top and add the stock, simmering gently for about 15 minutes.
  8. Transfer to a saucepan and whizz with stick blender, then mouli as thoroughly as you can, as described above. I checked obsessively for shell, thinking there was no way the mouli could get it all, but found no shell at all. I would still suggest warning your guests about the possibility, however.

If this sounds good to you, I would love to know if you make it – probably best for a day when you have a few frustrations to pound out. And in the meantime, I would love to hear any other crabby tales you might have to tell.

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Oh my dahling: my deskside devotion

May 12, 2011

Some of you may remember my ill-fated experiment with dhal many mooons ago – an experience that made me gag. Well, thanks to a fantastic vegetarian Indian cookbook I was sent recently, I have not only got back on the dahl horse but the two of us have taken to spending many long, loving hours together.

What I’ve discovered, you see, is that dahl – and my particular favourite, spinach – is quite possibly the perfect desk-side lunch. And what with all the structural editing and rereading and copy-editing and rewriting of my forthcoming novel that’s been happening lately, I have been spending more time than usual glued to the office chair, working away to meet the required deadlines. At times like these, as many of you know, nicking off to the kitchen to potter about making lunch feels way too guilt-inducingly like wagging school.

So after a few goes at making dahl from different recipes, and falling head-over-heels in love with it, one Sunday I prepared for a very intensive week of editing by making a giant pot of spinach dahl. Flavour-wise, I find it improves more with each day (even up to four or five days in). It has the comfort-food factor to boot: soft in the mouth, and deeply nourishing to the body and soul. I have eaten this dahl every day for lunch for almost a week, and not tired of it one little bit.

Once it’s in the fridge, the only lunch preparation required is a bowl, a couple of pings in the microwave, and a spoon. Except, I must add, the one crucial addition when serving is a dollop of spicy chutney or hot pickle – this is absolutely essential in my view.

Another great thing about dahl is that it’s so easy to concoct your own version. After once or twice following a recipe, now I just bung in whatever I feel like on the day, with quantities and textures and ingredients varying each time. I am sure there are some dahl purists out there, and if so I would very much love to hear your views on texture and heat and starchiness and so on. But if you’re a fan of the bung-it-in-and-see-what-happens approach to cooking, this could be your new favourite too.  This recipe is a result of combining a Madhur Jaffrey recipe and one from the Mysore Style Cooking book, I think, as well as a few others I read online.

This serves about six people – or enough for one novel’s intensive week-long copy-edit.

Ingredients

  • 3 bunches English spinach, thoroughly washed and leaves separated from stems. roughly chop leaves; keep the stems from one bunch and discard the others. Finely chop the stems and set aside.
  • 2 cups dahl – I used skinned and split moong dahl, but you could use any old kind of split lentil (there are so many different types of dried lentil, split and whole, that work for dahl – try a few different ones to discover your favourite)
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 bay leaf
  • vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp brown mustard seeds
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 or 3 onions, finely chopped
  • 5cm piece ginger, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp chilli flakes
  • green or red chillies, finely chopped, to taste
  • 2 tbsp shredded coconut

Method

1. Thoroughly wash the dahl in several changes of water, then add to a heavy based pan with 8 cups water, the turmeric and bay leaf.

2. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover almost entirely with the lid and leave to simmer gently for up to an hour, or until the lentils are tender.

3. In a separate pan, heat a little oil and fry the mustard and cumin seeds over medium heat until they start to crackle and pop.

4. Add onion, ginger and finely chopped spinach stems, saute gently until translucent.

5.  Into the pan put the spinach, firmly packing it in if necessary, and cover.

6. Cook over gentle heat until the spinach is thoroughly wilted and shrinks right down.

7.  When the dahl is cooked, combine the contents of the two pans and mix thoroughly over low heat.

8. Add the remaining ingredients, adjusting seasoning and heat to taste, and continue to cook gently until you achieve the texture you prefer. Add more water if it becomes too thick for your liking.

9. Serve in a bowl with a dollop of hot pickle (this one is a standard Patak’s Hot Lime Pickle) or sweet chutney* and some chopped coriander if desired.

*My absolute favourite chutney in the world, first given me by our friend Caro, is this Roasted Cherry Chutney made by a New Zealand company called Provisions of Central Otago. Senor and I became so addicted to it that when we finished the jar Caro brought us back from across the ditch, and I learned my Twitter buddy and food fiend @Reemski was going to NZ, I basically begged her to bring some back for me. She doubled the joy by also bringing their Roasted Nectarine Chutney – lordy me, what a feast.  If anyone hears of a local stockist for this stuff, let me know! Otherwise next time I shall be biting the bullet and buying over $50 worth from their website (if they ship to Oz – not sure).