Vine & cheese…

December 4, 2013

vine-haloumiOn the weekend, along with another crack at the char-grilled octopus (a big hit with the punters, it turns out, specially served with aioli) I revisited this old Karen Martini recipe for haloumi and roasted garlic wrapped in a vine leaf and served with peach.

I just put a slice of peach on each piece, stuck a toothpick through each one and then handed a platter around at an afternoon of drinks and snacks in the back yard. It was another hit, so keep it in mind if you need a slightly unusual plate of morsels some time. I did everything but the cooking ahead of time and then it was just a matter of slinging them in the frypan for a few minutes. Worth it, I reckon.


Backyard grits

November 29, 2013

photo 2The sound of summer round here is the whoosh of the barbecue flame as it lights, the clunk of crockery on the outdoor table, the clicking of crickets and cicadas, and the occasional high tinnitus whine of a mosquito in your ear. Lazy, cruisy evenings outside are one of the great pleasures of the season in the suburbs, don’t you think? It’s been so rainy around here lately that we’ve taken every opportunity between showers to eat dinner outside.

One of our midweek go-to dinners is a few chunks of salmon chucked on the barbecue and a salad. And the star salad of this week turned out to be this beany number, which now has me addicted to canned flageolet beans.

photo 1A friend who moved from Melbourne to Sydney a couple of years ago was horrified to find that these beans are all but impossible to find in this city. A major problem, it turns out, because as I discovered this week – with a single precious can given to me by said friend – the flageolets are a completely different creature to all the other siblings in the canned pulse family. Much more buttery in texture, smaller and altogether sweeter and more delicious than cannellinis or borlottis, these babies are just too good to miss.

My friend has now found a mail-order source, which just shows how essential they are. But if anyone reading this knows where to get them in Sydney, let me know! (I must say I was horribly ashamed of my city on this matter, because it provided some justification for the gasps of distress from pals greeting news of my friend’s move from the south. One actually asked in consternation, “But where are you going to get food!?”)

Anyway, this salad would of course work just fine with other canned beans or even chickpeas. But with the flageolets it was sublime.

photo 3Ingredients

  • 1 can flageolet beans, drained & rinsed
  • handful of fresh broad beans, cooked & double peeled
  • half a red onion, finely sliced
  • a few anchovies
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • large handful parsley, finely chopped
  • juice of half a lemon
  • a slug olive oil
  • good splash raspberry vinegar  (this really made it pop)
  • salt & pepper


Chuck everything in!


A sucker for octopus

November 26, 2013

photo 4For ages I’ve wanted to try cooking Big Octopus, as opposed to the baby version which has always seemed much more approachable. But over the last while, a few thick slices of pickled or marinated or grilled but always sweetly tender occy in tapas or salads at cool places like Movida and Bar Lourinha in Melbourne and our beloved local Harts Yard in Sydney have given me a taste for tentacles.

So I decided last night to have a crack at a grilled octopus salad. Off to the fish market where I bypassed the baby and medium octopi for the big mamas, and bought a single octopus which weighed a bit over a kilo (our fishmonger removes the head and the beak – if yours doesn’t, you’ll need to do it yourself). After a little research I decided to take a punt with a mix of this and this recipe.

photo 1[1]There’s a lot of advice around about how to cook octopus, but most agree that for tender tentacles, it’s essential to boil or simmer it first. Some folks boil up a big batch and then freeze it (another step in the tenderising process, apparently) so all that’s required is thawing and grilling. I like that idea and might try it in future. I didn’t bother with all the other  recommendations like putting a cork in the water (something to do with tartaric acid) or bashing the crap out of the creature on the back patio first to tenderise it.

photo 2[1]Instead I just brought a big pot of salted water to boil, threw in some eschallots and a few fresh bay leaves, and then dunked the creature into the deep three times. I have absolutely no idea why this is a good idea, but lots of people recommend it. This explains the blurriness of these pictures – it’s quite hard to wrangle a dripping kilo of octopus in tongs in one hand while photographing with the other! Then I dropped it back in, admiring those stunning suckers all the while, covered it with some baking paper (again, not sure of the rationale but I’m an obedient lass) and brought it back to the boil, then turned down to simmer for around 45 minutes.

photo 2When it felt tender when pierced with a skewer, I drained and cooled it under running water, whereupon quite a bit of soft purple skin came away. After that I cut the ‘wheel’ in half and laid the now-soft and still slightly warm tentacles in a glass dish with lots of olive oil, several long sprigs of fresh oregano from the garden, a chopped clove of garlic (received our annual five kilos of Patrice Newell garlic the other day, yippee) and the juice of one lemon. Squidged it all together with clean hands, covered it and bunged it into the fridge for a few hours. Advice for marinating recommends anything from half an hour to overnight, so take your pick. Mine ended up being in there for around five hours.

Then I returned to the desk for an afternoon’s work – back to the novel in progress (and an exciting online project I’m working on with psychologist and coach Alison Manning about managing the emotional ups and downs of the creative life – artists and writers, stay tuned! 

imageOf course it began raining just when I wanted to use the barbecue, so instead I tossed the tentacles in a hot non-stick pan in two batches, cooking for two minutes each side to get that nice lemony golden crust. Then threw them back in the marinade while I fried a few sliced of haloumi for a minute or so each side.

I sliced the tentacles into a few pieces and then chucked the lot into a pile of fresh lettuce leaves (growing lettuce in pots is one of the joys of summer, so easy and soooo much better than bought stuff) with a dressing of balsamic vinegar, olive oil and some chopped preserved lemon.

The result was just about perfect – crisp outside, tender inside and not even faintly rubbery. This would be a lovely lightish yet still substantial entree for four people – but because we are greedy we ate the lot for dinner between two.

Now I’ve mastered the art of tender tentacles I’m going to experiment with lots more uses – tapas, canapés, braises and pickles. Could be the dish of the summer –  if this scarily intelligent species doesn’t rise up and take over our world first, that is…


On painting, cooking and eating

August 20, 2013

ImageMartin Gayford’s Man with a Blue Scarf

In an experiment in disconnection over the past week (a diary-style magazine piece on what it’s like to return to total offline life for seven days) I’ve done a lot of reading. In time away from the internet I discovered a lovely rich sense of privacy and mental spaciousness, even allowing for a little rereading. One of the books I’ve dipped into again is an old favourite: Man with a Blue Scarf, by Martin Gayford. It’s an account of sitting for two portraits for the great Lucian Freud, an experience that took over eighteen months altogether.

This is such a beautiful book. I first read it as I wrote this piece here, for The Monthly. It’s perfect for dipping into, as it’s written in short, reflective, elegant pieces.

One of Freud’s conventions is to eat dinner in a good restaurant with his portrait subjects after each sitting, as the latter is a surprisingly demanding physical feat. But Gayford points out it is not just a pleasant reward for what could become ‘a grind’ – it’s also a chance for the painter to keep observing the sitter at close quarters.

There is a complicated relationship between painting, cooking and eating. Quite often the subject matter of painting is food, or as we call it in English, ‘still life’. The French term, nature morte, or dead life, describes it with bleaker honesty. The eatable is, generally speaking, dead matter, animal and vegetable, which if not consumed will soon decay. Living flesh is made by consuming other organisms. That is a fundamental biological process, one that is punningly recalled by Lucian Freud’s painting of a nude with two fried eggs (Naked Portrait with Egg, 1980-81; p 16), as close a visual analogy between the human body and comestibles as exists in the whole of art. 

Artists who are interested, like LF, in the physical being of people are necessarily interested in food.  Francis Bacon used to insist that we are meat, and – though one might disagree about whether there is more to the question – that contention is undeniably true. Moreover, painting – especially the thick and luscious variety often employed by painters who attempt to evoke the texture and weight of bodily existence – often uses techniques that verge on the culinary. Rembrandt, it has been discovered, used a liaison of oil and egg yolk to thicken those wonderful dollops of pigment that he used to recreate the bulge of a nose or the currugations of a forehead. In other words, he was painting with a variety of mayonnaise.

A remark by Sickert comes to mind: ‘The more our art is serious, the more it will tend to avoid the drawing room and stick to the kitchen. The plastic arts are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts … while they will flourish in the scullery, or on the dunghill, they fade at a breath from the drawing room.’

‘Gross material facts’ are exactly the subjects of LF’s pictures, very often. And though many would dispute he deals with them joyously (though I am not sure I would), he does so – I believe – with sympathy, tenderness and, certainly, intense seriousness. From this first evening, the sights and smells of restaurants are mingled in my mind with those of the studio: linseed oil and olive oil, saffron and yellow ochre.

I highly recommend this book – it’s a lively and rich philosophical discussion of Freud, portraiture, friendship and painting. It’s an absolute jewel, and you can buy it here


Dinner Guests: Kathryn & Lucy’s roast chook

June 11, 2013

roast chook 2Like many bloggers, I often receive offers from companies or people wanting to contribute a guest post here. I almost always decline, because it’s usually someone trying to flog some crappy product or other, with boring writing to boot. But when the excellent and generous Kathryn Elliott of Limes & Lycopene got in touch about the beautiful quarterly magazine she produces with photographer Lucinda Dodds of Nourish MeAn Honest Kitchen – I jumped at the chance. Kathryn is a nutritionist who manages to write about food with generosity and heart. She understands that cooking and eating should be pleasurable, not punitive, and her recipes and advice are always fantastic. She has also been personally generous to me in all kinds of ways so I’m chuffed to have Kathryn & Lucy’s post here – specially as anyone who knows me will recognise that a good roast chook is one of the great joys of my cooking life. Here’s a way to make it just as good but a little better for fitting into one’s jeans. 

Roast dinners: a makeover

Roast dinners are one of those classic, hearty family meals. However we feel many people now hesitate to make this old favourite. Roasting a joint of meat leads to a lot of leftovers and if there’s only a few of you at home, then making good use of those leftovers can become tedious. No matter how good the original roast, nobody wants to still be eating leftovers four days later.

Plus there’s the health factor. The traditional roast, centred on a big joint of meat, with sides of potatoes, gravy and all the trimmings is a heavy, stodgy meal, one which can leave you feeling stuffed and lethargic at the end. If you’re trying to have healthy meals then avoiding the family roast may seem like a good idea.

However, in our latest issue of An Honest Kitchen we’ve taken on the challenge of making over a number of meals, including the traditional roast, because we think a roast dinner can be a good thing – simple to cook, manageable even if there’s only one or two of you at home and healthy. Our Makeover has fewer kilojoules, lots more vegetables and more fibre. It’s a better balanced meal with more nutrient complexity and variety than the traditional roast

roast chook 1How to makeover a roast dinner

In the course of our makeovers we developed a few guidelines which you could use to revamp your own favourite roast dinner:

  1. Use less meat: Rather than cooking a whole big joint of meat, choose a smaller cut with a bone in it. This will cook in a fraction of the normal time, but you’ll still end up with a juicy and flavour filled dinner. In our recipe below we’ve used chicken thighs on the bone.
  2. Don’t avoid potatoes: Roast potatoes are an integral part of the traditional roast and while the anti-carb movement has left them with a poor image, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of potato. It’s all about the size of the portion you eat and what else you put on your plate. Try to make the potato no more than a quarter of the space on your plate.
  3. Make sure you add LOTS of vegetables: Roasting is one of the best ways to cook vegetables. They are simply delicious and you can easily pack a variety of vegetables into the meal. We also avoid peeling and chop the veg into large chunks so there’s no fussy prep work required.
  4. Be careful with the fat: Traditionally a roast chicken is smeared with butter or another type of fat, which gives a crispy skin but is hell for the waistline. Instead we’ve actually skinned the chicken thighs and then added minimal fat in the cooking.
  5. Add flavour: Don’t be afraid to add unusual and strong flavours to your roast, the results can be spectacular. In our recipe below we’ve used Chinese five-spice powder, soy sauce and Chinese cooking wine to produce a roast with a difference. It’s still a roast and still delicious. This was a huge hit with our recipe testers and we’d love to share it with you.

Five Spice Roast Chicken

A twist on the normal roast chook. The whole meal is cooked on a baking tray, so you’ll either need one large tray, to fit all the ingredients, or spread them out over two smaller ones. Serves 2

  • 2 chicken thighs on the bone (about 400g)
  • 2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry
  • ½ lemon
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 400 – 450g potatoes
  • 2 red onions
  • 3 carrots
  • 200g green beans

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Remove the skin from the chicken: If your chicken thighs have skin on them, then it’s easy to remove. Take hold of the skin at one end and gently, but firmly, pull it away from the flesh. You may need to use a knife to help it along. Cut the chicken skin off, using a sharp knife.

Flavour the chicken: Slash the chicken pieces all over, with a knife.You can do this quite enthusiastically, as you want each piece to have several deep cuts on both sides. Place these on a large baking tray. In a small bowl, whisk together the five-spice powder, soy sauce and Chinese cooking wine. Pour the marinade over the chicken pieces and, using your hands, rub the mixture into the chicken pieces. Make sure you push the marinade into the cuts in the chicken and all around the bone. Squeeze the juice from the lemon over the chicken. Roughly chop up the leftover lemon shell and add to the baking tray.

Add the potatoes: Cut each potato into chunks, about 4cm in size. Add these to the baking tray. Drizzle over the olive oil. Place the chicken and potatoes in the oven for 20 minutes.

Prep the vegetables: While the chicken is cooking, peel the red onion and cut each into 6 wedges. Scrub the carrots and cut into 2cm-ish chunks. Trim the beans.

Add the vegetables: After the chicken has been cooking for 20 minutes remove the baking tray from the oven. Turn each piece of chicken and potato over. Add the onion, carrots and green beans. Move them briefly and gently around in the five spice flavouring. Place the baking tray back in the oven and cook for a further 20 minutes.

Let the chicken rest: Take the baking tray out of the oven. Gently remove the chicken to a plate, cover with tin foil and leave to rest for 10 minutes. Give the baking tray with the vegetables a quick wiggle, to spread the vegetables out and then place the baking tray back in the oven, while the meat is resting. After 10 minutes serve the chicken, together with the vegetables

Cooking Notes:

Chinese cooking wine is made from rice and is often called Chinese rice wine or Shaoxing Wine. Taste-wise it’s a similar to sherry, although it has a more bitter, stronger flavour. Some supermarkets stock Chinese cooking wine and it’s also available from Chinese grocers. You can buy Chinese rice wine in many grades and a brand at the cheaper end of the scale is fine for this meal.

Chinese five spice powder is a staple in Chinese cooking. It’s a mixture of five spices, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, sichuan pepper and fennel seeds and has a wonderful aromatic smell and manages to be sweet, sour, bitter and pungent, all at the same time. Five spice powder is available from the spice section of many supermarkets. It can also be purchased from Chinese grocers.

– Kathryn & Lucy

FrontCoverFor more ideas on making over the meals you love take a look at Kathryn & Lucy’s publication An Honest Kitchen: Makeovers. An Honest Kitchen is a regular publication all about real food that’s good for you. It costs $9.95 for 31 pages of beautifully photographed and punchy, nutritionally balanced recipes – in the very friendly PDF format. 

Each issue is full of simple recipes, practical cooking information and healthy eating advice. The latest edition, Makeovers, in which we revamp popular meals is available in e-format from 11 June.



Coming home to roost

May 23, 2013

Chickens, Ethics, and Why I Am Not a Vegan

Quite a while ago, a chance remark I made on Twitter led to a much longer – and to me very worthwhile – private discussion about eating chickens, sorrow, and ethics. 

The prompt was this tweet, from me on January 29 this year:

“Oh no!! The chooks immortalised in this gorgeous piece – http://t.co/0oCukgfo – were brutally murdered by a fox last night. Poor lovely chooks.”

I have admired my friend Tegan Bennett Daylight‘s writing on this blog more than once – and, I understand from first-hand accounts (I’m away again so couldn’t be there!), she led a transfixing session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival today with the internationally renowned literary critic James Wood, along with Australians Jane Gleeson-White and Geordie Williamson. Tegan wrote the piece in my posted link, which was about the time she and her family saved one of their chooks, which had become very ill, by giving it human antibiotics. It is a beautiful, moving little essay; read it, you’ll love it.

Of course when the chooks were taken by the fox, Tegan was terribly upset for some weeks.These chickens were the second pair embraced by the Daylight family, after the first, immortalised (and much better named) here, were returned to Rentachook because the rented garden they were destroying had to be saved. But their replacements, Harriet & Fluffybum, lived happily for a couple of years in subsequent Daylight backyards and were definitely beloved pets. 

A few days after I wrote the tweet, I received a warm email, from a book-world Twitter friend I have met a few times in real life, who happens to be a quite charming vegan. This email explained that one of her followers – a newish vegan herself, had asked her what she thought of my tweet, because, she said, “I would really like to ask her why the deaths of these chooks are sad but not the deaths of the chickens she cooks with and eats.”

I hasten to make clear that the question was posed in the most pleasant and respectful way – indeed, the asker explained to our mutual friend that she liked my writing a great deal, and was genuinely interested in my position but didn’t know how to ask me herself without seeming confrontational or aggressive. Our mutual friend asked her permission to send it on to me, and she agreed. I decided to post my reply here, because I think it’s a great discussion to be having, and as I say at the end, I was very glad of the question – and particularly the way it was asked, in a genuine spirit of inquisitive sharing of information. It’s a shame so much ‘debate’ between vegans and meat-eaters isn’t initiated in such a charming manner as my correspondents did. I should add that they both replied with great warmth and pleasant thanks for my time in responding. Anyway – here’s my response. I have bolded a few sections for emphasis here.

Hi gals, sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this, been flat out. At first I thought I might write a blog post about it – and maybe I will some time, because it’s got lots of interesting angles – but now I’ve run out of time so will just answer briefly here first … maybe I will muse on this on my blog another time, because of course the question is not as simple as it first appears, and contains about a million other questions within it, the heart of which is how is it possible for me to think of myself as a moral being and not be vegan? All big stuff obviously, which I have thought about a lot. I will try to be brief, though don’t promise not to be garbled!  Your question:

I would really like to ask her why the deaths of these chooks are sad but not the deaths of the chickens she cooks with and eats?

I guess my first response is to figure out what I was sad about when Tegan’s chickens were killed by the fox, which in itself has about three answers.

First and most of all I was sad not for the chooks but for my friend, who had grown very attached to the chooks and was deeply upset by the violence of their deaths. She was sad, so I was sad. Her children, interestingly, were not nearly as sad as she was, though seemingly just as attached to the ‘personalities’ of the chooks, which surprised me.  Second, I was sorry about the possibly extended period of terror that the chickens themselves experienced – it is awful to think of that kind of fear, though obviously as a meat eater I am directly responsible for the fear many animals experience immediately prior to their deaths.

So I definitely did feel sad about the manner of the death of the chooks. The fact that they were sort of ‘pets’ of course – though kept in the first place for their eggs, which is another morally troubled area for vegans – had led me to a more sentimental emotional relationship with those two particular chickens than the chickens I eat, which are bred purely for food. However, I actually don’t think the two sets of chickens are as emotionally and morally separable as you are assuming I do.

The second part of your question is about the chickens I cook and eat myself. When I cook at home, I only use poultry from a supplier called Feather and Bone here in Sydney, who I believe work very hard and honestly to source meat from places that raise and treat the animals as ‘ethically’ as possible. I know where the farms are, who runs them, that they are regularly inspected by individuals I trust to measure the producers’ commitment not just to raising animals in a ‘humane’ way but to caring for the land and water and air on which those animals live. I feel a fairly similar level of sadness for those chickens as I do for Tegan’s chickens, to be honest, which is all about the moment of their deaths. I feel that both sets of chooks lived similarly pleasant lives until the hour of their deaths – well fed and watered, able to indulge their natural instincts, free from disease or illness, living in the open air and the sunshine and given shelter from the elements and (at least as much as made humanly possible) predators. And I feel sad that each chicken has a period of fear (I assume) before their death. At the same time I think the deaths of the meat chickens is quicker and involves a shorter period of physical pain than the deaths at the jaws of the fox. If any of these chickens was living a ‘natural’ life in the wild, it may well live a significant portion of that life in blind fear of predators and possibly in malnourishment, with injury, disease, etc.

I absolutely respect the fact that as a vegan you will find my position untenable, and believe that any animal being killed for food is by definition unethical, but I guess that is where we would simply part ways.

I don’t believe it is morally wrong to kill animals for food, any more than I think it is morally wrong to kill the snails that eat my herbs, or the mosquitoes that bite me, or cockroaches that run round my kitchen. I think humans are a part of a food chain and a life cycle of the planet, and that to enact my part in the food chain in a reasonably carefully considered way does not make me an immoral being.

I do believe it is wrong to senselessly kill animals, to hurt them without cause and to allow them to live in terrible suffering, which is why I am pretty strict about where I buy my meat, especially chicken and pork which I will only buy from F&B, because I think the intensive farming of those two animals is worse than farming of grassfed cattle and lamb  that – in Australia at least – usually spend a good portion of their life in a free range situation. That said, I very rarely buy any meat from providers other than Feather and Bone, including lamb and beef.

Fish and seafood is another whole very grey moral area for me – because of the environmental degradation caused by fish farming and the overfishing of oceans. I know some people who won’t eat mammals for ethical reasons but will eat seafood. For me the destruction of habitats and ecosystems is as much a morally charged decision as the ‘saving’ of a single animal. And yet I want to eat fish, so I do.

As I hope you can see, I am well aware that as a meat eater I am subject to my own hypocrisy almost every day, most especially when I eat at the houses of friends who don’t know or necessarily care – though most of my close friends think about this a lot too – where their meat comes from. I would never refuse to eat a meal someone has made an effort to cook for me, no matter where the meat comes from, because at that moment I believe my moral obligation to appreciate and show gratitude to my loved friend or family member outweighs my moral obligation to the animal.

I suppose underlying all of this is something you may find abhorrent: I am quite at ease with the fact that all living necessitates the death of other creatures. All of us, whether we eat meat or not, are involved in countless deaths every minute of every day. The death of other people – through our inaction to those in war-torn, famine-scarred countries and so on – upsets me more than the death of other animals. And yet everything I do as a wealthy white woman is at the expense of another human life, somewhere in the world. There is a very difficult line that we all walk between the right to live a good life ourselves and the obligation to help others have a good life. For me, the lives of animals are definitely on this spectrum, but the spectrum is very long, and I walk an uncertain line back and forth and up and down and across the blurry centre of it all the time.

For me the core issue that determines my behaviour about animals for food is motivation, and the reason for the killingI would never knowingly harm an animal – including a fly or an ant or a spider – if I didn’t feel there was a practical imperative for doing so. Killing cockroaches to prevent a cockroach infestation of my house feels to me like justifiable homicide. Same goes for mice or rats. But I try to find a method of killing that is instant – like squashing or instant-death traps (sorry) – rather than poisons or things that kill slowly and painfully. If I find a spider I leave it be or carry it outside. I kill snails in my garden because the snails and I want to eat the same food, and I get to win.  

Killing chickens for food I don’t believe is wrong. I believe it is a part of the natural life cycle of the planet, and my sharing this food with other people increases their wellbeing and connection to each other and the planet. I don’t waste any part of the chicken (for example making stock from the bones) and I believe I do feel grateful to the chicken that has lost (I’m not stupid or hypocritical enough to say “gave”) its life.

But going back to the original question of my apparent inability to “connect” the death of Tegan’s chooks with the death of the other chooks I eat, there is another important point to make. I am guessing you don’t share this phenomenon, which is fine – but for me it is completely possible, and acceptable, to experience more than one feeling at a time. Daily, I have conflicting, even quite contradictory, emotions at the same time, about lots of things (this is experienced by anyone who has ever hated their mother at the same time as loving her). If Tegan had killed the chickens and served them to me for dinner I would quite happily have eaten them, in the knowledge that they had a good life and did not suffer until the final moments of life. I would also have been grateful to my friend whose mental, physical and emotional energy went into the meal that she was offering me. And yet I could also in that moment feel sad for the chickens, that they were no longer alive.

I guess the shortest possible answer to your original question is this: yes, I am a hypocrite.  I have long, long ago accepted that any feelings of moral superiority I ever have about the way I try to live my life are basically unjustifiable as soon as I look at the way someone else lives theirs. And while I am often tempted to feel quite smug about my own food choices (which I’m sure must make you gasp in disbelief) compared to some people I know, I also try to remember this quote whenever I want to give them a lecture about the terrible life their roasted chicken has lived.

It’s a line written by a psychologist called Jonathan Haidt, and I find it useful to tell myself often:  “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.”

There are a whole lot of other ways in which I feel that my food choices actually enhance the lives of people and some animals – the pigs and chickens I cook would not have any life at all if it wasn’t for being produced for food, and for the most part they have very pleasurable lives until the ‘one bad day’ at the end. I believe even Peter Singer agrees that to exist is preferable to not existing, though I am sure there are many qualifications to be made about that.

Well, gals – I am sure you weren’t expecting such a long rambling answer. It probably sounds defensive – although I hope not – and I hope it hasn’t bored you both to death. But I wanted to be careful in my answer because I do think about these things, as do many meat-eaters I know. I think it is a mistake to assume that if someone eats meat it’s because they have never bothered to think about the moral implications of doing so.

And I am also really glad you asked the question and sent the email, because it does me good to recalibrate and reconsider this stuff all the time, each day. And to try to make the rightest decision in that moment.

All fascinating, interesting stuff.



As I said above,  my correspondents replied with warmth and gratitude for my time in replying, and we all patted each other on the back and parted ways. But I do think about that email often, and am glad I was asked the question. It keeps me, not so much on the straight and narrow, but on the track of a mindful consideration of how we eat, how we view ourselves, and how both of these things can ripple out into the world in meaningful ways.

By the time I get home at the end of next week I will have spent eight of the past nine weeks away from home, my beloved bloke and my friends. I confess to a good deal of homesickness, but this stint – in Perth, as writer in residence at Curtin University, has given me so many really special opportunities to connect: with old friends, new ones, and with my novel-in -progress. So while I’ll be relieved to get home, I’m absolutely grateful for the opportunity. (Oh, and while I was here, I received this lovely surprise last weekend: grand.)


A Bundanon postcard (& some soup)

April 15, 2013

april 9 morningI write this with a deep peaceful sigh from the midst of a three-week writing retreat at Bundanon, the pair of properties given to the people of Australia by the painter Arthur Boyd and his family, on the Shoalhaven River a couple of hours south of Sydney.

It’s the second time I’ve had the great fortune to be here. I first came over ten years ago, when I was working on my second novel, The Submerged Cathedral – a book that turned out to be very much about landscape. Then, as now, I found the landscape here creeping not only into my work but my psyche. This time the effect is even greater I think, because while last time I worked in a large studio facing a different direction, this time my view, all day every day, is this one: the greenest paddock you have ever seen, often complete with kangaroos and wombats. The kangaroos oblige with a morning and evening ballet performance, and the wombats – enormous things – putz around after them.

I arrived at Bundanon after a busy month, having travelled from Adelaide Writers’ Week almost straight on to the fabulous Shanghai International Literary Festival and then very quickly to the Snowy Mountains Readers and Writers’ Festival, talking all the way.

I am exceptionally lucky to keep being invited to speak at these events, and it’s grand to meet readers of my books. At the same time, there is something that doesn’t really sit right with me when I do a lot of it. For one thing, I grow very quickly tired of the sound of my own voice. Writers are often rather introverted people, and so the performance aspect of speaking in public – as I have been doing for almost 18 months now, having published two books within six months of each other (d’oh!) and spoken at 15 literary festivals as well as assorted libraries and bookshops in that time  – can start to erode your sense of who and what you are if you do too much of it.

It also means – for me anyway – that the creative well is all but dried up. All that hyper-stimulation and exploration of the outside world means the inside world of my head, where my new novel should be dwelling, has become a rather hollow, empty place. All I have been hearing is my voice banging on and on and on, instead of sitting quietly and listening, which is the only way I can find my way into writing.

bundanon8All of which means that arriving here, to this view, with absolutely no requirement that I use my voice to speak at all, was even more blissful than I would ordinarily have found it. And while I’ve been keeping in touch with home and friends by email (and Twitter, which is where I learned of this lovely surprise last week) at least four days can go by at a time without having to open my mouth to speak. But it’s not only the quiet that is so restorative.  I’m absolutely sure the actual view – that wall of green – has as much to do with it (a hunch seemingly validated by this research into “restorative environments”). 

bundanon6I’m in what’s known as The Writer’s Cottage, just a stone’s throw from the artists’ apartments and studios occupied by other residents – more often visual artists, but this time several other writers, all lovely people. A Musicians’ Cottage is a little further away, set back among the trees. The whole place is such a generous gift – with Arthur Boyd’s studio and the family home a stroll down the hill, and open every Sunday for visitors. It’s a stunning place to visit, so if you’re ever in the Shoalhaven area you really should come to see for yourself.

I’m just starting week three, and have been slowly sinking back into my new novel. It’s both a joy and a challenge to be so immersed in it – when you finally get what you want, the result can be confronting. “Oh, if I only had three weeks of pure isolation for work on my novel!” can quickly turn to a terrified “Oh my God, three weeks of isolation to work on my novel?” once you sit down to the blank page and the blinking cursor once again.

my living & work roomAnd that’s where one’s small daily routines become so precious, especially cooking and eating. The morning coffee drunk while watching the roos, the lunchtime fridge scavenge, the evening glass of wine while cooking dinner, then the meal itself. Mine have most often been eaten one-handed from a bowl, while reading,  reading, reading in a comfy chair by lamplight – and it all takes on a great deal more ritual significance than at home during a normal working week. Even washing the dishes has become a pleasant diversion, what with the sink installed beneath a window that looks out on to a whole other view of stunning green, this time bushland…

wombat sunday april 14 2Then it’s early to bed, and the best sleep I have had in years (interrupted only by the odd bit of thumping and shrieking from a wombat rumpus under the house once or twice, and one night, the sad moans of some yarded cattle down the way), then up early to start again, sitting down with the quiet mind, the blank page, my imagined world and that view.

This evening’s dinner is a new soup I’ve made up this afternoon, inspired partly by a mention my husband made of a sweet potato soup he made at home last week, and partly by the happenstance combination of veg in my fridge, and partly by the welcome return of some cool damp weather. I feel like one of these wombats, shouldering my way back into the long-missed burrow of my writing life. And, even though it’s kind of dark in here, I like it.

Bundanon Soup

  • olive oil
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes,  chopped
  • 3 medium carrots, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 leek, finely chopped
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cm  lump ginger, finely chopped
  • ½ bunch parsley, stems finely chopped & separated from leaves, also chopped
  • ½ a celery stick, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 birdseye chilli, finely chopped
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • 600 ml chicken stock
  • salt & pepper
  • a little fresh mint, finely chopped
  • lemon juice & zest
  • a dollop of natural yoghurt – optional
  1. bundanonsoupFirst, I tossed the carrots and sweet potato in olive oil and roasted them till richly browned and caramelised, because – well, because generally I need a good reason not to roast things and couldn’t see one here.
  2. While they’re roasting, sauté the onion, leek, ginger, garlic, spices, chilli and finely chopped parsley stalks in more olive oil along with the spices till the veg are soft and the spices fragrant. 
  3. Add the roasted veg and the chicken stock and simmer over a low heat until the carrots & sweet potato have fallen apart. I don’t peel mine, but you can if you wish. If you don’t have stick blender, the sweet potato skins might be too chunky for some, but I like a bit of rustic roughage!
  4. When you’re about ready to eat, add the chopped parsley leaves and mint, season well with salt and pepper, a good squeeze of lemon juice and a little zest, and turn off the heat.
  5. Pour the second glass of wine, spoon the soup into a deep bowl, add a dollop of yoghurt and another mint leaf or two, take up your Alice Munro (or Hilary Mantel or Elizabeth Strout or James Salter, all of which I’ve been riveted by here – except maybe the Salter which although brilliantly written is giving me the 70s Love God  Great Man Writer heebiegeebies a bit), settle into your comfy chair and enjoy your evening. 

Jewel in the crown

January 29, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

freakysalad2Jewellery Box Salad
viaHellenic Republic

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

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


What I ate on my holidays

January 18, 2013

Salad days

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

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

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


Something borrowed

November 5, 2012

As any visitor here will know, the sharing of food is one of the great joys of my life – but I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about the whys and wherefores of actually sharing recipes and ideas for dishes. It seems self-evident that folks who read – and write – cookery blogs have a natural, internalised desire to share knowledge and ideas about cooking, so it has always stunned me when people talk about having “secret” recipes.

Secrecy over recipes and the fierce withholding of kitchen expertise plays a central role in the film Toast, the dramatisation of Nigel Slater’s memoir of the same title (I’m assuming the same events occur in the book) . From Slater’s Wikipedia page:

[Slater] used food to compete with his stepmother – the former cleaning lady – for his father’s attention. Their biggest battle was over lemon meringue pie – his father’s favourite. His stepmother refused to divulge her recipe, so Slater resorted to subterfuge in order to turn out his own version. “I’d count the egg-shells in the bin, to see how many eggs she’d used and write them down. I’d come in at different times, when I knew she was making it. I’d just catch her when she was doing some meringue, building up that recipe slowly over a matter of months, if not years.”

Whatever the truth of Slater’s step-mum’s kitchen caper might have been, his portrayal of her represents a figure some people know well. I wonder if this kind of woman – always a woman in the stories I’ve heard – is still around, or is she only a figure of bygone eras, when a woman’s power in society was so limited that she felt she had to wield it in this manner?

Or am I inventing this Fifties Femme?

My own mother couldn’t give a damn about who had her recipes, but then she was never a particularly passionate cook to begin with. Unlike a friend’s aunt, who staunchly refused for decades to share the recipe for her legendary melting moments. Eventually, suffering a brief attack of magnanimity, Aunty Mean deigned to offer the recipe to her niece, a brilliant cook – but only on the proviso that she promised never to share it with her mother!  Rather takes the cake (boom-tish) for sibling rivalry, don’t you think? My loyal friend politely declined the offer, managing not to add, “It’s only a fucking biscuit!”

The holding of recipe cards close to the chest in this way speaks of all kinds of things that have, obviously, nothing to do with the biscuit. It implies that cooking is a contest, that the only value in making beautiful food for others is in your power to impress them, and indeed that one’s esteem in the eyes of others is so fragile that refusal to share something as trivial as a recipe will actually help maintain that esteem. When of course it just does the opposite – paints you as desperate rather than skilled, mean-spirited rather than generous. In fact the whole concept of generosity is completely absent in this kind of syndrome. As well, when all recipes spring from other recipes, it seems somehow dishonourable to suggest that my recipe alone is original, and therefore so much more valuable than yours. It also smacks of a lack of confidence about the bounty of creativity – this recipe is so precious because there will never be others to take its place. I’ve known writers like this in my time, who obsessively, vigilantly – and in vain – inspect the work of others for similarities to theirs. What such people seem not to understand is that this fearful obsessing over other people’s wells of creativity means that their own will always be in danger of drying up completely.

Anyhoo, I’m happy to say that among my friends and family, recipes and food ideas fly back and forth and round and about with complete abandon. Take the unbelievably good lemon curd fool we ate at the Empress’s palace last week, which I then immediately pinched for our dinner guests on Saturday night. It’s one of the easiest, quickest and yet most swooningly striking desserts you’ll ever try. Bizarrely, I had never made lemon curd until that day but now I know how easy and how very fine it is – my favourite meld of citrussy tartness and sweetness –  I’m going to find many other desserty avenues for it.

Which brings me to another part of the pleasure of sharing recipes; one leads to another, which then morphs into another which gives birth to another and another, in a rich cycle of generosity, abundance and plenty. And as soon as I “invent” – or am given! – a suitably delicious new incarnation of this luxurious dessert I’m inviting the Empress over to eat it.

Lemon curd fool

  1. Make a lemon curd – I used the recipe in Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion, but there are thousands about – and let it cool, then chill (I made ours the day before).
  2. Whip some cream into stiff peaks – from memory I used 300ml pouring cream for a curd of 1.5 times Stephanie’s quantity.
  3. Mix the two together – that’s it! Simplicity itself.

We served ours in small glasses with a sploosh of passionfruit pulp on top of each one. The Empress had a wafer of home-made biscotti sticking out of hers. I can imagine all kinds of lovely toppings and additions –  crumbled pistachios maybe, or a little finely chopped mint?

Love to hear your tales of recipes shared or protected. Do people still refuse to share recipes? Or, as women have actually begun to take part in the world beyond the kitchen, has such desperate recipe-protection become a thing of the past? And I wonder if the syndrome has arisen among men as they begin to take up more space in the kitchen? Or am I looking at this whole thing from the wrong point of view? Is there any virtue in keeping “secret recipes” that I’m overlooking?

And if you have a favourite use for lemon curd, do share ……