Monday, January 26, 2009

stimulating the food economy

Here in this little bubble of food blog world we can avert our eyes and not mention the economy. When I switched my energy from ranting about politics and other such stuff, to spending more time writing about the joys of eating I was amazed at the way the site meter sprung into life. Escapism will always be more popular than reality!

In its own sweet way food has often been a distraction and provided comfort when times are tough. While the harsh winds of financial misfortune blow outside we can always talk about cooking. I am wondering if over the next year or two the type of posts in this corner of the blog world will change. Will there be fewer reviews of lush restaurants, imported ingredients and luxury culinary items? Will “recession food” have a come back? If so let’s hope it goes beyond the unimaginative mac n cheese (which I call “flour and snot” because lets face it, that is all it is). My hope is that more people are motivated to learn to cook, especially those who are brave enough to venture beyond processed foods.

I am reading Rebecca Huntley’s “Eating Between the Lines”* at the moment, still ploughing through the early chapters but disheartingly she keeps pointing out that nutritionally poor choices do cost a lot less than cooking from scratch. An example of cooking a family of four lean lamb rump, pumpkin and broccolini was priced at around (AU)$20 while sausages, fries and baked bean could feed the same people for $8. The first choice unfortunately may stay in the domain of the middle classes, though the size and frequency of the roast may diminish.

While we blindly make a stab at feeling better about the money we choose to spend on food, I’ve made some observations about my own journey thus far. Much of it to do with my false economising.

1. A kitchen garden sounds like a good idea but sometimes it is an expensive folly

After spending $200 on invigorating the young soil in the garden bed this year, we do have a bumper crop of tomatoes, eggplants and chillies on the way. But doing the maths of the cost of all the manure and organic fertilizers we have used, the price of seedlings and the odd plants that have died along the way (5 out of 6 strawberries, the lettuces that went to seed uneaten while we were on holiday, the odd plants the cats slept on/dug up/obliterated with their toileting practices) I know that each tomato may as well be wrapped in gold leaf.

While the 50 years old grape vine has survived many droughts and provides food free of charge, the new garden is costly. I am aware it is false economy so I love it for the vista of calming green it provides, shade for the animals on hot days, the photosynthesis it performs but I don’t kid myself it’s a money saver.

Though we have a worm farm, in the early days of starting a new bed from scratch it could not provide enough goodness to kick start the health of the soil on its own. A larger garden with space to run a couple of compost bins, rotate crops, keep some chooks for manure would be a better deal. A home rigged pipe in a barrel for run off water from the roof, sunny window sills for raising seeds and more neighbours growing food to swap our bounty would make it more cost effective.

2. Buy less, not more

Supersized food purchases work best if you have a large household and keep a keen eye on your pantry for foodstuff that is nearing its use by date.

To really save money on fresh food (a large chunk of our food budget, especially as it is organic) do some menu planning and buy only what you will get through. There is so much food wasted in this country. You can save a bundle by buying more realistic amounts of fresh food and being a bit clever with leftovers. It breaks my heart to throw lovely salad leaves into the worm farm because I didn’t prioritise using them early in the shopping week only to find them a slimy mess in the fridge when I next unpack the market produce.

And while talking of overdoing it, unless you are religious at using up the leftovers try to only cook the amount that people will eat in one sitting. In this household leftovers tend to languish in plastic containers in the fridge and end up being thrown out untouched at the end of the week.

Australians waste 3 million tonnes/$5 million worth of food every year

3. Buy in season

Ok I can be a little obsessive about this one but it is so bleeding obvious, food in season (when it is unaffected by storms, droughts and other vagaries of the weather) is the cheapest way to eat fresh produce. You need to keep adapting your favourite recipes to use what is available. Even if this does mean sometimes you have to change your meal plan, while out buying the ingredients.

As an aside, sadly I’ve had very few cherries this summer, something to do with that rain dump mid December doing nasty things to the Victorian crop and they’ve been really expensive this year.

4. Work out what you really value

I make the bourgeois, non-budget choice of favouring organic produce. It’s one of my health oriented peculiarities. It does mean sometimes that I go without (see cherries above) when prices are ridiculous. This last couple of years the cost of organic fruit in particular has skyrocketed. The SE eats lots of fruit and swears he can’t taste the difference so I now get extra conventional produce.

I don’t eat meat or dairy, one of the most costly (to the wallet and the environment) food choices. For me organics balances this out a bit. I tend to buy whole fish, which is cheaper than fillets. The bones can be made into stock and all the extra little bits of flesh (like in the cheeks) tend to get fed to the cats to bolster their wellbeing.

If I did eat meat I would probably choose organic, locally farmed produce to eat in very small amounts, infrequently. The serving size for animal protein is just the size of the palm of the hand. Not the fingers and rest of the arm as well. Most Aussies tend to fill half the plate with the stuff. While meat on the bone is said to be the tastiest, old fashioned cheap cuts like shanks have become yuppie fodder and the price has risen accordingly. Preserved meats, like ham, are not only false economy (look at the price per kilo) but also high in cancer causing nitrosamines, as well as fats and salt. Go for the good stuff that hasn’t been adulterated.

5. Eat local

Not just in buying food that hasn’t travelled half way around the world or from the other end of this vast continent but when you eat out, go local.

We eat out a lot less than the earlier days of our relationship, before the SE was a student/struggling artist. A couple of years ago the chef at our local Thai made a pointed comment about our lack of patronage, thinking we’d fallen in love with another eatery. It was hard to convince her that we loved her food and ate there as much as we did anywhere else these days. But it brings home the fact that if you patronise family run/local businesses your dinning habits can have an impact. One meal at a top name restaurant can buy me 3-5 at my favourite neighbourhood places. In tough times, who do I want to keep in business?

I know some people will disagree with me on this one but I have decided to forgo Attica, Vue and our other top spots in favour of keeping my neighbours in business. I love being part of a community. There is the woman in the noodle shop (for that rare time I get a take away) who shares stories of what she cooks for her family and will grab morsels from out the back for me to try while her husband woks up my order in a flash. The flamboyant owner of the Malaysian eatery who’ll give me a kiss, greet us by name and round down the bill each time. Our favourite waitress at the pub who also dispenses a kiss or a hug and lets you know if the specials really are special or not.

But for me the real key to reducing the cost of eating out is drinking less. The alcohol portion of the bill can easily exceed the food. But then again I am not a huge drinker and there is rather a lot of duty-free grog at home.

6. Don’t be seduced by gadgets

A good knife and a stone to sharpen it is one of my best investments. Learn some knife skills. Keep your knife in a block so it won’t dull as fast. Get someone to show you how to use a wet stone (or similar) to keep it sharp.

A heavy bottom fry pan and pot will last a lifetime if you care for them well. The cheap thin ones will just burn your food and discourage you from cooking.

Don’t go all Jamie Olive and buy the chipped cutesy crockery and serving bowls from Op Shops. Ceramics with cracks and breaks in the glaze harbour bacteria, especially casserole dishes and servers that sit or store meat and dishes with a lot of liquid. The cute unchipped ones are fine!

I still haven’t bought a tagine; I suspect the Middle Eastern dishes I cook in my trusty old cast iron pot does a fine imitation.

7. Do I really need that new cookbook?

This may be sacrilege to suggest on a food blog but I now buy very few cookbooks. When looking for new recipes I tend to google the ingredients than poor over the pages. If I really am seduced by the latest food title I have to sit and study it for a good half hour in the shop and be honest about its usefulness.

I use the library, even for new titles (yes Ed, the local library has cook books!). If I find I keep going back to the same volume then I might end up purchasing it. My library also stocks a great range of magazines (such Gourmet Traveller and Vogue Entertaining), where the new editions are kept pristine in plastic covers and comfy chairs are provided in the wonderfully air-conditioned environment so you can read (and photocopy) away to your heart’s content.

8. How much money are you drinking away?

The coffee rant about take away containers seemed to strike a chord, at least with a lot of Australians but the cost of recreational drinking really adds up. I prefer to drink coffee at home, thanks the espresso machine and my love of Columbian beans. I don’t fill in time or seek distractions by drinking coffee in a café and as I ranted – nor do I grab one to go. I drink coffee, in or out, only when I really feel like having one.

Same with alcohol. I’d prefer to sit on one or two glasses of a good local wine than guzzle a bottle.

But I know I might be alone on that suggestion!

And do people really need a bucket of popcorn and a gallon of coke when they go to the movies? Eat before leaving home and save yourself the money.

9. Do a pantry and fridge audit a couple of times a year

The fridge and pantry challenges have been a great way to rediscover and use up forgotten ingredients. Apart from the fact that the stuff goes off (especially flours and other refined grains that you mistakingly think will last for ever), looses it flavour (buy smaller quantities of herbs and spices) or the beans that could outlast a nuclear holocaust get tougher and take longer to cook - some of use have half of our annual income squirreled away in our kitchen, going to waste.

Are you economising in the kitchen? What is working for you?

* Rebecca Huntley “Eating Between the Lines: Food & Equality in Australia”. (Black Inc., 2008). In this case available free of charge on loan from Yarra Libraries

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Australian food on KCRW

There’s a lovely informal chat, which you can watch or listen to online, from a recent edition of KCRW’s “Good Food” all about Aussie food. KCRW is one of the best public radio stations in the world, coming out of California and I podcast the show religiously (long before I was ever interviewed on it).

Evan Kleiman talks to Luke Mangan, Curtis Stone and Mark Olive (as well as some Austrian bloke talking about King Island cheeses). It’s worth a watch, as an Aussie for the in-jokes or for those beyond Australasia who want know more about this odd cuisine Australians call their own. The video shows laid back lads being typically Strine. It would make me homesick, only I actually live here!

Watch the video

PS: What am I doing lounging about watching vodcasts in the middle of the afternoon when I should be doing loftier things? Well, the weather is unbelievably foul, avert your eyes Northern Hemisphere folks, thought it is only 34c it is windy and sticky and most unpleasant. I also managed to find gold in my lunch two days ago, which might have been a good thing in this current economic climate had it not come from my own gold repository aka the crown on one of my molars. I've waited over 50 hours to get in to see my dentist to correct the problem (only 90 minutes to go!) and any distraction from an exposed nerve is gratefully received.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

another coffee rant

It was Katrina at “Kale for Sale” who got me thinking, or rather ranting, today about something that is a favourite bug-bear.

The Cult of Take-Away* Coffee.

Even before I was fully schooled in the evils of polystyrene I’d do anything I could to avoid drinking out of such a receptacle. No matter how well made the coffee was, it just didn’t taste right. Something about the sensation of the polystyrene against my lips spoilt the whole experience. Paper cups were marginally better. But over all the taste never seemed the same as drinking out of china or glass.

More than that, with the landfill problem that is created from disposing of the take-away container, lid and even an extra paper wrapper (to make the hot, thin receptacle easier to hold), why even bother to drink on the run?

When we see the archetypal drunk swigging some noxious alcoholic drink out of a brown paper bag, we don’t tend to think of him simply choosing the convenience of grabbing the beverage on the run. No, alcohol is to be drunk out of a particular type of glass, usually sitting down and frequently in company. But coffee is a whole different kettle of fluid. Swigging a take-away coffee, the larger the better, while sprinting to work is an acceptable accessory along with running shoes, brief case and mobile phone.

Coffee is something that takes little time to drink. All the joy of the flavour is trapped in the heat. A tepid coffee is not filled with pleasure, so why grab one to go rather than take a minute or two to consume it in a local café, from a proper cup?

And what is with the grandé café culture? Veritable buckets leave the chain stores filled with brown swill. Perfect extraction is around 30 mls per shot of coffee. The large containers can only produce a dilute and over extracted, unpleasant liquid. I mean, why drink coffee at all you might as well stick to tea when it is that watery?

Coffee houses used to be hot spot of political discontent. To quote Charles II on the coffee houses of 17th century London, they were "places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers". (source) Later they spawned folk music, seduction and insomnia. But primarily, the purpose of drinking coffee was to gather to talk, share ideas, gossip, spark a revolution, begin or end a relationship.

For me if I am drinking coffee solo, it’s takes but moments to make with the trusty espresso machine and is consumed within moments in the morning sun or snuggled in bed. But out in the world, I find it best with friends and the realm of ideas, idle chatter or romance.

None of which can be found in a take-away cup, sculled on the street or in the privacy of a lonely office cubicle.

PS: I've shared my thoughts about Starbucks before and have to admit am happy to witness the fall of their empire. Even more so since they were sprung last year wasting water in the face of drought battered Australians. But what is 23.4 million litres of potable water down the drain each day to them?

* Take-out, carry-out or to go, if you live elsewhere

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Friday, January 16, 2009

cooking with fire

What is it about barbecues that is associated with the domain of men? I’ve never lived with a barbecuing fanatic before, which could be why I have got to this age of life before a gas fired beauty has come into my life. The SE loves the new barbie but, at least is theory, is happy to hand over the reigns at any time. So last night was my turn to be in charge of the new, backyard, basic model, grilling machine.

The most obvious place to start was a whole fish and one of those grill cages made to contain such a beast. The sultry weather of late makes me think of Asian flavours, especially as there was a bunch of coriander in the fridge in need of using. While cruising the net I found this great guide in Taste on how to barbecue whole fish and was thrilled to find they’d included a version using the flavours I had imagined. I’ve altered the method and a few of the ingredients from the original recipe.

Barbecued whole fish with coriander and fish sauce

First catch your fish, or visit your fishmonger. Our fish grill comfortably accommodated a 1.4 kg red snapper. Get the good people at the fish shop to clean, gut and de-scale the creature before taking it home. Look for a 1-2 kg fish with firm flesh; snapper is always a winner in this house.

1-2 kg whole fish
Vegetable oil
Fresh coriander
Fresh Vietnamese mint
1-2 red chillies
1-2 cloves of garlic

1/4 cup lime juice
1 – 1.5 tabs fish sauce
2 tsp palm sugar
1-2 tsp roasted sesame oil (optional)

Take your fish, pat it dry inside and out with paper towels. Make slashes through the thickest part of the flesh, to help both the heat and flavour penetrate.

Take a handful of coriander/cilantro (leaves and stalks) and another of Vietnamese mint (or regular mint), 1 sliced chilli and a clove of garlic thinly sliced and stuff the belly of the fish.

Combine the lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar and sesame oil in the bowl. Play with the quantities til you have a favourable balance of salt, acid and sweetness. I like a dash of sesame oil these days to add a touch of smoky depth to the flavour. Using some extra herbs (coriander, mint, chilli and garlic if you like) chop finely and add to your marinade and combine well. Use some of the marinade to brush the fish on both sides, pushing the sauce into the slashes as well. There will be a lot of marinade left over, this is to pour on the fish once it is cooked. If you wish you can leave the fish, covered in a pan or on a board, for 10-20 minutes to let it soak up a little of the marinade. As it is more a gentle painting of sauce, rather than a bath, the timing doesn’t matter too much.

Take a fish grill gadget and brush or rub it with some vegetable oil to stop the fish from sticking. Gently place the fish in the grill and close it.

Fire up the open grill side of the barbecue (rather than the flat plate). Give it five minutes to warm up before adding the fish. For this sized fish I cooked each side for 8 minutes on moderate heat, then a final 2 minutes on high.

When cooked, carefully remove the fish from the grill and slip onto a serving plate. Pour the rest of the marinade over the fish immediately.

To Serve

I made a double quantity of marinade and used it as a dressing for a simple noodle salad with rice noodles, toasted cashews, cucumber and generous handfuls of coriander and Vietnamese mint.

Arrange the noodle salad on the plate, then top with chunks of fish. Perfect!

I also grilled some eggplant straight from the garden to serve with the meal.

The fish was perfect. The skin was crunchy, salty and beautifully grilled. The noodle salad reinforced the subtle flavours of the fish and solicited four “This is f**king fantastic” gasps from the SE.

A winner!

One side cooked, the eggplants doing their bit beside it

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

dolmades, friends and wine

I’m hiding. I’ve been doing a bit of that lately I must admit.

But right now there is the detritus that comes from having 30 of the SE’s friends/colleagues through the house for a barbecue, to be cleaned up. Having been the sober one to do the lion’s share of the cleaning last night, I reckon I’ve earned a little time out to tap on the keyboard.

While barbecuing en masse is a topic for another post, so too the story of the brand-new-second-hand-barbecue, it is another smaller gathering around the table that demands to be written today.

Back in October I threw up the idea of making dolmades with a few like minded people. There was a lush crop of leaves and surely, I thought, just coordinating three people’s diaries to find an afternoon to roll and sip would be no problem? It took to the New Year til we could all get together, I was a little worried the leaves would be tough by now but went ahead anyway.

So while I hear empty bottles clink in the background, I am going to do a dangerous thing – recount the recipe from memory.

Dolmades, stuffed vine leaves or “ricey-roll ups”* if you prefer, are made in four simple steps.

Prepare the leaves

If making them fresh, the leaves need to be picked and blanched. Soft, tender ones with shallow ‘fingers’ are best. They are blanched for a couple of minutes in boiling water then laid on a tea towel to dry.

You can skip this step and use a jar of preserved vine leaves (in Australia they are available from some deli's and foodstores.)

Cook and flavour the rice

I went back to my old friend Madhur Jaffrey for help. Her sturdy tome has a simple method and handy diagrams to follow. I used her directions to par cook the rice – a cup or two (depending on how many leaves and willing hands you have to roll them) of long grain rice cooked at a rolling boil for 5 minutes, then rinsed and drained.

We made two batches of rice mix. Both contained:
Finely sliced spring onions
Chopped pine nuts
Herbs – parsley and fresh minute also finely chopped
Salt and pepper

One batch had a large squeeze of tomato paste stirred through and the other a pinch of good quality turmeric.

Roll up your sleeves and get rolling

This is where the fun begins. With bowls of filling and another of blanched leaves the four of us sat around the table, a chilled glass of resiling at hand. There was Lucy, Docwitch and her daughter Moon. M is a wee girl, very enthusiastic about creating the ricey parcels and did a great job of wrapping hers in an origami inspired style. The rest of us took a teaspoon or 2 of filling and wrapped and rolled accordingly. We placed sliced of tomato on the bottom layer of my large iron pot, then packed the dolma in tight layers. This is a long process and one best shared with friends and other grape products.

Finally the pot was full; I’d guess there were close to 90 made in the end.

Create the cooking liquid

Whisk together:

1 part lemon juice
2 parts olive oil
4 parts warm water
I tsp sugar
Plus a generous amount of crushed garlic and salt.

Pour the liquid on so they leaves are covered, place a plate on to weight them down, then the lid on top. Simmer for an hour. By the time the cooking was done, heat off/lid on we left the pot while another bottle of wine was consumed.

Verdict – great day, pleasant tasting dolmades but still room for improvement.

Notes for next year:
Leaves a little tough, make earlier in the season
More salt
More herbs, less pine nuts
More tomato paste
More wine!

Docwitch offers M some assistance in rolling the vine leaves

Into the pot, nice and tight

Of course I meant to reshoot this the next day while...err..sober but that never quite happened. A rather haphazard photo but represents the rolling styles of all four of us :)

Can't wait to see Lucy's photos of the day!

Update: Lucy's photos and poetic account is up. Hurrah!

*TM Moon

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Friday, January 09, 2009

dolmades have been made

...or as our youngest cook would call them "ricey-rollups".

There will be pictures and recipes but for now my summer holiday has long come to an end and work (of all varieties) is getting in the way. It was nice to get back into the kitchen again, even more enjoyable with a couple of blogging friends, offspring and fermented grape products.

But in the meantime, its off to work I go...


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

plants - the first reveal


yielded this

and was plucked straight from the plant, cut into slices, brushed with oil and grilled on the brand new BBQ.


The eggplants are growing before our eyes. How exciting to pick and cook in the space on one small pirouette.

Summer is growing on me and reviving my spirit (much needed, the family visit was tough). Another tonic was a visit to Boz's beach house on the Peninsula.

Iphone pics

Who'd have thought how difficult it would be to procure fish and chips in the evening of the first sunny weekend of the school holidays?

"Sorry we are out of flake"

"No hamburgers left"

*Not answering phone*

"Taking no more orders"

*Shut - reopening soon*

"Fifty minute wait but we are out of most things"

In a tourist town no less!

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

will it be divine in 2009?

If nothing else, it will be lush.

Rain glorious rain throughout December meant I returned home to a veritable forrest in my veggie patch.

Full marks to anyone who can identify the featured plants (especially the fruit with the broad leaf that's now being crowded out by the nightshade family!)

May you get all you desire in the coming year. Wishing you a (fairtrade, 80% cocoa solids) chocolate coated 2009.

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