Sunday, June 27, 2010

sunshine and soup

It's been an unexpectedly roller coaster-ish kind of week. There was an impromptu lunch at the pub with a glass of bubbly to toast a landmark moment in Australian politics, a last minute dinner with an old friend visiting from interstate and emergency coffee and popcorn making for a friend and her family going through a tough time. The winter solstice had encouraged me to hibernate while the Significant Eater was away but the universe seemed to have other ideas.

The weather has been bone chillingly damp and on Thursday I wasn't sure what excited me more, a new Prime Minister who reflects my demographic or the fact the sun shone long enough to get two loads of washing dried on the line.

Today the light returned, briefly. I donned my sunnies and checked out the Farmers' Market at the Showgrounds. A bit sparse at this time of year but between the two organic stores I managed to stock up on some extra fruit and vegetables. The cavalo nero looked stunning and was robust enough to survive a morning in the car while I wandered around the North Melbourne market full of lovely handmade goods. I loved the venue, the Lithuanian Club in Errol Street, so was pleased to have an excuse to explore some of the spaces in the building.

Home again, I was determined to do a little cooking before I ran out of steam. I got the rhubarb simmering on the stove and had another tweak at the cordial recipe (this time rhubarb, lemon and rose water) and a go at Jeroxie's nettle and mushroom soup. We've managed to weed the nettles in the garden to a manageable patch this year and I'm determined to trim back the tops to use while they are still young and tender. I've added freshly ground nutmeg and lashings of pepper and the soup smells wonderful. Can't wait for dinnertime.

Hope you got some time to play in the sun today too.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

winter solstice and a little giving

For those of us at the bottom of the world, tonight is the longest night. Yippee. I'm really enjoying long, cold evenings at the moment. Hot soup, an adoring cat (the SE is interstate at the moment) and a damn good dvd enjoyed under the comfort of a pure wool blanket is perfect for seasonal hibernation.

The dvd du jour is a television series I was far too young to appreciate when it went to air in the late '70's but is currently appealing to both the cook and feminist in me. The Duchess of Duke Street begins with a young woman going into service as a cook in London in 1900. There are shots of her making veal pies, cooking pheasant and demonstrating the original slow cooker (a hay box). Between her and the French chef she works under there are some great lines and tips on cooking. It really is a treat watching the creations of the time (I'd say it shits over Masterch*f but to be honest I haven't watched a single episode of it this season).

On twitter I did a wee rant and a link to my more serious thoughts about the winter solstice. The gist of it is, one of the rituals I have is to practice gratitude and use the day as an end of financial year prompt to give some money to my favourite charities (usually The Smith Family, The Fred Hollows Foundation and Kiva). Tax deductible good karma - how great is that!

Speaking of which, I am in the process of preparing a page for my work website. I'm often asked to recommend credible health related books and then I had the wonderful idea - how about I link my favourites to an online bookstore with an affiliate program and donate the profits to the Smith Family's Learning For Life program.

As I've begun compiling my list it has become pretty obvious, if you haven't worked it out already, that for me one of the cornerstones of good health is eating well. I thought I'd share the first handful of food related books I've come up with and see what you'd add to the list. We aren't talking gastroporn here, rather books featuring easy to follow recipes. Often what people struggle with the most other than the utter basics of cooking, are those who are newly vegetarian or adopting Meat Free Mondays, learning to eat a balanced diet not reliant on pizza or pasta.

(Update: the book icons haven't been showing up in all browsers, so have re-tagged in text. Let me know if you can't see the icons and what browser you are using)

How to Cook Everything: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food: Vegetarian
How to Cook Everything: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food: Vegetarian
I'm a big fan of Mr Bittman and I think this book is an absolute ripper for techniques and good vegetarian recipes.

Eastern Vegetarian Cooking
Eastern Vegetarian Cooking
This is probably my most tattered cookbook attesting to how often I've used it. Madhur taught me how to make dolmades, roll sushi and cook tasty simple dishes with pulses and grains. It's a cheap book and written for the British who've traditionally not been known for their cookery skills - so it is also suitable for beginners.

Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian: An Unrivalled Sourcebook of Over 600 Recipes and Ingredients from All Over the Globe
Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian: An Unrivalled Sourcebook of Over 600 Recipes and Ingredients from All Over the Globe
This is newer than my all time favourite and not limited to Eastern cuisine. It's the pick of one of my oldest vegetarian friends.

The Cook's Companion
The Cook's Companion
This might be too ambitious for a newbie but for those building some cooking confidence she covers basic techniques well but what makes this book a star for me is the list of other foods that the featured ingredients goes with.

The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen
The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen
If Nigel Slater was straight, and I believed in marriage, I'd tie the knot with this bloke because I like his writing so much. Wasn't Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger one of the best foodie memoirs ever written? I've included a couple of Slater books because not only is he a joy to read, his recipes are easy to follow and I figure for those who enjoy eating meat, you can't go better than his chicken roast.

Real Cooking
Real Cooking

Edmonds Cookery Book
Edmonds Cookery Book
Ok not a health book but I was cruising the site and came across it. Other than my mother's tuition, the Edmonds ("sure to rise") book was the one that taught me how to make afghan biscuits and fairy cakes.

Of course, once you know how to cook the next step is understanding the politics of food.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-food World
The Omnivore's Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-food World

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating

Imagine if Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollen had a love child?!

Thoughts people - on giving, the affiliate idea (pros and cons) and cooking of course?

Though my giving page has not gone live I have already enrolled in Fishpond's affiliate program. That means if you click any of the links above and end up buying something (not just the linked books or dvd) from the site, I receive 10% of the sales. Any profit I gain from the program will be donated to charity.

Update December 2010: A big thanks, a donation update and more healthy cookbooks.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

more white flour and sugar than you can poke a stick at

In the spirit of Smiley Face Thursday (ok, I made that up)...

Cake shop, Katoomba, NSW

An old fashioned bakery fills my heart with nostalgia but fortunately I'm happy to just eat these with my eyes. I loved looking at the spread but the only treat that lures me in is a decent apple turnover (sans cream) or even better with "mock cream". Crisp pastry, gooey chunks of apple and a side serve of nostalgia.

The winter solstice is almost upon us. Then sun will return, the mornings will warm up eventually but for now I'm happy with soup, woolen blankets and snuggles with a happy cat.

Oh and looking smiley faces on bakery treats!

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

lounging around out west

We packed the car and headed off with great anticipation on Friday afternoon. There was a tinge of schoolgirl-like excitement about getting out of work early on the day before a long weekend and heading out of the city ahead of the pack.

The last time we’d driven the back roads towards the west there were swathes sunflowers and drought stricken fields on either side of the road for endless kilometres. This trip yielded vibrant green paddocks and newborn lambs lambs.

As the sun was setting we finally we made it to Port Fairy, possibly my favourite town in the entire state. I’ve seen the seaside fishing village in all its manifestations from quiet midweek days in the quiet off-season through to the festival in full swing. On a winter’s long weekend the town was humming with a small market, arts project and a comical dog racing event, the annual dachshund dash.

It was the wrong week for the monthly farmers market but the regular community gathering on the village green had a good sprinkling of local produce from seasonal fruit and vegetables through to Yorkshire fruit cakes and the inevitable array of jams and preserves.

The most enchanting stall was a community arts project, a chair adorned with embroidered offerings to sit in and write your wishes. Lounge Around: Wishes from a Travelling Chair is a delight to take part in. Once we’d vacated the seat a burly local bloke raced up to have a go. I took great pleasure in watching his gusto as he grabbed the clipboard and wrote his secret wish.

Eating in Port Fairy is a more positive experience than my recent weekend away. It has a few better than average restaurants and a wide range of well patronized cafes. My pick is dining at The Stag, which features regional produce in comfortable surrounds and Charlie’s on East Beach for a surfside brunch. If you find yourself in nearby Koroit, Alex’s Pizza and Wok doubles as a busy takeaway pizza and DVD rental place, with a makeshift dinning room out the back serving up some good Thai food alongside Italian fare.

After three nights in our cozy apartment in town, we were sad to leave. We’d still not had a chance to experience the salt pool at the new day spa nor snag a booking at the two-hatted Merijig Inn. Oh well, there’s always next time.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

rhubarb cordial and sweet nostalgia

The cooler months are a time of nostalgia for me. Perhaps it is an affinity with the weather – the colder, damper and windier it is, the more I am at home. It’s also the season for familiar fruits – feijoa, kiwi, tamarillo and rhubarb, all of which can stab me with a bitter/sweet shard of homesickness.

Like many of us who are comfortable in the kitchen, it carries a daily reminder of the culinary traditions shared by my mother. Even if for me some of these skills are now redundant – through observation and careful assistance my mum taught me how to cream butter and sugar for a cake and to use the eggs from the pantry, not the cold ones in the fridge, for baking. As a carnivorous child I learnt how to brown cubes of beef for a casserole and the art of gravy making.

Decades on and in a different country, when I stew rhubarb (the only fruit that was ever plentiful in our shady garden) I cut the stalks into thick slices with my mother’s hands. I toss the sugar in carelessly, adding sweetness as required, remembering to only moisten with a little water and keep an eagle eye on the pot while it simmers on a low heat.

Though my mother is still able bodied, she no longer stews fruit. It’s years since she cooked and the poorly stocked kitchen under my father’s reign fills me with waves of grief each time I visit. This was once the heart of the home, now the drawers and cupboards are alarming spartan. It is the room of the house I feel her absence most. Despite that fact mum still bustles in, she might eye the kettle but is unable to reliably make a cup of coffee now.

Lately I’ve found myself honouring her memory by reading the books she used enjoy and keeping some of her kitchen traditions alive, albeit on another continent. I know I can’t blow the dementia from her brain or bring back the woman who raised me but I find these rituals comforting. For now she still has a dry sense of humour and can come up with the odd gem. She knows who I am but our baking days are over.

Despite the nostalgia, these small acts are more homage than slavish re-enactments. Last week I bought the fattest bunch of rhubarb and deviated from her simple recipe. The idea was to not only have stewed fruit for my morning cereal but also make a stab at rhubarb cordial.

My sister set the train in motion by mentioning she’d found a new mineral water in Queenstown, one scented with the tang of rhubarb. After last summer’s jag of cordial making this was an idea I couldn’t resist. The usual Googling yielded odd mentions but scanty, often imprecise, recipes.

Of course my own efforts are equally as vague. It’s a work in progress. Playing by ear without a set of scales or measuring cups in sight. As I use these digital pages as a cook’s journal, these are my thoughts for creating such a pink-alicious concoction.

Rhubarb cordial – a work in progress

Clean your rhubarb, then top and tail the stalks.
Chop into thick chunks.
Place the fruit in a pot and add enough cold water to come up to about half the level of the chopped rhubarb.
Sweeten the fruit with sugar, as desired (you’ll add more later when making the syrup, the first round of sugar is to make the fruit edible without it being cloyingly sweet).
Toss in a cinnamon stick.
Bring the pot to a gentle simmer, half cover with a lid and set it on the lowest heat.
Check the pot every 5 minutes and stir.
Despite the firmness of the raw stalks, rhubarb cooks quite fast. It can go from thick chunks to pulpy very quickly – maybe 10-15 minutes depending on the size of the pot, the density of the fruit and degree of heat.
I like my stewed rhubarb to have some pulp and some defined but soft chunks. Once it is at your desired consistency, strain the contents of the pot over a large bowl.
Leave for a good hour or so.

If I was only making only cordial, with no desire to eat the fruit, I’d line the sieve with muslin and squeeze the pulp before discarding. But that seems like an utter waste to me. After about an hour of draining the pulp still retains enough moisture to eat but has yielded a fair amount of gloriously pink juice.

Measure the juice and place in a pan on low heat. Add 1/3 of the quantity (eg: if 2 cups of juice, add 2/3 cup of sugar). How much sugar you actually need will depend on how sweet you made the stewed fruit. If you had a heavy hand the first time around, start with a ratio of 1 part sugar to 4 parts juice and add more if required. Allow the sugar to melt into the juice to make a light syrup. Off the heat add a tablespoon or two of lemon juice to taste.

Pour a dash or a big slurp of cordial in a glass and serve with sparkling mineral water or soda.

Next batch – I’m adding rosewater.

You might also like the taste of:
Stewed rhubarb with roses
Lemon cordial
Rose petal cordial

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Thursday, June 03, 2010

hello winter- a quickie

I’m off food at the moment (see last post), am now in second week of feeling NQR (not quite right) digestively speaking

The above point makes any attempts at blogging a tad boring

Despite that – things I am loving right now

• Golden Kiwi fruit – from my homeland (slight guilt re: food miles)
• Mandarins – at least they are local!
• Buying the above fruit from a fifth generation Vic Market stall. Not organic but some is home grown and spray-free. You know the one, the fourth generation trader is often hanging out the back smoking err “herbal cigarettes”.
• Herbal tea – my tummy tea du jour is mint, chamomile and liquorice, very soothing
• Autumn colours. Ok I know its winter but the colours are still fab.

What’s are you loving?

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