Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Bring back the ‘Salad Days’

In Recipes on January 31, 2011 at 5:43 am

I noticed the high prices when I was browsing in the fruit and vegetable section of my local supermarket recently.  The red capsicums and some other fruits and vegetables were expensive but no more so that they had been before the devastating Queensland floods.  Things like pineapples, melons and mangoes however, were, for a seasonal and budget conscious shopper like myself, prohibitively priced.

I was reminded of a short story by Katherine Mansfield called ‘Marriage a la Mode’.  In the story a working husband is travelling from London to visit his wife and children in the country for the weekend.  As he waits for his train he suddenly remembers that he has forgotten to buy something for the children to whom he always takes a present.  The last three times he has seen them he has taken the same boxes of sweets, hastily bought from the station’s confectionery counter.  This time he wants to take something different so he buys a melon and a pineapple from the fruit counter.  The implication is that a piece of tropical fruit was as much of a treat, in 1920s England, as a box of sweets.  Tropical fruit had to be transported to Britain from warmer climes and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that chilling methods became reliable enough to transport these fruits in any large quantity.  They were still, in the 1920s, considered exotic and as a consequence, they were also expensive.  So it is credible that they would be considered by the children, to be as big a treat as a box of sweets.

I doubt that this would happen here as our produce crisis is (hopefully) only temporary and there are still plenty of growing regions in other parts of Australia that have not been affected.  Our own children, spoilt for choice over the years with a wide variety of seasonal and relatively local fruits and vegetables, would probably choose lollies every time, no matter how much their parents would prefer them to choose the fresh produce.

To return to the supermarket, I bought a couple of vine ripened truss tomatoes (expensive but the only ones I can find of decent quality, can’t wait for Mum and Dad’s homegrown tomatoes in a week or two), one red capsicum, half a dozen reasonably priced nectarines, one red onion, walnuts and some loose rocket leaves.  To supplement this meagre haul of fruits and vegetables I plan to use some of our herbs that we grow in pots downstairs and some cupboard stores.

Slim pickings

Going up the country continued…

In Recipes on January 23, 2011 at 6:28 am

With the leaves I got from my parents’ garden I made a spanakopita.  I have been making this Greek spinach and cheese pie for more years than I care to remember.  The recipe has pretty much remained the same.

Flaky layers of filo



500 g spinach leaves, or any other young leafy greens you may have, washed.

150 g feta cheese (crumbled)

100 g ricotta cheese

1/4 cup hard goat’s cheese (grated) or 1 tbs freshly grated Parmesan

1 free range egg

1/2 a small nutmeg (freshly grated)

1/4 tsp all spice

2 tbs chopped fresh mint

1/2 bunch spring onions (green part only, finely shredded)

freshly ground black pepper (no salt because the feta is quite salty, you could add a little to taste)

filo pastry (the one from the chiller cabinet is easier to work with than the frozen one)


Roughly chop the spinach or greens.  Blanch in boiling water for 1 minute or until just wilted.  Drain in a colander and pour over cold water to stop the cooking process.  Squeeze the spinach with your hands over a colander.  When you have squeezed out most of the moisture, place in a large bowl.  Add the cheeses, spices, mint, spring onions and the egg. Mix thoroughly.

Spread your filo pastry on large bench.  Cover with a damp tea towel.  Melt 150g butter.  Grease the inside of a large baking dish with some of the butter.  Layer sheets of pastry, spreading butter with a pastry brush between each layer.  Leave some overhang as this folds in nicely later.  In the middle layer doubled over sheets of pastry, buttering between each layer.  Fold in the outer edges.  Brush with plenty of melted butter and sprinkle with sesame seeds (optional).

Bake on the second to top shelf in a 220C oven for 15 mins, turn and bake for a further 15 mins.  Reduce heat to 180C and cook for a further 20-30 mins, checking occasionally to make sure the pastry is not burning.  Rest for 10 mins before serving.

Crispy and golden

Going up the country

In Recipes on January 23, 2011 at 6:00 am

Mum and Dad's raised vegetable garden

Does anyone remember the old Canned Heat song?  It was even a bit before my time but my Dad had the record and I recall it being played a lot when they had their first try at sustainable living on a small country property outside Geelong.   Anyway, I was thinking of it as I journeyed on the train down to Mum and Dad’s on what I hope will be the first of many entries on my parents’ rather grandly named Cornucopia. I’m fairly sure the original Cornucopia didn’t involve “droughts and flooding rains’ not to mention hares, foxes and birds.  They battle on netting fruit trees and grape vines, locking up the chickens in their (hopefully secure) pen at night.

First batch of plums for the season

We arrived at their five acre place on the Bellarine Peninsula to be confronted by a greener prospect than we had seen for some time.  The recent rains have happily not flooded but rejuvenated.  We ate lunch in the shade looking out at the grape vines.  Highlights were the greens and broad beans from Mum’s garden and the aioli that Dad made, using an egg yolk from one of their bantam chickens.

Fresh eggs

It sounds idyllic but the reality of rural life is absolute.  Even as an urban observer, I am worried about the chooks.  A couple of them have shuffled off this mortal coil since I last visited.  Now the new and bigger Rhode Island Red/White Leghorn cross pullets have the two remaining Chinese Silky bantams running scared.

Country life does provide some success stories.  Mum and I picked leaves from the garden, young silver beet, kale and mezzuna, along with herbs to supplement our own crops that we grow in pots downstairs.  I’d like to think this is a kind of symbiosis between city and country.  To keep up my own end I’d better take Dad a bag of Glick’s bagels next time.

Different stages of ripening

The ‘Delightful’ Ms. David continued…

In Recipes on January 19, 2011 at 1:06 am

I first started making risotto with Eizabeth David’s ‘Risotto Alla Milanese’ from her book Italian Food.  Her version contains bone marrow and saffron but I have found the basic recipe works for any risotto.  Over the years I have made many versions including the one below with chicken and baby peas.

Chicken and pea risotto

Risotto with Chicken and Baby Peas


2 cups arborio rice

4 cups chicken stock (gently simmering)

1 large onion (chopped)

2 cloves garlic (minced)

30g butter

2 tbs olive oil

1/2 cup white wine

1 1/2 cups blanched baby peas (fresh or frozen)

1 free range chicken breast (poached for 20-25 minutes in gently simmering water and allowed to cool in its own stock)

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Fresh parsley and basil


Heat olive oil and butter in a large heavy based pot.  Gently cook onions and garlic until translucent.  Add rice and cook for a few minutes, stirring, until each grain of rice is well coated in the oil.  Add white wine and cook for a further few minutes until the wine has been absorbed by the rice.  Add the hot stock one ladle at a time and continue stirring until each one has been absorbed.  When absorbed, add another ladle, stirring all the time.  Continue until you have used up almost all of the stock (reserving a little to finish).  Stir through Parmesan cheese and a knob of butter (optional).  Stir through blanched peas and chopped chicken breast.  Finish with some chopped basil and parsley and the last of the stock.  Season to taste.  Serves four.

If you have any risotto left over you can make arancini balls.  Take some of the cold risotto mixture, press a piece of fior di latte or buffalo mozzarella into the middle.  Roll into a ball.  Coat in flour, egg and Japanese panko breadcrumbs.  Refrigerate until firm.  Deep or shallow fry until golden.  Drain on a rack and keep warm in the oven until ready to serve.

A hearty meal

The ‘Delightful’ Ms. David

In Recipes on January 15, 2011 at 3:15 am

I have been reading a compilation of food writer Elizabeth David’s writings and recipes entitled South Wind Through the Kitchen. The book includes excerpts from her most famous books: French Provincial Cooking, Italian Food and Mediterranean Food (among others).  The excerpts have been selected by people who knew, or were influenced by, Ms. David.  I enjoyed the book but found I had to wade through the superlatives.  Her food is ‘delicious’, she herself is ‘erudite’, a ‘kind and sympathetic friend’, ‘generous’, her hands, when she is cooking in her kitchen, are ‘as creative as those of any sculptor’.  Her work is ‘steeped in scholarship’, her food the ‘best’ anyone has ever tasted.  If you believe the comments in this book you would have to conclude that Ms. David could not put a foot wrong.

Having read Elizabeth David for the first time over twenty years ago I loved the three books I have mentioned above.  She writes in an evocative style and places the food and recipes in context.  For example, when she is cooking Italian seafood dishes she first vividly describes the fish markets of Italy and the characters that frequent them.  This places the reader right there with Ms. David and when you cook the dish you feel like you have had a little taste of the Italian experience yourself.  This woman can write.

David is also credited with causing a bit of a culinary revolution in Britain.  When her first books came out in the 1950s most of Britain ate a very bland and stodgy diet.  Some say Elizabeth changed all that.  I’m not sure if her influence was as far reaching as her many fans make out but I will say that she paved the way for those cooks who wanted to break free from the straitjacket of English post war cooking.  Many young women, newly married, would have been given a copy of one of her books and this would have changed their idea of what cooking was and how food was to be enjoyed.  Who knows, perhaps if there had been no Elizabeth David there would have been no Delia Smith or Jamie Oliver.  Oh no, I’m about to succumb to the superlatives myself!

In our house we have a couple of favourites that come from Elizabeth David.  My daughter makes her very simple chocolate mousse recipe whenever she can and I make a risotto that originated from the risotto recipe in her Italian Food (I have modified it a little over the years).

Elizabeth David's chocolate mousse

Chocolate Mousse


120 g chocolate (must be at least 70% cocoa)

4 eggs

4 tbs caster sugar


Break chocolate up into pieces and put in a dry metal bowl.  Place the bowl on top of a saucepan of gently simmering water (make sure the bowl does not touch the water).  When almost melted, remove from the heat and stir with a dry metal spoon.  Put aside.  Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in a large bowl and the whites in another large bowl.  Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks, add sugar and briefly whisk again.  Gradually add the melted chocolate to the egg yolks, whisking all the time.  Add a third of the egg white mixture and whisk through.  Add the rest and gently fold until the egg whites are incorporated, try to keep as much air in the mixture as possible.  Spoon into one large bowl or four  individual serving dishes if you prefer.  Cover with cling film and refrigerate for at least four hours, overnight is better.  Serves four.

Light and airy

I’ll have mine Cajun style!

In Recipes on January 9, 2011 at 2:53 am

Spice mixes and rubs are a great way to add a quick flavour hit to your food.  You don’t need to buy those pre-mixed herb and spice mixes from the supermarket, if you have a decently stocked spice cupboard you can easily make your own.  The advantages are that, once you know what you are doing, you can adjust the mix to your liking, you can make whatever quantity you may require (excess can be stored in a jar in the pantry) and it’s cheaper to buy spices individually.  I get a lot of my basic spices these days from my Indian grocer where you can buy them in larger quantities and they are a lot cheaper than they are in the supermarket.

One of the most popular spice mixes is Cajun.  These flavours, along with Zydeco music and gumbo, hail from Louisiana where they like their food spicy.  As with the Indian spice mix, garam masala, I’m sure there are many variations.  Here’s the one I make.

Great for barbeques

Cajun Spice Mix


2 tsp paprika

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried basil

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp garlic powder (this is just dried garlic, finely ground)

1 tsp onion powder

1/2 tsp cornflour (funnily enough this is usually made from wheat, use gluten free flour if desired)

1/2 tsp dried thyme

1/2 tsp dried chilli powder

1/2 tsp fennel powder

1/4 tsp sea salt (or to taste)


Mix all ingredients together.  Use to coat beef, free range chicken or fish before cooking on the grill or barbeque.