5 Jul 2015

garden share: july

After a vile and distressing week at work, the very last thing I needed was to inspect my just-about-hibernating vegie garden one Saturday and discover that something had eaten my peas:


That was the last straw, and I will admit that hot pin-pricks of tears came to my eyes. Even nature is against me now? I suspect sparrows, as I am quite heavy-handed with my snail bait (as you can see). So after taking this picture for you (and for dad, to assess if there was any hope of valiant growth, or if should I re-sow), I gave the decapitated pea shoots a good drink of seaweed solution, to encourage them to solider on; threw around more snail bait, in case it was snails; and strung out some sparkly silver Christmas tinsel, to hopefully scare the birds away.
Otherwise, there is not much to report since the last garden update. Just weekend watering if there hasn't been enough rain during the week. I'm not sure if the garlic, carrots, sprouting broccolis, silverbeet and yes peas are growing, or just hanging in there, wishing for warmer sunnier weather, but knowing it's about six months away. I suspect the latter. Just like me.

Nothing to do with the vegie garden: my clivia, finally flowering after who-knows how many years of refusing to. A bit of joy in a winter garden

29 Jun 2015

tomato barley risotto

Cloth from the wonderful Frangipani Fabrics

My love affair with pearl barley continues. I have made my 'Sydney salad' many times, playing around with the vegies and spices. Now I've tried this chewy, filling grain in a different way - in a risotto. Or should that be a barlotto?

It's made exactly the same way as a traditional risotto, but turns out much chunkier and chewier, more earthy than elegant. Pearl barley has guts. This chunky-chewiness is perfect for a hearty winter-in-Hobart lunch.

But I have to admit, what really made this big pot come alive was using tomatoes retrieved from my freezer. The label said 'roast tomatoes with lemon thyme, March 2015' - was it really only three months ago that I was making magic with my home-grown tomatoes? Because magic is what this frozen package was: deep ruby-red wedges and slivers of garlic, freckled with many herb leaves. All swimming in a rosy-oily liquid that I knew would be bursting with the flavours of summer.

And so it was. While the pearl barley in this risotto says winter, the tomatoes and tang of the lemon thyme (and some extra lemon zest) says - sings - of sunshine and summer. This is filling, but not stodgy. I loved it so much that after I took this photo, I ate the risotto (the shredded ribbons of silverbeet were the perfect accompaniment) then licked the plate - I wasn't going to waste any of that flavour.
Tomato barley risotto
Adapted from a Woman's Weekly recipe.
  • In a large heavy casserole pot, sauté in some olive oil one finely chopped onion, some chopped or crushed garlic cloves (to your flavour) and half a red capsicum, finely chopped. Cook until soft but not coloured; I am reminded of reading somewhere that to cook onions like this should take a good ten minutes of patience; any recipe that states any time less is not worth proceeding with!
  • At this stage, the recipe specified also cooking in 1 tbspn finely chopped rosemary. I omitted this because of the herbs in my frozen/roasted tomatoes, but I can envisage that rosemary, lemon thyme or marjoram/oregano would be delicious flavours and would be necessary if you were using tinned tomatoes.
  • Once this is all soft and lovely, add 1 cup pearl barley and stir for a couple of minutes until well coated.
  • Now for the stock and the tomatoes. The recipe specified 5 cups vegie stock, a 400gm tin of chopped tomato, and 1 cup of passata. Because I had my own produce, I used 1 cup of 'roast tomato pan juices' saved from some summer cooking, and almost 1 kilo of my frozen roasted tomatoes, which had a lot of oily juices. I only needed a little slurp of boiling water towards the end of the cooking.
  • So, add your liquid and tomatoes, a good zesting of lemon, and bring to the boil. Then reduce to a gentle glooping simmer and cook until barley is cooked; around 45 minutes. Stir occasionally to check that the barley doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot.
  • Serve with some dark silverbeet for a nice contrast.

21 Jun 2015

walnut shortbreads


The other thing I ate in Sydney, every day, was those crescent-shaped Greek shortbread biscuits. During the day, I would descend into the glorious depths of the David Jones Food Hall, and buy one — just one — fat, icing-sugar covered biscuit; I would save it for the evening, back in my hotel room, where I would nibble away with my evening cup of tea. Invariably I would inhale as I took the first bite, and cough from the icing sugar. Every time! They were deliciously short and rich all at once. I made a note to search out recipes for them when I got home.

Back in Tassie, I visited mum and dad, and sampled the Russian tea cakes mum had baked, which were not cakes at all but buttery little biscuits made with crushed walnuts and smothered in great clouds of icing sugar. Again, I inhaled and spluttered. I gobbled so many of these morish morsels that mum actually told me to stop eating them (or was that the chocolate biscuit slice she also had laid out?). So I took the recipe to make my own.

These are not true shortbreads, but it’s a better description than ‘tea cakes’ (and I’m not sure what is Russian about them. Are they served with borscht and vodka?). They are not as crumbly as the Greek kourambiethes I enjoyed in Sydney, but they are sort of the closest thing right now. I’m very happy with them. I just have to remember not to inhale.


Walnut shortbreads
From a magazine cutting without a title on it. I halved the original recipe and made about 14 biscuits the size of small walnuts.
  • Preheat your oven to 180 and prep some baking trays.
  • Cream 115 gms soft butter with ½ tspn vanilla (I used the extract with speckles) and ¼ cup icing sugar.
  • Using a wooden spoon, beat in 1 cup plain flour, 1/8 tspn salt, then a heaped 1/3 cup finely-chopped walnuts (these are small biscuits, so you want small pieces). You may need to get in with your hands and squeeze the dough together.
  • Roll small balls of dough and place on the baking trays. Bake for 15 minutes or until lightly golden.
  • Remove from oven and allow to cool. This and other recipes I checked said to roll the cooked biscuits in icing sugar while still warm. I found the icing sugar seemed to disappear – either it didn’t stick, or melted, or was absorbed – so next time I would wait til they were a little cooler.

14 Jun 2015

roast veg + barley warm salad

I was in Sydney recently, and the best meals I had were, incredibly, from the mega food courts beneath the bustling CBD, which are packed full of every conceivable cuisine and quick meal you would want to eat. I loved this takeaway so much that I went back and had it again and again; I dissected the ingredients and flavours, and decided I had to make it at home.

This is what it was - one of my favourite dishes - a chunky, substantial, vegie-filled salad. There were sticks of carrot and wedges of red onion, roasted til tender and flavoured with warm spices; I could detect cumin. There was pearl barley, and this was the big surprise for me, because I think of barley as an ingredient for soup, not salad. I loved it in this incarnation. These were all tossed with lots of leafy fresh greens, beautifully dressed, and finished with dabs of creamy-salty fetta. It was filling and light at the same time.

This being Hobart in the wintertime though, where we've already had frosts and days where temperatures have barely scraped into the double digits, a cold salad was not going to be on the menu. I need hot food!

So I mixed it up a bit. I roasted a large tray of carrots and a delicious ironbark pumpkin (both from dad) plus some stalks from a broccoli I had in the fridge. I drizzled these with oil and dusted them with a Moroccan spice mix I bought back from a Sydney spice shop. I omitted the red onion simply because ... I forgot to buy one. Next time! I roasted these on a slower than usual temperature (160) and they came out flavoursome and tender.

Meanwhile I cooked a cup of pearl barley in my rice cooker. This stuff is so good - I have found a new favourite wholegrain; it now has a prime location in my pantry alongside the brown rice and quinoas.

Then instead of salad greens, I shredded and lightly steamed a big bunch of silverbeet (again from my parents).

Then I tumbled all these cooked ingredients together, dressed the big bowl of colour simply with olive oil and lemon juice, daubed the dish with some Danish fetta, and added my own flourish, a sprinkling of crunchy black sesame seeds.

I'm sorry I forgot to take a pic of the final dish. But trust me, it made for a wonderful week of working lunches, back here in Hobart! A delicious winter version of the Sydney original. It ticks so many boxes: effortless to make, full of flavour and so healthy. I know it will definitely be a regular in my repertoire now.

7 Jun 2015

garden share: june

 
I’m a bit all over the place lately (I apologise if I’m not reading your blogs in a timely manner), so I missed last week’s garden share collective posting. Or rather, I thought was this week. In which case, I am on schedule. For something. Anyway, what’s happening in my vegie garden right now?

It’s all about the soil (above; all these photos were taken just after the sun came up one very frosty morning this week. My fingers are still thawing out). I’ve gradually pulled all the summer crops: the zucchinis, corn, beans, tomatoes (okay, Dad did those) and kale are all gone. The kale went to mum and dad’s chooks. Waste not, want not; though the girls seem to have forgotten their side of the deal — that is, laying eggs. We think they’re too well fed right now. Still, the kale plants were a few years old, getting a bit tough and bitter, and full of aphids. So off to the chooks.
A row of frosty carrots
 
I’ve been digging the bare beds over, and incorporating great handfuls of ‘stuff’ to replenish the soil after the growing season. Sheep poo, dolomite, blood and bone, gypsum; a bit of everything and anything that dad has given me. I currently have four bags of horse poo, from a work colleague, in the back of my car. It’s smelly work. The neighbours must love it.

In place of growing green manure crops (which we seem to discuss endlessly but never get around to doing anything about), I’ve been gathering bunches of newly-sprouted nasturtiums from a garden bed ‘out the front’ (my flower gardens). I didn’t want them smothering the bulbs, so I figured digging them in to the vegie beds would be a great solution. They’re so soft and tender and juicy and should provide good green nutrients.

I’ve also been taking bagfuls of chickweed from mum and dad’s garden. We laugh that I am taking weeds. But again, it’s soft and fresh and should break down easily once buried in the soil.

In some patches there are an amazing quantity of earthworms – it really is exciting to see! Other areas are ‘vacant’, so hopefully fortifying with this organic matter (and my kitchen scraps, which I continue to bury here and there) will help.
There’s been a little planting going on, more so than in previous winters. I bought some organic Tasmanian garlic (my harvest was not big enough) and have about 30 cloves in.  I’m doing an experiment: I’ve planted some in a row in one of the beds, and some in a white polystyrene box. I want to see which grow better, those in the ground or those in the container. Rotting off versus drying out…
I’ve also planted three sprouting broccoli (below; not purple), and four small silverbeet seedlings (from mum and dad’s garden) and a few rows of different pea varieties. I’ve only recently learned that peas should be grown in winter, and after seeing some flourishing crops in people’s backyards (while on my lunchtime walks — I’m very much a stickybeak!), I realised I had to get to it.
It looks dry, doesn't it? We are not getting much rain, and I need to water regularly
 
I’m not harvesting anything: I’m getting all of my fruit and vegies now from either mum and dad (apples and pears of many wonderful varieties, good for eating and cooking; carrots and silverbeet and delicious pumpkins), or the shops. And I continue to collect and scatter marigold seeds — it’s become a bit of a compulsion.

Winter has set in: it’s been very cold and snowy, and by the time I get home from work, it is cold and dark. So all garden work is done on the weekend. But it’s wonderful to rug up, make a thermos of tea, and potter about in the garden. Digging warms me up, and it all keeps me connected with my garden space.

The almost-empty beds, save some valiant marigolds, bee-attracting larkspur (much more purple than this photo captures, and a self-seeded pumpkin, severely burnt by the frost).

31 May 2015

shrewsbury biscuits

Hello S,
 
Thank you for your email. I am very flattered, as I am a fan of the British Bake-Off series.
 
However, I know from watching those shows that I certainly do not have the broad range of baking skills, nor am I consistent enough, to put myself forward for this opportunity. Unless you want the comedy aspect of someone burning the cake or adding too much flour or ... gasp, having the dreaded soggy bottoms!
 
You have certainly allowed me to dream a little but I know the reality would not be pretty.
 
Thank you again for contacting me — I shall eagerly watch out for the Australian series.
 
e 
 
This, dear reader, was (I hoped) my gracious response to an email from one of the producers of a new season of baking competition show. Can you believe it? Me, a bake-off baker? At first I thought it was spam! Had the producer not read about my burnt cake or botched rhubarb cobbler?

As I said, I would surely provide those awful moments when the poor contestant walks away from the oven without turning it on, or opens the oven door to have smoke billowing out or the supposedly puffy dutch baby pancake be as flat as … a normal pancake (I didn’t share that one with you). I’d be that scene they play before and after the ad break (or even on the commercials) where the baker walks towards the judges and drops the tray of biscuits all over the floor. The tragic, comic moments to make everyone else look wonderful (or just plain competent). And cooking under pressure, with judges and other safe contestants watching your every move, undermining your confidence with sly suggestions?

So I politely declined. And then told lots of people about it.

My mother shared my fears. As fans of the British Bake Off shows, we were always astounded by what those bakers could do – the scope of their skills and techniques. It seriously is not amateur home baking to make those fanciful and difficult breads, cakes, pastries and desserts. Yes I can bake — but not like that.

The two Vs (yes, I have two friends called V) said I should email that producer right back and say I’d changed my mind (I hadn’t) and do it, as did the lovely T. Who revealed — does anyone else know this? — some very intriguing background information.

Now I knew contestants have downtime to practice theirs skills, but T said they are also taught and instructed by proper chefs! Her sister, a pastry chef, has provided crash-course training to a few people who have appeared on various cooking shows to bring their pastry skills up to speed.

Really? I could learn from experts and professionals? Those contestants aren’t as naturally gifted as they appear — they’ve had expert guidance? Maybe I would email that producer back…

No. You may think, after my last post, that I am turning down all of life's wonderful invitations. But I am a realist by nature. As flattering as the invitation was, no (but if there’s a magazine publisher out there who wants a new columnist, now that’s a gig I wouldn’t pass up!).

So it is only fitting that I make some Bake Off biscuits. Some lovely old-fashioned, easy biscuits, studded with currants and zingy with lemon zest. These I could make with cameras rolling. But so could anyone. Bake Offs require much more skill than these little treats do.
 

Shrewsbury biscuits
Adapted from Paul Hollywood's recipe in 'British Baking' - a wonderful book to read, even if you are not British. I did not sprinkle extra sugar on top before baking. A very economical recipe, it makes a modest batch, depending on your cutters; I used small and medium sized and got around 20.
  • Cream 100 gms softened butter, 100 gms sugar and the fine zest of 1 lemon.
  • Beat in 1 large egg.
  • Stir thru 200 gms plain flour and then 50 gms currants. You'll then need to get in and squeeze the dough together with your hands, or you can knead it on a lightly floured surface.
  • Place the dough on a stretch of greaseproof paper (about a foot long), and roll out til 5 mm thick. Then wrap another layer of paper over the top and some clingfilm or foil, and fridge for an hour or so.
  • After an hour, remove dough from fridge, prep some baking trays and preheat your oven to 180.
  • Cut out your biscuits using your desired cutters; squish and roll the scraps back together to use up all the dough (or nibble on it...).
  • Place on baking trays and bake for about 15 minutes or until golden.
  • Remove from oven, cool on trays for a few minutes to help harden them, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
  • These are wonderfully hard biscuits and so very good at afternoon tea with a cup of tea.

17 May 2015

on pretty young things


What I want to talk about today is: have you noticed how all the female foodie stars are such pretty young things? Or is it just me (noticing, not young and pretty)?

Whether they're clean living, vegan, sugar free or bone-brothing paleos, they're all young and gorgeous, with super-model-wavy hair, chic Breton stripes and skinny jeans, and glowy perfect skin. Even my mother has noticed: Rachel Khoo is such a cute thing, she declares, mesmerising us as much with her perfectly applied red lippie as her ability to blitz up shortcrust dough. Undeniably, enviably beautiful.

Rachel's not the only one, and their TV shows, blogs or books are filled with as many portraits as them as close-ups of their food. It's not enough to be a great cook, you better look dishy too. At least that's what it seems to me.

Don't get me wrong - none of this is sour grapes. Well, maybe I'm a little conflicted. Like the photos I see in Vogue and other glossy magazines I love to read, of models and celebs, I know there is much magic involved (makeup, botox, photoshop) to produce that perfection - but I still can't help compare myself wistfully to these unattainable images. So when I watch or see these female foodies, there is awe and knowing folded thru with perhaps a little envy (especially if I'm having a bad hair day or I'm dagging about in sloppy trackies after a day in high heels).We're savvy enough to decipher what the message is: that their brand of cooking, eating and living not only infuses them with healthful antioxidants and omega 3s, but mega-doses of loveliness too. So maybe it will do the same for us, too?

They are younger, hipper descendants of Nigella Lawson. Do we all remember when she oozed onto our TV screens with her heady, winking sex appeal (interestingly, she was conspicuously visually absent from her early books)? I used to closely observe her movie star eye makeup and wonder where I could find just that shade of lip gloss (I'm a brunette too, but that, unfortunately, is where all physical similarities end). In comparison, I don't think any of us had girl-crushes on Margaret Fulton or Delia Smith, did we?

Recently I was offered the chance to do some appliance demonstrations at a major homewares store (for various reasons, I declined). After my initial ooooh!, I started wondering how I'd cook, smile and talk at the same time (you try it - it's not as easy as Poh et al make it look). And then, what should I wear? Something safe and low key, because that's how locals roll on the weekend? Or something more me, with my pink lippie, a dress and ballet flats (perhaps there is a little of Ms Khoo in me after all). To manicure, or not to manicure? For a moment, that was the burning question.

In the end, it all came to nought, but... oh the decisions and the possibilities. Hats off, I concluded, to all those glossy gals, from the retro super-glam to the no-makeup-makeup chicks. We want to eat and cook like them; perhaps, just a little bit, we want to live and look and be like them too.

10 May 2015

nigella's chocolate prune cake


Not long ago, Catherine reminded me that I hadn’t made a Nigella recipe for a long time. How could that be? (Easy – too many cake recipes, not enough time.)

I decided to make the recipe that Catherine had, a chocolate cake with rich sour cream, but then I pulled out my copy of ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’ and the pages fell open to the store-cupboard chocolate cake.

I used to make this one regularly, the variation using pureed prunes, because I love prunes, and their squidginess in a chocolate cake is a certain kind of deliciousness (if you google around, you’ll find lots of other variations to Nigella's original recipe — it really is very accommodating ). I’ve also made a boozy version — soaking the prunes in tia maria — but I wanted to share these with my friend C who does not drink. Tipsy or nor, these cakes, perhaps more prune-y than chocolate-y, are as rich as Christmas fruitcake, smooth and fudgy, and a little sticky (so finger licking required).

Catherine, I promise I’ll make the sour cream one soon, but in the meantime, here’s the chocolate prune cake, in all its sweet glory. Mum has been pestering me to post the recipe ever since she had a wodge (I have of course offered to write the recipe out for her), so here it is.

Chocolate prune cake
Adapted from Nigella’s store-cupboard chocolate cake in ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’, so named because the original is made with jam or marmalade – ingredients we probably all have in our pantry. I made 8 mini loaves rather than one 20cm round cake, which the recipe specified.
  • The night before, soak 300 gms pitted prunes in either tea (I use earl grey) or an alcohol such as Kahlua or Tia Maria. This step makes them deliciously plump and soft.
  • On baking day, preheat your oven to 180 and prep your chosen baking tin (see my notes above).
  • If there is any liquid left unabsorbed by the prunes, drain and discard (or in the case of the boozy stuff, drink...). Whiz up to a puree in your food processor.
  • Over a double-boiler set up, gently melt together 125 gms butter, 100 gms dark chocolate, 150 gms sugar (I tend to use half brown/half white) and a pinch of salt until well combined.
  • Remove from heat and stir thru 2 large eggs, the prune puree, then 150 gms SR flour.
  • Dollop into your prepared tins. Be sure to lick the bowl.
  • Bake for 25-30 minutes for small cakes or until done (longer for a single large cake).
  • Cool on wire racks. These are lovely warm, with a dollop of sour cream or natural yoghurt - the zing compliments the fruity richness wonderfully - and just as delicious and squidgy when cool.