Tag Archives: Food

Slow food

If you follow me on Twitter (although I seem to have lost the little birdy thingy off my blog page!?) then you will know that I have just returned home from the Slow Food national congress and annual general meeting in Canberra. The Slow Food movement was formed in Italy by Carlo Petrini in 1986 in response to plans to open a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Since it’s beginnings, Slow Food has expanded and now boasts over 100,000 members in 132 countries, organized in groups called “convivia”. These groups are not just a bunch of people getting together for a nice long lunch, as some seem to think, but are people whose aim is to advocate for “good, clean and fair” food. In promoting this the movement cooperates with the development of seed banks, preserving local culinary traditions, preserving and promoting local food products, educating the public about the risks of monoculture, fast food, industrialized food production and agriculture and lobbies for and supports organic food production.

There were various speakers gathered for the congress, including Stephanie Alexander who spoke about her wonderful Kitchen Garden project, but the one I found to be most inspiring was the Slow Food International Secretary General, Paolo Di Croce, who had come to Australia specifically for the meeting.

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Connecting with our food

With the theme of food seemingly being at the height of fashion, there are any number of books available on all aspects of the subject, but I found one of the most interesting, entertaining, thought provoking and at times, confronting to be Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivores Dilemma” (Penguin, 2006). In this book Pollan, an American author and journalist, writes of how modern Western cultures (and specifically the US) seem to have become disengaged from the production of our foods, leaving us vulnerable to the seductive techniques of food marketers and the, frequently overblown, hype of food scientists, resulting in our nutritionally compromised modern diets. He writes about his journey following the path of three different food chains resulting in three meals that he then eats – the industrial (a fast-food meal), the pastoral (an organic meal) and what he terms the “Personal” – a meal which he has grown, hunted and killed himself. This book is guaranteed to make you have more than a passing thought about where the food on your plate has come from, how it got to you and whether it was worth it!

Since reading this book I have become, in a small way, a primary producer and, with Pollan’s words echoing in my head, the husband and I put quite a bit of thought into how our first herd of plump and glossy, happy, paddock-fed steers were to end up on someone’s plate. As omnivores at the top of the food chain, I believe that we owe respect for the lives of creatures further down. We were very fortunate in that we were able to get them into the cattle yards and onto the truck very calmly, using bales of hay as inducements, and they had just a very short drive half an hour up the road to abattoirs where they were “processed” the same day. They were not stressed, overcrowded, left in small yards for days at a time or driven long distances and I believe that their meat will be all the better for it.

In an effort to ‘connect’ with even more of our own food, we have just joined with a wonderful organisation new to Adelaide called Food Connect Adelaide . Originating in Brisbane, this organisation is dedicated to connecting consumers with local farmers and encouraging the eating of seasonal, local fruit and vegetables, produced using ecologically sustainable methods. The general public can become subscribers, signing up to receive a box of local, fresh produce delivered to various distribution points weekly. The distribution points are called “City Cousins” and are, in fact, other subscribers who elect to have their homes serve this purpose. This not only reduces delivery costs and greenhouse gas emissions from delivery trucks on large routes, but serves to promote a sense of community as subscribers become acquainted with others in their areas.

I picked up our first box of fruit and veggies yesterday and, as you can see, it was a little ripper, bursting with loads of fresh produce and topped off with a deliciously fragrant bunch of fresh basil! There is more than enough fresh product there and my mind was busy with cooking ideas as I unpacked it into the fridge. The two very good sized zucchini were the first thing that we have eaten from the box, using a delicious recipe for Zucchini and Herb Fritters from my patron saint, Claudia Roden and her book “Arabesque” (Penguin 2005). These are fresh and full of flavour from the added herbs and perfect for a lunch or as a side dish at dinner. Claudia says not to add salt as the feta is quite salty, but I disobeyed her (gasp!) and added just a little.

ZUCCHINI FRITTERS

1 onion, chopped
3 Tbsp olive oil
500 gm zucchini, grated
3 eggs
3 Tbsp plain flour
ground black pepper
pinch of sea salt
2 Tbsp fresh mint, chopped
2 Tbsp fresh dill, chopped
200 gm feta, crumbled
oil for frying

Fry the onions in oil until golden and soft, add zucchini and lightly saute until soft. Cool slightly.
Beat the eggs and flour together until well blended, add pepper, salt, herbs and mix well, then add feta and mix. Add onion and zucchini and mix.
Fry the fritters in small batches in hot oil and drain on paper towels.

These would be delicious served with a yoghurt and cucumber salad or a (mildish so as not to over-power the flavours) chutney.

Wondrous bread

For the longest time I was intimidated by the idea of working with yeast and making bread. It all seemed just that little bit mysterious and laborious to me – working with what is actually a living organism, kneading, proving and ending up with something crusty and desirable seemed slightly complicated and unlikely to be the outcome for me! Of course, one day I watched a friend make some fresh bread rolls for her family and it was immediately obvious that this was a simple and hugely satisfying past-time and one I embraced wholeheartedly – as my hips can now attest. For some years I made all our bread, first by hand and later with the help of my trusty Kenwood Chef mixer and it’s dough hook. Later still, I invested in a bread-making machine, although I still occasionally enjoy working out my parental frustrations on a large pile of dough on the bench. I never really saw myself as any sort of ‘earth-mother’, but I am very greedy and there is really nothing to compare to fresh, warm bread covered in butter – mmm.

A little while ago I came across this wonderful little recipe that is easy and quick enough to send even the most reluctant bread maker out to the kitchen to give it a try. I originally found it somewhere on the internet, but subsequently bought the book called “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day”, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, which has the master recipe and a wealth of variations besides.

If you have ever thought of baking homemade bread then this is the recipe for you and you will soon be turning out beautiful ‘rustic’ loaves, but there are always a few things to remember when baking bread. You should always use “strong flour” or flour labelled “bread flour” as it has a higher gluten content, giving the bread more elasticity enabling it to hold the pockets of CO2 that form. Ordinary cake flour will not give you a proper bread crumb or consistency. Also, the moisture content needed to make the dough will vary depending on humidity, geographical elevation and sometimes just the use of a new batch of flour so you will need to be a little flexible about it. If the dough seems too stiff just add a little more warm water to loosen it up a bit. The longer you store the dough in the fridge, the more of a “sour dough” taste it will acquire. You can pass this on to subsequent batches by saving a little of the old dough to add to the next batch.

Once you have mastered this bread there is no end of ways to vary it by adding cheese, herbs, olives, fruit and spices – whatever! I added chopped walnuts and fresh, chopped rosemary to my last loaf which promptly vanished before the camera was even thought of!

Anybody game enough to give it a try and report back???

SIMPLE CRUSTY BREAD

1 & 1/2 pkt. freeze dried yeast (available in all supermarkets)
1 & 1/2 Tbsp salt
6 & 1/2 cups bakers flour
3 cups warm water (I always need about 1/2 cup extra)

In a large plastic container mix yeast, salt and flour together, then add warm water. If it is too hot to put your finger in, then it is too hot to use and will kill the yeast. Mix dough with a wooden spoon until it is all moistened with no dry bits – dough should be fairly loose. Do not knead it. Cover with lid – NOT airtight – and leave to rise 2-5 hours.
At this point, the dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
When you are ready to bake a loaf just cut off a piece of the dough of the required size. Turn in your hands to lightly stretch the dough, tucking it in on itself underneath to form a ball. Rest the dough for about 45 minutes on a sheet sprinkled with cornmeal.
Preheat oven to 210C and after the dough has rested sprinkle with a little flour and slash diagonally on the top. Put in oven either on the baking sheet or transfer to a preheated pizza stone.
Place a tray in the bottom of the oven and put 1-2 cups of hot water in it. The steam produced by this water will give you a lovely crunchy crust on your loaf.
Bake for 30 minutes or until the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.
Cool on a rack.

Just Dessert

I have a fairly serious sweet tooth. When dining out I have been known to forgo a main course, instead having two entree’s, to ensure sufficient digestive space for the “pud”. My real passion is chocolate and I can (and most certainly will, at a later date) drone on about the health giving benefits and restorative powers of that magical little bean. As I have previously mentioned, I firmly believe that almost anything is improved with a little/big bit of chocolate but there are certainly occasions where something fresh and light is more appropriate and, with Julie in mind, this following recipe most definitely fits that bill.

My inspiration for this dessert was the Egyptian-born cookbook writer, Claudia Roden. I first discovered her when I was mis-spending my youth, living in various share houses. I was not very long out of home at that stage, with bad food memories and very basic cooking skills, when my housemate announced that he had invited a fairly well known visiting band home for dinner the following evening. At that time the housemate – who was not the household cook – was doing a midnight-dawn shift as a disc jockey at a local radio station and, having just interviewed the boys, discovered that they were at a loose end and tired of take-aways. These were not particularly sophisticated times so when he called me to share the joy and request my co-operation I was happy to oblige, secure in the knowledge that I could turn out a very respectable roast dinner. It was not until he called me back fifteen minutes later with the news that two of the band members were vegetarians that a feeling of cold dread gripped my heart and I realised that I could well be way out of my comfort zone.
I bolted to the largest book store that I could find, feverishly searching the shelves for a vegetarian cookbook that I felt would not overly challenge my inadequate culinary skills when Claudia Roden’s “A Book of Middle Eastern Food” found it’s way into my hands, and a quick flick through it reassured me that I may just be able to avert total gastronomic disaster. I have no memory of what I prepared for the vegetarians that evening, but I do remember that the meal and the evening was, fortunately, a success.

For me, this was a wonderful introduction to an unknown cuisine. The recipes in the book were accompanied by personal anecdotes and memories of the dishes or brief accounts of the origins or rituals surrounding them and it became a favourite standby on my cookbook shelf. Claudia Roden has gone on to become one of the most inspirational and authoritative writers on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, with subsequent publications comprehensively covering Jewish, Moroccan, Turkish, Lebanese and Italian food, many winning various writing awards. The seminal – and face-saving – “Book of Middle Eastern Food” was re-created and enlarged by her and published as “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” in 2000.

This is a deliciously fragrant dessert to serve after an otherwise substantial meal. It can be as sweet as you like and goes equally well with a good dollop of either thick cream or refreshing yoghurt.
Ras el Hanout is a blend of Moroccan spices and can be bought or blended yourself. I have done both and can recommend the blend sold by “Herbies” at http://www.herbies.com.au/

SPICED ORANGES

2 cups fresh squeezed orange juice
Zest of 2 oranges
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ras el hanout spice mix
1 teaspoon rose water
8 oranges

Peel oranges, removing all pith. Slice thickly and arrange in shallow dish.
Place orange juice, sugar, zest and Ras el Hanout in saucepan and bring to boil stirring to dissolve sugar. Boil for about 5-10 minutes to reduce and thicken the syrup.
Remove from heat, add rose water, set aside to cool, then pour syrup over orange slices.
Serve cold.

One for Julie!

Whilst some among us (not mentioning names, of course!) continue to claim that they are hopeless in the kitchen, producing an easy but stunning dish CAN be achieved by just about anyone! The secret is generally to keep things simple – not trying to mix up too many flavours, using the best possible quality ingredients and keeping prep as uncomplicated as possible. Seriously delicious dishes can be accomplished with the right combination of just a few ingredients and often all it takes is one small step to take a meal from delicious to amazing!

Don’t be reluctant to use spices or ingredients that seem novel or exotic, however, do take care to make sure that they are fresh and top quality. Supermarket spices are often simply not worth using and the dates on the jars need to checked carefully for most spices will lose their flavour and pungency pretty quickly. With some spices it is preferable to buy them whole and grind them yourself – the smell of freshly grated nutmeg bears very little resemblance to the pre-ground popular supermarket brands. Try not to buy your spices in large packets or jars – as, again, they will lose their flavour long before you use up the packet. Shopping in gourmet stores for better quality dried spices is well worth the extra effort and cost – this is what will lift your finished dish to the next level.

I found the original of the following recipe in a wonderful book called “Ottolenghi”, named for the cafe/restaurant in Notting Hill, in London, owned by the authors. I saw the book on a bookshop shelf in Melbourne and promptly fell in love the recipes. They are all bursting with freshness and flavour and have more than a hint of the Middle Eastern background of the two owners.

I have adapted this slightly to suit myself, but this recipe is a classic example of minor additions resulting in a simple, but knock-out dish.

CHICKEN WITH ALMONDS AND HONEY
Serves 6

1.2 kg chicken thighs on the bone or
1 large chook, jointed into 6 pieces (I always use free range, organic chook)
2 onions finely chopped
50 ml extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of saffron threads
juice of 1 lemon
50 ml chicken stock
2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp ground black pepper

120 gm almonds
75 gm honey
2 Tbsp rosewater

Mix the oil, spices, saffron, juice, stock and salt and pepper together. Place chicken and onions in a large container, pour over marinade to cover all the bits, cover and refrigerate overnight.

To roast, preheat oven to 180C, spread chook out over a tray large enough to fit all in a single layer and roast for 40 minutes.

Roast almonds in a pan or in the oven until lightly browned, then chop – not too course, not too fine. Mediumly??

Mix nuts with honey and rosewater to make a paste.
Remove chicken from oven and cover each piece with a generous amount of nut paste, return to oven and cook further 5-10 minutes, until nuts are golden and honey is just beginning to caramelize.

Yum!

Grilled Vegetable Salad – with a twist!

I like cookbooks.

No, that’s not true. I love cookbooks!
I am developing quite a significant collection of new, secondhand and antique recipe books, with a fondness for pre-WW11 Australian editions. I particularly love Middle Eastern and North African cuisine and happily snap up any in that area that I happen upon. As I find it almost impossible to pass up the opportunity to add to the growing stash of beautifully designed and photographed books available, I have had another bookcase installed in my kitchen – and I have promptly filled it!

I can spend hours just looking through them, admiring the gorgeous photo’s and imagining wowing my family and friends with gastronomic feats of brilliance – modestly bowing my head and blushing as the tributes drop about me like petals.
Of course, back in the real world, my culinary efforts are constrained by the mundane considerations of time, motivation and the food vagaries of teenaged kids who, when presented with another ethnic masterpiece, beg for sausages (the Woolies ones!) and mash.

Because of the unsophisticated and ungrateful palates of my offspring, I generally use any unsuspecting dinner guests to try out my latest recipe ‘find’ and I frequently adapt the recipes I obtain from books, beefing up or re-arranging the flavours to suit my personal preferences. I know that it is often considered rash to experiment with food for the first time with guests, but I have been lucky and am yet to have a failure. Of course, I am turning around 3 times anti-clockwise and sprinkling magic fairy dust as I say this!!!

Which brings me to the salad that I served to some friends last night – all of whom are food fanatics like myself. This was a beautiful, fresh and tasty salad that can be tricked up in numerous different ways. Here is the version I served last night, followed by a variation that I will be trying next time around.

Unfortunately, this salad was devoured before the camera could record it for posterity!

GRILLED VEGETABLE SALAD

2 punnets of cherry tomatoes
3 bunches of asparagus
3 zucchinis
100gms baby spinach leaves
500 gms Haloumi cheese (please try to get a Cypriot one – others don’t come close)
120 mls extra virgin olive oil
sea salt
black pepper

Dressing
2 tbs basil pesto
30-40 mls extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 170C

Rinse, dry and halve cherry tomatoes, mix them with 1/2 of the olive oil, season with sea salt and pepper and spread them out in a baking pan. Roast for about 50 minutes, until they are semi-dried and starting to caramelize. Leave to cool.
Chop off and discard the ends of the asparagus and blanch in boiling water for 2-4 minutes, then immediately refresh in cold water.
Trim off ends from zucchinis and slice very thinly lengthwise, with either a vegetable peeler or – if very brave and confident – a mandolin.
Toss asparagus and zucchini slices in rest of the olive oil and season to taste.
Preheat the bbq or a ridged pan, if cooking inside, and briefly char grill the asparagus and zucchini, until they get those nice dark marks.
Slice the haloumi into 2 cm slices and char grill, also.
Combine all the cooked vegetables with the baby spinach and cheese, tossing gently to display all the different bits.
Blend the pesto with enough olive oil to loosen it up nicely and drizzle this over the salad just before serving.

Variation –
Next time I make this I will add some char grilled eggplant to the vegetables, substitute a good feta for the haloumi and dress it with tahini mixed with yoghurt in place of the basil dressing.
What the heck – I think that I’ll sprinkle it with some chopped, toasted almonds or some toasted pine nuts, too!!

B’stilla my beating heart!!

B’stilla – or bisteeya – is a classic Moroccan pie, traditionally made with pigeon or squab, but also with chicken, combining both sweet and savoury elements. It is also something that I have been dying to try ever since I first saw a recipe for it. I thought that I had hit pay-dirt when dining at a new Moroccan restaurant in town just after Christmas, only to be told that it had been so popular they had run out. I sulked for a while, then had a glass of mint tea and bravely soldiered on through the rest of a stunning meal, resigned to the inevitability of cooking it myself.
This recipe is the adapted version that I finally placed with a flourish (and some baked carrots) on the dinner table last night. Some may prefer a little more cayenne pepper, but I am a coward at heart.

One doesn’t like to sound immodest, but this pie is to die for. It made me very happy.

B’stilla

125 gms butter NOT margarine!
700 gms chicken thigh fillets
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/8 tsp cayenne (more if you are brave)
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
250 ml chicken or vegetable stock
1 pinch of saffron threads, soaked in the stock
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 bunch flat leaf parsley chopped
1 bunch coriander, chopped
2 eggs, beaten

80gm finely chopped, roasted almonds
2 Tbsp icing sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 pkt filo pastry

Melt 1/2 butter in an oven-proof dish and brown chicken, set aside. Add onions and cook gently until golden. Add garlic, cook for 1-2 minutes, add spice and stir, add stock and saffron. Return chicken, turn to coat, cover and bake in oven 160C for 40 minutes.
Remove and discard cinnamon stick, remove chicken, chop up and set aside.
Add lemon juice and herbs to remaining sauce, reduce until thick. Turn heat to very low, add eggs, stir until scrambled. Remove from heat and add chicken, taste and season as required.
Mix almonds with icing sugar and cinnamon.
Grease a shallow pie dish with butter and layer 6 sheets of filo pastry in dish, brushing each with melted butter and rotating the sheets with the edges hanging over the dish. Fill with the chicken mix, fold 3 of the sheets over the pie, brush with butter and sprinkle generously with almond mixture. Fold remaining sheets over and tuck around the dish. Brush again with melted butter. I scrunched some extra sheets of buttered filo onto the top to make it look pretty.
Bake at 180C 45 minutes, or until golden. Serve with any extra almond mixture.
Sit back and accept all compliments!!