November 24, 2013 § 3 Comments
Three years ago to this day I started a blog, inspired by living and working as a cook at Friendly Beaches Lodge and, of all things, an article in a Jetstar inflight magazine about blogging. Before I read the article, I didn’t even know what a blog was (yes, mainly becuase I had been living under a rock in Tasmania). Whilst I don’t remember exactly what the article was about, I do remember that something in me stirred and at 25 000 feet above the Bass Strait en route to Melbourne I decided to start a blog. It would be a food blog, with stories and recipes and a focus on sustainable, local, seasonal, unplugged cooking. But, most importantly it would be a place to keep me creative, to force me into the kitchen and taking photos, a place to try to pull words from my thoughts and scrawl them on a blank screen. And so I wrote, “What better thing to do on a hot spring day than start a food blog…” 3 days later I was unexpectedly on a plane to Sierra Leone and my “food blog” was momentarily hijacked by travel stories.
Since then I have often enjoyed, occasionally hated, been frustrated, exhilarated, both ashamed and very proud of this place. I have tried very hard to be honest with myself and have had to learn to be brave, to throw words out to the world and that strangely intimidating public realm. But here I am with 3 years of stories from my wooden spoon and my favourite blue ceramic pot. I am so grateful to each of you who have read this blog. You who have put up with my terrible spelling and my often flippant nature in the kitchen, thank you so much. It humbles me no end to think that I may sometimes write something that someone wants to read and cook something that someone wants to cook.
A small cause for celebration, here are some of the recipes from the last three years that I love the most.
November 8, 2013 § 2 Comments
A few weeks back I went to Melbourne for a friend’s wedding in East Gippsland. There on a small property amongst the green and rolling hills we walked up to the top of a ridge, the sun golden and almost setting, to share with them their love and vows of togetherness and foreverness. I was so moved by the graciousness of love on that day, not just in the space between them, but also amongst us, all their friends, who each shared in that love for them. What a thing to celebrate! I danced until 4am in the morning and could barely move the next day, but my sore calves were a welcome reminder of the joy we can find between each other.
As you can probably guess there was cake involved… 15 different kinds to be precise. Each guest was asked to bring a plate for dinner, and most of us being most of us, naturally wanted to bring cake.
The cake I have for you today is a Persian Love Cake. With a name like that, could you really resist? In Persia, this cake is cooked by a mother in law for her daughters husband to be. The story goes, that once he eats the cake he will fall madly in love and they will have a happy marriage.
Thanks to Gourmet traveller and a dear friend for introducing me to this cake. I haven’t looked back!
Recipe for Persian Love Cake
360 gm (3 cups) almond meal
220 gm (1 cup) raw sugar (I used a bit less)
220 gm (1 cup) brown sugar (I used a bit less)
120 gm unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs, lightly beaten
250 gm Greek-style yoghurt, plus extra to serve
1 tbsp freshly grated nutmeg
45 gm (¼ cup) pistachios, coarsely chopped (optional)
Preheat your oven to 180C. Combine almond meal, sugars, butter and 1 tsp salt in a bowl, then rub with fingertips until coarse crumbs form. Spoon half the mixture into a lightly buttered and lined 26cm-diameter springform pan, gently pressing to evenly cover base.
Add egg, yoghurt and nutmeg to remaining crumble mixture and beat with a wooden spoon until smooth and creamy. Pour over prepared base, smooth top and scatter pistachios around the edge. The recipe says to bake for 30 -35 minutes. I baked mine for about 45 minutes. And its good to keep in mind that the cake can still be a bit soft in the middle. It will keep in an airtight container for up to a week.
September 28, 2013 § 3 Comments
I had a dismal attempt at trying to grow watermelons this year. The process started with me very excited. I made a little round bed full of compost and manure and planted two little seeds inside. They sprouted and grew… A little… I watered them and they grew some more. They bloomed tiny little flowers and even grew one tiny little watermelon. Then I went away and the little watermelon shrivelled up. Then the rest of the vine shrivelled. And one day they were dead. And that was that.
The sun is relentless here. Unforgiving. I realise my mistake, I shouldn’t have put them in a place that gets all day sun, and I should definitely have mulched them more.
But still, I have been managing to eat some of the very best watermellons I ever had. The local ones are cheep and abundant at this time of year. They are a deep bright pink and so so sweet.
So I have a recipe for you today, a drink, and a very refreshing one at that. It comes out of the beautiful cookbook The New Persian Kitchen. Its a watermelon, mint, and cider vinegar tonic!
Author Notes: “Even if drinking vinegar sounds like a dare — and maybe that’s why you ordered it — it’s anything but. It’s sweet and sour and icy-cold. It vibrates and clangs with fruit and vinegar, and soothes with sweetness and mint. It is the most refreshing drink you will have this summer”. From The New Persian Kitchen
Recipe for Watermelon Mint and Cider Vinegar Tonic
Makes about 5 cups concentrate
3 cups water, plus more to serve
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup honey
6 cups coarsely chopped watermelon
1 cup tightly packed fresh mint, plus more to serve
1 cup apple cider vinegar (preferably with the mother because that is the best kind for you)
Ice cubes, cucumber, and lime to serve.
- Boil the water and salt in a medium saucepan. Add the honey and allow to dissolve before removing from the heat.
- Combine the watermelon and mint in a large bowl and stir in the hot honey water. Leave to cool to room temperature.
- Once cool, add the vinegar and allow the mixture to steep in the refrigerator for several hours or up to overnight.
- Strain the mixture and eat the watermelon chunks, if desired.
- Store the concentrate in a clean glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
- To serve, pour 1/4 cup of the concentrate into a glass over ice and dilute with 3/4 cup water. Garnish with the watermelon, cucumber, and mint.
July 15, 2013 § 2 Comments
The Tropical Garden Spectacular was on a few weeks ago. At the botanical gardens under trees with impossibly huge canopies I watched some local food cooking demonstrations. Lined up on straw bales with the green grass at our feet, some glimpse of paradise on the warm breeze, the chef Selvam Kandasamy from Saffrron, taught a small group of us how to make snake beans, sautéed in spices with coconut and curry leaves. And this my dear friends is a dish to be celebrated.
Snake beans are the lanky tropical equivalent of the green bean and you would be forgiven for thinking them somewhat tough and woody with little flavour. This recipe however does them justice. It is full of flavour, crunchy, slightly sweet, bright green and turmeric yellow. The coconut and chili melts on your tongue. The intermittent curry leaves are bright in your mouth. The beans are cooked hot in a wok for just the very right amount of time making them softly crunchy and fluorescent.
I have made this recipe many times since then and each time I have continued to love it. It is similar to the original made by Selvam Kandsamy except I have used coconut oil instead of peanut oil.
Spicy Snake Beans with Coconut and Curry Leaves
Serves: 4 – 5 as a main or 6 – 8 as a side dish.
Note: If you are in distant and cooler parts wanting to use something more locally appropriate I am sure green beans would also make a good substitute.
3 Tbsp pure coconut oil
2 flat tsp brown mustard seeds
2 flat tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp salt
1 red onion finely diced
1 whole fresh red chillis (you can also use 1 tsp dried chilli flakes instead)
1 Tbsp Split yellow lentils (optional)
4 cups chopped snake beans
1/2 cup shredded coconut
A good handful fresh curry leaves
Extra salt to taste
Prepare all your ingredients before hand. Once you start cooking it all happens fast.
In a wok heat the oil on a medium to high flame until hot. Add the mustard seeds, turmeric, onion, and salt. Stir until the onions turn just translucent, then add the chilli and lentils. Continue stirring and add the beans and coconut stirring until the beans are just cooked through but still have a crunch and are bright green. Add the curry leaves and remove from heat.
It is lovely served as a side to fish or on its own with brown rice.
I hope you like it as much as I do.
June 23, 2013 § Leave a comment
Without meaning to belabour the point, winter is an exciting time in the top end. Really it is like summer down south and the vegies that grow this time of year are proof of that. We have four cucumber plants in pots under the verandah in anticipation that they will provide some edible shade in the coming months. But in the meantime, I have been getting them from the markets, small and sweet, straight from the local growers at Humpty Doo.
And I know I have mentioned this to you before, but I do love pickles. Crunchy, tart, sour, salty. In true wholesome, traditional and healthy fashion, I have provided you with an old recipe for making pickles, one that uses ancient methods of fermentation and preservation. This way you get all those wonderful lactobacillus which I have been told, on countless occasions by my mother, – are very very good for you. And mothers are always right.
If you want a recipe for pickles that tastes like those you buy in the shops you will need to look elsewhere. Inspired by Jenny at Nourished Kitchen, this recipe uses salt rather than vinegar and as a result, the lacto fermentation process. But still, below I have given you two options for making brine. The first is exclusively with salt and the second is with less salt and a small amount of apple cider vinegar. You can decide which version you like the best.
Lacto fermented pickled cucumbers
For pickling, try to use freshly picked cucumbers if possible, but if not, get ones that are organic and as fresh and small as you can find. Say no more than 2 inches long.
Enough pickling cucumbers to fill your jar(s).
4 cloves of fresh organic garlic – per 500ml jar
1 tsp spices (for example, allspice, mustard seeds, bay leaf, black pepper, dried chilli flakes etc) – per 500ml jar
Optional – Use 1 fresh grape-vine leaf with the stem removed or a horseradish leaf per 500ml jar. This will help your pickles to stay crisp when the lactic acid fermentation is complete.
Option 1: 2 ½ - 3 tablespoons of salt per 4 cups of chlorine free filtered water
Option 2: 1 tablespoon of salt and 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar for every 3 cups of chlorine free filtered water.
(1 cup of brine usually fills a 500ml jar)
If you were unable to pick your cucumbers fresh, the first thing you will need to do is soak them in very cold icy water to perk them up before they ferment. Next, you’ll want to make sure all stems and flowery ends have been removed as they may give an off-flavor to the pickles. I generally cut a tiny scrape off the ends of each cucumber with a knife to be certain. It is also important that each cucumber is cleaned carefully. These steps will help ensure your pickles remain crunchy.
Place the pickling cucumbers, garlic and spices in sterilised jars in layers and ensure that they are a snug fit but without damaging the cucumbers. Add the horseradish or grape-vine leaf if you have it.
Prepare your brine. Shake or stir to help the salt fully dissolve. Pour the brine over the pickling cucumbers, until all of the ingredients are submerged. It is important that all of the ingredients are covered with the brine, and if necessary add a clean weight into the jar to help push them under the liquid, for example, a small plastic lid. Secure the lid and allow to ferment at room temperature for between 5 and 10 days, depending on your climate. The cooler it is the longer it will take. Once they are ready, store in the fridge to be eaten as you please.
As a side, I know it can be a fear with people, as it was with me, to be uncertain about whether your ferments are off. All I can say is, trust me, you will know. The smell is bad enough that you won’t want to touch them.
May 18, 2013 § 3 Comments
The story of how I learnt to make yoghurt is not a simple one. It spans some 5 years and two continents. It begins just after I finished my undergraduate degree, when I spent a year in India, getting lost and trying to find myself again. As you do when you are 24. During that time, I spent a couple of months volunteering in a Buddhist nunnery teaching English in the Gompa. The nunnery was in the far north of India, in a place called Zanskar, a mountain range that runs on the Tibetan side of the Himalayas. Being in the rain-shadow of the tallest mountain range in the world, Zanskar is something like a desert, it never rains and vegetation on the surrounding slopes is scarce. But in the valleys where there are glacial streams, fluorescent green fields make a stark contrast to the moonscape hills. Here the grass grows with a certain urgency learnt through evolution in a land where warmth and water are ungenerous.
But signs of life are not restricted to the stream soaked valleys. On the hill tops prayer flags beat in the winds, some are very old, worn and tattered with almost all their prayers lifted to the breeze. Fossils scatter the myriad of paths that weave their way out of town along scree slopes and over mountain ridges. These benthic remnants a reminder that this very landscape was once hundreds of meters below the ocean.
My journey to Zanskar begins in Leh, with a 26 hour bus ride covering some 400km to take me to the remote valley. As you can imagine, the road is very rough. Because I booked late, I don’t have a seat and so have to make do with the floor where I wedge my way into a somewhat comfortable space between the luggage that fills the aisle. I am not the only one and soon a man falls asleep on my back and another on my knees. After 10 hours of this and with the knowledge of 16 more to go, I begin to feel agitated, my legs and back cramped. From my place on the floor I glance up at a boy standing at the front of the bus without even room to sit. He is smiling and in his smile my anger subsides. The easy nature of the locals and their open acceptance of each situation is contagious. Like other times when I have traveled to developing countries, I am struck by what lessons we have forgotten in a privileged and wealthy world. Not long after, a girl sitting on the seat next to me offers me her lap to rest my head. Gratefully I fall asleep there for an hour or two. Later I find out she is from Zangla, the small village where I will be teaching.
When we finally arrive, tired and dirty from the dusty road, it is late, so I spend the night with the girl from the bus in her family home. Their house is like all the rest in the village, made from mud and cow dung, two stories high, with a flat roof loaded with fodder, wood and dried cow dung to burn in the coming winter.
The next morning I walk through a flowered field woven with a myriad of creeks and streams running to the river. There I wash in water clear as glass before walking the short distance to the Gompa that sits on a small hill on the far side of the village. I am nervous to meet the nuns as they have no way of knowing I am coming, but I am greeted with warm smiles and open laughter.
During my time at the monastery, my relationship with the nuns becomes more like a friend than a teacher and maybe this is why at times it is difficult to get them to come to class. Many of the nuns don’t have much of an interest in learning English, except maybe male and female body parts for which they have abundant enthusiasm. But it makes me question what I am doing. What is the purpose of teaching English? Is it not just another form of cultural imperialism? I still don’t really know the answer to this, but I do know that I am there with others who came before and after me. With a growing number of tourists visiting the region each year and with increasing access to the outside world, western influences are unavoidable. And in general, such change is welcomed by the locals, because with it comes a higher standard of living, the ability to join the rest of the world, to “develop”, to “progress”. I realise I am more sentimental than many of the locals in regard to the loss of traditions and the damage to land and culture that comes with such pursuits. But as I learn from the Buddhists that live there, nothing is permanent, change for good or for bad is inevitable. So perhaps as westerners we should focus on learning from our own mistakes and try to assist those who are following in our footsteps to take on a more sustainable path. Because of this I allow myself some small reassurance that in some tiny way, I am giving the nuns some of the skills they need to communicate with the outside world, so they can speak up and voice their needs and concerns in a shifting landscape. But it is small comfort in light of the stories of rapidly retreating glaciers, water sources drying up, the brain drain as educated children chose to live in far off cities, the introduction of white flour, sugar, packaged food and the plastic litter building up in a place with no formal rubbish disposal system.
So I spend my time practicing the art of just being and trying to help where I can, teaching in the school with the younger nuns, offering small informal English lessons here and there and lending a hand with the cooking.
The kitchen is a good place to be because it is where the nuns meet. Warm and cheeky they laugh and hoot slapping one another on the legs as they sit cross-legged at the low tables lining one wall of the large room. This is where I watch them making yoghurt. Taken fresh, straight from Pashi the Gompa’s resident cow, they heat the milk over a large pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room. Just as the milk starts to simmer but before it boils they pull it off the heat allowing it to cool to the temperature of a hot bath before stirring in a tablespoon or so of yoghurt left over from the last batch. The whole pot is then wrapped in a thick woollen blanket and placed in a corner of the kitchen until the next day when it is eaten with ladakhi bread and butter tea for breakfast.
I become very fond of Pashi and her calf Patel. They are a handsome pair, golden blond with strongly defined features. Their stable is next to my room and at night I can hear them moving around. They give me great comfort. In the evenings I bring Pashi back from the fields where she is tethered on a grassy knoll. The pleasure in the simplicity of it all, walking the cow home with the summer breeze on my face and playing in my skirt.
My room is also made of mud and cow dung, a little square that I can just lie down in. It has a small window and a small door I have to double over in to enter. When it is windy the roof sprinkles dirt to the floor. The scene from my window is vivid. At dusk small birds with round bellies and orange tails sit outside and I try to be very quiet then, any movement and they will fly away. As night draws, the moon illuminates the land with a pale yellow grey light and the shadows of the clouds play on the mountain tops.
Some days I walk to the river, its fast current tempting me, full of the energy of the mountains and sky from which it came. To get there I walk past Mane walls, ancient inscriptions on flat stones piled together. Who placed those first rocks there sending Om Mane Padme Hum to all ends of the earth? The valley big and broad with barely any landmarks, I lose perspective of distance, everything seems closer than it really is. Zhos (a cross between a yak and a cow) graze on the fertile strips where a creek meets the river’s edge. I watch the herders bring them together and drive them home. At the river the current is hypnotising, eddies run in all directions and waves appear to move upstream.
Other days I follow the small stream up behind the Gompa into a canyon that becomes narrower and narrower drawing nearer to its source. There in the rock pools I swim comfortably naked and alone among the pastel green, maroon, and orange of the boulders. The water as glass, streams crystal clear over the rocks, like cloth falling over the landscape, cool enough to make me gasp but warm enough to linger a while.
One night stands out to me in particular. It is nearing the end of my time in Zanskar when we can’t find Pashi. She is not in the field where we left her and must have broken her tether. One of the nuns and I go looking for her down by the river. The moon is half full in the sky and bright enough to lead the way, the stars half obscured by clouds. The green field in the flat of the river runs with small streams and shines moist. The beauty catches my breath. We spend two hours wandering along the water’s edge, through fields and along stone-walled pastures. Finally, defeated, we walk back to the village through the sweet smell of mustard in flower. Back at the Gompa we find Pashi tethered to her stable. One of the other nuns found her and brought her back whilst we were gone. By now it is late and I climb back into my mouse-hole room only to find I cannot sleep. The freshness of the night still on my skin and in my mind, the stars shining on me.
My last day in Zangla, I wake up from my small window to see the sun’s first rays on the fresh snow-capped mountains turning from grey to orange to yellow and finally to white as the day begins. My sleeping bag is slightly wet from rare rain that fell that night. After breakfast the nuns fill my bag with chapatis’ for my journey to Leh. Way to many for me to eat by myself but they insisted I take them all. We hear the bus coming so running out the door, kataks thick around my neck it finally dawns that I am leaving and tears prick my cheeks. I climb onto the roof of the bus. From there the nuns look so sweet waving in their maroon robes framed by the Gompa and the Himalayas. The fresh morning and the smiling mountains feel good on my damp cheeks. I am full with the privilege to have lived a little in their world.
How to make Yoghurt
Before going to Zanskar, I had always been put off by the idea of making yoghurt as every recipe I had come across called for either a yoghurt-maker or thermometer, making it all seem far to complicated. But after seeing the nuns do it, I realised all you really needed was a large pot, a warm place, a blanket and a bit of careful watching.
But still I kept putting it off and it wasn’t until a year ago when I was asked to give a fermentation workshop at CERES that I decided I better give it a go. I couldn’t even pretend to be an expert if I had never made yoghurt before. So I started researching. It turned out I didn’t need to go far. In my bookshelf was my much-loved copy of Wild Fermentation and in it a recipe for Yoghurt that doesn’t use a yoghurt maker or a thermometer. This was what I’d been waiting for.
The most important thing you need when making yoghurt is a warm and cosy place to rest it in. I usually pre-heat a small Esky by filling it up with hot water from the tap. I then empty it, dry it out and fill it with towels and if it is winter and really cold, a hot water bottle or some jars filled with warm water as well. But really what you need is a place that will cool down very slowly. I have also heard of people making yoghurt in a thermos and I’m sure this could work too.
Yoghurt Recipe makes 1 litre
1 litre jar
1 litre whole organic milk
1 Tbsp fresh yoghurt (check it has live cultures)
Pre – heat your jar and cooler with hot water, so that they won’t drain heat once you pour in your yoghurt.
Slowly heat your milk, paying close attention, until tiny bubbles start to form but before it starts to boil (if you have a thermometer, this is 80°C/180°F). Stir frequently to avoid burning the milk. The heating is not absolutely necessary, but it helps to get thicker yoghurt.
Allow the milk to cool until it still feels hot but is not so hot that you can’t keep a clean finger in it. You can quicken the cooling process by placing your saucepan in a bowl of cold water. But be careful it doesn’t cool too much. The optimum temperature is as mentioned above – about 40°C/110°F).
Mix the starter yoghurt into the milk. Make sure you don’t get tempted to add more yoghurt thinking it will help to make a thicker end result as it will do the opposite. Poor into your jar, screw on the lid and place in your pre heated “incubator”. If you see fit, add some jars with warm water and/or a hot water bottle (with warm water in it) to help maintain the temperature. Leave in a place where it won’t be disturbed as it doesn’t like being jostled.
After 8 – 12 hours, check on your yoghurt. It should have developed a “tangy flavour and some thickness” .
Store in the fridge and consume within 4 weeks, saving some for your next batch.
May 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
Its been two and a half months since we moved to Darwin. In that time, I have started making a basket out of scrap material collected over my 29 years, made huge amounts of pickled cucumbers, watched far to many murder mysteries, tried to commit myself to balancing on my head at least once a day, finally got a job, and consumed large quantities of pho. AND pho could just so happen to be the very best thing that has happened to me since I arrived. A traditional Vietnamese soup, it’s so easy to make, and so so tasty.
As I have learnt, there are a few things you need to consider when making pho. The first is your stock. I always recommend people make their own stock out of organic meat, rather than buying it from the store. Not just because it tastes so much better but because homemade stock is very very good for you.
For pho, I have made and used stock from chicken, beef and fish. All work well, just adding a slightly different flavour. Just remember that fish stock can be quite strong, so adjust the quantities as needed.
The next thing you need to consider is the herbs you garnish your pho with. My favourite by far is Thai basil, but you can also use coriander, mint and traditional basil or combinations of each.
How to make stock
To make stock, I usually use the leftover bones and carcass from the previous nights roast dinner (about 1 – 2 kg). If I haven’t had a roast in a while, I will sometimes use 4 chicken drumsticks instead. I will place them in a large pot with one or two bay leaves and a good pinch of salt. Some people add vegetable scraps too and you can if you want. This is then covered with water, (about 4 – 6 litres) and brought to the boil before leaving to simmer for 3 – 4 hours, skimming the scum as needed. This can then be frozen into serve size portions (say two cups each) and used when needed. It will keep in the fridge for about 4 days and in the freezer for 3 – 4 months.
Pho (serves 4)
For the broth
4 cups stock
4 cups water
4 star anise
1 – 2 cinnamon quills
1 inch piece of ginger cut in half
1 onion cut into quarters
4 cloves garlic peeled
1/3 cup fish sauce
375 g flat rice noodles
Roughly 300 g organic beef very thinly sliced
2 limes cut into quarters
A bunch of fresh Thai basil
About 200 g beansprouts
2 fresh chillies cut into strips
Chilli sauce (optional)
Hoisin sauce (optional)
Additional fish sauce
Place, stock, water, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, onion, garlic and fish sauce in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Cover and allow to simmer for around 30 minutes.
In the meantime, cook rice noodles as per package suggestions, and arrange limes, basil, bean sprouts, chilli and sauces on a serving plate in the middle of your table.
Divide the cooked noodles into 4 bowls. Place the raw beef strips on top and cover with steaming hot broth. The hot broth will cook the meat as it makes its way to the table. Allow people to add the additional ingredients in the centre of your table, as per their liking.