28 Nov 2012

Garden maintenance: to do list

The green waste bins beckon...

A couple of weekends of neglect, the end of the first flush of spring colour, and not enough rain have taken its toll on my garden. It’s time to do a complete sweep through and get things looking like someone lives here.
It only takes a few flowers — in this case, the royal-purple aquilegias (also known as columbines or granny’s bonnets) — to develop seed heads and the garden looks dull and ‘past it’. Combined with the clover popping up in the lawn and pelargoniums dropping their petals, my weekend is going to be very busy, and my green waste tubs are going to fill very quickly.
The big jobs of course are mulching. My front garden (apart from the stretch under the birch trees) was never mulched properly. So while I’m on my January holidays (it’s good to have long-term goals), dad and I will truck in some compost, manure or some other fertile, nutritious layer, then cover that with the same mulched-up wood bark we used so successfully for the birches.
Some people argue against wood chip for various (environmental) reasons, but I like it: this stuff had a nice mix of fine and chunky bits, so it looked very natural, and had that lovely peaty smell. It’s started to break down into the soil already, which makes it look soft and natural (much better than the sharp-edged, yellowy gravel that was favoured by my home’s previous owners).
However I can mulch the vegie garden, as I still have a pea straw bale and half a packet of sugar cane mulch. Once I’ve cut off the aquilegias’ seed heads, pulled out some little johnny-jump up pansies that have seen better days, relocated some rogue rananculas to the rest of their tribe in the front, dug out the bright pink pelagonium from what should be just a vegie garden bed, weeded out some killer thistles (leather gloves required?), pruned the new tomato bushes’ lateral branches and tied them up, re-trained the scarlet runner beans that want to break free from their teepee-style trellises, pulled out the lanky California poppies, tidied up the bee-attracting larkspurs … had a energy-restoring cup of tea and piece of toast, perhaps … once I’ve done all this, then I can mow over the coarser straw and spread both mulches all over. It rejuvenates the look of the garden as well as providing essential insulating qualities for the soil.
And that long list was just the back vegie garden. There’s deadheading, mowing, pruning back, pulling up and thinning out to be done in the other backyard garden beds as well as out the front. I’ve had an extraordinary success rate of some little unknown blue things from last summer — every seed they dropped was successful, by the look of it. But even I — who likes to give every self-seeder a fighting chance — even I have to admit there’s just too many, and they must be thinned out for the sake of the other plants.
So that’s how I’m spending my weekend.
Is it tidy-up time in your garden?

25 Nov 2012

Patatas bravas; Spain

Next on the itinerary of my European tour will be Spain. I’ve not been to Spain, so I’m undecided whether I should go to Barcelona, or Madrid; or perhaps a mini-tour of the country (any ideas welcome). But I now have plenty of time to decide, as it will be a while before I save up the money to step inside any tapas bar (but the new car is a dream to drive!).

Spanish food is (excuse the pun) foreign to me. I’ve never been to a Spanish restaurant, here in Hobart or elsewhere, and I’ve never cooked a Spanish meal, though I do remember a phase of borrowing Spanish cooking books from the library a few years ago.

But — I love spicy chorizo (and the sound when the word is pronounced correctly by my Spanish friend F – the zed becomes a soft fuzzy ‘th’ that is magical); I love the heat of dried chillies and the depth of smoky pimento; I love cooking with sherry (even if mine is spinster-aunt sherry not famous and expensive Pedro Ximinez; I should ask F to pronounce that one for me).

I've watched Rick Stein cook and eat his way through Spain and my mouth watered at the paella and seafood and lentils and oranges. My kind of food: simple ingredients, wonderful fresh produce, bold flavours.

And that’s what was tonight's recipe was all about. Patatas bravas is bite-sized potato chunks cooked with lemon, chilli, sherry and tomatoes. The simplicity of the cooking method belies the intensity and complexity of the wonderful flavours that fill your nostrils and explode in your mouth (an online search revealed, fittingly, that ‘brava’ means ‘fierce’). It makes me hungry to try more Spanish dishes. What else is waiting for me?

Buen apetito!

PS Do you do Spanish food?

Patatas bravas
I photocopied this from a library book but didn't note which one it was. Soooo easy, soooo good.
  • Cut 600-700 grams of scrubbed (but not peeled) potatoes into bite size chunks. Put a good slug of olive oil and a pat of butter into your favourite frypan, add potatoes and cook over a medium-high heat for about 20 minutes or so, stirring occasionally.
  • Meanwhile, do some prep: chop one onion, chop a couple of cloves of garlic (according to your tastes and the size of the cloves), zest a lemon, chop up a handful of parsley.
  • Back to the potatoes once the 20 minutes is up. It will look pretty darn tempting at this stage, but keep on! Add the onion and stir for about five minutes or until it starts to turn translucent. Then add the garlic, the lemon zest, 2 generous tablespoons sherry (and inhale the wonderful smell), plus 1/4 tspn each of smoky paprika and dried chili flakes (you may wish to amp this up if you like more heat). Give it a good stir to get the heat to the spices, then add half a 400 gram tin of whole tomatoes (freeze the other half for the next time you make patatas bravas!). This won't look like a lot of tomato - it's just enough to coat but not overwhelm the potatoes. Now add the parsley and a good squeeze of lemon juice.
  • Turn down heat, cover, and cook for another 15 minutes or so until the potatoes are cooked. Prod occasionally to make sure the minimal sauce is not sticking to the pan (though I must admit I got some blackened bits and they were quite delicious).
  • The recipe suggests serving this with other tapas; but I liked it by itself, or it would go nicely with a little green salad to contrast against the heat.

21 Nov 2012

Book review: Kitchen Diaries 2

Three kilos of books!

When did cookbooks get so big? So darned heavy? Every book I haul home from the library is large, hard covered, hundreds of pages and so very weighty!

On a whim, I actually got out my kitchen scales. My tax-return treat, ‘River Cottage Veg Every day’, weighs 1.4 kilos and has about 400 pages. The latest library loan, Nigel Slater’s ‘Kitchen Diaries 2’, is 1.6 kilos with around 530 pages. My goodness!

These are hardly books you can read in bed; I even find it hard to read them on the couch – I need to position some fat cushions on my lap to support the book and prevent me from sustaining a body strain injury from holding it up (it was traumatic enough dragging them home). It made me yearn for those little pocket Women’s Weeklies you see at the supermarket checkout, or the mini condensed versions of cheffy books that the newspaper gives away occasionally.

So here I sit, pillows and books on my lap, ibuprofen at the ready for what could be defined as a hazardous manual handling task.

Like his original ‘Kitchen Diaries’ book, KD2 is a book you can read chronologically, from page vii to 516, gradually moving thru the seasons and experiencing Nigel’s changing groceries, garden harvests, appetite and cooking. His considered, calm writing conveys his simple pleasure in these changes and swings: ‘sunlight … has a habit of changing my appetite. Pasta, potatoes and grains feel inappropriate and heavy.’

The other approach to KD2 is to randomly flip thru the pages, dipping in and out of Nigel’s life. What is so appealing to me is that it’s so ordinary. He readily admits ‘I am not a chef and never have been’, which to me signals that you’re in safe hands; no hard-to-find ingredient-of-the-moment or technical equipment only found in commercial kitchens.

He writes about leftovers, bare cupboards, making do with what remains in the vegie patch or in the shops at the end of the day on the way home. Let me flip for you – here on page 44, he writes of ‘the opened jars of sweet preserves in the fridge (that) seem to be multiplying’. I like that he too is staring into his fridge and facing dilemmas that we do.

He readily admits that not everything we cook and eat has to be ‘remarkable, memorable or classic. It doesn’t have to be great, the world’s best, or even anything to write about’. The pressure is off; it can be ‘just nice’.

Mr Slater, this is why I love you. But please, can you consider a lighter book next time?

18 Nov 2012

Chocolate cake; London

Next on my whirlwind European tour is London (perhaps it should have been first, as Heathrow would probably have been my first stop). Last time, I lived in London for a few months before youth-hostelling around England, Wales and Scotland. I adored seeing the Elizabethans at the National Portrait Gallery and the Rothkos at the Tate, attending free classical concerts in the crypt of St Martins in the Field church, walking through Regents Park, browsing through and spending up in WHS Smith. Again, food was not an obsession; in fact, I was feeding myself for the first time and missing my mother’s home cooking.

I worked for a little while at a posh chocolate shop just around the corner from Sloane Square and a quick skip to the Kings Road shops. Before working here, I wasn’t too fussed about chocolate. Now, I was surrounded by violet soft-centred bon bons and candied orange segments dipped in dark chocolate and hot chocolate made from shaved, real chocolate and dusted with cracked black pepper (apparently as the Russians do). And, dear reader, all of this chocolate heaven was Valrhona chocolate. To say it’s the good stuff is an understatement of epic proportions.

We were encouraged to eat chocolate, for how else could we sell it if we didn’t know what it was like? When a new goodie came in, or if a customer wanted to try something we hadn’t yet tasted, we put on our white cotton gloves, opened the glass-fronted cabinets, slid out the trays and popped a chocolate onto the wooden cutting board and cut it in two: half for me, half for you. And then took on an appropriately serious and connoisseur-ish demeanor until the verdict was reached.

I had a system for this all-day chocolate consumption. I made sure I had a good breakfast and a solid sandwich at lunchtime (usually from the nearby Pret a Manger); I drank lots of tea throughout the day. I would start the morning on the dipped candy fruit, progress to the cocoa-dusted almonds or filled bonbons, and finally eat the darkest truffles. To deviate from this system — to, say, throw yourself at a hunk of dark stuff before midday, to skip the sandwich — would cause sugary havoc and definite queasiness.

The upshot of that glorious time (apart from temporarily and convincingly adopting the plummy vowels of my Chelsea manager) was that my view of chocolate changed forever. My tastebuds changed for ever. I cannot eat milk chocolate, supermarket Easter eggs sicken me, and I’m a sucker for dipped orange segments (I stock up when I visit Haighs in Melbourne). I’ve never seen Valhrona here in Hobart (but please correct me if I’m wrong), so Lindt 70% is the closet substitute.

So to visit London this week, I’m not going the traditional route of Yorkshire puddings, toad in the hole, Victoria sponge or spotted dick. Because they are not my edible memories of London. Chocolate is.

PS What’s your best of British food?

Chocolate cake
Adapted from the chocolate book that accompanied the Australian Good Food magazine of August 2009. As this makes two cakes, you could always just serve one and freeze the other for an emergency.
  • Prep two 20 cm cake tins and preheat your oven to 180.
  • Melt 75 grams dark chocolate - I prefer to melt it gently in a bowl over  pan of simmering water.
  • In a food processor, whizz up 1 and 1/2 cups SR flour, 1/2 cup cocoa, 1 and 1/2 tspns baking powder, 1 and 1/4 cups brown sugar, 250 grams soft butter, a pinch of salt and 1 and 1/2 tspn vanilla.
  • Then add 4 eggs and the melted chocolate. At this stage, my small food processor reached capacity and began to protest, so I heaved the lot into a mixing bowl and gave it a good stirring. If the mixture is stiff, add a little liquid to loosen it; the recipe specifed water but I thought that was a wasted flavour opportunity and added a dribble of Tia Maria instead.
  • Divide the mix between the two tins, then bake for 30-35 minutes or until done.
  • Remove from oven and while the cakes are cooling, melt 150 grams dark chocolate, and then add a few blobs of thickened cream, stirring continuously over the heat. It may seize up on you but persevere and it will smooth and thicken. I didn't measure my cream, but I probably blobbed out about 1/4 cup all up.
  • Sandwich the two cakes with a little strawberry or berry jam and some of the chocolate, then spread over the remaining chocolate.

14 Nov 2012

Garden harvest: peas

I think that frozen peas are good.
Until I have the first taste of freshly picked and podded, barely steamed greenfeast peas, straight from my garden. How could I believe that frozen peas are good – even adequate?
My very own tiny emeralds are such tender, silky orbs - with the delightful little stem attached! They are a beautiful colour and texture, but the taste – sweeter than any frozen thing could even dream of being.
My pea harvests are usually modest, so I pay them proper respect and usually have just peas for dinner. Last night, these were accompanied by a few sugar snaps; cooking transforms them from a pale green to the same emerald as the peas. I get even more puritanical and have them only with a little butter or olive oil – not even any salt or pepper – nothing to intrude upon my focus of the pea-ness of my peas.

11 Nov 2012

Almond croissants; Paris

Last week, my daydreams – and savings – for going to Europe came to halt. I had to buy a new car. Instead of a plane ticket and a croissant on the Champs Elysses, I have a new car.
So if I can’t have my four weeks in the chic metropolises of Europe — London, Paris, Rome and somewhere in Spain — then I will bring Europe to me. To my kitchen, to be precise.
This week I start my adventure in Paris. The last time I was in Paris — 1997; last century! — I was young and not much interested in food; falafel in the latin quarter or crepes on the street were merely fuel for walking the city and taking the metro. Instead, I spent my days trawling the museums and boulevards and gardens. I saw the actual brushstrokes of famous paintings I’d studied in textbooks. I pocketed a conker from the Bois de Boulogne and polished it smooth over months, rubbing it in my pocket. I discovered the beauty of medieval tapestries at the Musee D’Cluny. I sat in sunny flowered gardens and watched art students sketch the statues.
My plans this time, next time, are to visit some of the museums again, go to the ballet, stroll through the streets… and eat every croissant, crocque monsieur, macaron and wodge of brie I stumble across.
Until then, here is an almond croissant. I love a croissant that is a little salty — that is, not an obviously sweet one — with crunchy buttery flakes and a substantial heart. Perfect served oven-warm with even more salty butter. I have discovered that I melt for a good almond croissant; when I discovered you could make them yourself, well, I melted a little more.
I don’t propose making the actual croissant — that’s too big an ask of my skills — but taking a good bakery croissant (not those floppy soft supermarket ones, which are good enough for a bread and butter pudding, but not for eating) and tarting it up a bit.
Instead of my passport, I grabbed this recipe. Bon appetit!
PS What’s your favourite French food?
Almond croissants
Adapted from taste.com.au. This recipe specified for six croissants; I bought four which turned out to be monsters (grand croissants!) but the mix for six was just right for four.
  • Preheat your oven to 170. Slice your croissants in half to open like a shell.
  • In your food processor, whiz up 150 gram soft butter, 1/2 cup icing sugar, 1/3 cup plain flour, 2 scant cups almond meal, and 1 tspn vanilla (I would use just a dribble more next time; the original recipe specified almond essence). Whiz until it balls together.
  • Divide this between your croissants - so I pulled this into four balls - then take a good portion of each, flatten between your palms til you form a thin layer, and insert this between the two croissant halves. Take the remaining, smaller portion and flatten again and lay on top of the closed croissant then spike with enough sliced almonds as you wish (they can be skin on or off, you could even use slivered almonds).
  • Pop on baking trays and warm thru for about 10 minutes.
  • Remove from oven, dust with some icing sugar, and enjoy while crisp and warm.

9 Nov 2012

My front garden

I tend to tell you about the action and adventure in my vegie garden, but my front garden takes as much of my time, energy and passion (and water, pyrethrum and seaweed solution).

Both let me blow off some steam after work with some digging or weeding. Both can make me happy — I don’t even need to be standing in them; a glance out the back door while I’m standing at the kitchen bench, waiting for the kettle to boil, lets me see the silverbeet, new tomato bush and nectarine tree. The large windows of my living room frame the colour of my front garden and sometimes, I do not need a book or the TV for company, I just sit and absorb the peace and beauty of the garden. On the weekend, I did yoga with a friend and it was fitting to do tree pose with my strong, flexible cut-leaf birches in view. I could make myself as tall and majestic as they were.

When I first moved into my house seven years ago, the front yard was almost a desert. There was a rough lawn and a thin front border housing undernourished box hedge plants (that would never make an actual hedge) and a couple of trees that not even my parents could identify.

Garden plans went on the back burner while I tended to necessary house things (painting, new windows, heating, new awning — it never seems to stop with a house, does it?). But I drew up plans of sweeping new garden beds and pathways, and dreamt of colour and perfume and bees and birds and the deep happiness that would come from a beautiful flower garden.

Over a couple of years, my wonderful dad made those sweeping beds and pathways for me. We removed those box hedges and weird trees (they now have a much happier life at my parents’ place; apparently the tree has been named after me) and we brought in soil and lawn. Over a couple of springs, we planted new trees, cuttings struck by mum, and seeds. Gardens take time — while I yearned desperately for my front garden, I knew that, short of having a TV show barrel in and do a blitz, the best gardens really do take years.

And maybe that’s what makes me love my garden so much. I can look at almost every shrub or tree and recall its planting and brief history. I can remember the hard times digging when the soil wouldn’t yield, when the penstemons turned belly up, when the red salvia took over and needed to be removed for the sake of the other surrounding plants.

I remember looking out my front window during the bleakness of winter time, being depressed by the frost-ravaged pelargoniums and the lilacs and new climbing roses that were mere sticks. I remember thinking things would never get better.

But slowly, the garden came back to life, and right now it is riotously abundant. My favourite view at the moment is where fluorescent-coral pelargoniums cushion the mauve flag irises, which have sprung triumphant in the last week or so. A couple of near-black irises frame either end of this tableaux, as do some of my favourite cut flowers, ranunculas.

But if I turn around, there’s the small white lilac, in only its second year of flowering, surrounded by wonderfully old-fashioned foxgloves, and purple aquilegias that may be covered in aphids but are also weighed down by droning bumblebees. And there’s a pink variegated weigela tree, so girly-pretty, competing with the darker, more sophisticated pink of the deeply scented boronia. To smell that on a warm summer’s evening is indeed heaven on earth.

Can you tell I love gardens – real, old-fashioned gardens? Not low-maintenance spiky cordylines in glazed pots sitting sadly on sterile, gravel beddings. As back-breaking and tear-inducing as it can be, give me a garden that requires maintenance; that requires tending and weeding and watering. Because while I’m doing that, I’m also admiring, relaxing, enjoying. I’m listening to the blackbirds sing and those bumblebees buzz, and maybe some distant lawnmower too; smelling the jasmine and the cut grass; and being rewarded by the colours and textures and joy of beautiful, beautiful flowers.

4 Nov 2012

Hazelnut cheesecake pudding

I have wanted to share this pudding with you ever since I started Dig In, because it is so fabulous, decadent and amazing. Fabulous to make, decadent to behold, and just plain amazing to eat. Alas, too many recipes, not enough time (or stomach capacity), and this layered pudd got pushed to the bottom of the list.
Until now.
There are still two huge ice-cream containers of dad’s raspberries and loganberries in my freezer from last summer – and the loganberries have already started flowering, ready for this summer. It’s always a good idea to clear out the old to make space for the new! So while I had been ‘saving’ these ruby-coloured frozen jewels, I decided the hoarding had gone on long enough. It is, after all, November.
(I realise therefore that this is not ‘seasonal’ cooking, so if you don’t have a stash of summer berries hiding in your freezer, please feel free to bookmark this page for when the fresh stuff starts to appear.)
This pudding is an adventure to make because, to get those multiple layers, you need to pull out multiple skills and multiple bits of kitchen equipment, bowls and spoons. This is a not a simple melt-and-mix pudding; I have absolutely nothing against those, but every now and then it’s good to do (and use) it all. At least I am sparing us the fiddliness of making individual serves here, which I seem to recall the original recipe specified; I probably realised that way madness lay and one baking dish was quite sufficient, thank you.

Besides, sometimes you don’t want the dainty portion control of an individual mini-cake. You want to scoop out a large spoonful of that rich hazelnut flavour, creamy baked ricotta-ness and tart-sweet, here-comes-summer fruit.
I hope it was worth the wait.
Hazelnut cheesecake pudding
Copied out many years ago and adapted from a Gourmet Traveller (in the GT it was 'Layered ricotta crumble cake').
  • The oven needs to be preheated to 180 but do this just before getting your fingers dirty with layer 4. Grease a small/medium sized baking dish.
  • Layer 1: cream 80 grams soft butter, 3/4 cup sugar and the zest of one lemon for a few minutes, then add 2 eggs and 1/4 cup sour cream. Lick the beaters then fold thru 2/3 cups plain flour, 50 grams hazelnut meal, 30 grams almond meal and 1 tspn baking powder. Spread in your prepared baking dish.
  • Layer 2: in your food processor, whizz up 350 grams ricotta (by preference, the more-solid stuff from the deli), 1 egg yolk, and 1/4 cup sugar (I used vanilla sugar). Smooth this over the top of layer 1.
  • Layer 3: scatter enough fruit of your choice over layer 3. You can use frozen or fresh berries; rich dark plums would also be a good match to the pudding's other flavours.
  • Layer 4: using your fingers, rub together 10 grams soft butter, 1 tbspn sugar, and gradually add enough hazelnut meal to form a moist crumble - I think I got to about 4 tbspns. Scatter over the fruit. This does not cover the fruit (and admittedly looks rather prissy), but it's the hint of texture you're after.
  • Wipe fingers clean and pop the dish in the oven, baking for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes - or until you can stick a knife in the centre and be assured the cake is cooked (it's a little tricky to tell with the fruit layer).  Serve warm or even cold when the cheesecake layer has set.