Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dutch Queen's Day

Nope, I'm not talking about the Dutch cross dressers- although I'm sure the title of this article was misleading. 
Apparently today is the Queen's birthday in Holland and to celebrate everyone cooks orange food, dresses in orange and dances on boats until they fall in the canals! Sounds like fun, but lacking both a boat and a canal- I'll have to content myself with cooking some orange treats to salute my Dutch heritage.

Sweet Potato scones
2 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tspn salt
1 egg (lightly beaten)
1 cup of mashed sweet potato (cooked & cooled)
2 cups of whole-wheat plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
Cream butter, sugar and salt until light and fluffy. Add lightly beaten egg and mashed sweet potato and mix until well blended.
In a separate bowl mix the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg together and then add to the sweet potato. Mix until you have a soft dough that is not sticky.  Add a little more flour if necessary. Turn onto a floured surface and lightly knead.
Break dough into 6 even portions, roughly circular in shape. Bake on floured baking tray 200degC for 20mins or until golden. 

Serve hot with a thick smear of butter and a slice of edam if you like... or maybe that's just the way I like it.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mushroom Magic

It's raining. My fingers are so cold that one of them is aching and threatening to snap off. Wind howls through the trees above us. What the hell was I thinking? I pull the hood of my waterproof jacket tighter about my ears and gently toe at the dead leaves by the side of the walking track. Suddenly a shriek rents the air from further down the trail- and I break into a run... they've found some- Mushrooms!

It's an unexpectedly cold Sunday afternoon and I have left the comfort of my living-room to hunt for mushrooms in Victoria's Woodend. Why? 
Well, quite simply because I don't know a thing about them. I love to fry them up with some butter, garlic and a little bit of thyme for a weekend brekkie, but I wouldn't know the first thing about how to find them, much less identify them in the wild- and I am secretly a little jealous of those people who can tell a field mushroom from a death cap. So, with dreams of skipping through the country-side, basket in hand and plaits bobbing, I signed myself and 3 friends up for a Sunday of 'Exploring the Fungi Kingdom' with ecologist Alison Pouliot.
With the Autumn leaves putting on a show, we arrived at Woodend Community centre at 11am for a full day of mushie madness. From poisons specialists to permaculture enthusiasts and local foragers- there were about 20 of us in all, keen, excited and wrapped in wet weather gear.
From the start we were hit with the vast variety of Australian and introduced fungi. 
Yellow stainers, milk caps, blue meanies (yes we know that means magic), corals and jellies, field and pine- 5 hours was simply not long enough to learn all that Alison had to share with us. 
I scribbled notes till I ran out of paper and then I took photos till I ran out of film. Oh what a silly girl am I, hoping that I could just take some notes and then forgae for my dinner... it's not that simple. 
So whilst I think I can identify a magic mushroom now (and I add even if this were true that I'd be pretty stupid to test the theory), I learned plenty that was far more fascinating than that. 
For a start, in countries like Switzerland where they have been collecting mushrooms from the wild for generations, people who learn from childhood what to look for still have to go through the 'mushroom police' to make sure they have not taken deadly or endangered species. The M-police also record the numbers and types of fungi in any given area, and this has been going on for generations. That's hundreds of years of detailed fungi records.

By contrast, in Australia we have only been recording our fungi for around 16 years, hmmm. 
In addition to these limited records, we have possibly 25,000 species due to our diverse habitats, most of which have not been studied in depth or possibly even named. 
So much fungi and so little time. And that's a lot of native fungi that we know nothing about that I just got mixed up with magic mushrooms... 
So after scrubbing around in the moss, mould and rain, peering under caps with hand held mirrors to identify gill and spore colour and feeling more and more like Alice down the rabbit hole every second, I learned this- I have a lot of work to do when it comes to foraging for my dinner, and I won't be going without a mushroom guide anytime soon. One side might 'make you grow taller', but the other-side could give you kidney failure.

Note: in Victoria you require a parks permit to forage for mushrooms. 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Size and the environment- a huge debate

There's a lot of research and social stigma that tells us being obese is not a great thing. The arguments against obesity range from 'it's bad for your general health' (heart, joints, blood pressure etc x 3...), to 'it's bad for your well being' (emotions, self esteem, social status etc x 3...).
If all that and the raging debates that go with it weren't enough for you - here's the next anti-overweight argument; obesity is bad for the environment. Ouch.
How can you ignore the guilt factor in that statement? Simple, you can't. The argument goes that if you're fat then chances are you use more fuel and create more waste -for the production of your food, your transport and the accompanying lifestyle. Again, ouch. 
But it also makes sense. Even more sense when it's backed up by experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine - It's just more convincing when it comes from a white coat. The WHO asserts that the continued weight gain of wealthy populations points to greater consumption in general, leading to greater food production demands which are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gasses. 
So that's it... back on the treadmill people and maybe hook it up to the generator while you're there.
I have to say that from the standpoint of women and their social liberation, I am a little torn. For a start, whilst I certainly understand all the many arguments against obesity, and I am certainly all for reducing my impact on the environment, I am also not about to jump on the 'heroin chic' bandwagon that has plagued western women and their self image for so long. So where do we go from here? Do we point the finger at fat people even more readily than we currently do and this time claim that 'it's for the good of the environment'? Or do we re-address the problem and refer to it as 'over-consumption' on every level that is the problem rather than just 'over-weight'. It seems to me that perhaps obesity is a symptom of environmental abuse rather than just another cause. But what would I know- I've spent my life trying to convince myself that I am actually ok even if I don't lose that extra kilo.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gut-wrenching experiences

In an attempt to always 'look my food in the eye' and really appreciate where it has come from and what it has given up for me, today involved a trip to the trout farm. OK, so it's not as 'hunter gatherer' as hitting the high seas or a wild river for my fish, but I'm still an L plater when it comes to the fishing thing and today was about learning how to catch and gut, not just sitting on a riverbank for hours on end.
If you want the beginners 'how to' of both catching your dinner and getting it 'table ready', then I recommend the easy way in of the Australian Rainbow Trout Farm in Victoria's glorious Dandenongs.
Here, we spent the day getting used to rods and bait- with the added bonus of having people to ask if we got stuck, as well as all the equipment supplied for us. The best part is, unless you're really unlucky, it's a guaranteed catch.
So, after landing one or two in the small ponds to get the hang of it, we headed to 'the big lake' for some more challenging angling and after 2.5 hours we're covered in blood, sweaty, a little bit sunburnt and we've landed 6 trout- 5 smaller ones to bake whole and a a huge one from the 'big'uns' pond. Ripper.
But here's the gross- our caretaker Ben is going to show us how to gut our own, so that in the event that we do take to the river life, we don't have to rely on others to sort out the nasty bits.
Suprisingly for this on-again-off-again vegetarian it wasn't too bad. See, I may not have been able to give up meat, but as a result I feel that it's only fair to put myself through the discomfort of preparing it (where I can) in order to really appreciate it. The idea being that if I can't do that, then I have no right to indulge. Mmmm, tasty.
A slit down the belly and some gills, lungs and intestines later, we've got table ready trout and yep, I'm also still prepared to eat them. Better yet, I've got heads, tails and some unexpected roe for soups, stocks and much more besides. Back at home, we kept it as simple as possible to enjoy all the flavour of the catch.

Salt-baked Trout with smashed potatoes and parsley-lemon salad

In a large baking dish bury two whole trout in enough rock-salt to completely cover them. Bake in a 200degC oven for 40mins, or until a test skewer comes out hot. The salt will form a hard crust, crack it open, remove the fish and serve in portions dusting off as much salt as possible.
While the fish is cooking, parboil some baby potatoes, then lightly smash them so they break open. Toss in olive oil, salt and pepper and place in the oven with fish until crispy.

Wash and de-stem 3 large handfuls of flat-leaf parsley, slice 2 lemons into wedges (removing all pith), combine with olive oil and 1/2 tsp smokey paprika. Serve as a salad with the fish and potatoes.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Radish toppin'

I've had a revelation on radish tops.
I have not always been a radish lover, this is true... but recently the little red globes have come into their own for me and I am loving them every-which-way. Shredded in coleslaw, chopped and tossed through a salad, or even just halved and dunked in dip... peppery, crunchy crisp goodness. But this new found love has also resulted in a new and somewhat guilty little pleasure -braised radish (think plenty of butter), and with it's tops thrown in no less. The leaves just melt and the roots themselves become a molten mass of sweet happiness. Thoughts on using a bunch for dinner last night resulted in crepes topped with braised vegies including radish... with their tops.

250g plain flour
60g butter
pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups milk (we use soy)
3 eggs
Extra butter to grease pan

Melt the butter and blend all the ingredients together to form a smooth batter- if it's too thick, thin it out with a little more milk to get a nice runny pouring consistency to spread in the pan. Allow to stand for 20mins or so.
(Note: this is a good time to prepare the vege topping)
Heat large non stick fry-pan and melt a little of the butter. Pour in enough batter to cover the bottom of the pan in a thin layer and cook until one side is done- then flip over and cook the other side. Slide onto a clean plate and cover with a cloth to keep warm. Re-grease the pan and repeat with the rest of the batter until you have a stack of crepes.

Braised vege crepe topping:
25g butter (more if you choose, I add it as I go)
4 stalks of celery- de stringed
2 large carrots- peeled
1 onion diced
1 bunch of radishes and their leaves- washed
2 cups of your choice of stock (we used chicken)
salt & pepper to taste

Wash, peel and chop your vege into good sized chunks (halved radishes are best). Reserve that radish leaves. Melt the butter in a heavy based fry-pan, toss in the onion and cook over medium heat for a few minutes until melting and translucent. Toss in the carrots and cook for a further 2mins, then add the celery and cook for a few more mins until everything is a little browned. Throw in the radish and radish tops, stir through to wilt, then add the stock and bring to the boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20mins.
(Note: This is the perfect time to fry the crepe batter that has been sitting while you prepared the vege)
When all the vege are nice and soft (but still holding their shape), turn up the heat, uncover and cook for five mins until the juices have reduced to a sauce.
Serve as a topping to warm crepes with the pan juices poured over.
Well enjoyed and followed by a scotch on the rocks by the fire. Who ever said that vegies aren't fun?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A taste of childhood- Dutch spice cake

There is a moment when sense memory takes over- when that smell/taste/touch grabs you by the gut and without warning yanks you right back to a place of comfort, happiness and utter joy. Today I found a dead-set portal to my own childhood bliss... Dutch spice cake- Ontbijtkoek. 

I can't believe that I haven't baked this sooner- as my eyes mist over with reverie. I might be just a little Australian, but I have my heritage!! 
I searched high and low on the internet, until a comparison of a number of recipes showed me that this seems to be the one repeated most often with little variation- thank god it was right!

2 cups self raising flour
1/2 cup brown sugar (darkest is best)
1/3 cup molasses
1 cup milk
1 tsp each cloves, cinnamon and ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg 
1 pinch of salt
Note: Fresh ground spices are always best and makes a huge difference to a cake that relies on spices- particularly with nutmeg.

Mix all the ingredients into a smooth batter. Butter an oblong cake tin and pour in mixture. Bake at 170 degC (or a slow oven) for 1 hour. Remove and cool on a wire rack. 
Keep in the bread tin for 24 hours before serving- it will stay moist and it helps with the chewy texture... but today I could not help myself, and served hot with butter dripping off it, well it's just divine. 
It swept me right back to my Oma's house when I was 5 years old and waiting for the grown ups to pour their coffee so that we could attack the cake... sigh! 
Test done- this I will be taking as my heritage treat to the All Nations Picnic!! 
(see April 11 post for more All Nations info)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Lunch- Persian chicken with honey pomegranate sauce

Sometimes I feel like an 'ode to frying onions' is in order- and today was certainly one of those days! 
With the Autumn sun shinning in Melbourne and plenty of time on our hands- we had homemade hot cross buns of breakfast, a nap in the sunshine and then embarked upon Persian chicken with pomegranate & honey sauce- courtesy of the 2009 foodies diary, complete with recipes from Allan Campion and Michele Curtis. The recipes should be catalogued, not languishing in my diary... 
I'm not usually one to actively engage in diary recipes, but on spying the 'pomegranate molasses' and having a fairly lonely bottle in the cupboard (thanks to some NYE mayhem and cocktails), I thought this one looked divine for an Easter Sunday lunch. 

Persian chicken with honey pomegranate sauce- 
One whole chicken (free range of course if possible), cut into 8 pieces.
Generous splash of olive oil
1 large onion, diced 
1 clove crushed garlic
1 tsp each cinnamon, ground cumin, ground corriander
1 tbsp pomegranate molases
2 tbsp honey
2 cups chicken stock (go on, try it home made)
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts (we used sunflower seeds today)
1/2 cup fresh coriander leaves
1/2 cup natural yoghurt

Heat a large heavy based fry pan and add a generous splash of olive oil. Brown the chicken pieces (in batches is best) and set aside. Return the pan to the heat and add diced onion, cooking for 3-4 mins. Add crushed garlic clove and spices, cooking for 1-2mins or until fragrant (and they smell so good!).
Add pomegranate molasses, honey and chicken stock and bring to boil. Add browned chicken pieces and reduce to simmer. Season with Salt and Pepper. 

Simmer for 40mins. Add the toasted pine nuts, coriander leaves and yoghurt. Stir through and remove from heat. Garnish with fresh pomegranate seeds if desired and serve (with rice is good). It's just brilliant with braised cabbage and fennel, radish salad.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

All Nations Picnic- Sat April 18, 2009

If you are interested in the cultures all around us in this diverse city!
If you want to share your own beautiful heritage- whatever it is!
If you love sharing home cooked food that reflects your family, its history and brings people together! Then have we found the picnic for you...
What could possibly be better than the chance to meet new friends and faces and bring along some home cooked food that represents the roots of who you are?

Saturday April 18, 2009. 12 noon, Flemington community centre, 25 Mt. Alexander Road, Flemington VIC.
No really, it's a proper chance to celebrate the diversity of our community through food. Why not try making that Aussie meat pie? Why not dig out Gran's recipe for Polish Krupnik? Or Dad's recipe for Gefilte fish?
I'm sure gonna whip out me clogs and see if I can tempt some people with ye olde pickled herring- rollmop. Hope to see you there...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Quinoa- rise of an ancient grain...

My recent article about the surge in popularity of this once neglected grain. It gets 10/10 for versatility in my book- I just dare you to try it next time you think about using rice, cous cous or cracked wheat. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A day of destination dining

It's funny, when you plan something for a long time and never get around to it- it almost loses its appeal. I'd planned to visit both Merricks General Store and Red Hill Cheese for so long that they had actually gone off the boil in my mind and retreated to the 'I'll get to it one day' corner of my brain, over taken with newer discoveries and excitements... besides, I get my Red Hill Cheeses at the local Leo's -in between good stock up's at the Farmer's Markets. So there's no rush... right?
Finally a weekend road trip with friends took us out to 
Mornington- so lovely at this kick start to Autumn time of year- and still these places were not top of mind- what would it take??
Finally, it hit me- we had no plans on this drive, other than to take in the sites, sounds and FOOD of the day!!! Little alarm bells in my mind... 'you fool, this is what you were putting it all off for!' 
Thankfully I finally woke up.
Merricks General Store is, as so many people before me have noted, a delight! The four of us stopped in for breakfast and nearly stayed for lunch in the open general-store-come-barn kind of space- pictures of horses and piles of pumpkins keeping us so cosy and happy. It misted rain outside and filled our bellies with house-made baked beans and poached eggs inside... what a start to a day of driving. 
Later in the day I discovered why Red Hill Cheese is a destination all of its own. Really, with the soporific effects of cheese, I'm glad I wasn't the driver. Degustation? Give me a cheese tasting any day- and my heart was stolen by the Fingal Gold (cow cheese, mild, smoky and soft) and the Mountain Goat Blue (goat, ASCA Gold medal winner 2008).
The ride home must have been a stinky one, but as we were all in on the taste test, none of us noticed. 
I'm glad we took in Sorrento, Portsea and the rest... but really, my site seeing stopped when we pulled in at the cheese. 
And I can honestly say, a take-away wheel of Sorrento Picnic (cow, mature, full flavoured mountain style cheese) to be eaten watching the sunset over the bay, is a cheese experience worth having again.