Sunday, May 31, 2009

Eating Violets

I wanted to call this post eating violetly... but was concerned that it may be misread, and as it turns out, there is nothing violent about the eating of violets... unless you have to wrest them from your little-old-lady neighbour (we have an almost shared front yard and 'differing opinions' on flowers as food). 'Nuff said. 
*Disclaimer: no LOL's were harmed during this taste test.  

Moving around the world of food and learning to be open to the reality of the nourishment around me brings new and unusual additions everyday. It's a great adventure that leads to some astonishing discoveries- and plenty of questions. And the one I constantly find myself asking is 'what the hell happened to our food?'- why, in a time so fraught with ecological questions and food sustainability issues, do we insist on shrinking the variety of the things we call 'edible'? 
Researching and taste-testing violets brought me up against a whole range of resistance to eating the leaves. From the 'garden flowers aren't food' argument, to the 'it didn't come from the supermarket' kind, I was surprised at the confused responses to this perfectly edible plant.
After all, everyone knows you can eat sugared violet flowers... but the leaves... really? The answer: Yes. Really.
Historically they have been used for everything from treating cancer to aiding weight-loss, but somewhere along the way we forgot that they were also a nutritious addition to the diet.
 Violets are high in iron, calcium and (as with any wild plant) anti-oxidants. Both the leaves and flowers of white, purple and blue violets are edible (yellow violets are not edible) and they make a tasty and pretty addition to salads, but are equally delicious on their own. Another great chance for some variety in your greens. 
The flowers have a strong violet-y flavour when their perfume hits your palate and it's a surprisingly appealing taste sensation. The leaves are a little peppery and cause a slight tingle on your tongue. 
For dinner, they make a great side salad of fresh baby leaves, any flowers on the bush and a bit of light dressing (olive oil, lemon and salt work well). But they are even better tossed through seasonal greens for a bit of an unusual lift.
So just as long as I can keep sneaking past the LOL next door, I'll get my fix of salad violets and keep my salads pretty.

*Note: as with any plant you intend to eat from your garden, it is essential that you positively identify it as the species and variety that you are after before you attempt to eat it and always wash it thoroughly. 

Friday, May 29, 2009

In a Mallow Mood

In my ongoing attempts to appreciate the 'bounty all around me'- today I had a go at yet another 'edible weed'- Mallow.
I think it's worth pointing out at this moment that 'weed' is a relative term- and whilst it can be applied to heavily seeding, fast growing items, it's more often than not applied to plants that are simply growing where we don't want them to. Making the common definition of a weed just 'a plant out of place'.
In this respect, I am beginning to look at weeds in a new light, and in fact not classing them as weeds at all anymore. I understand that you can't eat them all, but that doesnt' stop them being useful in ways that we are not aware of, and it certainly encourages me to weed my garden more selectively.  
So after the success of the chickweed dinner, here is the taste test of Mallow.
I found this recipe at the lovely blog: Veggie Way and the original recipe can be found here, but as the original comes from a beautiful vegetarian website, the recipe below has some minor alterations, including the addition of chicken stock. 
Most importantly, you need to be able to identify mallow and then test it to make sure it doesn't make you nauseaus- as with any foraged food that you are dealing with for the first time.

Mallow-carrot rice
  • a freshly picked bunch of mallow, leaves removed from stalks- if you forage for them, make sure you trust the area you are picking from and that they have not bee sprayed with weed killer etc.
  • 2 radishes, tops and all, diced and chopped
  • 1 large brown onion, peeled and diced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1/4 cup of rice, washed and drained
  • 1/2 cup of chicken or veg stock
  • 2 tbs tomato paste
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • salt,pepper to taste
  • Squeeze of lemon juice to finish
Wash the Mallow leaves thoroughly. Heat the oil in a heavy based saucepan and sauté the onion until golden. Add the carrots to the pan and saute for about 5 minutes. Add the radish to the pan and then add tomato paste and stir into the mixture. Add the chopped mallows, rice, salt, pepper and chicken stock. Cover and cook on low heat until the rice is tender enough- about half an hour. Serve with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

Mallow dosen't appear to be terribly flavourful on it's own, more like a green filler. But there is plenty of it around, so it's a great way to cut food miles, costs and fill up- if that's what you're looking for. For me? I'm just interested in knowing more about the food around me. It seems a willful and ignorant thing not to take an interest. Stay tuned for more weed eating adventures and recipes to come.
*Note: we are hail and hearty after eating Mallow and the dish was so tasty, we'll be making it again. 

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Apple & Chestnut soup

Still enjoying the bounty of chestnuts that we gathered a couple of weeks back, I turn my attention to soup on cold days.
After countless hours spent burning my fingers in a hopeless attempt to shell whole chestnuts, I gave up and went for a recipe that would require them to be pureed, hence all I had to do was score the nuts, boil them for 10-15mins, cut them in half and scoop out the goodness inside. Brilliant. No more ruined fingernails, missing thumbprints and irritation as the insides crumble. Bliss.
I came across the recipe in a few different forms online- but this final version is a tweaked version all my own, utlising local and seasonal produce- the best kind! It's a beautiful dish for a cold night and looks lovely garnished with crumbled roasted chestnut pieces.

Apple & Chestnut Soup:
  • 2T butter
  • 2 small turnips, peeled and diced
  • 3 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 2 sundowner apples, cored and diced (I leave the skin on)
  • 250grms of peeled chestnuts- roasted for 5mins in a dry frypan untill golden
  • A sprig of fresh thyme (or a pinch of dried)
  • 1L chicken stock (home made is best)
Melt the butter in a large saucepan, toss in diced turnip and chopped celery. Cook until browning, about 5mins. Add the thyme and stir until fragrant (1min).
Add the chopped apples and cook for a further 5mins, or just until apple is nice and soft. Add the roasted chestnuts (reserve some for garnish) and toss through. Then add 1L chicken stock bring to the boil. Reduce to a gentle simmer for 10mins. Check to make sure turnip is cooked soft, then remove from heat and puree till smooth. Serve hot and garnish with the reserved roast chestnut pieces and a sprig of thyme. Very satifying when you have had enough of trying to shell whole roasted chestnuts.
*Note: when you puree the hot liquid, make sure that there is a place for the steam to escape to avoid buildups of steam or explosions of hot liquid- ouch. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chickweed & lentils

I have been gripped by the foraging bug. And having just discovered that my garden supports a very healthy colony of edible chickweed, I'm giving it a go. It took a bit of persuading to get my other half (let's call him Patience) in on the racket. But here's how we introduced edible weeds to our diet. 

Lentil, Radish and Chickweed salad:
  • 1 cup puy/french lentils cooked as per packet, drained and rinsed- but still warm.
  • large bunch of chickweed freshly pulled from your garden (or anywhere else you trust enough to forage from), washed and torn up.
  • 4 radishes, tops and all (ours came straight from the vege patch), root minced and leaves shredded. 
  • 1/2 a brown onion
  • Salt/Pepper/Lemon/Olive oil to dress
Cook lentils as per packet instructions. While the lentils are still warm, heat a drizzle of olive oil in a frypan and toss all ingredients together to wilt the greens. Season with dressing items to taste. Serve with boiled baby potato's or crusty bread for a filling, fresh and nutrient rich dinner. The more recently the items are pulled from the garden the better, you want to capture all those nutrients and antioxidants while you can.

*NOTE: With any garden or foraged item (as with anything you plan to eat), it is essential that you are 100% sure of what you are eating and that it has been thoroughly washed. 
It was just delicious! So much so that I went back for seconds. The chickweed adds a different and very earthy flavour to the mix.

Society note: I have to say that right now I am a little confused and incredulous. History says that native/wild/foraged
 foods sustained the Aboriginal communities of Australia for over 60,000 years- and yet current reports say that in remote and outback communities where food costs have more impact, individuals are eating nutrient poor, prepackaged, sugar rich foods more than ever. Surely in the face of 'food security concerns' a better understanding of native/bush/foraged foods is essential for Australian's from an early age? Why is this food knowledge not being passed on? Where other cultures embrace their foraging traditions, what are we in Australia so afraid of? I'm just keeping an eye out for more chickweed and now Murnong... so that when I can no longer afford groceries thanks to the GFC, at least I won't be reduced to a diet of sugar.

Chestnut, Thyme & Apple ravioli

When you have access to fresh, seasonal produce- sometime you just gotta drown yourself in it, and with over 600 beautiful and lovingly gathered chestnuts adorning my house in little bowls and mountains, it was time to start putting them to good use.
Inspired by a couple of recipes floating around and a hands on cooking dinner at a friends place earlier in the week, I came up with this combination of seasonal delights and I have never been so satisfied with a gourmet mid-week meal. Once the chestnuts are shelled (and let's admit it, that part can be tricky), the rest is pretty simple. Thankfully, as the chestnuts get crumbled up, you can be pretty blase with the peeling. I just spilt the shells and boiled mine for 15mins, then sliced them in half and crumbled the meat into a bowl. Easy-peasy. 

Chestnut, Thyme & Apple filled Ravioli: 
makes about 20 depending on size. Serves 2 for a main, or 4 for a generous entree.

  • 250 grams of freshly shelled chestnut meat (about 500g raw nuts), crumbled
  • 1 apple, skin on (I used red sundowner), finely chopped 
  • 1 brown onion, minced
  • 3T olive oil
  • 2T currants
  • 1t dried thyme
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2T butter
  • 20 ravioli wrappers- we made our own from our basic pasta recipe (2 eggs to 200g flour). 
  • Half a lemon for finishing
If you're making your own ravioli wrappers, do this first and then cover them with a damp cloth to stop them drying out, but have them ready to go.
Heat the oil in a frypan and fry onions until golden and translucent. Add the thyme and 1/2 the chopped apple, fry for one minute to infuse flavour. Add chestnut meat and currants and toss through. Then add water and cook for 15mins until the water has reduced and the filling thickens a little. Make sure it's not too wet. 
Have a small cup of tepid water ready by your work space and a floured surface ready to rest the ravioli on once filled- this will stop them sticking to the bench.
Take a ravioli wrapper in your hand and put a teaspoon of filling in it (do not overfill or they will not seal properly and will explode when cooking). Wet one finger with a little water and run it along one edge of the ravioli wrapper. Fold wrapper in half over the filling and press the wet edge to the dry edge to seal.
Make sure you ease/squeeze out air bubbles (again, they will cause ravioli to explode when cooking). You can leave the ravioli shapes like this in a crescent, or take the two corners and bring them together and seal with water to create a little 'crown shape'. Set the finished ravioli to one side on the floured bench. Repeat the process until you run out of wrappers or filling.
Once the ravioli are ready, boil a pot of water with a little salt in it. 
When boiling, place the ravioli gently in and cook until pasta is aldente. It varies depending on your pasta, but about 5mins- don't overdo it, or they may explode, the less time bobbing round in the water the better. Drain ravioli.
 Heat butter in a frypan, add the remaining apple and and fry till golden, then toss through the cooked ravioli to coat in apple and butter. Serve in big white dishes with the pan juice drizzled over and a healthy squeeze of lemon juice to cut the oil.
Then relax with your loved ones and a glass of red wine- even better if it's in front of an open fire in Autumn and there are more chestnuts to roast for fun/dessert.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gone nutty- for Chestnut season

Autumn is such a beautiful and abundant time of year. It brings out the little squirrel in me and all I want to do is forage for food, stockpile it for the bitter days to come and ferret around in the leaf detritus that scatters itself all around us. Fortunately, there are some activities that fulfill all these particular needs, and so on Saturday we went chestnutting.
Now for the un-initiated (of which I was one), chestnutting does not involve tree climbing and branch shaking. It's a far more peaceful pass-time than that. 
Ruefleur Chestnut farm is located in the Melbourne Dandenongs and makes a beautiful setting for the discovery of fresh chestnuts. All you need are heavy duty rubber gloves (believe me, you need them), a bag for your treasured finds and a stick to poke amongst the leaves with.
The chestnut 'burrs' (spikey casings) fall from the trees in autumn, hit the ground and spill their precious contents amongst the falling leaves.
It's very pretty, and it's a gold-mine of nutty joy. The majority of the chestnuts grown in Australia are called the 'domestic' variety and have a couple of nuts in each burr. There are others called Marrons, which have a single nut in each burr, but these are not so common in the Antipodes, even though they are the nuts traditionally used for the coveted (and expensive) Marrons Glace
At the end of an hour or so with our focus on the ground, we had 8kgs of chestnuts and a whole lot of shelling to do... worth it for the multitude of Autumn recipes I have planned. Washed, air dried and stored, all we await now is the first fire of the season for some roasting fun.  Stay tuned. And in the meantime...

Sweet Chestnut Puree:

  • 1kg fresh chestnuts (to yield 500g chestnut meat)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 a vanilla pod, seeds only  

Split the chestnut shells, then boil the nuts for 15mins. While still hot, cut nuts in half and crumble meat into a bowl. In a heavy based saucepan bring the water to the boil, add sugar and stir to dissolve, then add chestnut meat. Bring back to the boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30mins or until the water has reduced. Add vanilla seeds. Strain the nut meat, reserving the sugar syrup. Place nutmeat in a blender and blend to a paste, adding reserved sugar syrup to loosen if necessary until you have the desired puree consistency.
Serve with ice-cream, or use in cakes. Or, fill puff pastry circles with the puree and cook till golden. Tasty and so versatile!   

Friday, May 15, 2009

It's my Tweet: What's your #Foodcrack?

It's my Tweet: What's your #Foodcrack?

"In Twitter, social networking platform of the moment, tweets come in fast and furious, making culinary conversation a round-the-clock sport. Food writers, bloggers and enthusiasts have fully embraced the application, as Jane de Graaff discovers- and they are tweeting up a storm."

Article featured on my favourite website   
Big Thank You's to all my Twitter ppl. who commented on the food-tweeting phenomenon;
  • @eatingwithjack
  • @Reemski
  • @Tomatom
  • @divinepurple
  • @stickifingers
  • @myffyrigby
BTW: My #Foodcrack is duck, any-which-way.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ladies who... latte?

Finding a good soy latte is a very special thing. I've been drinking soy lattes for years (probably around 10 now), and even in this coffee obsessed town, the art of a great soy coffee is still, sadly, all too rare a thing.
Luckily, my favourite local cafe - Balwyn's Snow Pony-  has got it down to a fine art, and it's not unusual for me to put aside the time to grab one at the start of a busy day. I've even been known to get up 10minutes earlier or skip putting on make-up just to make sure I get my fix.   
So when I dropped in this morning my plan was to grab a quick soy-latte-to-go. No such luck. 
The wait wasn't catastrophic, but it was longer than I anticipated (maybe I need to get up 15minutes earlier from now on). So I had time to look around. The little cafe was jumping and jazz music melted over the chatty crowd. You'd be lucky to find at table at 9.30 on a Wednesday morning in between cheese on toast and signature smashed avocado's. 
Ok, so a few other people have clued into this great little haunt. But what surprised me was this. In the whole place, out of all the lively, smiley patrons, only 1 was male. 
Yep- single white male. Cafe full of latte-ing ladies- and searching back through my daily routines I felt sure that this wasn't the first 'ladies day' I had witnessed at the Pony.
It was a rare moment of 'what's going on here?' for me. And I'm still not sure what it means. The ladies were all of varying ages and style- so I could deduce nothing there. It's not really in a particularly 'ladyish' part of town and I know that the cafe is a more even split of sexes on weekends. 
So I take from it this, either ladies make more time for social coffee's to exchange work, information, social ideas. OR... they know where the really good soy coffee is on a weekday and go out of their way to get it.    
Either way, as long as I can still wedge my way in for my morning coffee, all I have to say is this... Ladies? Bottoms up!

If you've noticed any gender trends at cafes, I'd love to know where and when?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Surprising last minute dessert- Honey Baked Egg Custard

I am guilty of over thinking dinners- for friends, for family, for friday night. I like to cook, so I often plan in advance and put a lot of effort into menus, themes and trying new dishes. Mostly the love and extra work pays off. Mostly.
But tonight I was lazy.
When my other half turned big brown eyes towards me and hopefully said 'dessert?', I simply could not disappoint him and I felt myself madly wracking my brains for a simple, yet worthy response. I settled for the comfort dessert that my mother would make when I was sick as a child- it has a special place in my heart, and I'd forgotten just how good it is.

Honey baked egg custard:
* 3 eggs
* 1/2 cup milk
* 1/2 cup thickened cream
* 2 tablespoons honey (warmed for ease of mixing)
* extra honey
Preheat oven to 200degC. In a bowl whisk together all the ingredients (except the extra honey) until well combined. Divide the extra honey between three 1 cup oven proof ramekins (or any size you have)- about 1 tsp of honey in the base of each. Pour the egg mixture into the ramekins, dividing evenly. Place ramekins into an ovenproof dish and fill the dish with boiling water until it comes halfway up the sides. Bake for 30mins, or until firm and lightly browned on top.
Serve it up hot- straight from the oven.
In this case with extra satisfaction and a small glass of tawny port.

I have been put in my place. Sometimes 'old faithful' recipes are the best- and could even proudly hold their own at any overwrought, overthought, lovingly prepared meal for friends.
Tonight it was a sneaky and unexpected surprise- made sweeter when I spooned to the bottom and found my puddle of melted honey. Never let it be said that desserts are too hard.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

All Nations Picnic- Sat April 18, 2009

Article featured at:
It was a wonderful day at Flemington community centre, so stay tuned for details of next years event- sharing heritage through food is such a great joy. And tasty too!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Foraging- from weeds to seeds

My garden is greener than it's been for a long time. It's a beautiful thing to see. Chubby, tender shoots sprout everywhere. It's a verdant carpet covering damp, chocolate-brown earth. 
I kneel down in front of it all and then, start hacking away- because it's all gotta come out! You see it might look pretty, but it's weeds. That's right, the garden is green, but it's not green with anything useful... apparently. 
Milk weeds, dandelions, other things I can't name- I hack, I pull, I twist- I rip it all out. 
1/2 an hour later I'm hot and sweaty, covered in sap and only about 1/8 of the way through. I turn around and survey the damage- a huge, lush pile of leaves with roots pointing oddly at the sky. They look at little mournful- and I am suddenly overwhelmed with a huge sense of waste. This pile of leaves looks so promising, so vibrant- I could swear they would be crunchy and probably a little peppery too.
 I suddenly wish that I knew more- more about what I was ripping up and more about weather or not they were edible. What if I was throwing away a perfectly good salad? It sure looked like one? And besides, isn't foraging the 'new black' when it comes to eating local?
My recent mushroom trip must have inspired me. I didn't necessarily trust myself to eat what I'd dug up, but it did inspire me to start looking into what was about to make intimate friends with the compost bin. So I grabbed 'Wild Food Plants of Australia' by the renowned Tim Low and began thumbing the pages, looking to see if perhaps that really was a garden salad on my lawn.
Judging by the pretty definitive pictures in my field guide, here's a couple of the things that I think were mixed into my grass greens:
* Common Sowthistle- tastes like endive acc. to Low.
* Yellow Wood Sorrel- a bit like clover (the little buggers), makes good 'tarts' and salad.
* Yam Daisy, Murnong, or native dandelion- the root is good for stewing, tasty but not too high in vitamins.

To my disappointment I am not growing any chocolate lilies, grass potato or quandongs...   
Still, if the GFC gets really tough- I know that I won't starve. I may not be living in style, but i'll still be able to have you all over for dinner. 

NOTE: I am NOT encouraging you to eat things you think you have identified in your garden- but I am hoping that you might take a healthy interest in thinking beyond the square when it comes to food... I haven't quite got a pot of nettles stewing on the stove... yet.

For now, I better head back to the organic, heritage, grown-from-seed vegie patch, where at least I know what the radishes look like.