Thursday, April 28, 2011


Almonds, eggplant, mushrooms, beetroot, pumpkin, fennel, olives, walnuts, pecans, quinces, pears, leeks, spinach, and figs – these are some of the flavours of autumn. In season, now starring at a farmer’s market or greengrocers near you (if you're Down Under).
Having access to the global supermarket of choice and convenience, I rarely used to give a second thought to the origins of the produce I tossed in my shopping basket. Too busy living the urban dream. Having read a lot of Michael Pollan now, I find it impossible to go back to enjoying those asparagus that travel halfway across the planet so they can make an appearance on my plate in the curtain call of autumn. 
And I love this time of year, just look at this... 
And the ingredients on hand! They are the foundation of comforting soups, pies, cassoulets, risottos and tarts. I’ll try and feature a few before the last leaves drop from the trees in the next month.
Eating seasonally and more locally are tenets of the Slow Food movement. So too a conscious effort to oppose the distractions, fast food, and shattered rhythms of modern living by slow eating, of which I’m a big fan – long lunches at a shared table, family, friends, a few drinks, and then some lolling about.
This Easter was the longest long weekend we’ve had here in Australia in memory so there was no excuse not to come almost to standstill, breathe, and impersonate a sloth. How was it for you? I’m sure there was a lot of eating, like at mine. I had my local crew over. Four friends, who at one time or another have flatted together, shacked up, or lived in the same suburb, on and off now for 15 years. There’s a new member, but since she’s only just started solids, and can’t sit up, she couldn’t partake, though she did enjoy rolling around on the floor, trying to stick her feet in her mouth, and the pumpkin in her purée was lip service to seasonal eating.
I also served pumpkin purée – well, soup. It was a bit blah, and I’m sure you’ve got your own favourite version of this, so I’m skipping straight to the main game.   

This chicken dish, from Karen Martini, is simple as. Everything is thrown into the one dish and baked, and with its marinade featuring almonds and olives, I gave myself two gold stars for being in the right season at the right moment.

Roast Chicken with Green Olives, Almonds and Oregano
Serves 4
1 cup blanched almonds, coarsely chopped
80g pitted green Sicilian olives
1 cup flat leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
1 bunch oregano leaves, chopped
2 green chillies, sliced
6tbsp extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground pepper
2 small red chillies, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 lemon, juiced and zested
1 1/2 tbsp Dijon mustard
a large pinch of sea salt
4 free-range chicken marylands, jointed
4 large desiree potatoes, peeled and finely sliced
2 red onions, sliced into rings
1/2 cup (125ml) water
1/2 cup (125ml) white wine
Preheat oven to 200 C. Combine almonds, olives, parsley, oregano, and green chillies in a large bowl, and drizzle with 2 tbsp of the olive oil. Stir and season with pepper. Set aside. 
In another large bowl mix red chillies, garlic, lemon juice and zest, mustard, and salt and pepper. Coat the chicken pieces with the mixture, and set aside for 10 minutes.
Heat 4 tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan over high heat, and add chicken pieces, taking care to brown on all sides. Remove from heat and rest for a minute on paper towel. Then add chicken to the almond marinade.
Grease an ovenproof dish and line with potato slices. Scatter the onion over the top. Top with the chicken pieces and pour the marinade evenly over the dish. Do the same with the water and wine.
Cover with foil and bake for 15 minutes (I do this for 25 minutes to make sure the chicken is cooked). Remove foil and bake for a further 15 minutes, or until the chicken is golden and cooked. Serve immediately.
The main challenge, always, with a three-course meal is balancing the menu. Here, dessert had to fit a few criteria: no chocolate (the easter bunny having almost overstayed her welcome); not too heavy and creamy as the pumpkin soup had a dollop of sour cream added when served; no nuts since the main featured almonds, and no resorting to out of season fruit. Figs are in season, but they have a short shelf life and I err on the side of caution when entertaining.
So here is where I hit paydirt.

Torta di caffe
[from delicious magazine, March 2011, issue 102]
Serves 6
5 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (220g) caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups (500ml) full cream milk
1/2 cup (125ml) strong espresso coffee, cooled completely
Preheat the oven to 180C. Place six 150ml ramekins in a baking dish that allows enough space so they are all level.

Crack the eggs into a large bowl, add 1/3 cup sugar and whisk until the mixture is combined. 
Combine vanilla, milk and cold coffee, and then slowly add while continuing to whisk. Strain the mixture through a sieve.

Place remaining 2/3 cup sugar in a small non-stick saucepan with 1/3 cup of water. Gently warm over medium-low heat, without stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat to medium and cook for 4-6 minutes until the syrup turns golden. (Be patient with this and don’t turn up the heat to rush it through. It can burn quite suddenly... as I found out.) Remove from the heat and allow to cool for a couple of minutes.

Divide the syrup evenly among the ramekins. Allow to stand for 5 minutes to set, and then add the custard, dividing evenly between the ramekins.

Pour water into the baking dish until halfway up the side of the ramekins, taking care to not splash the water into the mixture. Place on the oven’s middle shelf and bake for 40-45 minutes or until each custard is almost set, but the centre is still a little wobbly.

Remove ramekins from baking dish and cool to room temperature. Cover and chill for 2 hours. 

To serve, boil some water and pour back into the baking dish. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each custard and one at a time dip the bottom of each ramekin in hot water for 10 seconds to loosen, then turn out into individual plates. I find the best way to do this is to place the plate over the ramekin and then grip both and flip gently but quickly... good luck! 
Not as sweet as creme caramel, this Italian version from Tobie Puttock, is dosed with espresso. Light, subtle, silky. An hour later, draped across the couch, there was even still room for chocolate.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Easter is nearly upon us, daylight savings is over, and autumn has finally settled in Sydney. It’s that crossover time where tilting toward the comfort food of winter is delayed just a little longer (please) by the last flavours of a nearly forgotten summer. 
So I’m cracking out the cheese. Light, heavy, hero or bit part, lunch, dinner, starter, side, it’s the great mainstay for all seasons. I’m sure by now you’re starting to figure out that there’s never been a dairy product I could say no to, and as I’m a savoury girl, this is where my style of cooking finds its heart, and I hardly need to say its particular expression in nearly every cuisine on the planet plays very close to a culture’s sense of home. Sinful or sustaining, heart clogging, or heartening... again it all comes down to how much, how often, and how it’s included in a meal... and so I say, just a taste, now, tomorrow, and always. 
The ricotta gnocchi (with a nod to Italy) is a great starter for any dinner party from my favourite cookbook ever by Neil Perry (until his next one). The prawns also make it a great stand-alone lunch for guests on a warm day, or you can swap the prawns for roast pumpkin and serve it as a quiet dinner for two on a cold night.

Ricotta and Spinach Gnocchi with Burnt Butter and King Prawns
[from Neil Perry’s Good Food]
Serves 4
4 bunches (approx 1 kg) of English spinach, washed and trimmed
350g ricotta cheese
3 tbsp grated parmesan, plus extra to serve
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
Sea salt and ground pepper
Plain flour for dusting
100g unsalted butter
16 sage leaves
8 king prawns, shelled (but with tails left intact)
Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, and blanch the spinach until just wilted (less than a minute). Drain into a colander, and plunge quickly into ice water and then drain again. Squeeze out as much water as possible, then chop finely. 
In a bowl put the spinach and add the ricotta, parmesan, egg yolks and season to taste. (Follow the quantities for the gnocchi exactly if you want them to bind properly.) Roll the mixture into 16 balls and stick in the fridge for 20 minutes.
Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a gentle boil, and remove the gnocchi from the fridge and lightly dust with flour. Add the gnocchi to the water a few at a time and once they rise to the surface remove with a slotted spoon. Dive the gnocchi among four plates and sprinkle with parmesan and ground pepper.
Meanwhile, put the butter in a small saucepan and heat slowly until the butter starts to turn brown. Then add the sage leaves and allow them to crisp up. Then take off the heat.
In a frying pan, quickly sauté the prawns in a tiny bit of butter. Place the prawns on top of the gnocchi and spoon the butter and sage mixture over the top. Serve immediately.

The haloumi (with its Cypriot soul) is a perfect lunch or even brunch on a Sunday, especially if you add the sourdough toast to the dish as the recipe suggests. And best of all, it tastes like summer.

Fried Haloumi with Cherry Tomato Salsa
[from delicious magazine, April 2011, issue 103]
Serves 4
1/3 cup olive oil
2 chorizo sausages, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 x 250g punnet cherry tomatoes, halved
Pinch chilli flakes
1 tsp caster sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley, plus extra to serve
250g haloumi, cut into 8 slices
Chargrilled sourdough bread, to serve
Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a pan over medium heat. Cook chorizo, turning over, for 6-8 minutes until browned. Add garlic, tomatoes, chilli flakes, sugar and 2 tbs of red wine vinegar. Cook, stirring occasionally for 3 minutes until the sauce thickens. Add parsley and remaining vinegar, then remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, heat a chargrill pan and sear haloumi until golden brown and melting. Serve with the chorizo salsa, extra parsley and if you like, sourdough.
And the cheese biscuits? A bit of nostalgia that is Very Sydney, circa 1978. They’re from a cookbook called Mud Pies for Mothers that’s been gathering dust in North Shore homes for the past three decades.

Cheese Biscuits

[from Mud Pies for Mothers]
Makes 16 
60g butter, at room temperature
85g self raising flour
85g grated (soft) cheddar cheese
A pinch of salt and cayenne pepper
Heat the oven to 180C. Line a tray with baking paper.
Cream the cheese and butter in a food processor. Sift the flour, cayenne pepper and salt and add throw into food processor.
Take a teaspoon size of the mixture, and roll into a ball. Toss in coconut and then flatten with a fork (it should end up the size of a 10 cent piece).
Line up on baking paper and bake until golden – around 12-15 minutes.
Store in an airtight container.

I grew up handing these around at dinner parties for my mother. They’re incredibly simple to make with no fancy ingredients from a time when fancy just wasn’t available in the suburbs. If you have a food processor just throw in all the ingredients, and pummel it.
You can make them in advance, because the secret is they are so much better a day later. As the heat subsides, their richness emerges. Much like the slow pleasures and slow food days of autumn.
Have a lovely Easter...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I’m having a Paris moment. More specifically a Lunch in Paris moment, crossed with a  French Women Don't Get Fat crisis. You see, I’m reading Elizabeth Bard’s delightful ‘an American in Paris’ love story, and it’s stirred up a yearning to return to my favourite city on the planet... and since she’s so thoughtfully provided recipes at the end of every chapter it’s a short fall from longing into gluttony.
Paris features heavily in my travelling life, but its culinary delights have played a little harder to get. As a dirt poor backpacker in 1994 I only ever graduated to a baguette, and a bit of supermarket camembert (okay, there might have been a chocolate éclair or two in there somewhere, and a daily croissant). In 2001 there was the strange dislocating evening at a ‘vegetarian’ restaurant in early September. French cuisine is almost allergic to vegetarian food, and it transpired this was hardcore vegan. It did prove that no amount of je ne sais quoi can salvage tempeh, given it looks and tastes like cardboard. My friend was so mortified by where her dietary restrictions had led us, fish swam straight back into her diet. In 2005 I was coming off the traveller’s curse in Morocco, and 2009? At the Fromagerie Bernard LeFranc on the small city island of Ile Saint Louis my mum and I pointed at, and bought, the stinkiest, runniest cheese in the shop. We found a park bench next to a church, slathered the cheese on chunks of baguette and cracked open the pinot gris. Finally, I’d found the French beat of my heart. 
Food was also Bard’s way of entering, and falling in love with the French culture, whilst giddily falling for her brainy, sexy, tap-dancing husband, Gwendal. Lunch in Paris features all the classics – profiteroles, beef daube, more asparagus than you can poke a spear at (sorry – couldn’t resist), and of course French Onion Soup. It was the soup that started the yearning – at 4am no less – and it continued to haunt me until I just had to get into the kitchen and cut up 2kg of onions. And then the crying took over.

Classic French Onion Soup
From Gourmet Traveller, July 2007 
Serves two for dinner or 4 for starters

100g butter coarsely chopped
2kg brown onions, thinly sliced
1L (4 cups) beef stock
4 thyme sprigs
3 parsley stalks
1 bay leaf
8 1cm thick slices of baguette, cut on a diagonal and lightly toasted
250g coarsely grated Gruyère
Melt the butter in a large, heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cover, stirring occasionally for 20 minutes. They will soften and go a little translucent. Remove the lid and cook for an hour, stirring to make sure bits don’t stick to the bottom of the saucepan. The onions should slowly caramelise. 
Add stock that has been gently warmed, 1/2 a cup at a time, and simmer for 5 minutes (the stock should have almost evaporated). Repeat 3 times until the 2 cups of stock are added.
Tie the herbs together with twine, and add to the mixture. Add remaining stock immediately and season. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 40 minutes or until thick, stirring occasionally to make sure caramelised bits aren’t stuck to the bottom.
Preheat the oven to 200C. Ladle soup into oven-proof bowls and transfer to an oven tray. Scatter with half the cheese, and cook for 5 minutes.
Toast the baguette then scatter with the remaining cheese and put under the grill until the cheese is bubbling. (Alternately you can top each soup with 2 baguette slices and cheese in the oven. The underside of the bread will absorb the flavours and add to the heartiness of the soup. Perfect for a rainy day!) Serve immediately.

If you don’t want to spend 2 hours coaxing onions to reveal their sweetness, an easier way to get some French groove on is Moules Marinières. I’ve eaten this in more Parisian cafés than I can remember. It’s so simple to make, and the combination of mussels, wine and shallots is divine.

Moules Marinière
Serves two

1kg fresh mussels (I buy live, debearded, ready to cook in a pack – it saves a lot of fuss)
115g unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped 
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped 
200ml or 1 cup of dry white wine
1 bay leaf 
1/4 teaspoon of thyme
1 large handful fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
Prepare the mussels: for debearded just dump in a colander and rinse. For bearded mussels pull away the strands (beard) around the shell and scrub under cold running water.
Heat 50g of the butter in a large saucepan or large enamel pot. When the butter is foaming add the garlic, shallots, thyme, wine and bay leaf. Cook over a medium heat until the shallots are soft and translucent.

Then bring the mixture to the boil. Add the mussels, cover the pot, and cook over a high heat for 2-3 minutes, gently shaking the pot as you go, until the mussels open. Discard any mussels that remain closed after cooking or are shrivelled. (And I repeat – throw out any mussels that DO NOT OPEN.)
Divide the mussels into two bowls. With the remaining mussel liquor in the pot, add the parsley and remaining butter and bring to the boil. Pour the mixture over the mussels and serve immediately with crusty baguette.

This dish is also handy when you’re eating alone in situ in Paris because it requires intense concentration – all those shells to discard, all that sauce to mop up with baguette. It’s something to focus on when you’re surrounded by lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other. Yeah. This is the City Of Love, and the locals don't want you to forget it. 
Elizabeth's mussels use less butter, possibly because it falls in the chapter where she's ruminating on why exactly French women don't get fat (something to do with portion control, and being worshipped by their men). Personally, I reckon another reason for this miraculous state of affairs is because Paris is a very walkable city. 
My favourite route: Start at Notre Dame and then amble to Ile St Louis for an ice cream at Berthillon. Cruise by all the cute antique shops, go to said cheese shop, and then cross the bridge to the Left Bank. Find the amazing English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Co where writers have been hanging out, and sleeping on the floor since the 1930s. Move on to the Lumas gallery, and then make your way to the Cluny Museum

Spend the next day on the Right Bank. You could go to the Louvre (it's easy to get lost for an eternity in there), or visit Le Marais district. I try and go up Rue de Rivoli to check out some of the shops. And then back to the Left Bank for a visit to the Musée D'Orsay.

So after all that walking, you can surely have some dessert. Elizabeth promises her husband’s quick and dirty souffle is rich, but not deadly. 

Guilt-free Chocolate Cake 
[a small variation on “Gwendal’s Quick and Dirty Chocolate Souffle Cake, from Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard, pp 302-303] To serve 6-8

220g chocolate [60%-70% cocoa]
2 tbsp of filter coffee
5 eggs, separated
1/2 cup of caster sugar
A pinch of salt
1 tbsp of plain flour
Butter (for the cake tin)
Crème fraîche
Preheat the oven to 180C and butter a 20cm spring-form cake tin. Make the coffee and then add to the broken up chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and heat (on defrost setting) for about a minute, then stir until all the chocolate is melted. Set aside to cool.
Separate the eggs into two bowls – the whites in a large dry bowl and the yolks in a medium.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together.
Pour the egg yolk mixture into the chocolate mixture and quickly whisk together until combined. Add flour and stir until fully combined.
Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt. Keep at it until you have stiff peaks.
Fold a third of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture (don’t worry if you do more than fold... like stir thoroughly - it still turns out all right). Then add this mixture back into the egg-white bowl. Now fold gently - you want quite a bit of air in the mix.
Pour the mixture into the cake tin and then bake for 20-24 minutes. Test with a skewer in the middle. If it’s oozing a little that’s OK, and as Bard says if it falls a bit in the middle before it reaches the table don’t worry – it still tastes good!  
Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche.

So if you have a petite slice, your body might just forgive you. After all, how can anything made with love ever be bad for you?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


Location: Rwanda. It was early morning, and at 2600 m above sea level, the air was thick with moisture and it felt like it would rain. This gorilla looked cold, and to my (anthropomorphic) mind a bit jaded (what, another bunch of gawking tourists?).

We’d trekked (and slipped and stumbled) two hours up the mountain through ankle deep mud and bamboo rainforest to find this family and then there He was. I think we all felt pretty awestruck in the hush. And then... he farted. Long, loud and lingering. You’re really not allowed to laugh at a gorilla, so we all moved right along.
The Parc National Des Volcans in Rwanda is home to the some of the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas. This is Dian Fossey territory. You may have heard of the late primatologist who studied and documented the ape families here. If you haven’t, and you’re interested, then see the film Gorillas in the Mist
This big boy is part of a relatively young family headed by the silverback named Charles (gorillas, incidentally, are identified by their unique nose print). Charles had, at one time, been part of another family, but as he grew up he got sick of the celibate demands of playing second fiddle to the silverback of his group, and, after staging a brawl ran off with some of the ladies. Such tactics are necessary to get some satisfaction, and are great for the diversification of the gene pool. And it was a win-win. Rather than a fight to the death between a patriarch and the upstart, there’s a entirely new family, and no fatalities.
It’s not always easy to find these guys, and the guides won’t guarantee a definite sighting. But the trackers go up in advance and then radio their location. And then the main challenge is to make it up the mountain without keeling over (I recommend being fit, especially because it becomes harder to breathe on ascent). We were deep in a thicket of bamboo when an enormous black shape in the clearing ahead reared up and started charging our way. Charles was onto us, and his strength and speed was something to behold. There was a brief moment of terror  we were all trying to backtrack up the slope but kept getting caught among the bamboo, but the trackers and guides seemed to communicate in a series of grunts to him that we meant no harm, and Charles settled right back down.
And then we entered the clearing.

It was chow time, and the silverback was at it with gusto. So, we sat down a little further away. Charles then shifted somewhat closer. Now you’re under strict instructions at the point and they go something like this: a) don’t run, in fact don’t move at all, b) don’t scream, and c) don’t give the silverback the death stare. Easy enough, but that is when he eyeballed me. 

And... I relaxed. Okay, yes at over 400 pounds he was a bit fearsome, but actually there was just a strong sense that here was a sentient, super smart creature (sharing some 96% of our DNA) who could judge the balance of power just fine, without having to sit on me to prove the point.
In fact Charles was so laissez faire, even with 11 people watching his every move, he also had a lie down. Perhaps he was just showing off how great the gorilla lifestyle can be.

At the time of visiting, our guide reported there are only 308 gorillas up in the Virungas, and apparently that’s hopeful. Which is so goddamn depressing the only adequate response is action. Numbers have been decimated over the decades by the deadly triad of civil war (this Rwandan habitat borders the Congo, Burundi, and Uganda), the trade for bushmeat, and poaching for rich people’s trophies (a gorilla hand ashtray, anyone? Like really, Get A Life). Not to mention loss of habitat. The state of emergency is such that the UN finally got their butts into gear and initiated the Great Apes Survival Partnership. You can even adopt an ape.
The jury is out on whether it’s fair for these gorillas who have been habituated to humans to have their days interrupted by tourists, and there is a risk they could catch something from an unwell human (which is why you are closely scrutinised before being allowed to go). But at present the greater risk is poachers and there’s no doubt the US$500 cost of the gorilla permit (56 permits = US$28,000 a day), provides the medical infrastructure, research and security guards to keep them safe from their main threat  us. Currently it is the only way to raise that money outside charity and philanthropy. 
So if you’re a wildlife nut, and you ever get the opportunity, this is how you can find yourself face-to-face with a mountain gorilla. If I ever get back there, this is the nose print I'll be on the lookout for. Here's hoping.