"A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift."

Laurie Colwin

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cake for when you're blissing

My Baby and I love and adore our combined brood, but every second weekend when they’re all away it’s just all about us being into each other.  We do stuff together and kinda bliss out and have many a smug moment about how lucky we are.  Oh, it’s pathetic.

So anyway.  Last weekend after we’d blissed out and blissed out some more, I announced, “I feel like making cake!”  The cake I was thinking of making was one I hadn’t made for many years, but daydreamed about on a regular basis (also pathetic), and this was the day.  But that’s not what’s important.  Take note:  the fact that this is the cake I wanted to make on a day when I was blissing out tells you pretty much all you need to know about this cake.

The essential accompaniment to this cake, other than bliss, or even just a bit of a knockabout mood, is not tea or coffee but a glass of milk or a cup of excellent, thick hot chocolate made with actual chocolate and not some dubious powder out of a packet.  In fact, the traditional, Mexican way of eating this cake is to dunk it with your fingers into aforementioned cup of excellent hot chocolate.  Heck – if you weren’t blissing out before you made the cake you’d have to be after that.

Take care: there’s a few steps involving dividing ingredients or setting ingredients aside.  But it’s still simple and so worth it.
(1 large cake or 2 regular cakes)

560g. flour
375g. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
245g. butter
2 tsp. cinnamon
4 tsp. brown sugar
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup milk

What you do:
1.  Grease and flour two square cake pans or one slab pan.  Preheat oven to 190oC.
2.  First, make the crumb mixture.  In a large bowl, mix together 375g. of the flour, the sugar, and the salt.  Rub in 185g. of the butter.  To make the topping, take 1 cup of the crumb mixture and add cinnamon, brown sugar, and remaining flour.  Rub in remaining butter.  Set aside.
3.   Add baking powder, eggs and milk to remaining crumb mixture, and beat well.  Turn mixture into prepared pan/s, and sprinkle over the topping.  Bake 25-30 min, until cooked when tested.  Cool in pan on a wire rack.  Serve cut into thick squares.

Yumbo McGillicutty!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The World Food Day blog

On World Food Day, I don’t want to write a blog as if for my teenage students.  We are all adults, and we all know that the causes of hunger are complex and myriad, and range from drought, to war, to the use of arable land to plant bio-fuel crops.  We adults we know that as worthy, and generationally effective, as sponsoring a child or loaning money to an entrepreneur through a micro loan agency such as Kiva is, it doesn’t solve a cataclysmic “issue” that amounts to 1 billion people going hungry in the world.

But if you’re an adult it also means certain things.  Like if you have made it to this age, it means that you know something about trying, trying, and trying again.  You probably have an inkling about what’s important by now.  You may have had children, and know what it’s like to be gripped by the urge to protect and look after them; it’s not too big a stretch to imagine how a parent who cannot look after her or his child might feel.  You have probably seen changes that when you were a kid were certain couldn’t happen without bloodshed: the demolition of the Berlin wall, the dismantling of apartheid. 

I’m not big on guilt.  Guilt is, to me, the ultimate self-indulgence.  It provides a buzz:  “Ooh I feel so bad about this you can’t believe how bad I feel I’m just totally cut up look I’ve got tears in my eyes and I’m so earnest I’ll even post about it on my Facebook status so that proves I’m human right?”  Being human, however, requires more than feeling, it requires action, and that leads me to the thing I am big on.


You can stay stuck in guilt forever, but you can’t stay stuck when you’re in responsibility.  Responsibility means owning.  Means doing.  Lots of doing.  So much doing that you won’t have either the time or inclination to “click ‘like’ if you agree”.

That’s why I’m not going to waste any time trying to push your guilt buttons.  There are people in your life better at it than I.  Instead, I’m thinking that if you are reading this blog, there’s also a good chance that you are used to feeding people, or that you understand there’s something primal about providing and nourishing, even beyond the boundaries of your nearest and dearest (else why the existence of so many food blogs that reach out to all corners of the globe?).  This is something we all GET.  We may well be enjoying this fillet steak, or indeed this piece of bread, but we don’t like the thought of others not having the same.  Given your druthers, you’d shout, “Fillet steak and bread for all!”

Well, maybe one day. 

In the meantime, let me introduce you to a people that are rather well known for being practical and pragmatic:  the British.

Oxfam UK has a brilliant campaign called 4-a-Week going.  This simple-as idea is designed to make a tangible difference in the lives of people living in poverty and just involves doing four easy things each week:

1. Buy one more Fairtrade product
2. Buy one more food product from a developing country
3. Throw one less item of food away
4. Eat one less portion of meat or dairy

If you don’t know what Fairtrade is by now, you should.  It’s all about a better deal for the farmers and workers who work to bring you your chocolate or breakfast cuppa, and every purchase makes a difference.  Look for the distinctive Fairtrade logo wherever you shop, and if you can’t see any products where you shop, demand them.  (Don’t kid yourself, however, that companies who advertise something akin to Fairtrade without the name and logo themselves are actually doing anything.  Your morning coffee from Starbuck’s may promise to be “ethical”, but Starbuck’s is, in fact, self-regulating about what constitutes “ethical” and “fair trade”.  Starbuck’s stopped paying a premium price for their coffee a long time ago, and they conduct their own inspections of coffee farms.)

Yes, of course it’s good to buy local.  And yes, of course food miles are important.  But let’s not be coy here and pretend everything we eat is locally sourced or foraged.  Where is your olive oil from?  How about that Arborio rice you make your risotto with?  There is room in your shopping basked for a handful of dates from the Middle East, or some lentils from India.  Don’t know what classifies as a “developing country”?  No worries, I have a big fat list for you right here.  

Throwing one less item of food away is a subject of a whole nother blog because there are so many ways to go about this.  The simplest way is to buy only what you know you’ll use.  And if you don’t, use it.  Those potatoes will turn into a great frittata, and you know curry tastes better the next day.  Use the freezer.  Get organised.  Have a big cook-off – perhaps on Recycling Fridays – of the stuff in the ‘fridge before you go shopping.  The Love Food Hate Waste site has lots of ideas on how to avoid waste.

Eating one less portion of meat or dairy makes an impact in two ways.  The first is environmental, since all that livestock must have an effect.  The other one is a matter of resource allocation.  The production of beef, for example, requires 4.8 lb./2kg of grain fed to cattle to produce just 1 lb./450g. of beef.  That is grain that could be used for humans.  A 10-acre farm can support as many as 60 people by growing soybeans, but only two people by producing cattle.  Now – I love me some beef, but I love me some grain, too.  Give me a plate of pasta pesto or a bourghul pilaf dotted with chickpeas and roasted peppers and I won’t even notice there wasn’t meat or dairy.  Neither will you.

Come on.  Four things a week is easy.  Let’s do this.  Because we're grownups, and we know how to get things done.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tarty Tuesdays: Bacon and Tomato Tart

Sometimes I wonder why I bother posting some recipes:  they’re so simple, and their ingredients are so few or unremarkable, that in an increasingly sophisticated foodie world they are likely to make the casual blog browser shrug and go “Meh,” before surfing away.

Here’s the thing, though:  good ingredients only need simple a treatment.  Good ingredients can make a simple dish taste absolutely divine.  In this case, just one ingredient:  beautiful tomatoes.

Unless you grow your own, beautiful tomatoes that smell and taste as God intended are as rare and precious as truffles.  When you see them, you bow your head, say a little prayer of thanks, buy as many as you can, and get them home with all due haste.  Slice them up thick for a mayo-slathered sandwich, or drench them with olive oil and perfume them with basil.  Or just bite into one like an apple, perhaps powdering each bite with a drift of sea salt.  Any leftover ‘matas can go into this tart, which is far greater than the sum of its parts.

A bit of a leap of faith is necessary here, because I really can’t tell you how special this tart - which was demolished in one sitting by a small number of diners that included tiny, picky eaters - is.  You’ll just have to find great tomatoes, make it and eat it.  Then you can tell me.  

(6-8 servings)

1 x recipe Nidia's Tart Crust, or enough shortcrust pastry for a single crust
600g. small, ripe tomatoes, blanched and peeled
2 tsp. olive oil
1 1/2 onions, sliced
300g. bacon, diced
4 large eggs
250g. cheddar (white cheddar in the US), grated
1/4 cup homemade mayonnaise or cream
freshly ground pepper to taste
fresh oregano leaves, to taste

What you do:
1.  Preheat oven to 180oC and lightly grease tart pan.  Line tart pan with pastry.  Quarter tomatoes and remove seeds.  (I did this straight into a plastic container.  The seeds have gone into the freezer for the next time I make sauce.)  Sprinkle with salt, toss, and place in colander to drain while you make filling.
2.  Heat oil over medium heat and add onions. (I also add the bacon rinds at this point for extra flavour and moisture, and remove them when they’ve finished rendering, whereupon hungry vultures - my sons and husband – descend and demolish them.)  Sweat until translucent.  Add bacon, and increase heat to high.  Sauté, stirring occasionally, until bacon begins to brown.  Set aside. 
3.  In a bowl, combine eggs, cheddar, and mayonnaise or cream, and season with lots of freshly ground pepper – you won’t need salt.
4.  To assemble tart, line tart pan with crust.  Spoon in bacon and onion, then evenly spread cheddar mixture over the top.  Press tomato quarters, cut side down, into cheddar mixture.  Scatter over oregano leaves.  Bake for 45 minutes, until set and golden.  Allow to settle for a few minutes before unmoulding and serving.

Yumbo McGillicutty!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Weeds and herbs and everything perturbed

Sit down and let me tell you a tale.

Up until the time I was 14, we lived in apartments.  When we moved into our first-ever house in Aonach Street, Clayton, I was overjoyed:  I could have pets (or rather, the pets I had could now move around)!  We wouldn’t be sharing walls with other people!  We could have a garden!

For some reason, even though I am not, never have been, and never will be anything that can even loosely be termed a gardener, it was this last point that most excited me.  The backyard had already been divided in half, and one of the halves was – as befitted a neighbourhood with such a huge percentage of Italian and Greek migrants – a well-fertilised and turned-over veggie patch that only needed some seedlings for it to completely transform into a suburban Horn of Plenty.

Parsley and basil sprouting under the artichokes
Like Mary in The Secret Garden, I asked mamá for “a bit of earth” and she agreed.  The bit I chose was underneath the juvenile pine, and for it I got a packet of mixed flower seeds that came with the Disney imprint and an illustration of Bambi, Thumper and bluebirds gambolling in fields of snapdragons and bluebells.   I planted them, I watered them, they grew, and it made me happy.   And that was the last time I had a garden – a bit of earth – that I considered completely and totally mine.

Oh – there were other gardens, but none that I ever considered mine.  For reasons too various, personal, and let’s face it, boring to list, I was unable to put much of a permanent stamp on any of the places I lived in the following 25 years, and despite having bits of earth for veggies and herbs, I never considered any of those gardens mine.
This variety is new to me.  Anyone used it before?

That is, until a few years ago, when I found myself making a new start in a new house.  The pull of this place was so strong that even when we’d only been in it three days and were still chin-deep in boxes, one of my sons said, “It feels like we’ve always lived here!”  I had arrived somewhere I’d always wanted to be.  And outside was a garden.  And not just any garden.  I recognised it immediately:  my garden.  Finally I GOT why gardeners rhapsodise about gardening.  I got the satisfaction, the feeling of being at one with Life, the Universe, and Everything.

My garden is already established and I don’t touch it much, except for the one area at the very back, the one that flourishes under my touch:  the herb patch.

Now… in saying that I’m not gardener, you have to understand that it’s more than that.  I actually kill things.  It’s distressing, particularly for someone who actually thinks plants have feelings and respond to humans (more on this later), so I stopped trying.  But the one thing I know I can grow is herbs, and here in this garden, they have grown like never before.  They have grown lush – so lush that the oregano bush grew as big as my arms curved towards each other to make a circle, so lush that the mint leaves were as big as my hand, so lush that weeds barely get a look-in, except for winter, when most herbs go dormant and weeds go, “Whoo-hoo!” and take over. 

The kaffir lime
And that’s where my story begins.

Some weeks ago, it is the end of winter, and my garden is a bit of a mess.  I make a call to Khel, the gardener who helps me whip the garden into shape a few times a year with the stuff that’s too gardenerly for me to do.

Khel comes in on Friday while I am at work.  No biggie, he’s often done that.  Saturday morning I go into the garden with My Baby, start poking around, surveying my domain, except… WHERE ARE THE HERBS?

My heart starts pounding.  Every single weed is gone, but so is almost every herb.  I’m not talking cut back, I’m talking GONE, roots and all.  The rampant, cheeky mint, gone.  The massive oregano bush, gone.  Half the thyme.  The chives.  The rosemary.  All that remains are the freakin’ nasturtium.  I start taking every single deity’s name in vain.  I can’t believe it.  I start fighting back tears at this point, and I do something I try to never do, and ring someone while upset.

“Khel?  You came in yesterday?”
“Yeah… I cleaned up as much as I could… Did the weeding…”
“Where the %^$@! are my herbs?”
“Ohhh!... I thought I smelt something!...”
“You thought you smelt something?  What the *&#@!??”
“Not all of it is gone…”
“$@*&!  You uprooted them!  The oregano, the mint… They’re gone!”
“The mint will be back, don’t worry about that.”
“And what am I supposed to do about mint in the meantime?”

My mother used to say that my father had Basil Fawlty moments, and I’m sorry to say that this is one of the not-so-admirable things I’ve inherited from him.  If you want to truly get a mental picture of what happened then, all you need to visualise is Basil Fawlty beating up a dead car, or howling because he’s lost money he’s won on a horse, or digging through a trifle to find a duck.  Khel – or should I say The Murderer – had left a pile of weeds.  They were fragrant with the scents of at least six different herbs, and I started digging through the pile with my bare hands, weeping, crying out, “Where are you?  WHERE ARE YOU?”

Oh, yeah.  I had an insane moment.  And because My Baby knows better than to argue with Crazy Lady (or Crazy Hippie Lady, as he would have it), he joined in, minus the tears and ranting.  I found a rootlet of mint, and My Baby found a whole clump of chives.

We talked about not paying The Murderer, we talked about never employing him again, we talked about me going to visit him with my Whacking Stick, but when the fire of my grief and anger had cooled down to embers, I knew that only one thing could make me feel better:  replanting.  So I went to the nursery and spent a small fortune on herbs.  A few weeks later when I had a birthday, friends and family who knew of my predicament brought in beautiful gifts of herbs, and one day when I was at work, Khel snuck into the backyard and left a few little pots of thyme.

And they’re coming along.  They’re coming along.  The mint rootlet I rescued totally regenerated (and yes, like Khel predicted, other mint is coming back elsewhere).  The chives that My Baby discovered are now so happy they’re flowering.  These pictures are of a herb garden that’s happily recuperating.  It’s not yet as lush as it was, but it’s getting there.  The herbs are happy.  That they are happy is puzzling to me – all I do is water them, give them worm castings, and OK, have a little chat to them – and I just find the whole thing so humbling.  So much reward for so little effort.  I am also humbled by the people who commiserated with me when this happened, who understood my insane moment, and brought to me pots full of green and fragrance.

The Vietnamese mint that Kylie brought, going insane under the Laserlight

So, with the parsley my sister gave me, and the new oregano bushes, I share with you a recipe that is indispensable to me:  chimichurri, the Argentine barbeque sauce.

Variegated and common oregano

Alicia's parsley and mint
Now… as indispensable as chimi is, I don’t have it on everything.  Argentines, as a rule, don’t, and this is something you should keep in mind as recipes for chimi become more and more bastardised, and as chimi is presented to you at a restaurant as a dip for bread.  Bizarre.  Chimi is, and always shall be, a traditional condiment for barbequed and grilled meats.  I only ever use it as a marinade for matambre, which benefits from the strong flavours (since its cooking method is poaching) and the tenderising quality of the vinegar.  I can’t go past Asado Argentina’s excellent treatise on chimichurri, but I just really want to highlight that any recipe telling you to strive to keep the fresh green colour of the sauce is just wrong, wrong, WRONG.  While there’s nothing bad about serving a chimi that’s just been made, the best chimi has actually matured and mellowed in the refrigerator for days, weeks, or months.  It is the reason why I make nothing less than huge quantities.  (Also wrong is any chimi that adds herbs more familiar to Mexican cuisine, such as coriander/cilantro, but really, to read the full rant, go to Asado Argentina).

While you do, I'll be firing up the barbeque outside and thinking about how lucky I am.  Dogs, walls not joined to anyone else's, a garden, friends who understand when you go nuts… yeah.  Life at 45 has much in common with 14.

This is my recipe, adapted from mamá’s, which is one of many.  You can tweak it… but not too much.  Here are the things you can tweak:  the amount of chili is up to you.  The oregano need not be fresh.  The bay leaves are optional.  Remember that this is not an emulsified sauce, and that’s OK, because not all the sauces in the world are French.  You put it in a pretty bowl or sauceboat at the table with a spoon, and each diner stirs it up before spooning it over their meat.  Chimi will keep, refrigerated, for up to a year.

3 bay leaves
1 cup boiling water
I cup finely chopped parsley
1 tbsp. dried crushed chili
1 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup good quality cider or white wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil (not EVOO - if you don’t have olive oil that’s not extra virgin, combine EVOO and vegetable oil, half and half)
salt and pepper to taste

What you do:
1.  Place bay leaves in a small bowl and pour over boiling water.  Allow to cool to warm while you proceed with recipe.
2.  In a bowl or jar, combine parsley, chili, oregano, garlic, vinegar and olive oil, with salt and pepper to taste.  Whisk together with a fork, or put the lid on the jar and shake.  Add the bay leaves, and enough of their soaking water to temper the taste.  The amount you use is up to you, but remember that chimichurri is meant to be quite perky and tangy.  It is definitely NOT subtle. 

Yumbo McGillicutty!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The "F" word

In a world that produces enough food for each one of its inhabitants to eat 2,700 calories a day, famine is unacceptable.  

This isn't about guilt, and it isn't about donating money.  It's about us knowing better, and being loud enough to say so.

 Watch the vid, sign the petition.  FFS.