It was an early rise for me on Saturday morning, the start of a long weekend and the first day of Golden Plains music festival. We packed up the car at 5.45am and headed to Meredith, a small town about an hour and a half from Melbourne. Meredith is the home of the goats that make my favourite goat’s cheese as well as a family-run farm that opens its gates to thousands of music fans and an impressive lineup of artists twice a year.
The early start was in aid of securing a prime camping spot near the (super)natural amphitheatre which is the centre of the weekend’s action. The strategy was successful, but we were left with time to kill between setting up tents and the first band picking up their guitars. Also, we were starving – getting up that early is hunger-making work.
A few spectacular storms and crisper, darker mornings have heralded the start of Autumn in Kyneton. The grass in the backyard is becoming less crunchy underfoot as it soaks up the rain, soothing its sunburn, and the pear and apple trees have started to give us their fruit.
This is my first Autumn in 18 months. The endless Spring/Summer afforded to me from a cross-hemisphere move six months ago has been delightful. I’ve had a year of juicy stone fruit, fragrant tomatoes, crisp lettuce (some of which I grew myself), barbecued meat and long, warm evenings sitting outside with friends.
But as I pack away Summer, preserving fruit, making tomato sauce and pulling up the bolted lettuce, I’m anxious to start a new season of cooking. The produce at the Farmers Markets is also in transition and my basket had a bit of each season in it this week. When I spied a bundle of watercress I also picked up a potato and some spinach to go with the broth I had bubbling away in the slow cooker at home. It’s (finally) time for soup! Continue reading →
Sometimes good cooking starts with space. Space in the weekend to experiment, to plan ahead, prepare and store. It requires mental space too. Some time away from to do-lists and social events to allow thoughts of nourishment and nurture to come to the fore. When cooking is approached from this space, it is more expansive and often more wholesome. And in this case, it’s a lot more ugly.
Last weekend I made bone broth, a rich stock made by slow cooking bones and veggies for many hours until I had a cauldron of thick, gelatinous, boney soup. Sounds awful! But when strained, this stock is a deeply nourishing elixir that can be consumed as a simple, warming broth or used like any other stock as the base of a soup, to cook grains like quinoa, to braise vegetables or for gravy.
Baking soda, or bread soda as the Irish call it, came into kitchens in Ireland in the 1800s. It was relatively cheap and quite a magical ingredient for it meant that people without ovens, and that was most people, could bake their own bread. They combined wheat from their fields and buttermilk from their cows with baking soda in a cast-iron pot and nestled it into hot coals to make bread. The baking soda replaced yeast and kneading to leven the bread, which meant it wasn’t only more accessible, but much faster than baking normal bread. Which is why I like it.
The kitchen is a place of transformation. We labour to peel, chop, bake, boil, fry and combine ingredients to convert them into new states of delicious being. Often, it can be quite an involved process, taking hours to turn the flesh of an animal into succulent fall-off-the-bone meat or days to preserve the summer harvest for cooler months. Then there is simple transformation, alchemy even. And that’s what this dessert is.
It uses muscovado sugar, an unrefined natural sugar that is rich and chocolatey in colour, and in taste. It’s a sticky substance that is produced by extracting juice from the sugar cane, heating the juice with lime, drying the liquid to a solid and then pounding the sugar to the same consistency as brown sugar. This process keeps the natural molasses of the sugar cane in, rather than refining it out like white sugar. It can be used instead of brown sugar in sweets like brownies or fruit cakes to add another layer of complexity, or sprinkled on top of hot oats for a morning treat or in gingerbread or ice-cream.
Or, it can simply be used to turn a modest bit of fruit and yoghurt into a saucy, decadent dessert – and there’s no cooking involved. Continue reading →
A toasted ham and cheese sandwich is warm comfort. I’ve talked about the power of toast before, and this combination is a classic that most people can place in their food history. After-school snacks, late-night munchies, cold nights with hot soup, lazy brunches – it’s a flexible meal. This twist on it takes the humble toastie from the past to a very modern and adult present.
I first came across this sandwich in New York where I worked in a building overlooking the Hudson. It was a 15-minute walk from the subway and a much longer power walk to a decent food establishment. Although that part of Chelsea is gentrifying by the minute with giant cranes pulling up skyscraper apartments and art galleries moving in to old shipping warehouses, there’s not a lot of foot traffic to encourage cafes to set up shop. My only options for lunch were vendors that came into our building on daily rotation (taco Tuesday!), the building’s cafeteria that had recently failed a health inspection and Wichcraft, a sandwich chain store.
Everyone at work knew the Wichcraft menu intimately and each had their preferred item. The Heritage Smoked Ham became my staple work meal. You could say I over indulged on it, because although I loved it and would struggle to limit my intake to twice a week, it has taken me eight months to recreate it at home. I guess I needed the break, but after tasting it again, I’m committed to making up for lost time.
If you have an egg, you have a meal. Eggs are wonderfully flexible and will happily lend themselves to an otherwise boring dish to make it a tasty feed. A scrapped together mess of lentils and leftover veggies becomes a treat with a fried egg on top. And yesterday’s rice gets a second life when fried with onion, sloshed with soy sauce and served with a well-seasoned, chopped omelette stirred through.
My fondness for eggs has grown in direct correlation to my increased access to fresh eggs. Living in a country town means I now have friends with chooks and I am gifted a dozen eggs relatively regularly. The difference in colour and flavour of these eggs to the ones sitting on supermarket shelves is vast. Cracking an egg and seeing a bright buttercup yolk is enough to make me very happy. Turning those eggs into simple but beautiful meals is even better.
Recently a friend reminded me of a dish I used to serve up very regularly. If you came to my house for dinner circa 2006, it is highly likely you ate this dish. It had all the elements required for a casual dinner party; simple ingredients, no real recipe required, easily expandable to feed a few extra, quick to prepare, and impressive enough to serve to guests. My friend liked it so much that after only a brief explanation of how to cook it, it went into heavy rotation in her house and is still going strong. And now it’s made a comeback in my kitchen.
Placing a hot, steaming baking dish in the middle of a table with a big serving spoon is my idea of a good time. I like starting a communal meal with the shared experience of passing plates around the table, arms reaching over to scoop large servings of something delicious, wine glasses clinking as they’re shuffled around making room for the salad bowl to do a lap of the table. An atmosphere is created; an open, casual one of giving and receiving, setting the tone for the conversation to follow.
It’s summer holidays. The days are long, hot and the markets are filled with colourful fruit and veggies bursting with sunshine. It’s preserving season, that time of year when it’s possible to capture a season in a jar and save it for shorter, bleaker days ahead.
Lemon tree branches are currently heavy with golden fruit. I’ve been using a lot of lemons this season. We live in an area dotted with natural mineral springs. Some enterprising body tapped our local spring in 1890 and it’s still possible to pop down to the tap, pump the wooden handle and collect bottles of slightly effervescent, natural mineral water. How romantic. Except that it tastes terrible. The sulphur in the water hits your palette and screams “EGGS!” as you try to chug down a glass in the hope of receiving the touted health benefits of the brown-ish water. I’ve found that the only way to make our local mineral water drinkable is to pour it over ice and and squeeze half a lemon into it. There’s something about the clink of the ice in the glass that hints at more tasty contents and the lemon distracts your tastebuds from the lurking sulphur.
Despite my increase in water consumption, there’s still more lemons to be had. So, inspired by my recent journey into Middle Eastern cuisine via Ottolenghi’s beautiful cookbook Jerusalem, I set about preserving lemons.
It’s the dawn of a new year, and first things first: breakfast. All promises for better living and resolutions to drop bad habits need fuel to come to fruition and what more appropriate way to start fresh than to crack a few eggs and give life to a delicious breakfast.
I have been making scrambled eggs badly for ever. I longed for fluffy eggs with a velvety finish. Instead I’d serve up edible but inelegant eggs that needed a generous serve of crispy bacon to divert attention from the dry yellow mess cowering on the toast.
And then we moved to the country, where new friends have productive chooks and old friends come to stay the night. So with the ingredients at the ready and a desire to cater delicious breakfast for our guests, I set out to learn how to make perfect scrambled eggs.