Thank you for reading and sharing my 2019 musings. It’s been a strange year. Let’s not ruin the mood of hopefulness that the new year might bring – let's look forward to contentment and sanity.
The new January front page may shock. Dizzie (Gillespie) is helping out before friends arrive. It's my personal statement against hand-sanitiser.
Our local greengrocer has become a haven of taste and a benefit to our suburban community. Year by year it has moved to more organic produce, less plastic, more interesting vegetable displays, along with the obligatory vegan dips, seaweed salad, Italian vinegars, kombucha drinks, kimchi “chutneys” and stylish hessian carry bags. The associated butcher is all grass-fed and free-range.
But there's a new development. Each check-out now flaunts a pump bottle of hand-sanitiser. Natural, healthy living is being compromised by the fear of natural "people" germs. More people are harmed from lack of money than from handling it!
The Murdoch Children's Research Institute has found that 1 in 10 infants now suffers from food allergies, all probably due to our modern lifestyle. "Australia has the unfortunate title of being the food allergy capital of the world." Their hypotheses can be summed up as the 5 Ds - Diet, Dry Skin, Vitamin D, Dogs and Dirt. (For dogs read - dogs, cats, rabbits, macaws, siamangs etc.)
They believe that infants should be introduced to as many foods in their diet as possible between 6 - 10 months. Any infant unfortunate enough to suffer dry skin due to eczema is more likely to be sensitive to certain foods. Vitamin D deficiency is likely to show an increase in food allergies.
The last two - dogs and dirt - are easy. Get them outside touching "stuff", stop them washing their little hands at every opportunity, don't spray their schools bags, their bouncing balls and the kitchen bench tops with germicidal sprays.
And get that dog inside, give it a kiss and get that cat in the bed.
(Old "folkloric" linen tablecloth - "Spanish Blackwork" embroidery, out of Denmark, possibly Polish.)
Shocked? Tell me. 👇
The Last Supper - nun, Plautilla Nelli -Florence - c.1565
(We'll never know what was served at Christ's last supper but this is how she saw it - lamb, lettuce, bread, broad-beans (or fava beans), herbs and red wine. (Personally, I might have added a lemon but...) More about the painting and in particular, the tablecloth next post.
Coco Chanel is reported to have said that before going out, go to the looking glass and remove one thing. Such strict restraint is difficult for me at times, but I’m working on it.
Around the so-called holiday season, advertising is heavy with food and drink. (And adding to the junk in our environment, are the stocking fillers. Just don't go there!) I wonder at the sanity (and the decorum) of it all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an indulger. I love specialness, I love treats, I love generosity but are the trinkets and the feasting becoming unseemly?
When I was in the business of preparing galas for special occasions, everything from weddings to the selling of luxury cars, the underlying theme was over-abundance. It was important to provide food that was not just generous, special and delicious but it had to be seen to be too much. It was important to entertain family, friends and clients in such as way that there was enough to discard, to throw away.
A friend described an event overseas where the pre-dinner drinks and nibbles offered not only elaborate canapés on trays by waiters, but buffets of ethnic diversity around which to wander - sushi freshly prepared, tiny shashliks on a grill, sliders (that'a mini hamburger, in case you didn't know) Peking Duck pancakes, barbecued ribs - all more than could be consumed - and then guests sat down to dinner!
Is this a way of soothing memories of fear and deprivation in our recent and distant past, in our family, our cultural identity and history? Or is it about power, showing that you can?
It certainly has little to do with hospitality and generosity. Too much can be embarrassing and now, in the 21st century, perhaps it's also awkward. Waste is no longer chic.
The President, entertaining National Champions, the Clemson Tigers.
(Feeding the Tigers) And he doesn't think much of the salad eaten by the First Lady.
Ample - generously sufficient to satisfy
Plenty – lots, perhaps more than seemly
Adequate - quite good quality but less than excellent, passable
Abundant - Lots, and lots and lots of it
Groaning - so overladen that the tables (and guests) groan beneath the weight.
Has the festive season made me grumpy?
This is not a recipe blog but these are worth sharing. If you're going to have something sugary, this might be it.
Candied Grapefruit Peel.
Cut the ends off the grapefruit.
Lay the fruit on one cut side, then with a sharp knife, remove the peel in sections, working around the fruit.
Cut from top to bottom, taking both the peel and the pith. (You may even get a little piece of flesh - which is allowed.)
Cut the peel into long strips (size of course depending on your grapefruit). The strips will swell so make the strips around 1cm (1/4 inch) wide, no more.
Place strips into a large pan, allowing no more than two layers deep.
This "film poster" has gone viral. I apologise that I can't attribute it.
Anyone who is diagnosed as gluten-intolerant is relieved to finally understand their condition. Those who are gluten intolerant probably wish they weren't (despite better gluten-free processed products now available). Strangely, many who are not gluten intolerant, want to be and wish they were.
Many years ago, I suffered terrible migraines from drinking white wine. A small glass from a chilled cask of Chateau Marbay would put me to bed in the dark for 48 hours, my right eye throbbing so badly I wished I could gouge it out with my Swiss Army penknife. After looking at my problem from all angles with my clever doctor, she suggested I drink better quality, go for an over-seas trip and dump the boyfriend. It worked and I can now knock back a Puligny-Montrachet with the best of 'em.
What I'm saying, is that if you have a problem, check it out and and try to solve it. But I'd go with science rather than with Gwyneth Paltrow and the wellness warriors.
Peanuts are good but not for those with a peanut allergy.
Prawns are good, but not for those with a seafood allergy.
People ask, "Why is gluten so bad?" It's not, unless you are allergic to it.
Gluten only hurts people who are allergic to it. It is not a poison. It's a protein found in certain grains (wheat, barley etc) which enables elasticity in dough. It's essential in making good pasta and for bread with its delicious crust and aroma (the Maillard effect). Unless you are a coeliac or a non-coeliac gluten intolerant, why have gluten-free bread when you could have the real thing?
Dusting foods before cooking doesn't require elasticity. Rather than dust fish for example, with flour, I like tapioca flour or real corn flour (made from corn).
The television programme, Loving Gluten-Free, offered pizza without guilt. Guilt? There are more serious things to feel guilty about than pizza.
At a recent cooking demonstration, the dessert was praised as being gluten-free, so you know it's healthy. No! Not particularly!
Silvia Colloca, a little cutie with a TV cooking show and credentials sealed by her Italian heritage, tells us she has searched for ages and now finally has a recipe for gluten-free bread. It's not good bread. It's a substitute bread. Fine, but I can hear the ciabattas and schiacciatas weeping in the background.
If you get a bit poorly from eating too much pasta, but a little is OK, perhaps check this out. You might be barking dangerously up the more fashionable tree. You can't have a little bit of a coeliac allergy, just as you can't have a bit of leukaemia or be a little bit diabetic. (Coeliacs sufferers - 1% of population, irritable bowl syndrome 12% - just saying.)
Menus now carry warnings in parentheses (V) (VG) (GF) (LF). Supermarket shelves have warnings. A lovely, all-natural organic peanut butter (Darryl's Fresh Roasted - Drumcondra, Victoria) is made from only peanuts and salt. The very correct brown paper label announces it's gluten free. Last time I looked, peanuts didn't contain gluten. I long to see (B. S. Free).
We pathologise food and moralise it - good, bad, healthy, unhealthy. Warnings on processed foods are worn like a red badge of courage. Will we soon see stickers on apples declaring them gluten free? For a light hearted look, see the video Menus
Is basic understanding of biology and physiology lacking? There is so much good food out there that "glutards" can be "integrated" and enjoy themselves. But IMHBIO*, there are some who wish not to be integrated, who wish to be given special consideration and sympathy, even though they are not gluten intolerant.
Why would you? I don't get it.
*IMHBIO - In my humble biased and intolerant opinion.
Join the conversation. Comment 👇 - see fine print.
Almond Biscuits - Plate Arabia Valencia, Finland, mid 60s
Better than average biscuits. Make twelve for morning tea or smaller with coffee for the end of a meal.
The idea comes from jennycancook - the most WASP/Middle America cooking blog ever BUT warm, witty with great ideas nonetheless.
And whenever possible, get help - cook with a friend.
And the "Gin & Tonic" award goes to the first person to recognise that as well as being easy, elegant and wholesome, these biscuits are gluten-free! Don't eat them because they're "healthy", eat them because they're delicious.
Almond, Pine Nuts & Chocolate biscuits
3 Tbs softened butter (or try 45 gm)
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups almond meal (blanched or not)
1/2 teaspoon baking power
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts (or other nut, chopped)
1/3 cup dark chocolate chips
Is this a Paella or just my deconstructed dish of chicken, mussels and saffron rice? How important is tradition when it comes to a national dish? (Spain of course in this instance). Should it constrain us or free us to improvise?
They say Paella was once a meal eaten outdoors, made in a flat pan over a fire pulled together from foraged sticks. It was a meal eaten by workers in the fields from what could be caught and added to with rice and herbs, (often rabbit and snails). Somehow it evolved into a dish of many elements, but held together by rice, garlic and saffron.
I've been told by a friend just back from Madrid that as the dish is originally from Valencia, everywhere else, you just call it rice - arroz con pollo y langostinos, for example. Only in Valencia is it Paella. In Codoba, you order rice with...
Now that's taking local appellation very seriously. Close relatives of the Paella, or rice cooked with other "stuff" (as a one pot dish) are everywhere.
The best polo I know is Shireen Polo - rice, chicken, slivered pistachio and almonds, orange rind, carrots, saffron, the whole sweetened with a dangerous amount of sugar which makes the golden colours glisten. It's definitely made for an occasion.
Is a Jumbalaya just a saffron-free Paella? Is Biryani just a young sibling of the Pilau? (Didn't some Persians drop down into India some centuries ago?) Is Paella just Shireen Polo without the nuts? There is certainly different rice used in each dish, perhaps different spicing but ultimately, I guess, it's down to provenance, locality, country, "terroir". So in Australia, what do we call it?
And is there ever a life situation, gastronomic or other, that can't be illustrated by a Seinfeld episode? Compare dumpy George with the sexy, exuberant Kramer.
George Costanza: Paella? It’s a mélange of meat and fish with rice. Very tasty.
Kramer: Have you ever had really good paella? Oh, it's an orgiastic feast for the senses. A festival of sights, sounds and colours.
So I have a nice robust chicken, some locally sourced mussels, tiny broad beans picked that morning by my brother Jean-Pierre, (grown by his wife Liz), and enough saffron left with which to be generous before my next "gift box" arrives.
As usual, I'm with Kramer, the hipster doofus. (Seinfeld, season 5, eps 18 & 19)
And it's a very difficult dish to make in small quantities!
Georges mother Estelle Costanza: What am I gonna do with all this Paella?
(And this very week, in the Spectator, I read about Paella. paella-five-top-tips
Zeitgeist! We concur and I further learn you eat it with a spoon, which I feel very comfortable with. Yes, yes, the Spectator is a monstrously conservative mag. It can, unfortunately, be very amusing. Trust me, I balance it with The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Times et al and my natural bolshy tendencies,)
So tradition or improvisation? A close friend and I should/could host a cooking show. No, not The Two Fat Ladies but the Traditionalist and the Iconoclast.
Join the conversation.
Comment👇. Are you a traditionalist or an iconoclast?
My Hervey Bay scallops, grilled with herb butter and espelette pepper. I miss the orange "coral" but they're pristinely trimmed and easy! (Waechtersbach serving platter with pierced draining plate, early 1950s.)
Went to lunch recently at a new restaurant. Slick decor, "tribal" tattoos, local gin, a hint of "shabby-chic", a wine list with just enough "natural" wines to be in the zone, a tempting menu of politically-correct provenance. It was easy to have trust in the next few hours.
There were some neat, small starters and a nice idea with lamb to follow - a slow-cooked braised shoulder on a bed of puréed chick peas and tahini, steamed okra, Moroccan pickled lemon, shaved sweet potato chips, with pan juices and pomegranate molasses.
My friend said "Lamb, pomegranate, pickled lemon? That sounds nice."
Our order was taken and for main course, we requested the lamb.
The waiter said "You mean the slow-cooked braised shoulder of lamb, on a bed of puréed chick peas and tahini, steamed okra, Moroccan pickled lemon, shaved sweet potato chips, with pan juices and pomegranate molasses? Good choice." *
Strangely, when asked about bharat and nduja, our waiter said he'd have to ask the kitchen.
It was a warm spring day so we settled for a chilled glass of trendy grüner veltliner rather than a red and played around with our starters - some better than average (much better) falafels, excellent Hervey Bay scallops and grilled eggplant with pine nuts.
Plates cleared, our main course arrived and was put down for us to share. The waiter said, "We have here your slow-cooked braised shoulder of lamb on a bed of puréed chick peas and tahini, steamed okra, Moroccan pickled lemon, shaved sweet potato chips, with pan juices and pomegranate molasses."
Now I could have said "Well that's a relief because that's what the menu said and what I was expecting." Sarcasm however, would have ruined the mood.
But is this just too much information, too often?
Do we need this? Do you think this is good service? Incidentally, I'd love to go back and have more of the menu but how about "Can I describe any dish for you?" rather than automatically getting a full shopping list, cooking instructions and culinary road map?
*And what branch of people management teaches this art of positive reenforcement. Our lamb was a "good choice" but at the next table the chargrilled octopus with black rice and foraged samphire was surprisingly also a "good choice". If I'd been having a low self- esteem day, I would have been confused.
Tell me if I'm being difficult. 👇
My favourite glasses*, on the windowsill the next day after dinner, are waiting to be washed by hand. These don't "dish-wash", the shape is awkward and they're old enough to suffer pitting from the machine detergent. I wash and leave them to drain on one of those spongy towelling mats.
I love the cooking and the planning. I love the experimenting. I love the gatherings. I love the memories the next day as I dump the empty wine bottles in the bin. I love the putting away of my toys we have played with that evening. I love the calm meditation later over the ironing. But let's face it, even when there are only two of us, it's still work - the price of pleasure- the wages of sin.
Now to share. I've been a little overwhelmed lately by hospital visits, taxi servicing, consoling, listening, empathising. I'm bloody exhausted.
But over the last eight days, we've been fed and cared for at a casual lunch over-looking the beach, after a Vernissage** (a dazzling post art gallery opening dinner for 12) and a Sunday evening table of five with very amusing friends.
Two artists at work.
Left: Jo - lazy lunch on the verandah. We could be anywhere from Pt Elliott to Pondicherry, from Bali to Bora Bora.
Right: Liz - sumptuous atmosphere with cleverly re-purposed "stuff" from auctions and junk shops.
Here were three days out of eight when I didn't have to think, didn't have to face an untidy kitchen when I came to make my jentacular*** cup of tea, didn't have to unload the dishwasher. Bliss. Can you imagine how helpful, how fabulous that was?
Remember this. It's so easy to add a couple of people to an evening meal or put together a sandwich or salad lunch. It could really make a difference to someone's week.
*Glasses - The tall ones - Holmgaard Princess, mid 60s. (Catch sight of them in Darling, 1965, Julie Christie, Dirk Bogart, Laurence Harvey.) Lovely, but admittedly a touch unstable; only used with certain friends. Rear, Kosta Boda Isadora, mid 80s.
**Vernisage - the French expression for an art gallery opening. I've heard it used here sometimes. (It's possibly from the early 1800s, when artists could varnish or put finishing touches to their work before opening to the general public.)
***Jentacular - You can't live without this word. It relates to any pre-breakfast ritual - a walk, a cup of tea, the crossword...
Comment 👇 and help out a friend.
A Tajine is a dish named after the pot it's cooked in. Simple, perhaps.
Alice is a Danish friend in Kopenhavn. She bought the tajine (left) in Morocco a few weeks ago and starting working on it immediately (right).
The dish is of glazed earthenware, has two pieces, attractively decorated. It cooks and works nicely as a serving dish. It is placed over embers to cook very slowly. In a modern kitchen, a diffuser needs to be used between the dish and the hotplate, to moderate the temperature and also to risk not cracking the dish. Modern ones are made with a heavy cast iron bottom with the funnel top of earthenware.
A modern tajine - not as romantic but might be easier, cast-iron base and ceramic lid.
Tajines are stews or casseroles or ragouts, whatever. They are mixtures of meat, lamb, chicken or fish with vegetables. They are sometimes just vegetables. They often incorporate fruit, dried or fresh, nuts and honey. The aim can be for a sweet sour balance but they are always aromatic with saffron and or a spice mix, ras el hanout, more often than not (see below).
Popular, traditional or classic combinations might be...
They are beautifully aromatic, sometimes spicy hot, sometimes not. You get the idea.
A Tajine is not a Couscous. You eat a Tajine with bread on the side, not couscous. You eat couscous with a Couscous (see post 20th Oct. 2017).
Would you like to cook a Tajine? Can you prepare a Tagine without a tajine? Do you need a tajine?
So first, get going with some preserved lemons and some ras el hanout.
(I've made the assumption that you know how to get a stew going. For a Tajine, start with lots of onion, two at least for a serve of 4 and go from there. If you'd like a real recipe, just contact me. I'm happy to oblige.)
Comment below 👇
Ras el hanout - the spice mixture, not exactly the Alice B Toklas mix.
(Dinner plate - Rosenthal "Landscape" 2008 - Patricia Urquiola, architect).
By 1907, the Americans, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were comfortably settled in Paris and were home to writers and artists such as Hemingway, Picasso, Matisse. Stein managed the salon, Toklas, supported, ran the house and cooked.
After the war, Stein died unexpectantly, leaving a badly organised will, with Toklas caring for the collection and very little to live on. To make ends meet, in 1954 she published The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook which was a run-away success with its collection of French and American recipes.
Today the book is mainly known for its memoir of their lives together and for two recipes; ras el hanout and hashish fudge (given to her by Brion Gysin, friend and Surrealist).
There is a Youtube Alice B. Toklas Hash Fudge on making hashish fudge which looks like a hip health-food bar or protein ball, chock-a-block full of nuts, dates and dried figs - yum. (Toklas warned that 2 pieces are ample for a lively evening.)
Her ras el hanout is a mixture of around fifteen ingredients, three of which you may wish to omit. (1) Spanish fly, known as an aphrodisiac is the crushed secretion (cantharidin) of the blister beetle (lytta vesicatoria) and causes itching and swelling of the appropriate organs, so we can live without that. (2) Dried mariuhana heads might be put to better use and (3) the crushed rose petals I recommend only if you dry them yourself. (Those supplied for potpourri have been dangerously sprayed.)
Ras el hanout – my mixture
This looks like a mix of anything you can lay your hands on, a hodgepodge, the more the merrier, but it's indeed quite glorious. You can buy it in supermarkets, I hear, but the liveliness of the mix is more apparent when you make your own. You can also lean a bit towards your favoured spice (e.g. introduce fennel seeds if you're doing a vegetable or fish dish). It should be spicy with a hint of the sweet and floral.
Use it liberally, anytime, anywhere, roughly 3 teaspoons in a dish for 4 people.
1 tsp Cinnamon
1 tsp Coriander
1 tsp Cumin
1 tsp Ground Ginger
1 tsp Peppercorns
½ tsp Allspice
½ tsp Cardamom
½ tsp Cloves (4 whole)
½ tsp Paprika/Cayenne (your call, heat-wise)
½ tsp Turmeric
½ tsp Salt
(As an aside, might I suggest a double recipe, in a small re-usable clip-lock box, as an unusual and creative house present along with your bottle of wine.)
Grind fresh as many whole spices as possible or on hand. My mother's Algerian, brass mortar and pestle is useful but now that George Cluny makes my coffee, my coffee grinder is dedicated to spices.
In North African cuisine, where the preference is for softer, less acrid pungency, the spices are not dry roasted. Ras el hanout is similar to the Israeli baharat, but think also of the Indian panch phoron or garam masala, the French quatre épices. They are very useful.
(Stein & Toklas, both with rabbinical Jewish parents, were collaborators during the war, disturbingly accepting help from the Vichy government to live safely on the Swiss border. Their collection of art works was not plundered.)