I recently mentioned having enjoyed Bee Wilson's book "The Way We Eat Now". She touches on, among other things, the loss of the lunch hour, unhealthy "health foods", and our busy, busy lives.
I've also just finished two books by Michael Booth – "Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking" and "The Meaning of Rice: and Other Tales from the Belly of Japan." I admire his honesty in admitting that as a self-avowed Japanophile, he nonetheless finds the level of pedantry involved in the Japanese tea ceremony to be mind-numbingly boring. “I can’t quite see how watching a pedantic elderly woman take two hours to make a cup of matcha (tea) will enhance my life.” Both books are riveting and got me into a week of ramen, okonomiake, chawan mushi and mochi.
I miss not being able to talk with friends about what I read.
Friends? I have friends. Some belong to book clubs - crime, romance, dystopia, historical fiction, WWII but what I really want is to be free to discuss my gastronomic readings without anyone rolling their eyes. So it's occurred to me. How about a book club!
I guess we'd meet once a month. Someone would make a suggestion for the next gathering. How many readers? I guess 8 to 10 at the absolute most. Would we have tea and madeleines or wine and anchovies on horseback? So much to work out but the reading possibilities are endless. There's history, health, sociology, philosophy, biography, science...
The world doesn't need another cook book or another recipe. They're already out there, somewhere in the cloud, in the ether or on a bookcase near you. But it would be lovely to gather with consenting adults in private and talk gastronomy.
What do you think? There could be chapters all over the country, all over the world. Let's get up a group.
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Home from a week in Hobart, I was greeted by this magnificent display. The Cattleya (bought last year at the Royal Adelaide Show) had opened with 4 enormous blooms. Cattleyas are no longer fashionable but I adore their vulgarity and they're my orchid of choice. The popular phalaenopsis (the white, flat-leaved, S.E. Asian "moth" orchid) is a long lasting, good little trooper, pretty, but...
These were the orchids used (circa 1950s) for a corsage offered to a dance date, worn high on the shoulder or even on the wrist. In the film of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, Swann "flirts" with a Cattleya thrust in the bodice of Odette, his pulchritudinous mistress.
Hobart is very accessible, with great art, great produce, great seafood, great markets and therefore good restaurants. The highlight for me (and possibly one of my best experiences ever) was meeting Ainstie Wagner, the lively, energetic, knowledgeable, executive chef of Tasmanian Government House who showed me around her domain. (Allowed into the vault to see the silver, the teapots, the salt cellars, asparagus servers, the salvers, the marrow spoons - not often called for - I was rendered speechless.)
Then followed a walk around her ordered and immaculate kitchen, her store room of preserves, the produce garden with its chickens, its soft fruit canes, its nut and fruit trees, its rows of rhubarb, spinach, carrots. She is also working on adding to their two crocus plants for their own saffron!
A tale of two flowers.
The Cattleya originated in Brazil where it grew wild in trees. (It's epiphytic i.e. it attaches itself but thrives independently.) It was brought to England in the early 1800s. British botanist explorers in fact found many flowers in South America to add to the English garden.
The vanilla orchid (Vanilla Planifolia) has a similar shape, but very much smaller, about 12cm long, pale green and cream and grows as a vine. While the Cattleya flower will last sometimes six weeks, the vanilla orchid fades in a day, after which the vanilla bean, its fruit, develops. The vines must be checked daily.
From Mexico, the explorer Cortez introduced vanilla to Europe in the early 1500s where is was an instant success. More and more plantings were gradually set up in Madagascar, Indonesia and Tahiti. Pollination by bees is erratic and hand pollination was developed in 1840 by a 12 year old slave, Edmond Albius, in Madagascar.
So what with one thing and another, vanilla is time consuming to grow, very much in demand and therefore very expensive. It's a ubiquitous flavouring - think vanilla ice-cream. When my Cattleya flowers fade, I will carefully watch the development of the bean. It will not be a vanilla bean of course, but I will feel a connection.
And so to the saffron crocus.
This little crocus (Crocus Sativus) is just like the bulb you might plant at home, along with the daffs, hyacinths and snowdrops. It grows in clusters, has a lovely mauve flower, but stands out with its three (yes, three only) red stamens - the saffron. While you're unlikely to pick up a vanilla orchid at a nursery near you, it would be possible to find a supplier of saffron crocus bulbs. Harvesting however may deter your enthusiasm. (There are nonetheless some small Tasmanian growers.)
The saffron crocus spread across Europe from the middle east. It's grown extensively now in Iran, Spain and Portugal. The flowers are harvested then the stamens are collected, three at a time! Saffron is time consuming to grow, very much in demand and therefore very expensive.
With saffron I am incredibly fortunate. I am suppled by my rug dealer (I said rug, not drug dealer) Javad Alikorki and by the artist Hossein Vallamanesh when either returns from a trip home to Iran.
My advice for using vanilla or saffron? Choose your dish well and don't skimp. The Spaniards might throw saffron around with gay abandon in their paella but we might be more circumspect. But using not quite enough because you're "saving" it, is a total waste.
"Saving" vanilla beans is also a waste. They might dry out. I have precious vanilla beans stored in castor sugar and the flavour permeates the container and will keep on doing so over a year. This way, the flavour can grace most sweet things. It's very effective.
(And you may like to know that artificial "vanillin" is a flavour compound from the petrochemical industry - the devil's work!)
P.S. The saffron-coloured robes worn by monks are not dyed with saffron (and never have been). Imagine the kilos required!
When do you use vanilla? When do you use saffron?
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Part of the hotel breakfast buffet (Ravenna, Italy) enjoyed by Ken, (hospitality guru and IT social media trainer) while playing in Italy. This is hotel hospitality certainly, but it does illustrate the Italian concept of breakfast - coffee and pastry. (Aussie tourists faced with this, apparently have a meltdown.)
Few would disagree that the "Mediterranean Diet", so called, has given us a blue print for better eating - smaller portions of meat, if any, more fish, lots of vegetables, real bread and fruit as the sweet component.
As Michael Pollan says "Eat food, not too much, mainly plants".
Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon's Venetian policeman, throws back a tiny espresso for breakfast but later interrupts his morning at a local café with a small glass of white wine and a couple of tramezzini.**
So without muesli, yoghurt, celery juice and turmeric lattes, Italians have managed to develop a working (sort of) government and legal system, raise families, produce great art, composers, architecture, poets, beautiful cars and great shoes.
Meanwhile in Britain, there have been some changes in eating - aided by yummy lunches of Ottolenghi salads. But nonetheless, with a breakfast of bacon, blood pudding, fried bread, eggs, white toast, mushrooms and tomato ketchup followed by dinners of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes, somehow, the Brits have managed to develop a working (sort of) government and legal system, produce great art, composers, architecture, poets, sensible cars and Harris Tweed.
Over the Channel, the French still breakfast on coffee and a carbohydrate, often dunking the baguette or croissant for better slurping. During the day they gorge themselves on dairy products and fats of various provenance - duck, goose, pork, olive, hazelnut, walnut oil, washed down with wine. The French have managed to develop a working (sort of) government and legal system, produce great art, composers, architecture, poets, the Citroën DS 19 and Krug.
I could go on, travelling around the world.
Now this isn't a very scientific analysis, but I think you get my drift. Just eat food, stay away from engineered food-like substances that need labels, avoid anything that has been known to "heal" for thousands of years, avoid anything that needs to tell you it's healthy, avoid the very word "healthy". Just be.
**Tramezzini -little sandwiches, creatively seasoned fillings, more filling than bread, soft white bread, crusts off. (Soft white bread? Go on, you know you want it.)
But we consider this Japanese conundrum next.
Above - very cute emojis of sushi and bento box.
Now consider the Japanese conundrum...
The Japanese are known to live long lives, sound in body and mind.
The Japanese diet has its ups and downs. It has lots of fish, it's low fat but high salt.
In the early 1970s, a study was done on the health of Japanese men who had settled in America comparing those who followed as much as possible a traditional Japanese diet centred on fish, vegetables, tofu and tea with those who "went native" on a diet with burgers, processed foods, fats, salt and sugary drinks .
Statistics showed that men in Japan had significantly lower rates of coronary heart disease than American men (at that time the highest in the world). The obvious explanation was diet. For Japanese men in America, did sticking to a Japanese diet protect them?
The results were disturbing and confusing. Japanese men in America suffered worse health issues than Japanese men in Japan certainly, but not all were better off than their America counterparts, even on a Japanese diet. Those that stood out convinced Professor Michael Marmot to look deeper.
(Marmot had migrated to Australia as a child. After university in Australia, he received a PHD in 1975 from the University of California, Berkeley for research into "Acculturation and Coronary Heart Disease In Japanese Americans".)
Crunching the numbers they decided that what mattered more than the food was the culture in which they ate it. Rather than the American emphasis on speed and individualism, the Japanese men who maintained better health ate with family and friends and maintained a sense of community. Whatever they were eating, they made time to eat, free from any sense of impatience and panic. They had not yet been seduced by the American values of urgency and competition. (Times would change.)
In brief, it showed that how we eat is as important as what we eat. Take the time; you’re worth it. If possible eat with someone. If alone, prepare something nice, eat it slowly on a nice plate; you’re worth it.
It makes sense to me.
People see themselves as “time-poor” with no time to prepare a meal, be it a hot casserole or a mixed salad. But somehow time slips easily through our hands in front of the second series of The Crown or while surfing the net for that vintage handbag, that first edition Julia Child, that slightly cheaper carburettor.
I loved this book Bee Wilson The Way We Eat Now
“We have been sold the idea that all that matters about food is the nutrients it contains. But an organic salad gulped down in a state of anxiety and solitude is not necessarily “healthier” than a takeaway of fish and chips enjoyed at leasiure with friends.” Bee Wilson
Below, eating with friends - a treat.
L - an unexpected afternoon tea (never high tea)
R.- lunch with three friends and a home-made bread.
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Glamorous night of restaurant awards - 900 guests, mood lighting, mirror balls, black table cloths, glinting glassware, ice-buckets heaving with beer, butter in pretty shapes, spilt wine, extremely high heels and delicious décolletés.
Our food was uniformly excellent (900 guests!) with all pregnancies, allergies, glutards and possible phobias carefully attended to. It all worked. How do they do it?
That said, they must employ a bard of Shakespearian virtuosity to write the menu. Our main course was a treasury, a plethora, a cornucopia, an abundance, a superfluity, a profusion, a torrent, a deluge, a surfeit of words, words, words.
"Herb-crusted lamb rack with pulled shoulder, skordalia, caramelised beetroot compôte, garlic-fried beans, pumpkin crisps and pinot jus." (What about salt and pepper? Which herbs? It could have been even longer!)
Why do they do this?
All joking aside, I must say the dish was delicious and to use a cliché, cooked to perfection.
The hero, a small rack of lamb, was tender, and nicely pink inside, the pulled shoulder an interesting contrast of texture. The skordalia, (posh mashed potato with a hint of garlic) was a perfect foil for the beetroot in both flavour, texture and colour. The beans ensured we got our quota of greens as well as a verdant (posh word for green) component. The crisp pumpkin shavings gave a nice crunch. The whole dish was held together by a jus (posh for gravy) of balanced acidity and abundance.
It's a given surely that vegetarians will announce themselves beforehand, as will those allergic to say, seafood, gluten or peanuts. How much do you need to know?
I was at one of the legendary dinners of the Symposium on Australian Gastronomy (1993) in Canberra where the menu was a simple list of words.
They knew their audience. We sat with an open mind and generous spirit of adventure. It wasn't at all scary and was impeccably produced. "Bones" referred to a rich consommé accompanied by roasted marrow bones, "Milk" naturally was the cheese course, "Fruit" a course where the table was piled with grapes. I think I remember rightly that "Skin" referred to Atlantic salmon topped with crispy strips of seared salmon skin.
Would it have been too terrifying a challenge for today's food phobics? Would there be a worrying loss of control, knowing so little?
I recently came across the dish below at a local eatery, very different from my lamb rack or the Symposium dinner. Once again it was delicious.
On the menu, it was "Compost". Now that's a challenge. Was it a hard or an easy sell for a bunch of roasted vegetables sitting on "charcoal brioche soil"?
This reminds me. We did "soil", in 2010. We got the idea from a book. The dish was called "Terroir". Imagine beetroot and chocolate soil, topped with a goats' curd sorbet, spears of baby asparagus poking through a snow of sorrel granita, assorted freeze-dried berries, and micro herbs (of course). We thought we were pushing boundaries. You have to be able to laugh at yourself.
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Every now and then, a myth gets exposed. Yes, wooden chopping boards are more hygienic than plastic. No, mama does not have to stand in the kitchen for three quarters of an hour stirring the risotto.
Every now and then a dish based on an arcane tradition becomes a hit.
Casio e pepe is the pasta of the moment. Catch it now before it slips away like last year's turmeric latte, celery juice and smashed avocado. The recipe below also plays with a new way to cook pasta. Don't tell the Italians. They might not believe you.
Casio e pepe - Pasta with pepper and cream
(Possibly my favourite plates - Czech Eichwald Porcelain until 1939, now Cesky Porcelain. Grateful for any more information.)
Casio e pepe is cheesy and creamy without the addition of cream or oil, not that there's anything wrong with either. The method is interesting and can be used any time for other combinations.
It's made from three ingredients. Three, if you don't count salt and water.
Pasta - Pecorino - black pepper - that's it.
The recipe is for two people. It's best made just when you want to eat it and for no more than four people at a time.
Use good quality spaghetti (rather than say, lasagne) - one of the brands with a rough, white, flaky surface. The pasta is cooked in a shallow pan, not in lots of boiling water. This way, the starch from the pasta is more concentrated, and that makes the sauce.
Left: pasta cooking in my shallow fish pan.
Right: Tonging the pasta into the saucepan so as not to lose the cooking water.
Casio e pepe (Spaghetti with Cheese and Pepper)
Serves 2 as a small main course.
180 gm good quality spaghetti
90 gm finely grated Pecorino
1 tbsp whole peppercorns (more or less - should that be more or fewer?)
After I'd finished writing and "researching" this, I discovered Alex - Just a French Guy YouTube
Highly recommended. This guy is HOT. Introduce him to a beginner and get some cooking happening. The French Guy
Then follow with his next episode where he improves on the method and worries about the "Italian backlash".
By the way, I did tell an Italian. Rosa thought my first dish was too saucy and preferred the one below. (Perhaps she prefers the plate.)
Try it and tell me how you go.
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What's the mystery fruit? They're large, like a mango and smooth.
They're Japanese quinces.
Given these by a friend from her tree, I had to make more quince paste. Perhaps it was the ripeness, but the pectin content was intense, making a very firm paste.
This is a time consuming, heavy going and dangerous production (nothing wrong with that). The only reason I'm a dab hand at it is that it's one of the few things for which I use my Thermomix. No erupting molten paste, no risk of repetitive strain injury from hours stirring the pot.
The Spanish idea to serve quince paste alongside say, Manchego, (a firm, sheep's milk cheese) is now common to most cheese platters. But for cheese accompaniments that go beyond the usual...
The rugged individualists can do as they please of course but I'd suggest pears or grapes over strawberries (no!), dried figs over glacé fruit.
By the way, if you're offering a crisp "ficele" of a baguette (long, small, round, named after a pice of string), cut it on a slant rather than serve nasty little "knobs".
It's certainly the very, very tail-end of the quince season but if you have a Thermomix and would like the no effort recipe/method, send me a note below.
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Pre-occupied with hospitality workshops, I missed two important dates, (three if you count World Chocolate Day, which hardly needs a memory jolt).
Don't know how I could have missed last week's World Negroni Week.
I was led to the Negroni through Luca Turin's articles and books on the subject of scent (The Secret of Scent and Perfume: The A - Z Guide.) His writing is brilliant (but perhaps I say this because I agree wholeheartedly with his ratings). He gave up his "smellings" for a while due to the demands of his real job as a biophysicist, although occasional blogging suggest that the bug is still strong.
He extolled the allure of bitterness - in scents, in food and in life. A touch of bitter could be found in the perfumes of Bandit (Piguet), Knize 10 (Knize), Bois de Violette (Serge Lutens) for example. One could imagine a life of of bitter greens, dark chocolate (of course), wafts of Chanel's Cuir de Russie, a cello concerto by Shostakovich perhaps, and a Negroni, packed with ice.
Playing with variants (or deviants) - Negroni week, Wilmott's, Adelaide.
They say it was invented in Florence in 1919 when a certain Count Camillo Negroni asked his barman to up the ante on his usual Americano (Campari, sweet Vermouth and a large splash of soda) by replacing the soda with gin. This could be challenged by a General Pascal de Negroni in 1857 but you know how these tales escalate...
The concoction (equal parts Campari, sweet Vermouth, gin) is stirred, poured over plenty of ice and a large slice (or chunk) of orange. The orange, with its peel, is essential.
It's the perfect pre-prandial cocktail, with the bitterness sharpening the appetite (not that I've ever found appetite a problem).
It's been a year since the passing of Anthony Bourdain and not a week goes by without a reminder of his down-to-earth, sensible and sensitive ideas.
"Basic cooking skills are a virtue. The ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill. It's as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one's ass (sic), cross the street by oneself, or be trusted with money."
BUT, in the kitchen and at the key-board this week, I've been all over cacio e pepe (like a pitbull on a poodle, to quote Seinfeld's Library Cop). This is a pasta dish that is creamy and saucy without the addition of butter, cream, (and sometimes even oil), relying simply on exploiting the starch in the pasta cooking water. Brilliant.
AND, how "spooky", as Dame Everage would say. Turns out this was Anthony Bourdain's favourite, all time, come what may, desert island pasta dish!
Recipe to come.
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Bits and pieces before I go full bore in the next few weeks on what's not healthy with the lunatic fringe of so called health and wellness (IMHO).
A new home page - a perfect lunch - July in Paris at John Baxter's flat, in a building where once lived Sylvia Beach of the legendary bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. A roast chicken & potatoes, mignonette salad, Roquefort and cherries. Simple, simple, simple and served on early Limoges plates. He bought a pile of them at a "brocante" (flea market/ junk shop) a few years ago.
John Baxter is Australian and married a French family. He is a writer on film and biographer of directors such as Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen. Other books immerse you in the history, lifestyle, food and cooking of his adopted country. He also takes personalised tours of the city. https://www.johnbaxterparis
If you love film, history, France or food, you'll want to spend months with these books. (They also kindle nicely.)
The new brutalism...
Ruggedness is the order of the day in restaurant tableware and drifting into homewares, if the style influencers have their way. Rarely plates but mostly bowls, these seem to be chiselled from igneous rock, drilled from reinforced concrete, hewn from granite or gouged from cold volcanic lava. They are heavy, chip easily and must be hell to stack. (Do they offer weight bearing exercise for the staff?)
How I long for a bit of porcelain – clean, bright, tough, fine, durable.
Bowls are for toddlers, not adults.
Food nestled at the bottom of a bowl can look adorable but let’s be honest. It’s awkward to eat, especially with the fork in left hand, knife in right hand method. No wonder we’re seeing some strange cutlery holdings. (Pasta is traditionally eaten with a fork only and the side of a bowl helps with the twirling action required.) In between mouthfuls or when you’ve finished, what happens? Your cutlery falls into the bowl. How I long for a flat plate, with an edge, an edge of at least 4 cm.
The dehydrated cocktail...
Sipping your Negroni, your nose deep in the glass, you appreciate the hint of orange peel from the generous slice of fresh garnish. You can go further and spritz out the oil from the skin. But what’s this? Jars of thinly sliced orange (preferably blood orange, for appearance) dried to a crisp, now decorate the bar and your cocktail. A modern fad but where’s the aroma? Cute but no subtle layering and interplay of scent and taste.
Let’s have some fresh slices of orange or lemon, cucumber for the Pimms and celery for the Bloody Mary. These dehydrated slices also come half dipped in chocolate and they're not bad - but in drinks? Is it a case of the fad being more important than the whole?
How I long for the breakdown of all those bloody dehydrators.
Not all fashion fads need more than Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
Help me out here. Tell me I'm dreaming, I can take it.
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A glam and modern plating of a traditional Persian / Iranian dish. Please don't call it healthy. (It is, by the way.) Just call it delicious.
There have been sad losses over the last few months. I begin to understand that one can be slim, trim, energetic, positive, clever and still get Parkinson’s, die of cancer or have a stroke. One can smoke heavily, drink cola, eat fast food, avoid fresh water, watch Channel 7, be a grumpy bugger and live well into your late eighties and beyond.
But what an incredible apparatus is the body! It continues to detox our system (with our wonderful liver) without any outside "juiced" intervention, keeps us laughing, moving, thinking.
Nonetheless, people continue to be obsessed by "health", filling their lives with fear, ritual and self-denial. I am involved in an on-line forum answering questions on food, cooking and ingredients, which is fuelling my cynicism. For some reason, I have been chosen and channelled over to the "nut-case" and lunatic fringe of so-called "health". Ah, how little they know me!
See below a random selection of questions. I am choosing to abandon my involvement rather than wait for them to ban me for my sarcastic responses.
They're selling Turmeric Lattes in Woolworths, for heaven's sake! Perhaps a mug might calm me down after my kale, kombuchu & chia smoothie.***
That said, you may be feeling a depletion of energy or health. You might need a genuine and massive ingestion of leaf greens. Try Kuku Sabzi, below.
(What is a bunch? A bunch of violets or a bunch of peonies? Impossible to measure recipe quantities like this. So I’ve done the hard work for you and weighed.)
200 gm silver beet, washed and trimmed of some part of stalk bottom.
60 gm spring onion, finely sliced, green included
20 gm dill, main stalks only removed
60 gm coriander, main stalks only removed
60 gm parsley, main stalks only removed
2 tsbp ground turmeric
teaspoon of salt
You are aiming finally for roughly 500 gm.
Purists may be horrified but I got help with the chopping – a bit of a short whiz in the Magimix, then finished by hand, chopped with a knife.
Mine were also cooked in 12 individual muffin tins and served on a creamy bed of walnut sauce and cucumber.
***Disclaimer - I never drink from a mug.
Traditional serving - cut into slices (note how a circle is cut in the centre).
Served at room temperature, perfect for a party or buffet.
Now, you know how Popeye got his strength.