Doctor Sister Outlaw answers the question “can a soufflé rise twice?”

Who knows? They never last that long around here.*

The soufflé inspires dread in many a cook, probably because we all grew up with images of soufflé disasters. Chefs bursting into tears because someone opened the oven on their soufflé. Delicate soufflés deflating because someone makes a loud noise. Housewives bawling because the piéce de resistance of their dinner party is a big fat fail. So it is no surprise that soufflés have a formidable reputation as a classic, only achievable by the gifted.

But oh, the French, they are so very good at tricking people into believing their cuisine is complicated, when, in reality, it relies on simple processes that require little technical knowhow. If you read a French cookery book it would bang on about pâte brisée or roux, but you don’t need to know about those things. A souffle is nothing more than a white sauce, with some stuff added for flavour, and foofed up with some egg whites. That. Is. All. The best thing about them is you can make the sauce and the egg whites before your guests arrive and assemble the whole shebang quickly after opening the plonk, then drink quite a bit before blowing their minds by serving up something that tastes incredibly luxurious and clever. Which it is, because it is so simple.

Now that I’ve demystified the soufflé, it’s time to share this recipe, which I was asked for after boasting about it on twitter. It incorporates a few tasty tricks I’ve learned from a blissful year of making soufflés for friends and family. Try it, enjoy it, vary it.

Smoked Salmon Soufflé for four

Ingredients:
A bit of polenta, about 100g of butter, flour (gluten-free is fine), a cup of normal or low fat milk, a finely diced onion, four or five finely sliced spring onions (scallions), 70 grammes of grated parmesan, 4 eggs (separated – you only use three yolks), a pinch of cream of tartar, 200 grammes of smoked salmon (shredded roughly) or drained tinned salmon, a tablespoon of chopped dill, chervil or parsley, salt and pepper.

First, prepare the oven and the dish. Heat the oven to 180C and warm the dish. Melt some butter in the bottom of it and spread it around. Tip in a small handful of polenta, flour or semolina, and shake it over the butter so it dusts the bottom and sides of the bowl. This will form a tasty crust later (if you made a sweet souffle, you would do this with sugar).

Second, make le sauce. Put 50g of butter in the bottom of a solid saucepan and get it bubbling gently, but NOT browning. Add two heaped tablespoons of flour or gluten-free flour and stir it all about so the flour cooks (expands) in the butter (gently, no browning – this is called a roux and you can see, it doesn’t hurt a bit). Then add a cup of milk. Get a whisk and blend the flour mixture into the milk. Cook it until the whole mess thickens (no lumps!). You just made white sauce. (It’s also called bechamel, but you didn’t need to know that.) Mix in the parmesan and cook a little more. Now you have cheese sauce. Set it aside and let it cool off a little.

Next, le flavourings. In a separate saucepan gently fry the onion and garlic in butter, until soft. Add the spring onions then add the onion mixture, take it off the heat and chuck in the salmon. Let it all sit. Beat THREE egg yolks into the not-very-hot cheese sauce. Feed the extra egg yolk to the cat or compost it. Mix the onions and sauce together. Taste the mix and add the herbs and some salt and pepper. Take a break and cook the other things you want to eat. Talk to your guests.

Penultimately, ouefs. Get a good clean glass or metal bowl, add the four egg whites and a pinch of cream of tartar and get beating. Make really good stiff peaks with lots of air in them as it’s the air that creates the rise and the volume of the soufflé. Let it all sit until you are thinking you would like to eat.

Finally, assemblage: Get a big spoon full of the egg whites and stir it into the cheese/salmon saucy mix. This will ‘lighten’ the mix. Then tip the mix into the egg whites, and fold it in with a spatula. Don’t beat it or the air will leave the whites. You’ll end up with a rough looking mix. Cool! Spoon it into the soufflé dish and pop it in the oven. Cook for between 35 & 40 minutes and you’ll have a fluffy body with a cheesy sauce; 40 minutes and she will be cooked mostly through, 45 minutes and you’ll have a savoury sponge. Connoisseurs like the first option, others don’t. It will rise! You can open the oven and slide a skewer in under the top crust, to see how it’s going. Do it many times. You’ll be right! (Don’t bang the door though, at least not hard). 

Before serving get everyone to sit down so they can see your majestic, high top creation. As soon as you crack the top with a spoon it will fall into a goopy mess of marshmallowy topping and saucy bits. Your guests will fall on it with ravenous passion. Everyone will be happy. Eat with bread, salad, spuds and other things. Never be afraid of a soufflé again.

* Actually, a soufflé doesn’t rise twice but is really good reheated in an oven, with a dollop of cream to make them even more sinful. You can also do this mix in 6 ramekins, which makes them even easier to reheat. Cook for 15-20 minutes only.
** This recipe is easily adapted for use without the salmon. Rule of thumb is one cup of additional flavours, be it spinach, peas, grated veges, herbs, more cheese. I often add paprika.
*** Some would add cream to the white sauce. I don’t, but if you do, reduce the milk accordingly.
**** Sweet soufflés are the same, but without the salt, pepper, veges or cream of tartar, and with caster sugar, chocolate etc. If you make one, the white sauce is sweetened, in which case it’s called a pate thingummy. Bon appetit!

 

 

My veggie garden at the Spring Equinox

I did a post a couple of years ago on my vegetable garden at the Winter Solstice, and thought I might remedy my longstanding blog-neglect with some pretty pictures.

There are two large productive beds in our backyard. When we started renting this house ten years ago, the vegetable beds were just big brick-edged expanses with no internal definition. We’ve tried lots of things over the years, including banked earth beds, simple peg and board edges and fence paling walkways that turned out to be an earwig paradise. You can see that last configuration in the link at the beginning of the post; the boards in the middle of this photo sit where the path lies in the first picture below.

Those methods had been OK, but I was yearning for a more defined feel and better water retention, not to mention being frustrated at continued foot splinters from board paths – I hate wearing shoes in the garden. Finally we’ve got our act into gear. First Owen laid out the beds in the garden at the Western end of the house, edging them with roof tiles bought from the tip shop.

boy path

The little bit of green you can see through the heavy Canberra clay at the bottom left of the path is clover. I chip out everything else that grows on the paths, but clover is such a clever and lovely plant (and so soft and cool underfoot – eventually) that it gets some love. [WRONG! Thanks to Naomi for setting me to rights in the comments. One of the things I love about gardening and cooking is that there is always something to learn. It's oxalis.]

clover

That one is the “boy garden”. Below is the “girl garden” at the Eastern end of the backyard, edged by me over Winter with roof tiles I picked up from the side of the road supplemented with a few purchased extras to finish the central bed with the little fig tree at it’s centre. My friend Katie has already said that those rounded parts look like “saggy old ladies’ boobs” so don’t feel you need to bring that up.

I’m loving myself sick about the paths which I’ve graded down from the external brick edges so the wheelbarrow can get in smoothly. It’s been hugely handy as we’ve barrowed in a trailer load of mushroom compost and half a trailer load of cow manure over the last couple of weekends.

girl garden

I was amazed at how easy it was to make curvy beds with tiles. I did a rough outline with the hose of where I wanted the beds to be, and made sure I had the paths wide enough to turn the wheelbarrow (even if sometimes that means going backwards), but other than that I just started with a mattock, spade and a ho mi and kept going in a continuous line until I was done. I had one tile left when I finished and I felt really very happy I hadn’t spent any time at all trying to calculate how many tiles I’d need. It’s not by any means a perfect job, but it’s completely functional and finished in time for Spring planting and that has to count for something.

The current bane of my existence is the couch grass and other evil plants coming from the neighbours on two sides of this bed. I plan to keep re-digging the couch out of the bed at the near left in the photo as runners are coming through under the boundary brick which is four layers deep. I’ve started planting out the edges between the bed and fence with lemon balm, Jerusalem artichoke and sunflowers to choke out the nasties.

Back in the boy garden, it’s the fourth year for the asparagus, and it’s looking pretty freaking awesome. I found two spears bursting through a few days ago and the next day many more – those little white nubs in the foreground included.

asparagus

The raspberry canes are well settled, seriously well fed and looking great. They’ve started to pop up in the path as you can see at the right of the picture. I don’t know whether it’s worth trying to transplant them back within the bed, so if you’ve done so successfully I would love you to share your expertise.

raspberries

I’ve had trouble trying to work out how we should have pruned them and whether they are Summer or Summer/Autumn fruiting canes – largely because the fruit tends to get gobbled in the garden and rarely makes it into the house. It took me a very long time to work out that was why they seemed less productive than I’d hoped they’d be.

In general the garden is still looking pretty underplanted overall to my eye, but the stalwarts are in place, glorious rainbow chard (and mizuna, parsnip, radish and garlic)

chard

and three waves of broadbeans (the last in the girl bed)

bigger broadbeans

second wave

third wave

The potted things are waking up, too – lemongrass

lemongrass

nettles, and the old bath full of bamboo that shades the concrete slab at the front door

nettles, bamboo

Owy has commandeered the kids’ swing set to grow hops which he’ll use in his homebrew

hops

and, at last, I’ve set up a new nursery area under a shade sail

nursery

Scratching for an argument

I recently hit up the Clouston & Hall store in Canberra. They’re an academic remainders store and they often have excellent cookery books hugely reduced. The book I was really excited about in the latest catalogue was independent UK researcher Dr Frances Short’s Kitchen Secrets: The Meaning of Cooking in everyday life. It promised that it would explore

the thoughts, values and opinions of home cooks, their practices and experiences, and the skills and knowledge they use to prepare and provide food. It provides new and challenging ways of thinking about cooking, examining and often contesting commonly-held beliefs and theories about the role of practical cookery lessons, dinner parties as showcases for culinary flair and the negative effect of convenience foods on home cooking and kitchen skills.

It was a very unsatisfying book, but as we all know that’s the next best thing to a really good one, right? For an overview of Short’s arguments, check out this journal article from 2003 (pdf), and you can also read extracts on Google Book. Her writing is clear and unfussy and there were some parts I found very interesting, such as her careful dissection of the “family meal” as an unquestioned and unassailable good and her findings about which types of home cooking parents were more likely to involve their children in.

Kitchen Secrets was developed from Short’s PhD thesis in sociology and her exploration of claims that domestic cookery is becoming deskilled has been significantly influenced by food historian Rachel Laudan’s 2001 polemic A plea for culinary modernism.

It will help to briefly look at Laudan first. The full text is here (pdf), but to give a potted version of her argument, “culinary luddites” have conflated the terms “natural” and “unprocessed” with “good food” and in doing so they display ignorance of the history of food. In the past survival has demanded that all but the richest perform endless backbreaking work to make highly monotonous diets safe let alone palatable. Laudan says that historically wherever people have an opportunity to eat more processed food that requires less work to prepare, they have taken it.

My problem with Laudan’s argument is that I don’t accept that the leap from wheat kernel to bread is the same as the leap from bread to McDonalds. In saying so, I don’t underestimate the hours and expertise that making raw agricultural ingredients into food takes (for a very entertaining example in relation to the journey from corn to tortilla, read Dave Arnold at Cooking Issues).

It frustrates me that Laudan builds an air of legitimacy by footnoting research arguing that European peasants were stupefied by adulterated food for 500 years or essentially hibernated through a bad winter, but she doesn’t name and shame any “culinary luddites”. She does give the them credit for foregrounding that we “need to know how to prepare good food, and we need a culinary ethos”, but she’s very upset with the ethos of nostalgic agrarian utopianism she insists they are demanding we adopt. I could find you a back-to-the-land hippie who believed the crap that Laudan is arguing against but what persuasive or political power do they have anyway? The exercise would be a pointless waste of everyone’s time – at it’s heart Laudan’s argument is posturing against a strawfoodie.

Her provocative stance certainly has managed to generate attention for her ideas a long time; when a snippet of Laudan’s piece was published in the New York Times last year, she blogged that she was “just relishing the thought of responding to the flood of hostile comments. I love controversy.” More recently in Australia, her spittle-flecked food-politics troll mantle has been adopted by the Institute of Public Affairs’ Chris Berg, in this recent piece for Fairfax “Dig in, don’t wait. Our slow food nostalgia is misplaced.”

Right, so that was a little less brief than I intended, but I jeez I feel better. As I was saying, Short has applied Laudan’s scepticism to claims that none of us can cook anymore. It certainly not an argument that I’ve ever supported, and it something I’m active about both personally and professionally.

Short points out that many terms in this discussion have remained undefined, terms such as “pre-prepared”, “convenience”, “raw” and “natural” and she agrees with Laudan’s view questioning whether food really can be divided into “two nice, neat groups”. (link) It’s disappointing that the only response to rejecting “two nice, neat groups” is to throw your hands up in the air and stick to one meaningless group.

None of her interview subjects express a view that prepared foods are unacceptable, although for different types of meals they might rely more or less on processed or packaged ingredients. Short asserts that “Kitchen technologies and their offspring, the trimmed, par-boiled, floreted, deboned and ready-to-steam, are regularly proclaimed as the scourge of home cooking” (link) or, even more alarmingly, “the scourge of good diet and family health and unity”. (link) Her subjects’ universal lack of anxiety about using processed ingredients makes me think that the prevalence and vehemence of these “proclamations” is being overstated.

I’d rather buy bottled passata with an ingredients list that said “tomatoes, tomato juice” and avoid the BPA lining in canned tomatoes, but I certainly don’t think anyone credible is pointing at canned tomatoes as a scourge of home cookery. What’s the point of clinging to the inclusion of items such as canned tomatoes and rice in the “processed” category if it’s only you and Rachel Laudan putting them there?

Short’s argument is much stronger when she points out that there is no consensus in ordinary life or academic practice of what is meant by “cooking” and “cooking skills”. In addition to concrete skills such as “baking” or “chopping”, she describes a range of tacit skills that are built from experience and learned knowledge, extending from the ability to open the oven and inspect a dish and know at what stage of cooking it’s at all the way to the organisation, planning and emotional work it can take to cook every day for fussy children.

To me the ability to look in the fridge, garden and pantry and whip up something delicious is the mark of a good domestic cook. My definition also includes an element of domestic economy, which would amuse my friend Chris who was astonished that I don’t have a budget for food shopping. What I mean is that there is no food waste in this house. Every usable morsel is eaten by us, the chickens or the worms. There’s a hint of class-based distaste for that kind of frugality in some of Short’s subjects, who don’t want meals to appear as if you’d “bunged your leftovers in” (link)

My parents both worked and eventually my mother got sick of cooking as well as doing all the rest. I was brought up with Deb instant mashed potato and frozen vegetables that were favoured because they didn’t go off in the crisper. I don’t know why I struck out against that way of eating so vehemently. I still try and do all the cooking at my parents’ house rather than eat that way.

My list of “acceptable” processed food will differ from yours (unless you’re Tammi :) I do make some things “from scratch” that are almost exclusively used in bought versions. By Short’s and Laudan’s arguments, is the hoi sin sauce I make using miso and malted barley from the Co-op and Megachef oyster sauce just another assembly of processed foods?

My list of “unacceptable” processed foods will differ from yours too – I find chilled packaged “fresh” pasta a ridiculous invention and will either make fresh pasta or, more commonly, used dried pasta. I’m under no delusions – I am what’s described in the book as a “food hobbyist” and I’m clearly more than a couple of standard deviations past the bell curve of processed food eating – to the extent that my use and consumption of processed food surprises people sometimes. For instance the lovely @charlotteshucks responded when I tweeted that I was making the kids chicken drumsticks with lemongrass and Maggi seasoning sauce for dinner recently “wow, never thought I’d hear you singing the praises of Packet Food … #worldupsidedown”. Fortunately she wasn’t on twitter when I posted a couple of days later “I think y’all will realise how crook I’m feeling if I tell you we’re having Crust pizza for dinner”.

I think what I ultimately found most disappointing about the book was that although Short was a chef for 15 years before becoming a scholar there is nowhere detectable in the book a passion for food beyond that academic fascination. Particularly where a book has begun as a formal qualification-directed research project we can’t judge it for what it’s not about. But how can you talk about cookery skills and how people cook without talking about how it tastes?

Kimchi

I made a work trip to Melbourne last month, and was lucky enough to share a home-cooked meal with Gill and Lucy - a beautiful and grounding way to begin a week of restaurant dinners. As a little present, I took them each a jar of kimchi. Lucy gobbled hers up straight away, and asked for the recipe, which you’ll find at the end of this post.

I first decided to make kimchi after buying David Chang’s Momofuku, a cheffy cookbook that for once lived up to the hype. I’m not often prone to food and food celebrity crazes, but the #momofukurage campaign started by would-be diners at Chang’s first Sydney appearance suckered me in and I’m glad I succumbed.

I’d been interested in Korean food for a while, having picked up Chang Sun-young’s A Korean Mother’s Cooking Notes at the “fill a bag for $10″ stage of the Lifeline Bookfair one year. It’s a great introductory book written by a woman whose sons have emigrated to America. It gently leads you through some fundamentals of both Korean home cooking … and what it might be like to have a Korean Mother-in-Law. From the epilogue, “Tales of my mother in law”:

I think she has written this cookbook for me instead of chiding me for my failures. It is her gentle way of teaching the family tradition and cooking to her sons and daughters in law who live far apart from her. I must confess that Mother’s particularities in cooking caused me quite a bit of stress. I thought she was obsessed with food and complained that her attitude was breaking the balance among food, clothing and shelter for our family. I vowed that I would not be like her, but unbeknownst to myself, I must have been brainwashed because I find myself thinking of cooking ever more often. My suspicion is confirmed by my friends who comment on my cooking, saying “like mother-in-law, like daughter-in-law”.

As you’d expect, Chang Sun-young has some pretty firm ideas about kimchi, including:

  • a woman’s cookery and hostessing skills can safely be judged by tasting her kimchi
  • it is a sign of a lack of care to buy kimchi
  • leave your kimchi on the bench for a day or two to start ripening – refrigerating it before it has had a chance to start fermenting will make it unpalatable and “frost-bitten”

Her recipe involves brining the chopped cabbages before salting and combining with the other ingredients, which include ginger, garlic, green onions, red pepper powder and finely chopped fresh or frozen shrimp. She notes that a more traditional method involves using cabbages that are halved or quartered and rubbing the other ingredients between the leaves, and that if you’re putting up winter kimchi in pottery urns buried in the backyard, that’s the way you should do it.

If you are contemplating such a backyard full of kimchi , Michael J Pettid’s scholarly but readable Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated History has an account of the traditional autumn p’umasi where families would gather to process the 100 – 150 heads of cabbage that were the minimum needed to see each through a long winter of little or no fresh vegetables in pre-modern Korea. If you’re interested in fermentation in general, Sandor Katz’s site is a brilliant place to start, and his book Wild Fermentation has a vegetarian kimchi recipe.

Like most homely and centuries-old foodstuffs, you can take considerably more leeway than a Korean Mother-in-law might allow when you make your own; Chang for instance has adapted his mother’s recipe by starting the fermentation in the fridge and using more sugar. He describes the level of fermentation that takes him to his kimchi happy place:

There’s a point, after about two weeks, where the bacteria that are fermenting the kimchi start producing CO2 and the kimchi takes on a prickly mouthfeel, like the feeling of letting the bubbles in a soft drink pop on your tongue.

Gill was a little alarmed that her jar of kimchi had started bubbling so she should be in a good position to describe that for us!

As a rule I make a mixed kimchi using a variety of vegetables. There is ALWAYS some in the house, or Owen gives me wounded looks when he can’t have his favourite cheddar, kimchi and kewpie mayonnaise sandwiches. When I was making some to take to Melbourne, I found a note on the fridge that said “All kimchi is to remain in Canberra. No kimchi is to be taken to Melbourne”. It is quite addictive, and a little each day does seem to do good things to your insides. Once you’ve made it, you can find lots of delicious things to do with it at Ellie’s site.

crazybrave’s kimchi, adapted from David Chang’s recipe

Tips on ingredients:

It’s really important to use a Korean red pepper/chilli powder, which can be much harder to obtain than Chinese versions. Canberrans can go to the Korean grocery where Impact Comics used to be downstairs in Garema Place, which is the only store where I’ve found it here – even Asiana in the Canberra Centre, otherwise excellent for Korean ingredients, only seems to have the Chinese version.

Most of the other ingredients I use are from the Food Co-op and I’m convinced that minimally refined salt and sugar make a difference. I use a very mineral-rich but carbon-unfriendly damp grey Celtic sea salt and rapadura sugar.

I haven’t been able to find the jarred salted shrimp that Chang recommends, so often throw in a dash of stinky Vietnamese fish sauce, mam nem. It and the seaweed I add are enough to get the level of brininess to my taste. And I use a Korean light soy sauce because the Taiwanese sauces I otherwise use seem a bit heavy in kimchi.

First step:

  • 1 head of wombok, or any other nice cabbage you fancy, chopped in one inch pieces
  • 2 long daikon, sliced thinly into medallions with a mandolin

Toss vegetables with 2 tablespoons salt and 2 tablespoons sugar and leave in a covered container in a cool place overnight. You may wish to move all your sheets and towels to convert your linen press into a fermenting cupboard, but then again you may not.

Second step:

In the biggest bowl you own, or a clean bucket, combine:

  • 20 minced cloves of garlic (less at this time of year when garlic is out of season)
  • a finger length piece of ginger, minced
  • 1/2 cup Korean chilli powder (kochukaru)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce (I use Megachef)
  • 1/4 cup Korean light soy sauce (usukuchi)
  • a splash of mam nem

Add water until there is movement in the mix, but stop before it gets too thin. Then add:

  • 1/2 cup of green onions cut in 2 cm pieces
  • 2 or 3 carrots, peeled and cut into medallions with a mandoline (I peel mine with a wavy Thai peeler for kicks)
  • a handful of hijiki or another thinly sliced sea vegetable such as arame

Third step:

Drain cabbage and daikon, and add to the mix. Pack into clean jars. Leave in the linen closet overnight, and then refrigerate.

Eat with everything.

Welcome Tammi Jonas and Motorhome Mama Cookin’

Now one of my dearest and closest friends, @tammois and I met on the twitterz and have since cemented our friendship around many tables and fires, cookbooks, meals and bottles of wine. Tammi and the rest of her brood, The Jonai, are at present on a magnificent three month Rebel Farm Tour of her homeland, the USA, in the world’s coolest RockVan.

You can follow their journey at her blog Tammi Tasting Terroir, on Crikey’s Back in a Bit travel blog and on twitter but this here is what Mama’s been cookin’ up on the road …

A question food folk love to both ask and answer – ‘what can’t you live without in the kitchen?’ – is one that most of us rarely have cause to put to the test. But flying across the Pacific with nothing but a suitcase of clothes to drive across America in a ’77 GMC motorhome provides the perfect opportunity.

I knew there’d have to be cast iron, a good knife, a wooden chopping board and either a mortar & pestle or a hand blender. The hand blender won in deference to space considerations (I can hardly claim it was the weight given all the cast iron…). A mixing bowl or two, a large-ish pot, some wooden spoons and a whisk pretty much rounds out the essentials.

We picked up a cast iron griddle and a frypan for a song at the thrift shops of Front Royal, Virginia, where I also scored a hand blender for $5, and complete sets of utensils, cups and plates for a few dollars. Due to the small stove, I leaped at a narrow, tall stainless steel pot on sale for $15 new at Target, and a large, new, wooden chopping board with a non-slip mat underneath from Camping World that’s designed to sit atop RV stoves to save space and stop the rings from clattering on the road.

A good knife eluded me for over a week – we’d bought a Wüsthof paring knife at Bed, Bath & Beyond hoping it would tide us over until I found a quality Japanese high-carbon steel chef’s knife. I quickly lost patience and knuckles chopping garlic with this woefully inadequate tool, but we’d scoured all the ‘home’ or ‘kitchen’ shops we could find, all of which were of the large, generic franchise sort, and found only Wusthofs and Globals and something branded by one of those ‘pretty women who cook on tv’ whose names I can never remember. And then we stumbled across Country Knives.

We were just past Intercourse, Pennsylvania on a tiny byway (340) after exploring Amish country when the sign appeared. There was no town nearby, and the sign appeared to be at the front of somebody’s home. I figured there would be a charming but useless collection of ‘country craft’ knives – perhaps with carefully whittled handles for the grey-nomad types to admire and purchase only to continue to despair at cooking as they’ve never known the joys of a good knife. I was utterly mistaken.

Inside was a wonderland of knives – some 8000 the owner told us – everything from hunting knives and throwing stars to high-quality chef’s knives. Bingo. The beautifully curved 10” Shun Classic twinkled at me from behind the glass. Just to be circumspect, I handled three or four, but it was love at first sight, and it was with intense pleasure that I handed over my credit card to make the Shun mine. It hasn’t disappointed, as I’ve chopped my way down the Appalachians, rhythmically maintaining an otherwise scattered sense of self from Pennsylvania to Mississippi.

A secondhand 4-quart cast iron pot with a lid was even more difficult to secure, and without it, there’s no hope of making bread in the RockVan’s small oven whose designer clearly mistook ‘distribute’ heat for ‘localise intensely at the bottom middle’. We picked up a simple heat dissipator for a few cents at one of the many Habitat for Humanity’s Restores we’ve frequented, which should make basic baking more successful, but bread’s a fussier beast, so cast iron was required.

Yet again, patience paid off, and I found what I needed at a Lodge Cast Iron factory outlet outside Knoxville, Tennessee. Since the recession, Lodge made a decision to put pots and pans with minor defects out on ‘seconds’ shelves rather than re-melting them for another attempt at perfection. Thanks to this reportedly popular new policy, I scored my pot for $26 rather than the usual $60, all because it has two nearly invisible little concave bubbles in the bottom.

So now that I’ve waxed fetishistically on about knives and cast iron, surely you’re wondering what I’ve cooked with it?

Those who know my penchant for making sourdough damper when we camp might have wondered whether I’ve baked yet. For one, I miss Fran, my sourdough starter whose daughters I left with family in Oz in hopes of returning to her in September. Next, there is the issue of the small oven that seems to think it’s an inverse griller. Finally, it’s been so freaking hot there’s no way I wanted to put the oven on! However, having found my cast iron pot and lid finally, I’ll make my first RockVan loaves soon … whether in the oven or on the stovetop will depend on the mercury.

The ready availability of quality tortillas and dearth of decent bread across small-town America has resulted rather logically in a surfeit of Mexican cooking in the RockVan. Of course it’s ‘Tex-Mex’, and frequently inspired by what we’re finding in the taquerías to be found in even the most seemingly ‘white bread’ towns. It’s also inspired by the brilliant variety of chilies found everywhere (even – gasp – in Walmart!), anaheims, poblanos, jalapeños, habaneros, and serranos to name some of the most common. And don’t be fooled by some of their capsicum-like appearance – most are very bloody hot – as I discovered during an out-of-mind experience three bites into ‘testing’ the hotness of one type.

And so burritos de frijoles negros, tacos de carne asada, quesadillas, enchiladas de pollo, and many bastardisations of all of the above have been our lunch and dinner staples, plus the odd breakfast burrito here and there.

Still, it turns out even the bean-lovin’ Jonai cannot survive on tortillas alone, and so I’ve experimented with drop biscuits both on the griddle and in the oven. It’s surprising how well they work on the griddle, though it’s tricky to keep them from burning on the outside while ensuring the middle isn’t doughy. Then having learned about hoecakes, which are a sort of cornmeal pancake/biscuit, I’ve been working on a technique with thinner biscuits for the stovetop. I’ve also rather enjoyed making these southern staples for my aunts and uncles, all of whom grew up on them, but are pleasantly surprised to find that their ‘Australian’ niece makes them ‘like Mama did’, even though they themselves now make pop-out biscuits.

Free-range eggs are often found for sale along the roadside – usually for $2 or $3 a dozen – and so eggs, biscuits and gravy are a popular brekky. I broke in the hand blender with a classic ‘tammindaise’ the day we did happen to have bakery bread and after planting our little herb garden in the kitchen window.

The ever-present truck-wheel fire ring grill at all the state parks has meant some barbecuing as well – ‘grass-fed beef’ is pretty easy to come by, as is free-range chicken. Vegetarian options range from the black-bean Mexican favourites to tofu burgers and an old standby, a Sri Lankan style mustard eggplant curry. We even made a Limburger and avocado pasta one night, and although the stinky-socks smell of the cheese challenged the brood, they gobbled it all up.

One night, just for a lark, we cooked some turkey dogs for the kids, and Stuart even taught the kids the ‘bend the can’ trick to cook some creamed corn on the grill, which they universally despised, I’m happy to report.

When Oscar spiked a fever, it was roast capsicum and garlic soup on the menu, and when he recovered and requested fried chicken, I proved it’s possible even in the little RockVan.

When I stumbled across fresh pita breads at the Central Markets in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we had to have kebabs, and here in the South, we seem to have coleslaw with nearly every meal.

The opportunity to cook in ‘real’ kitchens while visiting family and friends has been a lovely respite from the RockVan’s confines and a great way to say ‘thanks for having us’. I’m surprised that nobody has blinked an eye as I stride in with not just ingredients but my kick-arse knife as well.

Texas lies ahead, so our Mexican fetish should crank up a few notches when I pick up tortilla presses for me and the wonderful Zoe, our gracious host here on PDP. But first, we’ll be traveling through Cajun country in southern Louisiana, where I hope to learn the mysteries of Gumbo, Jambalaya and crawfish étouffée. If you want to see how that goes, be sure to tune back in for the next instalment of Motorhome Mama Cookin’. ;-)

 

Anthony on That Old Chestnut

I went for a drive through the central highlands of Victoria over the Easter and was struck by the many roadside offers of fresh chestnuts for sale. Reader, we drove by.

I had a memory that fresh chestnuts take some wrangling: scoring the base of each nut, roasting, then getting the skins off by rubbing with a tea towel and so on. I was obviously having a Shirley Conran-esque “life’s too short…” moment.

But another part of me was heralding chestnuts as the harbinger of winter. My first trip to Europe nearly twenty years ago took place over the northern hemisphere winter, and the smell of roasting chestnuts in Rome, Paris and Barcelona was a revelation. When a few years later roasted chestnut vendors appeared on the wintry streets of Melbourne’s CBD, initially the scent was a part evocation of those European cities.

By way of aside: because of Melbourne’s reliance on trams, not that many buses pass through the CBD. Occasionally I do get a whiff of diesel as buses pass down some streets, and I’m immediately transported to those metropolises that make greater use of buses: London, Sydney, Rome, Paris. Tragic, really, that the intake of diesel fumes can make me feel I’m on holiday. Now if only those roasted chestnut vendors set up
shop nest to Melbourne’s prime bus routes, my vicarious tourism would be complete.

Anyhoo, one aspect of the chestnut I now embrace is chestnut flour. Since I started to cook for myself, I’ve collected, borrowed and browsed Italian cookbooks, and many of them have a recipe for “castagnaccio” – a chestnut flour cake that hails from Tuscany. The recipes generally describe a cake made of chestnut flour, water, olive oil, rosemary and pine nuts. That’s it. Sometimes it’s sweetened with honey. It’s invariably described as “rustic”, which hardly begins to sum up the absolute peasant austerity of the recipe. And, strange as it may seem, on perusing these recipes, I was never ever tempted to bake a castagnaccio.

Until, until… I had the pleasure of working near Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne several years ago and a wonderful café that fronted onto Elizabeth Street with all sorts of delights offered “castagnaccio”: a lovely plump, honey-coloured slice which, when tasted, was the perfect mid-morning coffee accompaniment, the chestnut flour and honey combining to evoke the flavour of exotic spices, the rosemary adding an incredible floral yet savoury moment, the sultanas being bursts of fruity sweetness, whilst the pine nuts referenced a Neolithic past.

So this is what I had been missing out on?

I raced home, dug out my recipes for castagnaccio, whipped up this frugal concoction of chestnut flour, oil, water, rosemary, pine nuts and sultanas and… well, it tasted exactly like you would imagine such a concoction to taste: bleagh!

So my mission was to replicate this café castagnaccio. Them at the café gave nothing away, but eventually the fantastic Karen Martini published a recipe for “Chestnut, honey and rosemary cake with pine nuts” in the Sunday Age (it now appears in her second cookbook, Cooking at Home). This was what I was after: not the taste of Tuscan peasant winters with their frugal ingredients, but a lovely cake enriched with eggs, butter, sugar and milk.

So here is the Karen Martini recipe, which whilst a homage to “castagnaccio” she has the good grace not to call castagnaccio, but which I urge you all to bake

(Check the use-by on any chestnut flour you purchase: it doesn’t keep too long, and is milled in the northern hemisphere and so is out-of-season come our winter)

200g chestnut flour
100g self-raising flour
185g unsalted butter
160g brown sugar
185ml water
185ml milk
1 egg
1 egg yolk
4tbsp honey
80g sultanas
1 sprig of rosemary
50g pine nuts
2tbsp olive oil

Heat oven to 180C and grease and line a 20cm x 30cm tin
Combine flours and butter to form something resembling coarse breadcrumbs. Add sugar.
Combine bicarb of soda, water, milk, egg, egg yolk and honey and whisk well. Add sultanas and half the rosemary and stir.
Add the flour mixture and mix well, then pour batter into the tin. Scatter with pine nuts and remaining rosemary. Drizzle with olive oil and bake 35-45 minutes, or until cooked when tested with a skewer (natch).

Dr Sister Outlaw books a table for one at Becasse

The other night I found myself in Sydney, all alone, at the end of two extremely interesting but tiring weeks of work-related learnings. Something about the blueness of the autumn sky, and the sudden freedom of completing my duties, infected me with hedonism. I decided that I would do something I’d not done for a long, long time and buy myself a scarily expensive meal. After spending most of the day thinking about it, I booked a table for one at Becasse. After a trip to the beach, to catch the last warm waves of the season, and buying myself a new pair of red shoes, I was there. Alone.

Dining alone is a curious experience. I remember being told, by a much older woman I admired 21 years ago, that the measure of a restaurant is how they treat the solo diner. Her name was Lynn and her gold standard was the legendary 1980s restaurant Stephanie’s, whose staff did not sit the solo diner at a table next to the kitchen, but put them in the best seat, so as to shower them with discreet attention. As Lynn pointed out, the food and a good book should substitute for lack of companionship, and being alone should never be a reason not to partake of all the best that chefs have to offer. I’ve never forgotten Lynn’s example and have often eaten alone often and happily. But restaurants as splendid as Becasse are restaurants for romantic encounters, or significant life events, or, if one is truly vulgar, proving your financial muscle to people you want to impress. I’ve never really considered going to such a place alone. My Crush, stuck at home and unable to accompany me asked, won’t you feel awkward being by yourself? I thought I wouldn’t, but I needed to test that.

I’m so glad I did. My booking was last minute, but the lovely bloke who answered the phone explained that he did only have two tables, and I would be near the kitchen, but he hoped I wouldn’t mind and I would find the staff friendly. The only indication he gave that he thought my request for a table for one was odd was asking me if I was in the food industry. No, I assured him, but I did want to eat a really good meal. I knew by his tone that I would, and the night would be good.

It was. The ambience of the restaurant is late 70s, with lots of black and white velvet wallpaper, gold and smoked glass, and frivolous chandeliers. There was almost one staff member per table, and a phalanx of chefs. I had forgotten how spoiling it is to eat silver service, but they did it in a way that was completely unfussy and laid back. The lovely woman in charge of the food had the motherliness you’d expect to find over a bar on the Central Coast, and none of the staff were hipsters. Who’d have thought that?

I love going to a restaurant with someone with a good palate and unpacking the food, but being alone meant I could focus completely, and not feel self-conscious for it, as I might have with a friend or a date. The food deserved the attention. Big kitchens do things you could never do at home – emulsions and gels and foams you would only bother with if you were a bit demented, and they pride themselves on flourishes, such as making little sculptures of marinated baby heirloom vegetables with crumbled olives and purees of beetroot and peas (please excuse the grainy iPhone pictures – it was dark in there and I thought it would have been rude to pull out the flash, or use my proper camera). 
Despite such amusing frippery, it was all underpinned by some very decent cooking – French-based, Asian influenced and rounded out with a deep knowledge of wholefoods and craft. The breads, for instance, were outstanding examples of a skilled baker’s work (the little green block in the bread picture is a fascinating but unnecessary emulsion of olive oil, while the white one was an emulsion of butter and pork fat, which I did not taste as I am a friend of the pig). Apparently Justin North, who owns Becasse, is opening new digs and a bakery across the road – I suggest you go there as soon as it opens. Just ignore the emulsions.

Other highlights were the delicate punch of wagyu and tuna in a beef and tomato consomme, the smokiness of scallops with miso and magically simple things; toasted buckwheat crumbled on top of scallops; the consistency of the chocolate mousse, with its glazed surface; the delight of creamy pannacotta at the bottom of a cup of mandarin granita. Nine of the ten courses were extraordinary, blending seafoods, beef and smoked flavours with lots of variations on potato and light, light dressings. It wasn’t perfect: the eggs with legumes were foamy and it was all too salty, but only the last savoury course was entirely disappointing, because the chicken was tough and the lemon pith overpowering. Still, this was the flaw that kept my feet on the ground and I was wowed by the smoked scallops, the various versions of potato, the wagyu and yellowfin, the savoury biscotti with goats cheese, those pumpkin and rosemary brioches, and that chocolate mousse.

And, as it turned out, being near the open kitchen was quite entertaining. I could hear the machinery of the restaurant and the calm, well-drilled voices of the head chefs as they pulled together the tiny elements of dishes they’d prepped all day. I had my back to them, but a piece of smoked glass in front of me provided a perfect reflection of what they were doing, and this meant I had a kind of chef TV, as well as a great view of the restaurant. And they could not see me watching them …

Dining alone was a wonderful experience. After two hours, when I was getting a bit restless but had eaten through only eight of the 10 courses, I fell into the closing pages of The Great Gatsby, and floated away. Then it was time to go. When the bill came I signed the credit card without a flourish, then poured myself out into the night, full of happiness and pride for spoiling myself so thoroughly.

So I’m sending thanks my old friend Lynn, wherever she is, for giving me the courage to eat alone in a fancy restaurant. I loved it Lynn. You knew I would.

[I have been wrestling with the alignment of the text with these photos but they will have to wait until Ms Zoe gets back from her holiday shenanigans to fix the blessed things. My bad.]

Treading the Olive Line

The Italian town of Bellagio sits at the tip of a peninsula that perfectly bisects the south part of Lake Como into two picturesque arms. I had the privilege in September of spending a fortnight staying there and living la vita Como. When I stood on the tip of the peninsula at la punta di spartiventi (“the place where the winds separate”) I noticed an olive tree a couple of metres out from the shore, its feet entirely submerged in the waters of Lake Como. Surely, I thought, this must be the northernmost olive tree in the world. After all, the Swiss border was only ten or so kilometres to the north and west.

But strictly speaking, I wasn’t correct. When I visited the town of Varenna on the eastern shore of the Lake and a kilometre or so further to the north, I found olive trees growing on the mountain side facing the Lake, even while alpine vegetation dominated the north side of the slopes.

The “olive line” is something to conjure with. That point north of which the olive tree won’t prosper serves, ideally, as the boundary of Mediterranean cuisine: beyond which, the cooking becomes butter-dominated.

Recently, UNESCO announced that the Mediterranean diet is going to be given world heritage status, joining a list of “intangible” cultural heritage that already includes the tango and Croatian lace-making.

But what is this thing called the Mediterranean diet? Most of us foodies would easily recognise the distinctions between, say, Moroccan cooking and Greek cooking and Italian cooking. There are parts of the Mediterranean coast where fresh and cured pork dominate the diet, and other areas of the coast where its consumption is nearly non-existent. Wine will be served in just about any Spanish café, but will rarely make an appearance across the Straits of Gibraltar in a Moroccan counterpart. What is it that could possibly link these cuisines?

It was Elizabeth David, I think, who was the first to popularise the idea of Mediterranean food as an ensemble, although the first edition of her A Book of Mediterranean Food was overwhelmingly a collection of French recipes, with a few Levantine ones thrown in from her wartime sojourns in the Greek Isles and Cairo. Other Mediterranean cuisines didn’t fair too well; she introduced paella with the observation that “it is the Spanish version of risotto”, which suggests a certain thoughtlessness as regards either Spanish cuisine or Italian cuisine, or both.

The origins of the “Mediterranean Diet” as some nutritional shibboleth lie in a study of the island of Crete after the Second World War by epidemiologist Lelan Allbaugh. But whilst his survey of the Cretan diet showed that vegetables and pulses were overwhelmingly eaten over meat and fish, most of those Cretans surveyed indicated this was more a matter of necessity than choice and that their favourite food was meat — particularly pork products — and they couldn’t get enough of it. Yet what we today evoke as the “Mediterranean Diet” probably bears little relation to how most Mediterraneans ate for most of history. As I observed in an earlier post, up until relatively recently, the Mediterranean diet was one of long seasons of malnutrition, interspersed with episodes of famine. Much of the Mediterranean makes for poor farming and the sea itself is comparatively poor in fish. Remember that a staple of the historical “Mediterranean diet” was air dried cod, imported from Norway.

Historically, as Clifford Wright observes, there were many Mediterraneans – at least two: east and west, Turkish and Spanish, Islamic and Christian. As he says, there is the Mediterranean defined by climate, another defined by sea, another defined by history. And there is the human Mediterranean defined by the movements of its people, which counters any static picture of the Mediterranean, including its diet. Since the fifth century the Mediterranean has seen the rise of Islamic civilisation, has shifted from feudalism to capitalism, and embarked on an age of exploration and conquest. Each transition has fundamentally altered the diet of those around the Mediterranean, especially the introduction of foods we now think of as quintessentially Mediterranean, such as oranges, lemons, eggplants and spinach by Arab agriculturalists, and tomatoes, capsicums and squash after Columbus’s footfall in America, with tomatoes making a particular late appearance in southern Italian cuisine.

But today a platonic “Mediterranean Diet” is ubiquitous, not just in cookery books but also in health promotion. It is merely one example of how, as anthropologist Sidney Mintz has observed in the North American context, every localised taste opportunity is taken by commercial enterprise and turned into some new national fad, made available without regard to place or season.

In 1993, Oldways Preservation Trust and the Harvard School of Public Health teamed up to introduce the Mediterranean diet to an American audience. They organized a conference to present the science, and unveiled a graphic – the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid – to make this approach easy to understand.

Oldways is a non-profit education organization. It founded the Mediterranean Food Alliance (MFA) to “improve public health by raising consumer awareness about the health benefits of following the Mediterranean Diet”. The Oldways website goes on to explain, “companies that manufacture, import, and sell healthy Mediterranean products underwrite some of the MFA’s educational programs. A number of these companies also apply to use the easily-recognizable Oldways Med Mark on their qualifying products…The MFA benefits a company’s bottom line while it also benefits consumer health. Dues are low and on a sliding scale, so companies of all sizes can participate”.

And to convince MFA members and other Oldways financial supporters — which include the International Olive Council — that they’re getting value for money, Oldways points to “increased sales of Mediterranean foods” as its first KPI, noting that since its Mediterranean Diet campaign took off in the mid-1990s, U.S. olive oil imports rose more than 137%.

And let’s face it, the one thing that could possibly link the disparate, diverse and ever changing worlds of Mediterranean cuisine I referred to earlier is olive oil. So perhaps promoting the “olive line” is important in ways I hadn’t begun to imagine.


Warning: include(screenshot.php) [function.include]: failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /home/crazybravezoe/progressivedinnerparty.net/wp-content/themes/copyblogger/footer.php on line 6

Warning: include() [function.include]: Failed opening 'screenshot.php' for inclusion (include_path='.:/usr/local/lib/php:/usr/local/php5/lib/pear') in /home/crazybravezoe/progressivedinnerparty.net/wp-content/themes/copyblogger/footer.php on line 6