Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Croque-monsieur, frangourou style

The croque-monsieur (literally 'munch-Mister'!) is one of those quintessential French snacks, which you see on café menus in France very often. It's traditional fast food, a simple and delicious rib-sticker, with its satisfying crunch of golden-fried bread mingled with melted cheese and ham. But it can be a bit heavy too, especially in summer, so the other day, when we really fancied one, we made a simple version of this classic snack, grilling the bread instead of frying it, using pancetta instead of ham, and adding fresh garden tomatoes as well as cheese and a bit of garlic--a kind of cross between a croque-monsieur and a toasted sandwich--and hey presto, croque-frangourou!
Goes well with a nice salad, or, in winter, with soup.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Classic mussels

If I had to choose between oysters and mussels, I'd choose mussels, every time. Though I enjoy oysters, I find them sickening after about half a dozen, whereas I could eat heaps of mussels without a problem in the world! Not keen on the big fat New Zealand greenlip mussels--but love the small Tasmanian Blue ones or the small black Sydney mussel--much tastier, seems to me, than the NZ variety--though perhaps in their place of origin they're much nicer.  The small ones are also closer in taste to the delicious mussels of coastal France and Belgium.
There are so many ways you can cook them too, but my favourite is the classic moules marinière, but playing around with ingredients.
First, fry up some chopped onion in olive oil, add garlic, then add the unopened mussels. Toss. Add splash of white wine, chopped herbs--I like tarragon, thyme, oregano with them--then add some water, pepper and a little salt(if they've come in one of those vacuum-packed bags, add the liquid they come in instead, but do not add salt as it's already salty, being seawater).
Cook for only about 4-5 minutes, then serve. Great on its own, or with a bowl of the cooking liquid as soup on the side,  or fabulous too teamed with plain Basmati rice, with some of the liquid stirred through. 
You can also add tomatoes, chilli, etc, to the basic mix if you want, also cream and brandy--in fact all sorts of things can work with these little beauties!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Peachy dessert

Our peach trees are laden at the moment with sweet little white and yellow-skinned peaches. Now we're eating most of them fresh, in rather large quantities, but even though they're small, there are so many of them there's no way we can eat them all fresh. Some of them will of course be bottled for winter; but it's good too to vary the summer dessert menu so that it's not just fresh peaches every single day(I know--hardly something to complain about. Reminds me of my daughter's comment, once, when she was small and we had strawberries galore in the garden: 'Oh dear!--big sigh--'the trouble with living here, Mum, is there are just too many strawberries!'  )
So--when you really have too many peaches and desperately want to find another way of serving them, here's a great, quick, delicious dessert that can be just as good for a family dinner as a dinner party with friends.
Take one peach per person(if regular size, I used two of our littlies). Place each in a greased ramekin. Beat up three egg yolks with sugar over a pan of simmering water until the mixture is frothy and pale yellow(the amount of sugar varies according to taste, it should be sweet but not overly so.) Pour the 'sabayon' mix (which is what the yolk mixture is called) over the peaches to cover completely. Bake in a 180 degree oven for 10 or so minutes, until the top has crusted a little--but the inside is still creamy. The peaches will have softened too. Delicious serve hot or warm with whipped cream or icecream. A nice variation can be done with apricots.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Wild meat and garden vegies

I've always enjoyed rabbit and in the past it was easy enough to get, either farmed, as my parents used to buy it from those Blacktown farmers many years ago, or shot in the wild by hunters and sold by the brace to butchers' shops. I don't know why but it seems easier to buy rabbit in Sydney these days than in the country, despite the fact there are still plenty of rabbits out here. Very few on our place for some reason it's hares that predominate. Anyway the other day I took myself off to the butcher to buy one of those rare rabbits--frozen, but locally hunted and shot.
Rabbits have lean meat, but wild rabbits even more so. They are pretty tough generally as they do so much running, so it's no point trying to grill it or roast it as you might with a farmed rabbit, it'd be stringy as all hell. Instead, David pressure-cooked it, sauteeing it first in olive oil, a splash of wine, garlic, herbs(tarragon goes nicely with it)salt and pepper, then adding a little stock and pressure-cooking for about 25 minutes. After that, he simmered it for another then minutes or so, with prunes(home grown preserves from last year)and onions. Served with simple fresh vegs--potatoes and green beans--it was absolutely delicious!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Cold soup for hot days

When the mercury's rising, the last thing you feel like is soup, right? Not so, at least, not when the soup's cold and refreshing, like a good gazpacho, say, or the one I made the other day, 'summer soup,' a recipe derived from Polish tradition. Basically a cold beetroot and cucumber soup, it tastes wonderful, looks great and slips down a treat on those hot summer's evenings like we've been having recently. What was really nice too for us was that just about every ingredient came fresh out of the garden. And it's easy to make. Here's my variation on the classic recipe. Serves four. Best made the day before it's served and left to rest in the fridge overnight so flavours intensify.
Take two small beets, together with their leaves. Peel and chop the beets, wash and chop the leaves. Chop half a red onion, and two garlic cloves. Fry these in some butter or oil, add the beets and their leaves, stir, add salt, pepper, stock(I used chicken stock but vegetable stock is good too.) Simmer till beet is soft, mash vegies a little(but not too much, I think the soup is nicer with chunkier bits in it.) Take off stove and let cool. Meanwhile, chop a small cucumber(or half a big one) in small chunks. Chop some dill. In a bowl combine some sour cream and yoghurt(more sour cream than yoghurt), about 2/3 of a cup in all. Add the cucumber and dill. When soup is completely cold, add the sour cream/cucumber mix, stir well, put in fridge and leave overnight.
Fantastic as an entree for a light summer dinner, or as a lunch dish.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Colourful summer vegetarian meal

The garden's so full of nice things at the moment and the other day when we came back in the later afternoon from several days away in Sydney, and couldn't be bothered going shopping, I made a lovely vegetarian meal out of things from the garden. It started with a plate of different kinds of tomatoes, sprinkled with olive oil and white balsamic vinegar, with fresh basil and olives(okay, so we didn't have any home grown olives left and had to get them out of a jar!) Next was the main course, home grown Tasmanian pink eye potatoes and new zucchini, stir-fried in a wok with a lot of chopped  different fresh herbs--basil, garlic chives, spearmint and Vietnamese mint--and spices: coriander seed, cumin, and turmeric. A touch of salt pepper, and a little chilli, and then at the end I added some lightly-cooked kankung(see earlier post)which I'd stir-fried separately with a little oil and a little shrimp paste. It was delicious!
The whole thing was finished off with some sweet fat black cherries we'd bought from Parklea Markets in Sydney--the cherries are really delicious this year, and our little cherry tree only produces the sour Morello cherries, we've never had any luck with growing the sweet ones. A really nice meal--and a nice change from all the Christmas meat!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Summer goodies

Lovely stuff around in both the garden and the greenhouse at the moment. Just a small selection here: Morello cherries on the tree, just ripe and ready to be made into beautiful deep red cherry sauce to go with pork and chicken and indeed just about any meat, as well as going really well with falafel; herbs such as basil and tarragon; tomatoes of all sorts; kankung, as it's known in south-east Asia(entsai in China, water spinach sometimes). All most colourful and most toothsome! And more to come--zucchini taking off, sweet corn to come eventually--peaches blushing up, beans running riot! It's the fertile time of the year.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Artichoke Fields, a story of the past

The preserving of this year's artichoke harvest from our garden has prompted me to dig up again a story I wrote quite some years ago, about how the smell of artichokes brings back so many memories of my childhood for me. The story's been published at least two or three times in print form, well before the advent of blogs, and I thought it might bear reading again, as a hello to the new year.
 It is a hot day in the early seventies, and we children are fighting in the back of the car. Dad is driving steadily, smoothly, as he always does, driving as if he is anticipating all kinds of possible dangers, as if twenty-five years or so of driving have not inured him to the myriad possibilities of change. When I am older, it comes to me that this is how he has lived his whole life, on the brink, never taking it for granted, trying hard to keep control of it yet painfully aware of the knife-edge of life, of the way in which, in a second, things can change forever. When I am older, it comes to me that I am similar, driven to achieve, pursued by the awareness of life's fragility, the swiftness of time passing. But at the time, his careful driving is merely another of the traits, the shorthand of experience, which, together, make up "Dad"-- a person you accept unthinkingly, as you accept your mother, or your brothers and sisters. Dad is careful yet can also be awesomely impulsive; Maman is impulsive yet can also be icily logical. You don't think too much about those uneasy conjunctions; as a child, you rely on signs, on the known, and somehow accomodate those things, together.
But here we are, driving. The vinyl of the seats sticks to our thighs, and the warm closeness of a brotherly or sisterly leg leads to sotto voce quarrels about the most ridiculous things possible. It's summer, and we are driving for what seems like hours, to the other side of Sydney, into the wildness of Blacktown. As we approach its rural outskirts, Dad sits up more in his seat. Even though--or maybe because--he is city born and bred, he loves the country with a fervour born of happy memories of his great-grandparents' place in the Aveyron. When he was a small child, he would go there for holidays, and he has told us many stories of it, his eyes misting with a regret which I didn't quite understand. Later, I see it is not only nostalgia, but something more powerful--a need to hold on to a good, simple memory within a wartime childhood booby-trapped with pain, betrayal and ambivalence. Maman does not seem to have those needs; or at least, if she does, they have long been dealt with, subsumed to what, even then, we knew to be my father's greater ones. Greater in the sense of more ravaging , by the year, so that even as children we stepped carefully around them.
But the good memories connected with this kind of place have transformed Dad, at the moment. He does not look anxious, or harried; his even, smoothly pale olive skin is unmarked by frowns. He says, "It's astonishing, isn't it, to see how hard these people work, " and his tone is gentle, wondering, filled with the pleasure of its simplicity. It is traditional for him to say this, here; yet always Maman nods, always we hear him without wondering at its repetition.
We stop in front of the house. It is a very simple house, fibro (asbestos sheet), and we have only been further than the kitchen once or twice. But the house is unimportant. What is important is beyond it, in the flat fertile acres that surround the house, making it an island out of time, its Australianess an incongruity in the Europeaness of cultivated fields. For here are not acres of wheat, or of the other large, fullscale crops we associate with this vast land; but the smaller, denser patches of vegetables: lettuce in serried rows, tomatoes, ripening in sunrise colours, spinach and leeks and, especially, most especially, the artichoke fields. There they stand, tall and fierce in their greens and purples, acres of them, their tightly-packed heads swaying on their strong stems. Some of them are already going to flower; and their perfume--a strong, sweet smell, like wild honey--fills the air. They are beautiful, beautiful and wild as a Van Gogh painting. The sight of them always catches at my throat, so that even now, years later, I can see them, smell them, and wonder at the selectiveness of memory that will keep such pictures and not others. And, like a Van Gogh painting, if you don't simply stand on the sidelines, admiring, but venture inside them, the artichoke fields will reveal all kinds of unexpectedly painful things.
The farmers come to greet us, their very brown, very wrinkled faces split by their smiles into a thousand more tiny rivulets. I never learnt their names, and to me, at that age, they look immensely old, agelessly old, like peasants in an old picture. They are small, both of them, both dressed in black: but he is lean and wiry, with wild grey hair and sharp pale eyes, while she is round as she is high, her breasts like enormous soft pillows under her dress, her hair done up in a floppy bun, her eyes like lively brown birds in their nest of wrinkles. She is Maltese, he is a Yugoslav. Dad, accustomed, at the building sites he supervises, to working with men insisting on their Croatianess, or Serbianess, or Bosnianness, wonders at the farmer's calm avowal of being 'Yugoslav'--what does this show about his politics?--but does not press the point. But on the way home, he will say, "Hmm, say what you like, I've always found Yugoslavs difficult people to fathom. It's really the extremity of Europe, you know. . " And I wonder at the need of adults, too, for shorthand, for second hand wisdoms.
But Dad finds the woman farmer, the Maltese, very sympathetic. "Eh, paysan!" she says, or that's what it sounds like, in her shrill voice. Her voice, too, is ageless; we have heard, on a record at home, Portuguese peasant girls singing in exactly the same kind of shrill voices, voices you never hear, otherwise, in Australia. I think that her version of 'paysan' means something akin to friend, or compatriot, fellow-spirit, perhaps. Whatever it means, Dad is immensely proud of it. He preens under the accolade which she shrewdly--but not insincerely--gives him. Maman is more circumspect; she is closer--only one generation removed--from a peasant origin, and she has few illusions about it. "She's a good saleswoman, " is all she will say, later, when Dad, talking nineteen to the dozen, drives us back to our somnolent, rich suburb where ennui attacks his restless and troubled spirit like a physical pain.
They talk in a mixture of languages; some English, mixed with Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and even a bit of patois, the Occitan-derived dialect of the Toulouse area. Dad is always thrilled when the two farmers prove to understand some of the patois; he sees a connection between all kinds of European languages (or at least the Latin ones)and to hear this confirmed, especially here, the patois under the alien sky, is a source of joy.
We walk with them down the paths that lead away from the incongruous Australian house(where their only child, a daughter, sits eating biscuits in front of the television) and into the European preserves of the farm. Here, before you reach the hand-cultivated fields of vegetables, are neatly-arranged poultry runs, with chickens running about, and rows of rabbit hutches, where blink fat rabbits. There are no pets or superfluous things; in this setting, away from the house which diminishes them, the farmers are tough, witty, their tenacity written in their faces, with none of the bewilderment which must seize them, more than once, in this country. I look at them and think of their daughter and how it must be for them all when they have to come up to the school. When my parents come, I am in agony of fear, hoping they won't say the 'wrong' thing in the 'wrong' sort of accent. There are other people we know, Italians, whose attitude towards their educated children is humble, frighteningly so. My parents aren't like that, at all; yet I wonder how these two, these farmers, and their daughter, must feel like, when they have to leave the artichoke fields and go to the school, or the supermarket, or the myriad things one must do in such a society. It makes me squirm, this thought, and so I turn away from it, and towards the fields. It never occurs to me , of course, that maybe it did not touch them, that the shame may only be in the minds of self-conscious children.
At first, we look in the hutches, say, "Isn't that one sweet?" and the farmer smiles, showing bad teeth, and says, in her appallingly accented English, "Good eating, that one!" We are at the age, in the place and time where such statements appear callous; so we are silent, and ignore Dad's I-told-you-so-grin. He has often said we are becoming too soft, sentimental, Australian; Europeans are tough people who look reality in the face. You like lapin a la moutarde? Right, well then you must be ready to first catch your rabbit and kill it. . Or to plunge your hands without disgust into the freshly-killed carcase of a chicken and make it into an objet de table, a dish, rather than a once-living thing. We are tenderhearted; but our feelings never extend to the nicely trussed, carefully jointed meat dish that appears on the table. . .
Now she is walking in the artichoke fields, talking shrilly, a mixture of salty comment on current events, and wild praise of her vegetables. He is silent ("Taciturn, like all Yugoslavs, " Dad is delighted to say, and I wonder a little at how adults seem to need the shorthand of second-hand wisdoms, too). But he smiles quite a bit, and touches the plants, gently, as if he is greeting each. That, surely, is folly. He and his wife are unsentimental, without fancy or falsity, honest, as the French saying has it, as ‘du bon pain’. But that, surely, is a sentimentality, too; for I have heard Maman saying that these two never lose ‘le nord’, always stick to what they know they want, and are not above using cajoling or even a judiciously-placed marketing ploy to sell their vegetables. They are not doing this for fun, for ‘du folklore’: that is the mistake of urban people, throughout the ages. Simplicity is in the eye of the beholder.
Every so often, the farmer stops. She throws an arm out to her husband: this one. She stoops, cuts the stem, throws the vegetable into the basket he is carrying. Dad trots just behind her, asking her all kinds of questions. She answers with aplomb and humour, in her shrill voice, while her husband fills the basket and smiles what my mother would call a 'corner' smile; half-sceret, enigmatic. We children and Maman follow behind desultorily; the smell of the big vegetables fills our nostrils with a heady odour, their sharp thorns prick the unwary child who leaves the narrow paths between the rows. We all love artichokes; some Sunday nights, that's all we've eaten, an enormous tureen filled to the top with the boiled vegetables, served with vinaigrette on each person's plate. The table would fill up with mountains of discarded leaves, plundered for their bit of sweet flesh, then put aside for the next one. There is something addictively wonderful about artichokes; the more and more frenetic peeling-back of leaves, till you get to the 'straw' inside, and peel that off as cleanly as a bandage, to reveal the succulent flesh of the heart. We ate the stems, too; the Blacktown farmers always sold us young, fresh artichokes, so that their stems were as tender as asparagus. Occasionally, we'd eat them with butter and garlic, or tomatoes. But the simple one, the boiled-and-vinaigrette ones was what we preferred.
We always lingered in those fields, dodging thorns, and in areas where the purple flowers were really out, the bees as well, maddened, as we were, by the heavy smell of the artichokes. Once, I remember, the farmer picked one of the flowers and gave it to me. The unexpectedness of the gesture made me blush, and for the rest of our time there, I couldn't resist putting my nose as close as possible to the flower. I've always been sensitive to smells, finding them powerful evokers of emotion and place, and now, I try to think what it was that made this smell so heady. Roses smelt sweeter, muskier, richer; vanilla smelt more homely and tender; the thick brown smell of meat made me feel hungrier. This was a smell of almost-wildness, of something only just tamed, and only dimly understood, something whose discovery was concealed under layers of half-meanings. It was not the smell of careful, cultivated Europe, neatly arranged, tamed and civilised, the Europe of the mythologisers or the nostalgic. Rather, it was the smell of the Europe whose inheritance was mine, which seeped into me like instinct, but was submerged, like instinct, for a long time. A Europe--a France-- not only of the mind or of the comfortable senses; but also one of the blood's leap, of the pain of rejection. The France my father felt in exile from, the France my mother followed him from, despite her own rather less ambivalent feelings. A corner of Europe forever elusive, never pinned down, half-wild, half-tame, of heady, unforgotten smell, uncomfortable at times, maybe never to be fully understood.