Thursday, June 23, 2011

200 Years of Australian cooking

The other day, I was browsing through our local second-hand bookshop--a favourite haunt of mine!--and came across a book that I remembered well from childhood: 200 Years of Australian Cooking, or the Captain Cook Book, by Babette Hayes. My parents, who are interested in the food of all the places they have lived and had been dismayed by the fact they couldn't find a book about 'genuine' Australian cooking, had bought it in 1970 when it first came out(to mark the Captain Cook bicentenary no doubt) and I remember my dad trying out various recipes in it. I remember too how pleased they were to see that the author was of French origin herself, but brought up in Syria. As to myself, as a kid I enjoyed looking at the pictures and reading the bits and pieces of history and anecdote in the book and so it was with great pleasure that I found it in the bookshop, bought it and took it home to enjoy once again.

It is a most informative and entertaining book in many ways, with chapters on native ingredients and gold rush gourmets, survival food and bush food and food for the 'upper crust' fit for the Governor's table, and all kinds of migrant influences from Chinese to French to Eastern European to Mediterranean. As well as lots of interesting little potted social histories and anecdotes, there's lots of recipes, everything from oxcheek soup to stewed pigeons, damper to coq au vin, how to barbecue a whole pig to how to pickle mushrooms and lots more in between and beyond. It's also, as I mentioned earlier, got lots of illustrations, from 19th century drawings to lavish recreations of suich settings as an upper crust dining room, a bush settler's cottage, etc. At times, there are reminders of the relative unsophistication of the general Australian market at which the book was aimed, compared to now. But it's also got an eccentric charm all of its own--this isn't your standard cookbook but something rather similar to Dumas' cooking encyclopedia, complete with remarks such as 'What would Captain Cook have thought about it all?' or 'When a man is ravenous, mutton and damper can taste like manna.'

This is a book that really deserves to be rediscovered and enjoyed by a whole new generation. Babette Hayes is still living and working in Australia, though she concentrates on design these days. Her website is at

Italian a la frangourou

Following on from my Germanic-inspired meal, I made one with an Italian flavour this time, but rather eccentrically interpreted, very much a la frangourou. The menu consisted of: Entree of various vegetable antipasti(not illustrated)--our home grown olives and preserved eggplant and cauliflower, on a bed of rocket and sorrel salad; a main course of a frangourou version of the famous veal dish 'saltimbocca', and risotto with roast pumpkin and roast whole mushrooms. Dessert was a jar of our bottled greengage plums, heated up and served with cream.

Here's my frangourou version of saltimbocca: Take some veal steaks, pound till quite thin, then spread with shavings of semi-hard goat cheese, chopped sage and garlic. Roll up to form neat parcels and fry them in olive oil, turning over so both sides get brown. About 5 mins into cooking add some Marsala to the pan (we use the Australian variety that goes by the charming name of 'Boronia' as 'Marsala' is of course a protected appellation)and cook till meat is cooked and has absorbed the Marsala. (The pan can then be deglazed and sauce poured over the meat.) The risotto, whose basic idea I've pinched from the repertoire of a friend's son(thanks, Ned and Sue!)needs a little more preparation but is pretty easy too. You prepare the diced pieces of pumkin and whole mushrooms, brush with olive oil and a little salt, and bake in oven till done. Meanwhile, fry some diced onion and garlic in a little olive oil, add the arborio rice, as much as you need(we find 1/2 cup is enough for a good serving for 2 people, not the 1 cup recommended on many rice packets!)and once you've given the rice a good stir through, add half a cupful of white wine, and stir till wine is absorbed, then add stock as required, as many times as required till risotto is nice and sticky and cooked but not overdone. I made some very appropriate stock by steeping thyme in water with olive oil and salt, turned out very nicely. Then once rice is cooked, put into serving dish, add the pieces of roast pumpkin throughout, and put the roast mushrooms on top.

A bit of German influence

German cooking isn't very highly regarded in France, where it has the reputation of being too heavy and stolid--and as well, the sweet and sour flavours beloved of central and eastern Europe don't have much appeal for a lot of French people. But they do for me! I've always loved good sausage, sauerkraut, heaven-and-earth potato and apple, smoked fish, pickled red cabbage, and the like. Not that I'd want to eat it all the time but it is delicious once in a while.

So the other day I made a bit of a Germanic-inspired meal, which was just great with a good glass of Alsace riesling.

Here's the menu: Entree: a salad of pickled herring(rollmop style), with fish cut up in small pieces and mixed with very finely sliced onions, gherkins, chopped pickled beetroot, and mixed with sour cream, a little mustard and pepper, and served with a grated carrot salad surrounding it--very colourful! Main course was bratwurst(from a Germanic smallgoods producer in Queensland): the sausage was very nice but to me ressembled more weisswurst than bratwurst--still, very tasty with mustard and/or horseradish cream(Saskia Beer's lovely version.)Vegetables were rosti, a grated potato pancake which is really easy to make: you just grate raw potato and fry it in oil till brown and crisp, half way through cooking add cream and cheese and stir through, it melts nicely in the potato and makes it stay together, and red cabbage cooked in a little wine, cider vinegar and brown sugar(recipe in my post on cabbages). Dessert wasn't particularly German but not outrageously not: we had meringues left over from another time, so had those with whipped cream. It all worked out really nicely indeed!

Baba a la David

Who doesn't love that luscious classic, the 'Baba au rhum', or rum baba? It's a staple of French cake shops and restaurant desserts but apparently it was originally introduced to France by the Polish king in exile, Stanislas, in the 18th century, and when his daughter married the French king Louis XV, her cooks carried the recipe to the court, and then it became popular in pastry-shops and the like. The word 'baba' originally refers back to a yeast cake popular in Poland and Russia, whose name derives from the word for 'grandmother.' (Sweet and nurturing and warm--a rather lovely image for a grandmother!)

Babas are certainly that too: with their glazed sugary top and rum-flavoured sugar syrup moist interior and the yeast-light texture of their crumb, served slightly warm with whipped cream they are beloved of adults and children. You can certainly overdo the rum--I remember one legendary instance when we had bought some beautiful-looking rum babas from a little boulangerie-patisserie in Bram, near Carcassonne, and proceeded to eat them on the spot, but soon grew so cross-eyed by the incredible saturation of the rum that we had to go for a long walk around the block to clear our heads! I reckon they must have tipped a good glassful of rum in each cake and it quite overwhelmed everything else.

But it's much worse if babas don't have enough rum (and it's got to be the real thing, not flavouring in a bottle)or are dry from not enough syrup. The right balance isn't easy to strike, especially for a home cook, but recently David had a go at making this classic dessert and it turned out great. He improvised a fair bit, including getting the dough to rise in a breadmaker rather than in the air--gave it a large-pored crumb which absorbed the rum and sugar syrup really well.

Basically how you make a rum baba is first to make a yeast dough with plain flour, yeast, caster sugar, warm milk, egg yolks, butter, and lemon rind. Proportions vary depending on how many you are making but to make four individual babas(they are usually served as individual cakes), you'll need 110 g plain flour, 15 g fresh or dried yeast(if using dried yeast you need of course to let it work first in a little lukewarm milk or water)15 g caster sugar, 90 ml warm milk, 2 egg yolks, grated rind of half a lemon, 55 g butter. You mix the soaked dried yeast or fresh yeast with 2.5 ml of the sugar and 5 ml of flour to make a thin batter, then whisk the egg yolks with rest of sugar and the lemon rind, melt the butter. Put the flour in a bowl, make a well in centre, add the yeast mixture and the eggs, mix well with your fingers, adding a little warm milk as needed, till you have a nice soft dough then add the butter, and knead well--it shpuld look like very thick batter. Then leave to rise either in a bowl in a warm place or like David did, in a breadmaker, till it has doubled in size. Meanwhile make the sugar syrup--dissolve 170 g caster or white sugar in 225 ml water in a pan on the stove and boil for a few minutes, till it has thickened well, add rum to flavour. (1/4 to half a glass is ample.)When the dough has doubled in size, knead it a little and put it in four separate and greased baking moulds(David used china ramekins)and leave to prove in a warm place for another 10 mins or so, then bake in the oven at about 190 C, for about 30 or so minutes or until the top has gone golden brown. When cooked, take them out and while they are still warm, prick them all over with a skewer or toothpick and then pour on the rum sugar syrup until the baba is saturated with it and the top has gone all shiny. Serve warm or cool as you wish, with whipped cream.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The old-fashioned charm of candied flowers and Flavigny sweets

One of the things I love about France is the fact that at least about food, it is a conservative nation that doesn't just ditch or monkey with old-fashioned favourites just because they've come down from an earlier time. Not only do people keep traditions in cooking and making things by 'artisanal' methods, they also perpetuate old manufacturing firms which have been producing their local specialities for centuries. That includes not only the obvious things like cassoulet and pates and chestnut purees and so on, but also things like cordials, syrups, sweets, and candied flowers.

Toulouse is well-known for its many culinary products based on the city's most famous flower, the violet. You can get violet sweets, violet syrups to flavour creams and icecreams, but most of all you can get candied violet petals. They are a charming and delicious decoration for cakes and can also be crushed and used as a kind of praline in desserts. But though the violet is far and away the most famous product of Toulouse's candying industry, rose petals and mimosa buds are also used, as well as angelica--the latter you used to be able to get in Australia but I've not seen for years. I always bring back some candied flowers from Toulouse and when I use them on a cake or a dessert, I'm always reminded of the beautiful violet-seller doll my parents had bought me once--she was pretty and dark-haired, dressed in a violet-coloured skirt and white top, with a little straw bat and a straw basket containing candied violets. It seemed to me like one of those magical things, and I ate those violets slowly, over days and days, savouring each mouthful. Even now, the taste of candied flowers reminds me of childhood times in France.

As do the lovely little oval tins of 'Anis de Flavigny', the little white-sugar-coated aniseed sweets that come in various floral flavours, including violet, jasmine, rose, orange flower water, and more. On each little tin is a charming illustration of young lovers in the costumes of the 18th or 19th centuries, canoodling on a bench or under a flowering tree, or whatever. Inexpensive and easily found in just about every grocery shop or supermarket, they are not only fun to collect but also make great little distinctive gifts for people back home as well, especially but not only children!

Chicken in lemon and mustard sauce

This is my quick and easy version of 'poulet au blanc', the famous French chicken dish. It's lighter than the original cream-rich dish, but not deliberately: I simply discovered I had no cream left in the fridge when I was going to make it and so decided to improvise, with things I did have in the cupboard. The result was delicious.

For two people, you need 4 chicken thigh fillets, a little butter, an onion, one or two garlic cloves, depending on taste, salt, pepper, parsley and tarragon, juice of half a lemon, tablespoon full Dijon mustard, one egg yolk, a little flour, and chicken stock. Dice the chicken, fry quickly with the onion and garlic. Add the salt, pepper, most of the herbs, and then the stock, to just cover the chicken. Simmer for about 20 minutes. When the chicken is cooked, take off stove. Pour off the stock into a dish. Melt some butter in a pan, add a little flour to make a roux, then add the stock bit by bit to make a thick smooth sauce. Add the mustard, and then the lemon juice, stir for a few seconds. Take the pan off the stove, stir in the egg yolk till well-mixed in. Serve the chicken in the sauce, sprinkle herbs on it if you wish. Very good with rice.

Cooking with the Three Musketeers: Dumas on food

The creator of The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas, was not only one of France's most popular and prolific writers in the 19th century, his swashbuckling historical novels selling in vast numbers(many are still in print today in many different languages)but he was also a curious traveller, a well-known bon vivant and a great gourmet. He loved entertaining guests and devised wonderful meals with his cook, and on occasion cooked himself for them. He hugely admired the great Brillat-Savarin(about whom I wrote in an earlier post) and it was as a kind of homage to him that he wrote his Grand Dictionaire de Cuisine, a vast and rambling tone that was a mixture of anecdote(some pinched directly from Brillat-Savarin!), recipes, travel pieces(there is a fascinating section for instance on the caviar fisheries of the Volga, which he visited)and food philosophy of all sorts. It's not always very reliable, and it be a bizarre and a little slapdash at times, but it has a great personal charm: he says he is, for instance, terrified of 'the appearance of mushrooms at table' (in case they're the wrong sort), and that 'larks have the double advantage of being liked by gourmands and lyricised by the poets' , and that 'the wild boar is quite a misanthropic animal' . He provides Cardinal Richelieu's menu for an all-beef menu, going through seven courses, and a recipe for how to cook bear paws, and has a lovely anecdote about Breton onion sellers trying to encourage English market-goers to buy their onions with a hand-lettered sign, in capital letters, the only English they had learned: The English Onion is not Good. (Rather like the cheeky English cassoulet-maker at Castelnaudary, they discovered the locals didn't much take to this form of direct marketing, but still carried the day!)He has a long section on the truffle, the 'gastronomers' holy of holies' as he puts it, and claims that the colour red 'excites anger in turkeys, just as it does in bulls'. He has a lovely section on water, because, as he says, 'people who habitually drink water become just as good gourmets about water as wine drinkers about wine', and reveals that for 'fifty or sixty years of my life, I have drunk only water,' but then proceeds to tell a funny story about a wine-loving Franciscan monk, who tricked by some mischievous visitors to the monastery into agreeing to partake of a bottle of water instead, got out of the hated chore by asking his superior to bless the water--and once it had been done, refusing to drink--because who had ever heard of a Franciscan drinking holy water?

Beeton's all about everything

I love old books and have been collecting them since I first had a few dollars to call my own, straight after I left home. I remember as a uni student spending an entire week's pitiful wages (from the pizzeria and laundromat where I worked on the days I wasn't at uni) on a magnificent 1880's illustrated book of Tennyson's 'Elaine, the Lily Maid of Astolat' illustrated by Gustave Dore. I had to borrow money from my sister to eat the next week, and had to walk part of the long way home from uni many times to save money on bus fares, but to me it was worth it. I still have the book now, and it's probably worth a good deal more now, not that I'd ever really find out as I could never bring myself to part with it! I love the way with old books you get such a sense of the human face of history--of the personal and intimate, the weird and wonderful, the familiar and the completely unexpected.
I collect only books in subjects I'm interested in, but I'm not exactly very methodical about it. And I also collect books and magazines that are helpful for me when I'm writing historical novels--you get tons of info from publications from the time you're writing about, much more than you'd get if you simply look up modern reference books or the Internet. So thanks to physically rummaging through hundreds of second hand bookshops all over the world as well as happily trawling through the wonders of, I've got collections of everything from gorgeous illustrated 19th cent editions of fairytales to old-fashioned travel guides, old French books about Australia to a weird series of 1930's true-crime books,from an 18th cenury encyclopedia to a jolly series of 19th century recipe books, to Beeton's All About Everything.
Beeton's All About Everything is a wondrous thing for a historical novelist because it details everything a 19th century person needed to know about household management--from how to manage servants to what medicine to give a sick child, from full instructions for cooks and housemaids to how to take care of horses to how to make a paste that can cure alcoholism(the drunkard must be given a paste made of a mixture of tartar emetic and rose-water). There's some unintentionally hilarious titles of sections, such as 'Infants, Bringing up by Hand' or 'Rabbit, to Judge of'. And there are all kinds of recipes, for food and drinks but also for poultices, medicines, cleaning fluids, polishes and lots more!
Even if you're not writing a historical novel, it's a real joy to dip into and get a real insight into how a middle-class household was meant to run. And for cooks and those interested in the history of cooking, there's not only the recipes, but also lots of fascinating snippets, from how a cook was supposed to operate, to info(and pictures) on kitchen utsensils, from how to run an ice-house to how to fatten ducks.
Beeton's All about Everything was written by Samuel Orchart Beeton, an English publisher whose main claim to fame is that his second wife was Isabella Beeton, the famous Mrs Beeton whose Everyday Cookery and Household Management was a massive bestseller in its time and continues to be in print to this day(there is a lovely new facsimile edition of this, incidentally, now published by Australia's own Five Mile Press.)Mrs Beeton's immense fame encouraged her enterprising husband to write or edit or publish a whole series of Beeton's All About--whatever: cookery, gardening, country life, hard words(!!), book-keeping, etiquette, and of course--everything! He also produced Christmas annuals, reference books, such as guides to the stock exchange, to letter-writing, biography, potted history and the care of pets; collections of humorous stories suitable for speeches; prize books for boys and girls and all sorts of improving children's books, and lots more. He and his wife were certainly a hive of industry, operating on the age-old publishing principle that you can't go wrong if you give the public more of what they've always wanted.
But when Isabella died, Beeton's publishing empire started to go to bits and by the time he himself died, he'd been forced to sell his 'Beeton's' name to other publishers(Ward, Lock especially) and work for them for a salary. After his death the books continued to be published--mine dates from 1880 or so, after Beeton's death.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Magical food: meringues and fairy floss

As a kid I used to think that meringues and fairy floss were the most amazing thing ever; both of them made of delicate swirls of sugar and both with that lingering melting sweetness on the tip of your tongue. They were the kinds of food, I thought, that you'd find in a fairy court; there was something magical about them. Fairy or candy floss or 'barbe a papa' as it's known in French (Papa's beard)was especially so, because when you watched it being made in a park, it was like something being conjured into being--that bit of sugar that spun out into a white or pale pink thistledown blizzard under the clear dome of the little machine and was then swirled onto its stick like a fairytale distaff, a la Sleeping Beauty or Rumpelstiltskin. Then there was the wonder of the way that when you pulled the floss off and crammed it in your mouth, it was like ingesting a waft of sweet cloud which vanished almost instantly as it touched your tongue. The transformation of sugar to thistledown cloud and then to that fugitive sweetness felt like a magic spell and that was probably half of its appeal to the imaginative child I was.
Meringues, too, seemed to me to be food fit for fairies. But more substantial. And they could be made at home. I loved watching Maman whipping up the egg whites till they were like fresh powdery snow and then whipped with sugar till they were glossy with a blinding polish of white. Then spoonfuls of the creamy mix dropped onto the baking tray and baked slowly till at last they came out with a glorious honey-coloured crisp top and inside a pure white melting sweetness that never stuck to your teeth but vanished exquisitely in your mouth. With whipped cream they were simply one of my favourite desserts of all time, and they remain so to this day. That sensual combination of delicious crunch and melt-on-your-tongue sweet cloud of the meringue and the rich luscious smoothness of cream still sends me into raptures. But it's got to be proper meringues, not the ghastly chalky sickeningly sweet concoctions in various chemical colours masquerading under that name in all too many cake shops here. While real meringue is a thing of beauty and simple delight, the false pretenders should be buried in landfill, just like the awful fairy floss you get in shows and fairs these days, which with its vile colours and horrid chemical aftertaste ressembles nothing so much as a kind of giant pot-scouring pad or mini insulation batt, hardly appetising! I don't know if you can get the real barbe a Papa any more--unlike with meringues, I've kind of gone out of the market for that--but thanks to our busy egg-producing hens and the woodstove alight in winter, not to speak of David's skills with whipped egg whites and sugar, I'm lucky enough to still be able to indulge occasionally in that magical dessert, meringues and cream.
David's top tip for the perfect meringue: The most important ingredient in meringue success is cooking time and temp. They should cook slowly in a very slow oven, no more than 100 C, for about two hours(which is why it's so good to cook them in a woodstove, in bottom oven where they simply and very slowly cook all night.) If they are cooked too fast, the tops brown but the insides stay mushy and sticky. Conversely if they are cooked too slowly--if the oven gets too cold, the tops will be sticky as will the insides. Otherwise, it's just a simple mixture of egg white and sugar--50 g of caster sugar for each egg white, plus a pinch of salt.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Gateau Basque a la David

As I mentioned in my previous post, David made a lovely and quite simple version of that classic cake, the Gateau Basque, for our southern soul-food meal. Here's the recipe, which will make a cake suitable for 4-6 people:

Ingredients for pastry: 200g plain flour, 1 whole egg plus 1 egg yolk, 130 g castor sugar, 130 g unsalted butter, pinch salt, lemon rind. Ingredients for custard: 200 ml milk, 1 egg yolk, 50 g castor sugar, 20 g plain flour, a little cherry brandy(optional), some stoned Morello cherries(he used our own homegrown ones which had been preserved in armagnac but tinned Morellos could conceivably be used). First make the pastry: put the flour in a bowl, make a well in it and into it put the egg yolk, the lightly beaten whole egg , the sugar, pinch salt, and the softened butter. Mix carefully till well combined and forming a good smooth and not sticky pastry. Put it in the fridge to rest while you prepare the custard. Dilute the flour with a little of the milk. Warm the rest of the milk gently. Beat the egg yolk with the sugar, then add to warmed milk, and then add the flour mixture, stir over stove till nice and thick(and do not let it boil.) Off the stove, add a little cherry brandy, and then the cherries. If you want to make the classic custard-filled Gateau Basque, omit both the cherries and cherry brandy. You can also flavour your custard with rum if you like.

Grease a cake or tart tin, roll out the pastry, make a base and sides out of most of it, then pour the custard mixture into it. Make a lid with est of the pastry, crimp the edges well together, then glaze the top with a pastry brush dipped into some egg yolk. Score the pastry with a knife to form a pattern(rather like that on Pithiviers pie.) Bake in a moderate oven for about half an hour. The cake is delicious both warm and cold.

Southern(French) soul food for winter

Recently we made a meal which could be characterised as Southern(French, that is), soul food for the winter. Though it's all been interpreted through a frangourou lens, and is pretty eclectic, it really to me has that feel of south-west France.

The menu was: Fresh mushroom and herb soup for entree(the one I wrote about in an earlier post, the one on Ginette Mathiot's book); home-grown black-eye beans(or black-eye peas, or cow peas, depending on what you call them) with roasted pork belly marinated in armagnac and then cooked with prunes; home-grown lovely waxy-yellow Tasmanian Pink eye potatoes sliced and baked with stock and butter and garlic(a kind of gratin but without the cream or the cheese); cabbage double-cooked in white wine and olive oil and a little stock; and a Gateau Basque which combined both the custard filling of the well-known version of this cake plus a few preserved cherries as a gesture towards the cherry version of the cake!

It was all really delicious but all really simple to make, if requiring a little preparation and thinking-ahead time. The soup for instance I started making a couple of hours before dinner-time, as it's good if the mushrooms cook for quite a while, giving as much flavour as possible to the stock before they are mashed or processed to produce the base of the soup(see my earlier post on this.) I also had to soak the black-eye beans a few hours ahead of time(soaked them in morning for use in evening)and also marinated the pork belly in the armagnac(you can also use brandy or other kinds of spirits if you want)for the same amount of time--just the armagnac, salt and pepper is enough, and the pork belly steeps in that for a few hours in the fridge. The potatoes also had to be peeled, parboiled for five minutes and sliced thinly before they could be put in an oven dish with stock etc and baked. And the cake--which David made, and which I'll give the recipe for in another post--was made and cooked early in the afternoon.

A couple of hours before dinner, put the meat on to cook--layering the pork belly in a baking dish on top of a handful of prunes, and sprinkling some olive oil on the meat, plus salt, pepper, then rub some garlic into it, add chopped herbs--I used sage and parsley--and then add the marinade. Cover with foil and cook in a moderate oven for about an hour till nicely-cooked and soft then you can uncover it and let the pork fat crisp up a bit. Meanwhile slice the spuds, layer them in a baking dish with knob butter on each layer, salt, pepper, garlic, and then moisten the whole thing with good stock, either vegetable or chicken. The stock should not cover the spuds but only come about a quarter of a way up them. Cover with foil and bake till tender--the stock will steam through and impregnate the potatoes. Prepare the beans--fry some onions and garlic in olive oil, add the drained beans, salt, pepper, herbs--I used thyme and chives but any combination is good--then enough white wine to nearly cover the beans. Allow to simmer for about five minutes, then add enough stock to cover but no more. Simmer for about 40 minutes or until done--black eye beans take a lot less time than most other types of beans. They should be nutty but tender, not mushy at all. Then put the cooked beans in a glass baking dish(one with a lid) and lay the pork belly on top, having stirred through the cooking juices from the meat into the beans. Add the prunes as well. Keep warm in the oven, and when ready to serve, sprinkle with fresh herbs. Meanwhile make the cabbage--chop it finely, fry with some onion in a little butter, add a little white wine and a little white wine vinegar, simmer, then add stock or water to just cover. Cook for about 2 mins, then drain, and start again, a little olive oil, a little white wine, but no vinegar and only a little stock. Cook for another four-five minutes--it makes a really nice tangy sort of cabbage dish that tastes a little like mild sauerkraut.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Family recipes 7: Bevis' 'Swag Lasagna'

Our 21 year old son Bevis, a talented musician and audio engineering student, is also turning into quite a fabulous cook, and with equally enthusiastic friends, competes to produce tasty, great and nice-looking meals for good student prices. Last time we were in Sydney, a milestone event happened when he invited us, for the first time since he left home, to dinner at his flat, and produced a beautifully tasty and inventive menu based on Italian and Mediterranean influences, interpreted in his own way.

We had bruschetta topped with a lovely, simple tomato, herb and Spanish onion salsa for an aperitif with cider and beer; then a beautiful entree of lightly steamed green bean bundles, wrapped in prosciutto and pan-fried, and then, the piece de resistance, the spectacular 'Swag Lasagna,' a recipe of Bevis' own invention, which is a kind of hybrid between traditional lasagna and moussaka. And why 'Swag Lasagna'? Well not because it's meant to be carried on long treks in your swag(though it would certainly keep body and soul together!)but because 'swag' is short for 'swagger', a kind of shorthand amongst Bevis and his friends for the style amongst their group of young men who share cooking tips and recipes!

Here's the recipe for 'Swag Lasagna' , as given to me by Bevis. I haven't put proportions, as these will vary according to the numbers of people. Ad-lib as necessary, that's the essence of Swag!

Swag Lasagna is made up of three different sauces: a lamb bolognaise sauce, a mushroom and tomato sauce, and a white sauce. It also includes roasted eggplant, roasted capsicum, and three different sorts of cheeses: fetta, ricotta and grated cheddar or'tasty' cheese.

Prepare the sauces first: fry onion, add minced lamb, herbs(rosemary or basil or thyme or whatever you fancy), add garlic, tomatoes, tomato paste, salt, pepper, cook till thick and tasty. Make the mushroom sauce by frying onions and mushrooms in butter, add sliced tomatoes,herbs,salt,pepperetc, cook till done(mushrooms should not be too soft.) Meanwhile roast the eggplant, cut in slices, ditto with capsicum. Make the white sauce. In a lasagna dish layer the lasagna sheets with the different sauces, one layer to each sauce, and add eggplant and capsicum slices too, as desired. Cut fetta cheese into small cubes and scatter in the layers too. Layer till all used up then on top layer spread with white sauce and crumbled ricotta to completely cover the dish(the addition of the ricotta gives a deliciously creamy and moist texture). Sprinkle the grated cheddar over that,bake in oven till done,and enjoy. We certainly did!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The great cassoulet kerfuffle

My sister Dominique just sent on an article from the Toulouse newspaper, La Depeche, about a very funny hoax that was sprung on unsuspecting shoppers in the Castelnaudary markets recently. A stall appeared in the markets, draped in the British flag and featuring a naively insolent English stallkeeper named Harry, who proposed to the aghast public a new product: English-style cassoulet, which was supposed to be so much better than the local variety.Not only, he claimed, was his product superior because he added ingredients such as marmelade and mint, but in fact the French didn't really know anything about cassoulet, it was up to the English to educate them--and perhaps in fact, he mischievously added, the English were the inventors of it all along, having developed it during the Hundred Years War--the locals had only pinched the idea!

Now to understand the huge sense of outrage these remarks engendered amongst shoppers, you must also know that not only was French national pride under attack, but even more grievously, local pride: for Castelnaudary(along with Carcassonne and Toulouse) pride themselves on being the home of cassoulet--and in fact Castelnaudary claims its version is by far the best. Certainly, Castel cassoulet is known far and wide through France and its most famous exponent, a company called La Belle Chaurienne(the latter is the word for a Castelnaudary woman), sells its distinctive tins throughout the country and beyond. English Harry was most certainly not on safe ground there when he made his sacriligeous remarks! People were fuming, insulting him and his product and talking darkly of pelting him with rotten tomatoes and worse..

It was only later that the truth came out: it was all an elaborate joke, a funny marketing exercise by the people behind La Belle Chaurienne themselves--and 'Harry' was a well known English actor, David Lowe, who narrowly escaped paying the price for insulting local pride!

For those of you who read French, here's the link to the original piece:

Friday, June 3, 2011

In praise of chestnuts

Chestnuts speak vividly to me of late autumn and winter childhood visits to France. I remember one beautiful golden autumn afternoon in the Basque country when we'd been on an interesting outing to Edmond Rostand's country house—the creator of the famous play on Cyrano de Bergerac is one of my father's favourite authors, and we children grew up listening to him reciting the famous speeches from Cyrano—and we stopped along the road beside a huge chestnut tree that had been dropping its fruit all over the verge. We filled all kinds of containers with hundreds of them and back home spent ages popping them out of the spiky first layer of armour which made them look like green sea-urchins, and then having to score a cut in each glossy second layer so they could be roast over the fire or else boiled up for puree and other uses. I loved the taste of them, but it seemed to me amazing that people had learned how to eat them, they had so many layers of protection: the green spikes, the glossy, hard second layer, the flaky skin underneath that had to be rubbed off before you could at last properly use the fleshy nut in the centre.
In winter, roast-chestnut street stalls were—and still are!-- a common sight in French cities. The seller has a little portable brazier, a whole heap of roasted chestnuts ready to sell in paper cornets, and a whole heap more roasting. Every French kid has pestered their parents for one of those paper cornets, and walked along in seventh heaven with the cornet nestled warmly in a gloved hand, the other one deftly extracting the nuts, peeling the crackling armour off them and popping them in your mouth. Fantastic! And at Christmas time in France, chestnuts, roast and in puree, often have pride of place on the table, with the traditional Christmas log made of a mixture of sweetened chestnut puree and melted chocolate shaped into a log and decorated with candied flowers or fruit or cream. Chestnuts are also used in roast-poultry stuffings and egg dishes and all sorts of things and the flour mixed in with other kinds of flours in cakes. In summer, preserved chestnuts reappear in such traditional dishes such as Mont-Blanc, which uses sweetened chestnut puree—often coming out of the distinctive Clement Faugier green and white and brown tins that you find everywhere in France and can easily find in Australian cities too, in places like David Jones Food Hall or other gourmet groceries—combined with whipped cream to make a delicious and classically simple cold dessert. And of course there are the 'marrons glaces' , the exquisite candied whole chestnuts which are considered to be amongst the most quintessential of all such French sweets, and because they take so long to make, are expensive enough to be considered as true luxuries.
We've tried growing a chestnut tree here but to no avail. And we rarely have seen them in the shops. I do bring back tins of Clement Faugier chestnut puree from France from time to time or even from DJ's, but these are few and far between. So the other day when I did see chestnuts for sale in Sydney, a wave of longing for some of the dishes of my childhood swept over me, and I bought a fair few.
Back home, we tried first to roast them—disaster! As we'd forgotten to scare the skins, the hot chestnuts went off like exploding rockets, fireworking shattered chestnut pieces all over the room. When we'd recovered from the fright and the laughing, we decided discretion was the better part of valour and instead of wasting our hard-sought chestnuts by turning them into mini-bombs, we'd beat Monsieur Faugier at his own game and make our own puree.
Well, it worked, thanks to trusty Ginette Mathiot and her recipe for this classic basic in i Know How to Cook—but what a palaver! First of all we had to score each nut with a cross, them boil them for 10 minutes in water, then remove the hard glossy skin, then boil them again for another 10 minutes, remove the flaky inner skin, then simmer the nut flesh again, in milk with a little sugar this time, for 20 minutes. Then the milky nuts had to be mashed up till you got a smooth paste, a little vanilla essence added and a little more sugar, and then left to cool. After that, I mixed the puree with melted chocolate and made a Maytime log whose ressemblance to a Christmas log was not in the least coincidental. And it was delicious, smooth and rich, with that distinctive chestnut taste mingled with the lusciousness of the chocolate. But though it was definitely worthwhile having a go, for sheer curiosity's sake, it took a very long time to get to the final product—and I don't think I'll be challenging Monsieur Faugier's supremacy any time soon!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Of cabbages and kings

Well OK, just of cabbages—but what amazingly versatile players these are in the vegetable world, worthy of high praise! Not only are they stalwarts in the winter garden, like leeks, but you can do so much with them! We grow three different kinds in our garden: the sweet little sugarloaf cabbages, delicious Savoy cabbage with their pale frilly leaves, and beautiful red cabbage, more purple than red really, which lends a touch of colour to even the simplest winter meal. Each of them can be used in many different ways—the Savoy is particularly suited to role-changing. Here's some ideas for fantastic cabbage dishes:
*Mixture of very finely-chopped Savoy cabbage and red cabbage, with a dressing of olive oil, a little white balsamic vinegar, a little sour cream, Dijon mustard, finely-chopped Spanish onions, chives and garlic chives, salt, pepper. Or with a tangy home-made mayonnaise.
*A simple and delicious way to cook cabbage as a side dish is to take a whole small sugarloaf cabbage, split it in two, leaving leaves intact on either side, fry it in a little butter, a bit of salt, add a splash of white wine or water, cook for about 2 mins, then tip out the liquid and start again with a little white wine and a little stock till vegetable is cooked and the leaves are translucent. You can do this with chopped Savoy cabbage too. (they are usually too big to cook as halves like the sugarloaf!)
*Red cabbage is extremely nice cooked in an adapted Russian/Scandinavian style way, sweet and sour. This is my version of it: Chop red cabbage finely, fry in a little butter or oil with a chopped onion, add some red wine, salt, pepper, and let simmer for about five minutes. Now add some brown sugar and cider vinegar, tasting to see if mixture has proper sweet/sour contrast(it doesn't want to be too much of the one or the other.) Add chicken or beef or vegetable stock to just cover and simmer for about 30 mins or until cabbage is very well-cooked and tender. Add some herbs if wanted, and a little more sugar/vinegar if needed, simmer for another couple of minutes. This is fantastic with not only all sorts of meats but also beans and other legumes, such as black-eyed beans, chick peas, lentils, etc. Best hot, it is also pretty nice cold as a condiment to have with cold meats and ham.
*Cabbage soup—one of my favourites and so very simple. Take some finely-chopped sugarloaf or Savoy cabbage, some diced carrots, 1 diced large potato, chopped onion, garlic, herbs: thyme, parsley, sage; salt, pepper, some red wine, some butter, chicken or beef or vegetable stock. Fry the onion in the butter, add the carrot and potato, stir till starting to cook, then add some red wine, cook for a little longer. Add the cabbage, some more red wine, cook for 5 minutes. Add the salt, pepper, herbs, stock and cook till carrot and potato are completely tender. Serve with fresh bread or croutons.
*Cabbage cake: I adore this traditional French peasant dish, the perfect thing in winter, which can come either as individual parcels, as in my sister Beatrice's excellent stuffed cabbage parcels recipe in an earlier post(see Family recipes 3), but also as a kind of layered 'cake.' For this you need some whole Savoy cabbage leaves(break carefully off), pork mince, salt, pepper, herbs(sage and thyme is good), an egg, breadcrumbs. First blanch the leaves in some water or stock, for about 2 minutes. Mix the mince with the other ingredients. In a greased round baking dish first put a cabbage leaf then a layer of mince then a cabbage leaf and so on and on until you have used up both the meat and the leaves(you need to have at least four to six leaves for it to work properly. Cook, covered, in a moderate oven for about 1 hour. Serve with a home-made tomato sauce or redcurrant jelly.