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From courtyard to table – basil pesto

I grew up with a “harvester”. Some people enjoy gardening; my mum isn’t a “gardener”, but she loves picking things from the garden and serving them that night. Grandpa was a farmer, and even though he left the farm before I was born, a vegi-garden prolific enough to feed family, friends, and anyone going through hard times is wired into our DNA.

I rent. And a vegetable garden requires more permanence (and soil) than I possess. It’s taken me years to make peace with paying for lemons, lettuce and potatoes. It’s taken longer to accept that fresh raspberries are an indulgence, not a food group. But here, in my lovely new oasis, my herb garden has finally flourished. And I have discovered that tomatoes can be grown in pots! When the season ends, I plan to experiment with rhubarb.

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For the first time I have more basil then I know what to do with. I turned to my Maggie Beer for guidance. Maggie’s Harvest is a treasure trove. Structured by season, then by ingredient, I find it invaluable when I notice beautiful produce at the markets I’m unsure what to do with, or for reminding myself what’s actually in season in my privileged world of airfreight and refrigeration. I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever cooked a recipe from it… But while Maggie’s palate is a sharp contrast to my own, her knowledge is vast and her writing as enjoyable to sink into as the master of cookbook

The logical solution to a basil glut is pesto.

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Basil Pesto

100gm pine nuts

¾ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic

1 cup firmly packed basil leaves

50gm freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

50gm freshly grated perino

Salt and pepper to taste

Squeeze of lemon juice

 

Dry roast the pine nuts in a frying pan over medium-high heat until golden, tossing to prevent burning.

Put ¼ cup olive oil, ½ the pine nuts and the remaining ingredients in a food processor and blend to a paste. Don’t be tempted to add more garlic. When cooking I lean on the generous side with my flavourings; the first time I made pesto, I has a large clove of garlic and a medium clove and I used them both. It was a mistake. Basil and parmesan aren’t delicate flavours per se, but they will both be quickly overwhelmed by garlic. Remember, while you will be combining the pesto with hot things and that will take the edge off the garlic, the garlic is still raw, so much more over powering than in most sauces.

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Also, if you don’t have the access or the budget for fancy expensive cheeses, 100gm of parmesan will do the job just as well.

Add the remaining pine nuts and pulse the food processor for a few seconds, so that the pine nuts remain in chunks.

Stir in the remaining oil. It is worth stirring in a small amount at a time, as depending on the basil you’re using and your own preferences, you may not need that much.

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If you have a lot of basil, you can combine the basil, pine nuts and oil. Place in small plastic tubs and freeze. When ready to use, defrost the tubs in hot water, and add the garlic and grated cheese.

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Pesto is a versatile ingredient, acting like a condiment in minestrone or tossed with greens, or combined with pasta for a great convenience food.  My first housemate frequently pan-fried sliced chicken breast and mushrooms, combining with penne pasta, pesto and a little cream and serving with steamed greens. I’m sure you have your own favourite use.

I personally am a huge fan of Spaghetti Genovese, which was one of the staples of my teen vegetarian years.

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Spaghetti Genovese

– serves 1, but easily multiplied

1 baby potato, skin on, sliced.

75gm spaghetti

salt

75gm green bean, ends off, sliced into 2cm lengths.

1 large spoonful pesto.

 

Half fill a saucepan with water. Salt. Bring to boil.

Add the spaghetti and potato, cook till almost tender.

Add the beans for a few minutes.

Drain, reserving some of the starchy water.

Combine the pasta, vegetables, starchy water and pesto.

Eat.

 

What’s your favourite use for pesto?

Do you have any tips for courtyard produce that won’t upset the landlord?

I want to know.

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Caveman Soup

One of my favourite things ever are lime and black pepper chips. I remember seeing them in the shops, thinking “who on earth would eat those” and then being bullied into trying them, loving them, and pretty much living on them and Blue Costello cheese for a year while I did honours.

So the other day when co-worker mentioned (nose upturned) her friend was raving about lime and sweet potato soup, instead of joining the general flavour confusion, I begged for the recipe, and now I want to share it with you.

Soups are fantastic and filling, and as you may be noticing from recent posts, I pretty much live on them during winter. I think this particular soup makes a great addition to the winter repertoire because while the sweet potato keeps it filling, the lime gives a fresh zang, which is such a nice break from the heartier fare I tend to during this season.

The recipe is originally from the paleo (or caveman) diet. Which is quite possibly the most stupid diet ever.  For those who don’t know the paleo diet argues that our bodies and metabolisms evolved for conditions thousands of years ago, and haven’t adjusted to modern conditions. This far I agree with. As anyone losing weight would know, a lot of our bodies responses to calories were designed for times of scarcity and famine in the cradle of humanity somewhere in Africa, that’s why we crave dense energy sources (like that stable of the traditional African diet, potato chips) and why our metabolism assumes famine and starts conserving energy and eating muscle  if we don’t eat within 30 minutes of getting up.

But the paleo diet responds to that assumption by declaring we should cut out any foods that didn’t belong on the pre-agrarian menu. Which means grains, white potato, sugar… I don’t know, that’s when i decided it was stupid. I’m just going to assume anyone who is reading this blog agrees that the whole point of the evolution of human civilisation has been to get the fire inside houses and into ovens and the wheat into flour so we could make cakes. Though I guess Paleo would still be pro almond meal, and therefore pro sugarless macaroons… which were obviously every caveman’s favourite treat and what they used to make their sweethearts to make up for dragging them round by their hair.

Also, I’m pretty sure cavepeople were just gettign the hang of burning thir meat – they didn’t make soup.

I basically disagree with any diet that claims if you just cut out 1 thing (or several) you can otherwise eat what you want and be happy, healthy and thin. Diets like that are not sustainable in the long term, and they’re not accurate. Yes, there is a lot wrong with how we eat now, but the problem is how we eat, not what. Sugar is not actually poison. Humans would be extinct if it was. Carbs do not magically make us fat, having “fries with that” or two cups of pasta covered in cream does. And any diet that thinks not eating fruit or vegetables for 10 days is “good for you” just seems to fundamentally miss something about nutrition.

Anyway, diet rant over. What I mean to say is don’t hold the origin of this recipe against it. It was really yum, really light, really filling, and really easy. It did not however make me want to grab a big stick and go hunt dinner.

Sweet potato lime soup recipe

3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks;

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

3 thin slices fresh ginger;

2 lime leaves;

¾ cup coconut milk;

½ cup water;

2 tbsp lime juice;

A dash of sea salt and good grind of black pepper;

In a large sauce pan over a medium-high heat, combine the sweet potatoes, stock, ginger and lime leaves. Allow the contents to come to a boil and then turn the heat down to medium-low and continue to simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender to the touch.

Remove the lime leaves

Remove the soup from the heat and use a hand-mixer or a blender to blend the soup until completely smooth.

Return the soup to a low heat and mix in the coconut milk, water and lime juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir well. You will know everything is mixed correctly once the coconut milk is completely blended in.

Mum’s Pumpkin Soup

The weather has turned and its feeling somewhat freezing right now. I need a plan to deal with the ice on my windscreen most mornings. At work we sit with Nana blankets on our laps. The leaves are a mosaic of orange and the crisp air seems to freeze on my lungs when I jog round the lake (something I’d never imagine doing in a more hospitable climate). Mother’s day is almost upon us, and every catalogue reminds us that that means it’s time to buy new slippers.

Butternut pumpkins are selling for 99 cents each. Its soup weather.

Its one of the great tragedies of my life that I haven’t inherited my mother’s knack for soups. Mum’s one of those people who can make “what’s in the fridge, let’s throw it in the pot” soup that turns out consistently delightful. I was not born with that skill. What I have inherited is mum’s pumpkin soup recipe (in so far as she ever uses a recipe). Absolutely nothing is nicer on a chill winter’s day than a snuggling bowl of piping deliciousness. And for me, this soup is like a hug straight from mum. I know everyone thinks their (or their mum’s) pumpkin soup is the best, but my mum’s actually is, I couldn’t stand pumpkin as a kid, and I devoured this soup like it was going out of fashion (the folly of youth, pumpkin soup is never, ever, going to go out of fashion). The secret is to use a 3/1 ration of pumpkin to potato – It takes some of the edge off the pumpkin (though this is not so important if you’re using the easier to cut, conveniently sized, on-trend butternut like I do) and more importantly, adds a velvety richness to the texture, moving the soup from the watery fate that seems to befall so many other pumpkin soups. I know I’m not the only one to think this because people used to ask quite pointedly which soup mum had brought whenever we did the “pot luck” soup and sandwich thing in the church hall when I was a kid.

So in honour of Mother’s Day, I share with you my mum’s signature pumpkin soup.

Pumpkin Soup:

1 tbl spn olive oil

Diced onion

1 clove crushed garlic

Cubed pumpkin and potato (or sweet potato if you prefer a complex carbohydrate) in a 3/1 ratio

2 cups vegetable or chicken stock.

water

Heat oil in pan on a medium heat, gently sauté onion and garlic in pan until translucent, 3-5 minutes.

Add pumpkin and potato to pot, stir through onion and heat slightly, pour in stock and add water to just cover the pumpkin.

Place lid, slightly ajar to allow the steam out, and bring to the boil.

Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until pumpkin is mushy and disintegrates to the touch.

Stand until lukewarm.

Use a bar mix to blend soup into a smooth consistency.

So, there – its super easy, super yummy, and you should make your mum a pot for mother’s day, proximity and family tradition allowing.

Because I’m a brat – I have been known to make a few additions.

  • I love nothing better than a big bowl of soup by itself for lunch. Unfortunately pumpkin soup, while rich in vegetable and carbs, offers no protein. I briefly considered the flavour possibilities of bacon, but it seemed to defeat the purpose. My solution instead is to soak a cup or so of red lentils for a few hours (the ratio will depend on whether you adore red lentils, or like mothers everywhere are trying to slip something healthy or different past the palates of your kids, or yourself). Add the lentils to the last 15 minutes of cooking. This not only ups the protein and tastes yum, but is particularly helpful in retaining the rich depth of texture I love when substituting potatoes with the improved GI but reduced creaminess of sweet potato.
  • To warm things up even more, add a teaspoon or two to taste of yellow curry paste when sautéing the onions. Then, once you’ve blended the soup, swirl in a small tin of coconut cream. I never add cream to my soups generally, partially for health but also because in my experience a good soup doesn’t need it, the flavours will speak for themselves. But in this case it adds a delicious, decedent dimension and helps make you feel like you’ve escaped on an exotic getaway. Be warned however that the dimensions of the curry will intensify in the fridge over night – so if you’re planning to live on a pot for a week you might want to be carful not to overwhelm the pumkin.
  • I have a strong memory of having this with chicken noodle soup mix stirred through when I was young and sick – Mum has no recollection of this – but I do find that a handful of spaghetti, broken into 2 cm lengths, added after the blending stage and cooked through by the soups moister during reheating (the slow old fashioned way on the stove, not in a microwave) produces a comforting addition when sick and miserable.
  • When cooking for one you seem to always acquire just under ½ a bunch of celery you have no idea how you’re going to use. Celery and soup have a long and glorious association – and while I’d love to be the type of person to use such a quandary to make my own stock – I’m not. Instead I find that it’s quite effective to add a stalk or two of celery, sliced, after the onions and before the pumpkin. You may or may not notice any difference, depending on the strength of the pumpkin, but I certainly don’t think it hurts, and I like to think it’s a step towards sprucing up store bought stock.

Holly’s Happy-making Default Dinner

One of the things I love about Nigella Lawson’s books is that she tells you the stories behind the recipes. And often the story is of someone else’s recipe: a family tradition; a friend’s speciality; the best of a respected, if obscure, tome. They are recipes with history; the outcome of generations of experimentation and perfection. I find it incredibly comforting to be reminded that the bounty of lovely, varied, reliable recipes captured in the pages of the cookbook have a providence and did not spring, perfect and whole from the mind of the writer. Cookbook author as collator rather than creator fits with the romance and nostalgia narrative I weave around cooking. This is Holly’s recipe.

Those of you who have been following this blog might have seen a bit of Holly already. She normally comments on a post pretty quickly, usually to say I’ve made her hungry. Sadly I don’t get to feed her as much as a best-friend should and she has to make do with occasionally express posted baked goods on the rare occasions I get my act together.

Shortly before I headed from the valley chill of Hobart to the freezing frost of Canberra Ms Holly had me over for a day of vitally important Buffy viewing. To mark the occasion Holly decreed that our traditional lunch of black pepper and lime chips, basil and cashew dip and Blue Costello cheese would not do, and proceeded to (gasp!) cook me something. I am grateful she did.

This is the meal Holly’s mum makes her when she is sick and in my first year of fending for myself it proved invaluable. When I can’t bear to plan, to prepare; when I’ve been at the gym till well past 7 and I just need to eat and fall into bed. I make Holly’s wonderful meal. Maybe this meal is so familiar to you that you can’t understand why I adore it so. But the simple meals of a family can prove a revelation when they’re different to the simple meals of you own.

So here it is: Garlic mushrooms; baby spinach; cous cous.

That’s it. Super easy, basically healthy, calling on modern pantry classics, and unbelievably tasty. I adore it.

Make the cous cous according to the packet instructions. Sauté mushrooms in butter and crushed garlic.

Put the cous cous in a bowl, cover with fresh baby spinach on top, then put the mushrooms on top.

Yum!

This in itself is awesome, fantastic , filling, yum. But I’m a big fan of it with lamb backstrap. I just put the backstrap in some oil with garlic and lemon thyme from my garden, and let it sit for about thirty minutes while it comes to room temperature, then cook it in a medium hot frypan. Slice and put with the mushroom cous cous. Brilliant.

Also a big fan of it with chicken breast sprinkled with Moroccan seasoning and lemon juice in an oven bag and a moderate oven for 30 minutes.

Really just a big fan of it.

A rainy day in Paris

I just saw Midnight in Paris. Don’t stay and read this, go, watch it. Now.

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s new film. You may remember I talked about how his earlier film, Vicky Christina Barcelona, made me fall in love with Spain just before I went there. So, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of Midnight in Paris, convinced that it would make me fall in love with Paris all over again. It did not disappoint. So it actually has one over the City of Light in that regard, because I remember spending several days bitterly disappointed in Paris itself : in the heat, the dust, the crowds, the lack of romance. But three or four days in I was gradually won over as I was absorbed by the architecture. It’s a beautiful city. But film makes it beautiful in a much less complicated way.

Woody Allen makes Paris stunning; not that the city needs much help, particularly in his opening sequence which is so referential of the opening of Manhattan, with slow lingering shots of a city with glorious, old music underneath, that if he hadn’t directed them both I would call it a homage.  Allen shoots cities so you want to sink into his film, and pairs them with music wonderfully. Of course, to love Allen for his cinematography rather than his biting wit or commentary or smartass fast paced dialogue may get me thrown out of the film enthusiast club, and to love Allen at all makes me a bad feminist, but I love how he makes me love cities. I also enjoy observing his characters, but they are ultimately people I’m glad I don’t know.  Women I don’t think actually exist, particularly in such high concentrations. His content might be stimulation for my brain, but those cities. They feed my soul.

The movie opens and closes with dialogue on the beauty of walking in Paris in the rain. Paris in the rain is beautiful, though a drizzled mist is preferable to a downpour. My last day in Paris started as the former, ended as the later, and is one of my favourite days travelling. I had done the Louvre, stood atop the Arc de Triomphe to see Paris spread out in spokes, cruised the Seine, felt like I was floating in a room of Monet’s water lilies, gotten lost in Montmartre, picked a favourite bridge, and moved from being a little disappointed in the failure of Paris to deliver on two decades of building expectation to utterly enthralled in the city that was. And then the rain arrived, and there was the city of my dreams. On the morning in question I had found the perfect shot of the Eiffel Tower (which looked magical in the forming mist) and visited Notre Dame. There was nothing left to do but walk.

So walk I did. From Jardine des Tuileries, over Pont Alexander III, down the left bank and the quickly shutting green suitcases of booksellers (though they sell more souvenirs than books now). Until across from Notre Dame I realised that I really should eat something. Not a wise choice I’ll admit, it’s never advisable to eat that close to a major landmark, such businesses do not run on an expectation of repeat trade. But the rain had just begun in earnest, and I hoped it would ease off once I had eaten my lunch.

As it was my last day, I built up my courage and ordered Escargot. I did not really want 6 whole snails to myself, I would ideally have liked to share with 6 companions, or at least 1, but early the next morning I was to board the Eurostar, who knew when I would return. The moment needed to be seized. I think eating sails was as much proof to myself that my relationship with food had improved and my fussiness had abated, as it was a desire to engage with the cultural outputs of the country I was in and have quintessential tourist experiences. For all of these reasons I don’t regret eating escargot. In the main I found them… unremarkable. They were difficult to eat, needing to be removed from their shells with complicated utensils and technique. The texture had been described to me as like calamari, which is the best comparison I can think of, but it was chewy in a way calamari isn’t. They were drowning in garlic butter; so much so that I still don’t know what a snail tastes like. But that may not be a bad thing. I am more than willing to concede the restaurant to be at fault here rather than the dish as a rule. The Beef Bourgeon I had next was pleasant but by no means exceptional, and I suspect escargot requires an exceptional restaurant. But I have no desire to eat snails again.

My gamble had not paid off, and if anything the rain was harder than before. But I would not be deterred. I was exploring a city of great romance, and Paris really is beautiful in the rain. Next I headed to the Ile St Louis which lacks the grandeur of the landmarks which had dominated my visit. The Ile is elegant. Contained. It felt very French. Charming architecture, lovely stonework, old buildings, bicycles, and edging the Seine, an avenue of leaves. Despite the rain I stopped for a Berthillon ice-cream, which my guidebook assured me was the best in Paris. It was lovely. A scoop of Fig, and one of Almond. Flavours which felt very European, flavours I would have never chosen in Australia. Flavours in a language I only grasped the edge of, written in gold on green against a hole in the wall, with an old style sign swinging overhead. This was Paris. This is what I had been looking for. Then across the street, a store with my name! Places sharing my name scatter the globe: A Russian Sea; a Hobart Café, but they are few and far between. Simple things excite me. And when travelling everything feel serendipitous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next I headed over to the west bank and Le Marais, the Jewish district.  It was at this moment that I felt a constricting ignorance of history. Here was a place with history, old buildings, cobbled streets; a place with stories. Pre-20th Century aside, any Jewish district in a city occupied by Nazi’s must have stories. But I did not know them; I could not hook my walking and gawping onto them. Visiting an old city, a great city, we have expectations and intertexts we hang our experiences onto and create our impressions from. In essence, that conflict between what the city is today and what we make it with our pre-conceived impressions and obsessions with history, is what Midnight in Paris is all about. But here, is a district I had not heard of till pressed to go and try the falafel, filled with funky young designers starting tiny fashion and jewellery boutiques, I didn’t know who I walked with, had no knowledge of the footsteps I was following. It was, regardless, a lovely district. The falafel was excellent.  Brimming with salads and texture and flavour. Warm and comforting as I scoffed it down under a dripping awning before the store owner hustled me out of their doorway and back into the rain. It made me feel somewhat “cool”. The district may have a history I don’t know, but its present is the safe side of “edgy” and the slightly commercial side of hip. It’s a fun place to take a walk. And if your credit card is sufficiently prepared, I suspect a better place to shop.

By this point the cobblestones were slick, the gutters flowing, and despite my rain jacket the damp had slowly worked up from my trouser cuffs and I was soaked from head to toe. I decided the time for wandering had come to an end, and headed to the Centre Georges Pompidou – the modern art gallery. The time had come to exit the past. To abandon my images of the decadence of Louise XIV’s Court, the angry bread mobs, Victor Hugo, the Paris Commune, The Belle Epoch and Bohemian Montmartre, Monet, Renoir, Simone de Beauvoir and left bank intellectuals, Gertrude Stein, the Resistance, Bogart and Bergman, Breathless, Sabrina… and to pull myself violently (it’s modern art, violent is not necessarily an inappropriate adjective) into the present.

the Eiffel Tower is hiding in the mist in the top left corner

And that’s what I need to do now. I’ve rattled on quite long enough about a lovely day in a lovely city I enjoyed almost 2 years ago. You’ve been very patient and it’s time for the recipe. It’s not French I’m afraid. No snails or falafel in my bag of tricks. It’s movie food. Caramel Popcorn. This recipe is easy to whip up when you’re about to curl on the couch and be transported elsewhere on a rainy day. It’s also good snack food for events. It was a big hit when mum took it to trivia the other week. I make it with ½ the caramel, which is very yum and with half the calories I can convince myself I’m being healthy. But for your decadent enjoyment I’ve listed full quantities below.

Caramel Popcorn

½ cup unpopped popcorn

125g butter

2 tblsp golden syrup

¾ cup of sugar

Follow packet directions to pop popcorn. Place to side.

Place remaining ingredients in a saucepan and stir  over low heat ill dissolved.

Boil uncovered for 5 minutes

Remove from heat

Pour over popped popcorn in a metal bowl.

Stir through quickly before the caramel sets – careful to avoid touching the caramel.

Big Cake Bake

On Friday 14 October Australian Red Cross held the Big Cake Bake to raise funds for their important work. As discussed with Cupcake Day, I’m a sucker for baking themed fundraisers; so I put on my apron and got fundraising. Of course, logistically Big Cake Bake is a bit trickier than cupcakes, which come in user friendly individual serves, but it’s certainly more achievable than Pancake Day. In the spirit of user friendliness however, I did move the event from a Friday to a Monday to allow for joyful fun Sunday afternoon baking, rather than resentful late-night baking. I also chose to keep it simple, ignore dietary requirements and make two super easy cakes that I cut into slices and left in the break room with a tin for donations.

First I tried a recipe for “Apple and Berry cake” (courtesy of Donna Hay, via the testimonial of tv and radio personality Amanda Keller) which had come with the “host” pack Red Cross sent me. This cake was also incredibly easy to make, though the apple layer on top meant it wasn’t as easy to cut and looked a bit mangled once I went at it with a knife. The cake was a big hit; it had virtually disappeared by lunchtime and was well reviewed by co-workers.

Second I made my go to cake when I want results with little effort. If you’re looking for an easy, fluffy yet moist chocolate fix, a last minute cake, or a wet afternoon project with your (or someone else’s) kids, I cannot recommend this recipe highly enough.

It is recorded in mum’s cookbook as “Never Fail Chocolate Cake”.  And with one notable exception when I was knee-high to the kitchen table and tried to ‘surprise’ mum, it never has. I’ve been making this cake my whole life (though mum did the heavy lifting for the first few years till she trusted me with an electric mixer). As such, I always feel just a little like I’m being lazy or defrauding the recipients when I make this cake, especially for birthdays. Which is silly, it was the default birthday cake of my childhood, and I’ve never made it for anyone who was less than thrilled to receive it. It’s actually great for birthdays when you want to decorate the cake, as it works well with coloured icing.

An earlier version of the cake, made for a Pisces themed party.

Pretension aside, sometimes it’s nice to use cocoa powder instead of melted chocolate, flour instead of almond meal, and butter icing instead of ganache.

Never Fail Chocolate Cake

1 cup SR flour

1 cup sugar

3 tblsp butter

2 tblsp cocoa powder

2 eggs

½ cup milk

½ teaspoon vanilla (I always just use a good dash, I like to over use vanilla)

 

Melt Butter

Mix all ingredients together

Add butter and beat for 3-4 min

Bake in a moderate oven 30 min or till a skewer comes out clean.

 

puttin’ on the Ritz

It was my turn to host film night last week. Determined to take advantage of the proximity to oven and freezer I will openly admit to going completely overboard: over planning; over thinking; over catering.  Well theoretically over catering. I was sure I would be eating leftovers for a week (I was planning to do so, as I spent most of my week’s food budget on the one meal). However due to a combination of the wondrous appetite increasing powers of good food and my friends knowing me well enough to bring a smaller amount of food and a large amount of wine, almost all the food disappeared! Or maybe I just didn’t make as much as I thought.

We were watching the British Film Noir classic The Third Man and instead of going the obvious (sensible) route of choosing Austrian as a theme (I could have made sachertorte), I instead choose Black and White.  Initially I picked the theme because I was lazy, and it seemed something I could easily pull out some of my go-to recipes for. But quickly my compulsive need to overdo everything (or more sympathetically, my tendency to overreact to others casually mentioned assumptions) took over and I was embracing the theme for its ability to extend to crockery, decoration and dress. Eventually I even designed a soundtrack, though that was less black and white (no Michael Jackson) and more a selection of jazz and show tune greats from the 40-60’s. Lots of Gershwin, lots of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, a sprinkling of Miles Davis.

The beauty of black and white as a theme is that if your serving dishes are anything like mine (white, with variation in texture and shape), there isn’t much need to buy anything, or do much differently. I picked up some black plastic cutlery, cups, serviettes and dessert plates, partially for contrast – mostly because my kitchen is too small to let guests stay and help with the washing up.

So what does one serve when stripping food of all colour? I had initially wanted to use this as an opportunity to test out a recipe for Tuscan Beans. But this soup-like stew would have been too messy for the casual, grazing style of the event – and my recipe called for speck, which is definitely not white. Instead the menu was as follows:

White cheese (goats and brie) and bread

Skewers of feta and olives

 

So good it was mostly gone before I got a chance to take a picture

Gratin Dauphinois – sort of. I should probably call it a potato bake. I got the recipe from the lovely food blog Chocolate and Zucchini. This was the first blog I ever read and still a favourite, though this was my first time trying out a recipe. It’s a lovely recipe which calls for boiling the potatoes in milk before baking, which makes it melt in your mouth creamy, without the sense of overindulgence which can make some potato bakes rather overwhelming.  According to Clotilde, the inclusion of cheese immediately disqualifies a dish from being a Dauphinois, however I have seen recipes elsewhere which call for a light sprinkling of gruyere. And I knew my audience. I don’t think cheese hurt the dish, but as all guests were in agreement that this dish required seconds, if not thirds, I only tried a spoonful and don’t feel qualified to make a judgement.

Rice and black beans – I grabbed this from Jamie Oliver’s 30-Minute Meals. When this cookbook first arrived in my mailbox, I’d been a little disappointed in it. I was really after something that would help me stop eating boxes of shape biscuit for dinner when I got home from work. And this was a book about family meals – mains, sides and desserts cooked at the same time straight from the stovetop to the table. It is not a book aimed at those who eat with House, Don Draper and the gang from Community for company. However,  after seeing just how simple this meal was, I’m tempted to test out some of the meal menu’s next time I have guest over for dinner. Despite the fact I can spend weeks planning, shopping for and pre-preparing for dinner parties, the rules of my inflating ambition and expectations (the more time I have, the more I’ll try to do) mean that I have never once been close to ready when guest walk through the door. But this dish took, as advertised, half an hour; and I could ignore it bubbling on the stove for most of it. Certainly I doubt I’ll ever use this cookbook the way it was designed to be used, but I now feel inclined to give it a second chance and go on a search for individual recipes that look good.

I was particularly interested in the use of cinnamon in a savoury rice dish. Maybe I’ve just been hiding under a rock, but I would never have considered it – and it was fantastic. Jamie’s recipe calls for canned beans, while I choose to use dried beans soaked overnight – consequentially mine turned out black, rather than the lovely contrast of white rice pictured in the cookbook. It also means that it needed to simmer for 10 minutes longer than called for and required more liquid (and while I don’t mind crunchy beans, it could have benefited from longer). I am planning to experiment with cooking the beans prior to adding to the rice. This was a massive hit as well.

Chicken, mushroom, olive and mozzarella  pizza.

Spinach and Feta pizza –The deli round the corner sells lovely pizza bases, so I didn’t make my own. I had initially planned this dish as spinach goes dark when cooked. But I couldn’t bring myself to blanch the baby spinach, so it retained its colour and didn’t quite sit with the theme. My vegetarian guest appreciated it though. And sometimes bending the rules is worth it.

 

Dessert:

Liquorice

Sugar coated almonds – I was super excited when my eyes drifted unwounds while at the cold meats counter and I noticed these at my deli for the first time. Serendipitous, as at another time I’m not sure I’d have given them much thought. My guests were similarly excited. They seem to have special occasion food connotations – and of course they taste divine.

Black grapes – just in season and delicious. Also close to seedless. I’m quite sure that Maggie Beer and the Masterchef Judges have the same feelings about the consumer driven breeding of seedless grapes and its effect on taste they have for the breeding of lean meats – but I really do prefer seedless grapes and I’m so glad that the darker varieties have become available. I’ve said it; I will be thrown out of the foodie club.

Pear crumble – provided by an absolute joy of a friend who didn’t let my reputation for competitiveness and over-catering faze her.

White chocolate and citrus mudcake

Homemade vanilla ice-cream – I don’t have an ice-cream maker. I don’t have a blast freezer. I do have an electric mixer though, which puts me far far ahead of my great Aunt Mary, whose recipe this is. Like almost everything I make, this is time consuming, but simple. I was expecting it to develop ice crystals and made the mistake of making it as last minute as possible – ended up being so last minute I was beating cream as guest arrive.  Using an electric mixer really pushes casual entertaining to the extremes. However, the leftovers have been sitting in a container in my freezer for almost a week now, and they are still crystal free, so I recommend making at this a day in advance.

So partially for copy write reasons, somewhat because I’m just so proud of making my own ice-cream, and largely because this was the only dish I had the time with to take decent photo’s – here is the recipe for vanilla ice-cream.

Aunt Mary’s Ice Cream – 1938

3 cups milk

1 cup cream

3 small teaspoons gelatine

1 cup sugar

Pinch salt

Vanilla

Heat the milk, stir in the gelatine, sugar, salt and vanilla

Put in trays and freeze

Beat the cream until stiff, add the frozen mixture and beat well.

Freeze.