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Tag Archives: Seasonal Cooking

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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Welcome back!

So it’s been awhile; quite a while. Life happened. Ect.

But it’s a new year, and I feel inspired to try to blog again. I’ve missed you. I’ve also stopped being as much of a health nut, and am consequently eating yummy food again. I felt hypocritical talking about cake when I didn’t eat it (the craziness of the months when I did not eat cake need never be mentioned again).

Part of the above mentioned “life” was moving house. I now live in a tiny apartment without room for a table inside, but I think you will all agree dining alfresco has its advantages.

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I think this is the best dining room/larder I’ve ever had.

Stay tuned for Stephanie Alexander inspired kitchen garden posts shortly.

The dinner pictured is simple, but it was bliss. Australia is riding a heat wave that’s left me reluctant to use the stovetop or oven. The evening in question saw a cool breeze blow through.  I sat with a lovely Shiraz, a lovely dinner, and watched the world walk by.

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I’ve raved about my love for Lamb backstrap before. I will again. I generally find Lamb just too fatty to enjoy. I have a lean palate. Yes, this means I’ll never be a real “foodie”. Yes, this means the current passion for game meats has left me with limited choice in restaurants.  But I’m a postmodernist. This means I reject cultural hierarchies and ideas of some things possessing “value” while others do not based on genre or classification. This means I watch the Vampire Diaries without shame, defend the presence of Bridget Jones’s Diary next to Mrs Dalloway on my bookshelf, and I’m not going to pretend to prefer the “dark” “interesting’ thigh meat to “bland” breast when I don’t.

Not that I think anyone is going to suggest an obsession with backstrap is low class.

I took the meatout of the fridge a half hour before cooking; dressing with olive oil, some smashed cloves of garlic, oregano and lemon thyme from the garden, pepper and a little salt in the butchers bag. After it marinated a little I heated my griddle pan to high heat, cooking four minutes on each side (I lean toward medium well when at home, so three and a half minutes is probably more respectful to the beautiful cut of meat). Then I removed from heat and rested while I got on with the salads.

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This lovely evening saw my first attempt at vinaigrette (I know, I’m not sure why I think I have any business writing a food blog either). I took one part extra virgin olive oil, one part grapeseed oil, one part lime juice, one part white wine vinegar, one clove crushed garlic, and salt and pepper. It’s not exactly complicated, or ground breaking, but it was very pleasant.

It was a beginning.

I dressed some salad leaves, tossed with cucumber, celery and capsicum.

I also whipped up a Caprese salad. I have fallen in love with the baby tomato medley available from my greengrocer, different shapes, flavours and colours makes dinner pop and an abundance of basil in my garden have made this a staple this summer.

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Then I platted and enjoyed.

Like I said, a simple meal, but when combined with setting, it was wonderful.

What’s your favourite salad dressing recipe? I’m eager to learn.

Asparagus

I said last week that I thought that winter was at an end. Then when I left my house this week, when I arrived at work, this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And at the markets today, this.

Asparagus. Spring. It’s very exciting.

And it means I can eat this.

Grilled lamb backstrap, mashed potato, poached asparagus, goats curd, red wine jus. I had it at Tuck’s Ridge on the Mornington Peninsular last October , and I’ve been attempting to recreate it ever since. Delicious, even if it never tastes as good in my kitchen as it does in the sunshine by the vines.

In my seasonal excitement I grabbed my Maggie Beer to see what else I should do with asparagus – poached, then finished off with a pan of browned butter, or with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce, were the big suggestions.

Marvellous. I can’t wait to give them a try

Chestnuts

The Chestnut sellers weren’t at the markets last week, I doubt they’ll be there today. And while there is still frost in the mornings, while flowers might be few and far between, I can’t help thinking this marks the end of winter.

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The Roast Chestnut sellers are without doubt one of my favourite parts of winter. It’s my post-run ritual. There’s something about holding that hot brown bag, cradling it to protect it from the cold, peeling shell from nut flesh, and then  devouring 150gm of nutty goodness in the carpark that just makes running 6km in the bitter cold seem so worth it.

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Chestnuts are full of associations for me. I didn’t grow up eating chestnuts. They were the stuff of Christmas Carols and Dickens, not actually a real foodstuff like cashews and macadamias – the nuts of choice for an Australian Christmas. So the first chestnuts I ate were brought by someone else happy who was happy to share the secret. A hot cone of waxed brown paper on a golden Autumn day – in Nimes, France.

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I had trouble deciding what to make of them. They were not what I was excpecting and took me quite by surprise. Chestnuts are quite different in texture to other nuts (in part becuase they are actually a fruit), fleshy, soft, fibrous. I have a terrible time imagining what they would be like raw. But the day was so perfect, the experience so special, the lovely French grand-peres playing Bocce so sweet when they caught me spying on them – that chestnuts became wrapped up, inextricably, with one of my favourite travel days.

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Obviously one perfect day isn’t enough to make you fall in love with a food, but it it enough to inspire a second try. And I’ll be the first to admit that chestnuts, piping hot from the roaster, needing to be gobbled right away, are as much experiential as flavour. But at its heart, so very much of what draws us to food, is experiential. Comfort foods, winter foods, Christmas foods, exotic foods, fine dining – its all wrapped up in values, enjoyment and associations beyond the flavour (though I would never go so far as to suggest flavour is not a central component of the equation.

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I know you can cook with chestnuts. I had a lovely mushroom and chestnut risotto on the Mornington Peninsular at Easter,  and Maggie Beer devotes several pages to their versatility in her fabulous tome on seasonal local cooking Maggie’s Harvest. But for me, the pleasure of the Chestnut seller and the simple flavoursome flesh means I can not imagine cooking with them myself, they would never last long enough for me to do that. I eat them too quick.

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Figs…

… are AWESOME!!!!!!

My old bedroom had a “Fig Seed” feature wall. It’s just an intense, beautiful colour.

It’s such a beautiful flavour.

 

 

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.