Of Mince Pies & Christmas Crackers

xmas table

As far back as I can remember we have celebrated Christmas in pretty typical Anglo fashion. When we lived in the UK, on Xmas morning, the stockings we put out would be filled not only with smaller gifts, but also oranges and nuts, lunch was roast turkey and pork with all the trimmings (but I recall boiled bacon and pease pudding was served before we adopted the Turkey tradition) and the table wouldn’t have been complete without Christmas Crackers. Of course dessert was always a flaming Xmas pudding served with brandy butter. Other traditions our family subscribed to apart from the Queens speech, included the exotic addition of a fresh pineapple, obligatory bowls of nuts ready to be cracked (only ever Brazils, Hazel and Walnuts) trays of dried dates, crystalised and glace citrus and always, but always, trays and trays of mince pies dusted with a “snow” like layer of icing sugar.

mince pies 5Over the years, many of our family “traditions” like all traditions, have morphed and changed. Once in Australia Xmas stockings became pillow cases, fruit and nuts became lollies, lunch became dinner then dinner became an all day graze (as the turkey and pork took a back seat) and Pavlova joined the pudding table. On the side of the main event, things changed as well, the no longer exotic Pineapple disappeared, thank goodness, the whole cracking nuts thing waned in favour of the ready to eat roasted and salted variety, and sensibly dates and sugared fruits went out in preference to fresh summer fruits like cherries, apricots and mangoes.

But with all these changes, two things have remained constant, Mince Pies and Christmas Crackers. The crackers thing is not surprising, they are as much a symbol of Christmas excess as a present laden tree, but why when everything else has changed did we keep the mince pie tradition? Essentially it was mums “thing”, in fact the more Xmas celebrations changed, the more she embraced her passion for baking and giving away literally thousands of mince pies as Xmas gifts each year for friends and family, and they were universally loved and looked forward to, even by people that had previously professed not to like them.mum - cropped

So what made mum’s pies so popular?, was it the filling, well maybe not, she only ever used “Robertsons” off of the shelf, but she did add copious amounts of brandy, and I mean lots of brandy. Or was it the pastry, no thick, sweet and heavy dough like shop bought long life mutations here, mums pastry was a instead an unsweetened short paste and rolled paper thin. Of course both these elements are important but I think the key ingredient in mums pastry was the love she put into them. I know this is a cliché but I can’t think of another explanation.

The pastry itself though is something mum was famous for amongst family and friends. Passed down by her maternal Nan, it is the only type of pastry she ever made, and it graced everything from blackberry and apple pies through to sausage rolls. Technically it is very similar to an all lard pie crust I like to use, but mum’s recipe differs in two distinct ways, first she used softer self raising flour instead of the plain or bakers I would use and secondly, and critically, the fat she employed (in Australia at least) was “Fairy” pastry margarine.

fruit minceNow this poses a problem for me, I really dislike margarine and prefer to use pure natural fats and for years I tried to make her pastry using only butter, but always without much success. However this year after deciding to honor mum by making her mince pies for the Barossa Farmers Market (albeit with our own fruit mince – see image at right) I decided to give her recipe yet another go with just one amendment and that was to replace margarine with a mixture of butter and lard and hey presto, in a blind tasting I would swear we were eating mum’s pastry.

And I suspect my great grandmother would approve, because by reverting back to butter and lard we have gone full circle, after all margarine was not popularised until the middle of the 20th century and so natural fat would have been the only option when she learnt to make it back in Mrs. Beetons day. So if you feel like getting in the Xmas spirit (or just want a foolproof pastry recipe) why not give the following a try.

 

Mince pies

Pastry (makes 2 doz small pies)

225g                  self raising flour – sifted
35g                    lard
75g                    salted butter – cold in 5mm cubes
35ml                 iced water (approx)

 Method

  • Rub fats into flour gently with fingertips to make a fine crumb
  • Add water and continue to work with fingertips until it starts to come together
  •  Press dough into a flat rectangle, (do not knead)  wrap in plastic film and chill for 20 minutes before using

Mince Pies (to make 2 doz small pies)

1                           recipe pie pastry (above)
350g                    Fruit mince
50ml                    Brandy
2 tablespoons     milk
1ciing sugar to dust

 Method

  • Roll out half the pastry on a floured surface until almost paper thin, using a small (6.5cm) crimped cookie cutter, cut out 24 tops, cover and refrigerate and reserve trimmings separately
  • Roll out remaining pastry to the same thickness as before and using a larger (8cm) plain cutter, cut out 24 bases (you will need to rest and reroll trimmings to achieve the full quantity)
  • Place bases  into small round based patty pan trays pressing into place firmly
  • Mix Brandy and fruit mince and place a heaped teaspoon into the centre of each pie, do not flatten out or push to edges the top will do this for you

mince pies 4

  • Brush lightly the inside of each lid with milk and press milk side down onto the top of each pie sealing around the edges
  • When all pies are filled and covered, brush lightly with remaining milk, prick or cut a small slit in the top of each pie and bake at 170c until golden brownmince pies 3v

Remove from the oven and dust immediately with icing sugar. Enjoy while still warm or cool and store in an airtight container for up to a week if you have strong will power and please don’t refrigerate!

mince pies

Don’t be mean with the beanz…..

black beans 3

Imagine a range of iconic European dishes missing the beans we associate with them. Think Cassoulet sans haricot beans, Spanish Capparrones without kidney beans, Pasta e fagioli devoid of borlotti’s  and  Ribollita minus cannellini. All of these dishes would be very, very different had the Spanish not bought back from the Americas the family of “wild  beans” that also includes the flageolet, navy, pinto and black turtle.

Of course these were not the only foods to come from the new world, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and corn also became staples around the globe, but it is the cheap and abundant protein in beans that sets them apart. Consumed in large quantities where plant based diets dominate they are often called “poor mans meat”. However in the wealthier  “new world” by comparison we eat very little with our abundant and cheap animal protein. In Australia at least, most of the beans consumed are of the value added or canned variety with one famous brand of baked beans owning the lions share and in fact all too often dry beans are seen as an inconvenience food.

 heinz

Subsequently, many people miss out as the best bean dishes get their distinctive  flavors from how they are prepared,  seasoned and slowly cooked. Of course this takes a little forward planning, but it’s more than worth the effort. It also provides the chance to strip the beans of some of their flatulent qualities. Simply put, pre soaking beans overnight or for a few hours at least and then discarding the soaking water not only hastens cooking but also removes a good amount of the fermentable sugars that provide beans with the reputation of being the “musical fruit”…

In Central and South America where beans are often the staple protein they take this process a little further, cooking their beans with a dried herb called epazote and in Japan, kombu is often added to the cooking water and the enzymes in this seaweed reputedly break down these sugars mentioned above. As for cooking times, which is the reason most people site for not using dry beans, there are a couple of very easy ways around this.

A slow cooker will cook beans  without any care or attention while you sleep, work or play  but you can also drastically reduce times to under an hour if you need to by simply using a pressure cooker.  However, there are a few things to note that will also affect both the cooking times and finished tenderness in beans and these are salt, sugar, and acidity. All of these will tend to harden  beans in the early part of the cooking process and so most commonly, these ingredients are only added once beans have reached tenderness.

Of course there are always exceptions to rule and in Latin America and the Caribbean, cooking beans with salted meat is a common treatment. These dishes are often a little firmer in texture and stand up to prolonged cooking without dissolving into overcooked mush. Importantly the bean of choice for most of these dishes is the relatively unknown (at least in Australia) black turtle bean and of all the beans mentioned in this blog this has to be my absolute favourite.

black beans 1

I first came across them a few years ago as an ingredient in a version of the Punjabi  classic “Kali Dal” where they replaced the regular “Rajma” or kidney beans, lending a deeper richer colour. However their real home is the Americas from Louisiana, throughout the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America where they take their place in many national or regional specialties from black bean burritos, tamales and “Frijoles Negras” to the Cuban classic “Moros y Christianos”.

What makes them special is their dense, meaty texture, that and the rich dark gravy they create. This is especially so in the dishes that are not purely vegetarian, but rather combine cheaper cuts of meat like pickled pork hocks and salt beef where very long slow cooking is needed to tenderize the meat. A great example of this would be one of Brazils national dishes, Feijoada,  a supremely rich and meaty stew only needing  a little rice and maybe a side of greens to be a complete meal.

The following recipe for braised black beans is simplicity at its best, of course it doesn’t have to be this simple as these complex flavours work well, tricked up “restaurant style” like the image below with some grilled or roasted meat and a creamy root vegetable puree but the recipe is a great base well suited to a cold winters night like were having right now.

Enjoy, remember they’re  good for your heart!

Venison with black beans and celeriac

Braised Black Beans

125g                       dried black beans
2 cups                    water
2 cloves                 garlic – peeled and crushed
½ onion                chopped
500g                       pickled pork hocks
½                            chorizo sausage – diced
½ teaspoon          paprika
½ teaspoon          chili powder
1 teaspoon            cumin – ground
½                           bay leaf
2 cups                    white stock – chicken or pork
Seasoning to taste

Method

  • Place black beans and water in large pot and soak overnight or cover with water and boil for 3 minutes. Turn off heat and let stand covered for 1 hour.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients, cover and simmer until the meat and beans are just tender.
  • Serve as below with some rice and steamed greens as a simple meal or shred the meat through the beans and use it as the base for something altogether grander as above.

black beans 2

A shameless promotional blog!

red curry

Today, like no time before we have exposure to food from literally every corner of the planet and all at the touch of a keyboard. In fact we are so overloaded with food imagery and commentary that it’s hard to determine what is authentic, and actually, what does authentic or traditional really mean anyway.

Personally I like to think of myself as a bit of a stickler for respecting authenticity, but of course all traditions have to start somewhere, and I recall reading that :

“…..all food traditions started as accidents or successful experiments.”

On reflection, this rings pretty true to me. Growing up as a young cook in 1970’s Adelaide with its amazing central market, experimentation became a constant theme as I  immersed myself in a world of food that to most people globally wasn’t possible without travel. Today we call this appropriation and blending of cultures “Fusion” but in Australia, with our multicultural melting pot as a backdrop, we were, probably some of the earliest adaptors of the culinary possibilities available.

With this in mind, even though at the time BBQ’s meant forequarter chops, snags and rissoles, for me they were all about the seemingly exotic: Grilled marinated quails with lemon and cumin, Sate as shared by Balinese friends, and Cevapcici instead of sausages. Vietnamese food wasn’t a “New” fad food but a reality well before the first Vietnamese restaurants opened and Indian spicing became as familiar to me as  classical “French” cuisine.

However over time, as culinary themes became repetitive with concepts and food traditions intersecting, digging a bit deeper into  history became as important to me as mastering technique. After all, commerce and trade, military alliances, politics and religious leanings have at some point linked all of today’s major culinary players in one way or another. The best example for me would have to be the spice trade. In simplistic terms the cuisines of the entire known Western world were altered forever by the introduction of spices following the crusades against the Saracens of the middle ages.

spices 2 With the returning crusaders, fragrant blends of cinnamon, clove, ginger and nutmeg amongst others (themselves traded from the far East) became common place in the cooking of the wealthy in Europe, leaving a legacy that lives today in the spicing of fruitcakes and mince pies of Britain, Pates and Charcuterie of the latin lands and mulled beverages and spiced cordials of the colder northern climes.

In fact these spices became so desirable, and so valuable, that along with evangelical  zealotry, they sparked ambitions of global exploration and expansionism. Subsequently and  despite their size as a nation, the Portuguese took to the task with relish, and while the Spanish chased gold they just about single handedly changed food and eating on almost every continent. Responsible for not only introducing tomatoes, chilies and potatoes to India, Sri Lanka and the Moluccas, but also transplanting the cassava from the Americas to Africa and South East Asia.

In return they  took fragrant eastern spices like cinnamon and cloves to their Brazilian colony in the new world along with exotic foods like rice and bananas. But it wasn’t all about trade, they also imparted many of their cooking traditions to the “local” cuisines in their sphere of influence. In the process they introduced the concept of “Tempura” to Japan, Vinho de Ahlo or “Vindaloo” to Goa, and delicious soft Portuguese bread rolls or “Pao” all across Asia along with Pasteis de nata or Daan Tart as they are known in Macau and Canton.

potuguese territories

Portuguese Atlas c 1570

Interestingly though, despite their fairly short “occupation” of these territories in historical terms, they left a legacy that is still evident today in just about every place they settled. In particular a blend of vibrant and piquant red peppers, fragrant spices and seasonings pervades all of these cuisines.

In Portugal itself, it is a blend of spices used for chourico the Portuguese version of Chorizo. In Mozambique it forms the base for Piri Piri, and in Mumbai, for the East Indians of  Portuguese descent, it is their Bottle Masala, and finally it forms pretty much the base for both Brazilian Moqueca and Sri Lankan red curry.

So what’s in this blend? …well, we’ve actually “bottled” it  and we’re pleased to announce the first batch of “Food Luddite Magellan” is packed and ready for sale for our debut at the Barossa Farmers Market in August. Named after the 16th century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, a man who would have been familiar with both the Portuguese territories mentioned above and the delicious flavours displayed in the recipe below.

ferdinand_magellan

Ferdinand Magellan

Red Curried Chicken

4 Chicken thighs– bone in, skinless
100ml white vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
15g Food Luddite “Magellan” spice mix

1 tbsp coconut oil 1 sprig curry leaves
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
2 medium onions – sliced
2 cloves garlic – crushed
4cm piece ginger – grated

400g tomato – diced
200ml coconut cream
2 teaspoons jaggery or palm sugar
1 bunch fresh coriander – roots and stalks chopped, leaves retained for garnish

Method

Marinate the chicken  with vinegar, spices & salt, cover and refrigerate preferably overnight

Heat coconut oil and fry curry leaves and mustard seeds until they crackle, add onions and fry until soft.

Add ginger and garlic and continue to fry gently until deep golden then add tomatoes, coconut cream, sugar and chopped coriander along with the marinated chicken

Simmer until the chicken is tender and the gravy is rich and reduced, garnish with reserved coriander leaves.

Suppa Zuppa

Free Range - Acrylic on Canvas - Jo McNamara 2015

The cold weather of recent days has had me thinking about soup. Always a great warming stand by, offering some of the most diverse dishes available, limited really only  by ones imagination. Of course traditionally in addition to providing warming nourishment, these “wet” foods would have provided much of ones daily liquid intake, and I clearly remember as a young chef being told by my first mentor, a chef of Indian extraction that we didn’t “eat” enough liquid in the west and to be honest he was right.

Our western diet today tends to be over processed and “dry”  with moisture ironically provided by bottled water or other beverages. By comparison Southern India has broth in the form of thin clear rasam at the centre of its cuisine. Take “Milagu Thanni” or pepper water for example, unfortunately we probably know it as the anglicized Mulligatawny, a heavy, creamy curried chicken soup thickened with rice and garnished with apple, but this is a far cry from the original almost  clear, spicy, tomato, tamarind and curry leaf broth that aids digestion and helps with hydration.

quote2

Of course right now because of the Paleo fad and the fuss that has surrounded the bone broth craze, there is renewed interest in nutritious stocks and consommés. But nutritious broths are nothing new, every carnivorous culture knows and has valued the restorative power of soup (this is supposedly how the term Restaurant was first coined, but that’s a story for another day). In Victorian Britain, Eliza Beeton recommended Beef Tea for invalids, the famous Chicken Soup of Eastern European/Ashkenazic tradition and so beloved in my Barossa homeland (albeit with noodles instead of matzo balls) is often referred to as Jewish Penicillin and the Vietnamese pay great attention to the health and strength given properties of a long simmered Pho.

IMG_20150618_054254

More to the point our modern English word soup comes from the old English “Sop” to soak bread in liquid, which in turn is related to “Sup” meaning to swallow and certainly soaking stale country bread in hot broth made these early soups thicker and more filling. Continuing on this theme, some of the worlds best known national dishes are really soups or soupy stews, for example: Bouillabaise, Minestra, Gulyas, Borscht, Cock a leekie, Waterzoi, Chowder and the list goes on, but the  thing these all have in common is that they were originally simple peasant foods, basic dishes that formed the basis of most meals.

Today’s blog is about one such soup, one definitely not as well known as any of the soups mentioned above, but absolutely and fundamentally peasant in origin. I am talking of the Italian classic Zuppa Pavese. Hailing from Pavia, near Milan in Northern Italy. Romantic legend has it that it was created in the early 1500’s by a peasant farmer for the then King Francis I of France who was fleeing a defeat in the battle of Pavia, though this is highly unlikely seeing as he was captured on the battlefield, nice story though…

portrait-of-francis-i-king-of-france

As far as my history with this soup is concerned, I first came across it as a young chef dining at a tiny, rustic, Italian restaurant in Adelaide in the 1970’s, the type with gingham table cloths and ruffina flasks as candle sticks.  I recall it was both cheap and the special of the day and completely unknown to me, but to my surprise it was a revelation remaining a personal favourite to this day.

Simply put it is perfect for lunch or a light “Supper” being very quick and easy. To prepare it, take a good slice of crusty country style bread, fry it in butter until crisp and golden on both sides, place in a heated bowl, break a couple of very fresh eggs  on top, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and pour well flavoured,  boiling broth over to just set the eggs and serve immediately…. nothing too it really!.

Sure it’s not modernist cuisine, though I am sure someone out there will have by now put together a ludicrous deconstructed version with a “40 minute sous vide egg, buttered sour dough gravel, parmesan foam and gelatin filtered consommé” . Of course in its own way that idea ’s not very different from Escoffier listing a recipe for “Mille –Fanti” in his Guide Culinaire. This was an Italian inspired egg drop soup made with strong consommé, eggs, bread and parmesan, precisely the same ingredients as Zuppa Pavese and one can only wonder if the Thousand Footmen of the name is another reference to Francis’s and his army.

mille fanti

No, for me Zuppa Pavese  is a perfect example of a simple peasant dish that to succeed only needs great ingredients and absolutely no embellishment. Now my poor old dad would have never come at this, the thought of what he would call a “snotty egg” being just too much, and another very good chef friend of mine will probably be equally repulsed at the thought of a “soppy, soggy croute”. But this soup is a restorative in every possible way. The protein of the egg, gelatinous broth and umami rich cheese combining with the butter fried bread to make a simple and honest, healthy and hearty meal, seriously can good food be any easier?

Buon Appetito

Zuppa Pavese – per person

200ml                chicken stock- well seasoned– recipe following
2 teaspoons       butter
1 slice                  day old crusty bread
1 or 2                  eggs – very fresh & at room temperature
2 tablespoons   Parmesan cheese – grated

Method

  • Warm bowl(s) with boiling water and place eggs in bowl to warm slightly

IMG_20150618_034413

  • Bring stock to a simmer and ensure it is well seasoned
  • Pan fry bread until golden on both sides, drain water from serving dish

IMG_20150618_034844

  • Place fried bread in the base of bowl, crack egg(s)onto bread and sprinkle with half the parmesan
  • Ladle boiling stock into bowl and over egg – stock must be boiling rapidly

IMG_20150618_035644

  • Cover bowl with a lid or plate for 30 seconds, remove, add remaining parmesan and serve

Chicken stock

1kg      chicken bones
1kg      chicken wings
1           carrot
1 stick  celery
2          onions
1          bay leaf
6          peppercorns
20g     parsley stalks
1.7      litres water
Sprig thyme

Method

  • Rinse bones and wings well, place in a pressure cooker with all other ingredients
  • Close and seal vessel, bring to pressure and cook following safety instructions for 20 minutes.
  • After cooking time is complete, follow your appliances safety procedures to reduce pressure and only open when fully depressurised.
  • Strain through a fine filter, allow to settle for 10 minutes and remove as much fat as possible from the surface and reserve for later use.

Note: if not using pressure cooker, use recipe but increase water to 3.5 litres, bring to a simmer uncovered and cook very gently for 3 hours, strain and reduce by boiling to 1200ml

Lemon tree very pretty

lemon tree 1

Like almost everyone else, for years I associated vibrantly bright citrus fruits with summer, maybe it’s the association with sunny places like Valencia, Sicily or Morocco or perhaps the memory of lemony ice blocks and cool drinks on hot days,  lemon meringue pie on the picnic table and of course wedges of lemon with shellfish and summer seafood , but I hadn’t make the connection  that summer citrus fruits are the exception rather than the norm.

By contrast, with winter now here in Southern Australia, it is truly the best time of year for this family of fruits. One of the great things they bring to the table is the splash of bright colour and zingy flavor that seems to say “sunny days”. This is especially so as the days get cooler, skies become more grey and winter food as always, gets heavier and dare I say becomes a study in brown!

A great example of this seasonal bounty are the citrus trees in our little garden. The limes are just about over but still hanging in there, now in their “golden” stage , more yellow than green but at their most fragrant and sweet. We have also started to harvest the first of our old fashioned Navel oranges, even if they are still little sour at the moment, and coming on very soon after will be a terrific crop of mandarins that are, as yet, still pretty green, but it is the lemons I am most excited about.

This year has been a bumper season for lemons and even our dwarf Eureka lemon has put on a show. In fact everyone seems to have lemons to give away right now and we have many more than we need for immediate use. Of course finding uses for fresh lemons is not difficult, our featherlight lemon tart is definitely on the agenda as are sweet preserves like lemon curd and marmalade and  some lemon syrup will be great addition to have on hand for summer cocktails.

preserved lemons

But, there are also savoury preserving options. Right along the ancient spice trail from Morocco to Indian lemons and limes are preserved for future use. Pickling is popular in India, with spicy lime or lemon pickle a popular condiment, dried limes or Loomi are very common in the Gulf States and through to Iran, where they provide an astringent, sour and slightly bitter, powdered seasoning, but by far and away the best known preserved citrus has to be the salted lemons or “Msir” of Morocco.

Simply packed in salt this really is the easiest and most foolproof way to preserve lemons. Once ready the fruit pulp will have turned into a jell like paste. This pulp is most often discarded, along with the white pith so that only the skin or zest is consumed so because of this, juicy thin skinned lemons are best suited for this process. Importantly the pickling or salting process transforms the numbing quality one finds in raw zest, instead leaving behind almost artificial fragrant and intense lemony flavours.

lemon 3

Having these on hand is one thing but knowing how to best use them is another. They are fantastic shredded and stirred though warmed cracked green olives as an hors d’oeuvres or used as a late addition to freshen up a long braised tajine, they add a great piquancy and zing to a simple roasted chook and their flavours play off beautifully against sweet roasted red peppers and fresh green herbs in a simple salad, and for me, this alone is a perfect reason to put some of these winter preserves away for a (not so) sunny day.

Pickled Lemons

5 lemons
5 tablespoons sea salt
125ml lemon juice

Method

  • Wash lemons well and cut into quarters lengthwise without quite cutting through so that the lemon remains in one piece joined at the stem end.

lemon 4

  • Sprinkle inside the lemons well with salt and pack tightly into a preserving jar adding remaining salt between layers.

lemon 2

  • Fill jar with lemon juice and seal, place jars in a warm place for about 4 weeks turning jars occasionally

lemon 1

 

 

 

 

Kale…FFS……its just ancient cabbage …..

To be honest I have had it with the mania surrounding Kale, not that I don’t like the stuff, it has its place, but talk about over exposed and over hyped. Seriously does anyone really “love” the taste of Kale juice or think that shredded kale in a salad is “amazing” and don’t get me started on Kale chips…..

Sure it has really healthy properties, and can taste pretty good when cooked correctly, but these simple “headless” members of the cabbage family are punching way above their weight right now and I have no doubt that down the track this “healthy trend” will be consigned to the “loony fad” bin along with pet rocks, cabbage patch kids and hopefully cold drip coffee but that’s another rant!

yummy kale juice

So this week when the “latest” Kale phenomenon “Kalettes” hit the media with a fanfare, enough was enough. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3088556/Meet-Kalette-hottest-new-vegetable-hybrid-hitting-Australia-mash-trendy-Kale-BRUSSEL-SPROUTS.html So now we have a new hybrid that apparently took the Northern hemisphere by storm last year so now of course its our turn. In reality of course this “new vegetable” is just another branch among many in the Brassica family.

Maybe it’s best to get a few things straight about Kale. Firstly all members of this genus started life from a humble wild cabbage or Colewort as is was known historically, and over the past 3000 or so years we have seen this “weed” (for that’s what wort means) gradually “improved” to develop the vegetables we know today that include: Cauliflower (Cole-i-flower) Broccoli (Broc-cole-i) Collard greens (Cole-ard) and Borecole (Bor-i-cole) amongst others.

Wild Cabbage

 

Essentially variations of  the English “Col” meaning cabbage or kale  are used similarly in different languages to name members of this family, for example, Col (Spanish) Kool (Dutch) Kohl (German) Kail (Celtic) Kal (Scandinavian) Couve (Portuguese) Cavolo (Italy) and finally Chou (French) and Choy (Chinese). For those interested the following is worth reading http://wordhistories.com/2014/03/24/cabbage-chou/

Now, taken to its logical extension, this “Kalette” hybrid is simply put, Kale, an ancient improvement on Colewort, crossed with Brussels sprouts, one of the more recent cultivars from the same plant with the result a kind of reverse engineering and I’m pretty sure we’ve probably been here before except we didn’t have major seed companies and supermarkets invested in their success.

So what’s my objection to humble Kale?, well its certainly not the vegetable itself, I actually really like it as part of my Dutch mother-in-laws’  “Stamppot” where the Borecole or Curly kale or Boerenkool as she calls it, is cooked with potatoes, mashed and served with rookwurst  (a delicious smoked pork sausage) and with my Irish heritage I am no stranger to it through that stalwart of the Gaelic kitchen, Colcannon (pictured below) which is equally good with pork sausages, chops, crispy belly or maybe its just good with pork full stop.

colcannon

I also remember a stomping great plant that towered over me in our backyard in the UK when I was a little tacker and back then, Kale was a very common veggie patch and allotment staple (think community garden) because it grew like a weed at a time during and post WWII when nutritious vegetables were in short supply, no hint of its rock star status back then, so yes I have had my share of Kale, boiled or steamed with lots of salted butter and white pepper and its fine this way as well.

No, its just that frankly, despite what some may say its not a cure all, its just another cruciferous vegetable, and there is a whole big world of brassica’s out there to choose from, (and that come with a lot less self righteous indignation I might add). No please give me gai lan, bok choy, or a nice small savoy cabbage or heaven help me tiny sweet baby Brussels sprouts that have been grown somewhere nice and frosty (which brings out the sweetness) rather than pander to yet another super food trend.

So in keeping to my rant I post the following recipe for one my favourite cabbage dishes. Not surprisingly for those that know me it is Indian in origin (actually specifically Bengali) but it is comfortingly enough familiar to the western palate to be a great winter food to accompany rich meats like Duck, Goose or even pork . However at risk of being labeled a hypocrite, I need to note that it does contain that other recently lauded “super food” turmeric, except here it is performing its ancient role as a calmative along with the other digestive spices, not only to help make it delicious but to mitigate the potentially sulphurous effects of these leafy greens and definitely not to save the world or make my skin more lustrous, Enjoy!

banda1

Bandhakopir Bhaji

1 tablespoon      sunflower or mustard oil
2 teaspoons       panch phoron
2 teaspoon         turmeric
1 small                green chilli – chopped
1 small                onion – chopped
1 clove                garlic – crushed
1 cm                     ginger – grated
¼                        white cabbage – shredded
2 teaspoons       sugar
1 teaspoon          salt
2 tablespoons   tamarind water

Method

  • Heat oil and fry panch phoron until seeds pop, add turmeric and chilli and fry briefly

banda3

  • Add onion and ginger and cook golden then add garlic and cook briefly until fragrant.

banda2

  • Toss cabbage through, then add all remaining ingredients, cover and cook quickly until cabbage wilts and liquids evaporate

IMG_20150529_145824

I may be colour blind, but I do know what green tastes like!

basket

“Eat the Weeds”……..I’m certainly not the first person to use this phrase, nor to suggest that there is  a bounty of free, nutritious greens growing right under our noses. After all if you have a productive vegetable garden, you need to keep on top of the weeds and instead of spraying them with poison or hoeing them in, if they’re  edible then why not put them on the plate. So as the landscape greens up as winter closes in, many of these emerging and potentially invasive weeds have genuine culinary value. Take the sour sob for example, I would be surprised if most people growing up in South Australia, had not at some time tasted the lemony sourness of this pretty yellow weed. More properly known as Oxalis  or by the fancier moniker of “wood sorrel” I have used its tangy sourness to give “zing” to variations on Salsa Verde and Sauce Gribache, especially with lambs tongue or brawn.

sour sobs

Next on the list of edible “nuisance” plants would have to be the Dandelion. Named in “Old French” for it’s leaves resemblance to a set of lions teeth or “Dente De Lion”, this plant is the root source for all modern chicory, endive and lettuces. Of course anyone that has eaten Dandelions will be familiar with their bitter digestif qualities, and also know that the tender young leaves are by far the best. Unfortunately though, in keeping with the French connection, and supporting its reputation as a diuretic, a salad of these young leaves is known as “Pissenlit” or literally “piss in bed” however in moderation with crispy bacon lardons and a good vinaigrette, they are delicious.

dandelion

But that’s not all, right now there are literally a dozen other common “weeds”that can easily be found or foraged in my garden, from purslane and chick weed, to sow thistle, prickly lettuce and plantain. None of these have ever been intentionally cultivated nor purposely allowed to run to seed, (and just a quick note for chefs, restaurateurs and spin doctors out there, this is what foraged means, it doesn’t refer to things you have planted, or bought from a commercial source) but my all time favourite at this time of year are the really young nettles that are starting to carpet my veggie patch.

pick

Yes we are talking about nasty, evil, stinging nettles, but I genuinely look forward to their emergence each year as they really are a delicious culinary herb,  in fact more a vegetable than a weed. Not only do they clearly have the greenest flavor of all leafy vegetables, but they are packed with vitamins and minerals, almost certainly richer in iron than spinach and higher in protein than cabbage.  At this early stage in their growth, their “stinging ability” is lessened,  and they are tender and pure in flavor when compared with more mature plants, (cooking destroys or neutralizes the formic acid that provides the “sting” anyway, but it is still a good idea to wear gloves to pick them!) Importantly, when young, as part of this delicious risotto, and right now I can think of no better reason to keep on top of the weeds.

Nettle Risotto

200g                   baby nettles – freshly picked
1/2 cup               white wine
3 1/2  cups         chicken stock – well seasoned
150g                    butter
50g                      onion
2 cloves              garlic – crushed
1¼ cups             arborio rice
4 tablespoons   Parmessan cheese – grated

Method

  • place nettles in a bowl and cover with cold water to rinse well, pinch out tips and leaves discarding stems (you should end up with about 120g nettle leaves)
  • sprinkle nettles with salt and cover with boiling water, drain immediately and place in cold salted water, squeeze leaves gently,  chop blanched nettles and reserve

wash, blanch,squeeze

  • Melt half the butter and gently fry the onions without colouring, add garlic and sweat until fragrant but without colour.
  • Add rice and stir through butter and onion mixture for a couple of minutes, rice grains should be coated with oil and appear whiter in colour
  • Add the wine and stir until completely absorbed, then add half the hot stock and cook stirring constantly over a low heat until all the liquid is absorbed
  • Continue to add stock as above one ladleful at a time until all 3/4 of the stock has been used, then stir through the chopped nettles.

stock, nettles, cheese

  • Add final portion of stock and cook until fully absorbed, stir in remaining butter and cheese, cover and keep warm for 10 minutes
  • Serving with a little extra shaved Parmesan cheese.

nettle risotto