Celebrations

My birthday and my husband’s birthday falls just 5 days apart.  This is always awkward.  Celebrating two birthdays in the one week in style is just overkill, but then who’s birthday get’s the big celebration and who’s ends up with “well lets just stay at home and have some great champagne and good food”?  Generally its my birthday (falling first) that we go out for – and not always to high end places, sometimes its just a fabulous lunch somewhere or a causal place like “…” in Newtown – just somewhere that I would like to go to eat.  I’m not really into the big flash dinner thing.  Perhpas we’ve done too many of them but I’d rather go to those places on the spur of the moment rather than as a planned event.  Too much pressure.

The trick to celebrations – birthdays/anniversaries etc – is to make them feel special.  One year I took my husband (and daughter) to the Sydney Fish Markets early in the morning.  We bought some wonderfullly fresh oysters and had them with a bottle of champagne and some lovely ripe brie and huge juicy strawberries.  We sat on the pier – picnic style and watched the boats unloading.  And then we all drove home and off to work/school.

Another time, for an anniversary celebration I decided to do something right out of the box:  a night time picninc by the water.  But I wanted it to be a surprise. So I told my husband I had made a booking for a flash restaurant where the dress was very formal.  Meanwhile, Pip and I shopped and cooked and prepared everything and packed the car with picnic rug and chairs and t-lights, plates, linen napkins, glasses, champagne etc.  I can’t remember what I made (although one of the dishes was a pigeon and pickled walnut terrine – that took days to source ingredients for, another was individual plum frangipane tarts).  Pip and I scurried around getting everything ready and packing the car in a bit of a frenzy before M got home.  Secrecy was the key.

And then it was time to get dressed and go.  I wore the Akira outfit I had worn for my wedding and M put on his tux.  Stylish.  And then we got into the car and I drove.  M wondered where we were going – he started to recognise some of the landmarks so the next step was to blindfold him.  We drove to Neilson Park and Pip and I set up our little picnic spot near the water, lighting all the candles and setting out the food while M sat in the car – no doubt wondering what was going on.  We then led him out and only when we were at the spot did we let him see.  The look of surprise on his face and pure joy was so worth all the effort we’d gone to.  It was, relatively, such a simple thing – a picnic at the beach – but it was so enjoyable – we even danced barefoot on the sand with the waves lapping our feet – that it remains in my memory as one of the best celebrations ever.

Burns’ supper – a contemporary twist

January 25 is Burns’ Night (the date of Burns’ birth) and tributary suppers are held not just in Scotland but all around the world – wherever there are Scots.  Burns’ Supper was originally started by a group of his friends and acquaintances a few years after his death, to honour his memory.

The menu is iconically traditional with a haggis as the centrepiece.  Burns referred to it as the  ‘great chieftan o’ the puddin’-race’. The  accompaniments to the haggis are neeps and tatties  – turnip and potatoes – served  mashed. Traditionally the haggis is piped in and then addressed – the recitation of a Burns poem called ‘Address to a Haggis’ (go figure).
If there is a large gathering there is an ‘Address to the Lasses’ – which commemorates Burns’ fondness for them.  If a small supper then its usually just the ‘Selkirk Grace’. Essentially its a celebration of plain country food and plan country folk of whom Burns was a champion.

Plain country food in Australia, haggis is not.  Cooking your own haggis is out of the question.  There are a number of butchers scattered around Sydney who make haggis but usually you have to order these in advance or else travel to the ends of the earth (St Mary’s).  Fortunately we found a supplier (Farmer Giles) selling these and other Scottish fare at the Bondi markets.
Hot, hot, hot on Saturday so husband and daughter sent off early to the markets to purchase produce, leaving me to sleep.  Daughter is learning to drive so this was a good opportunity for her to get in some much needed practice hours (otherwise I doubt she would have chosen to embark on that journey).  Unbeknownst to me, having obtained all things necessary at the markets they then went off to the beach for a swim.  I meanwhile sat sweltering in a lounge chair outside reading the digital news.

Haggis is something I absolutely adore.  When we’re in Scotland I take every opportunity to eat it.  Its generally not served at home other than for a Burns’ Supper but many pubs serve it.  I was always on the look out for a pub that had it on its menu.  And while the neeps and tatties might be served in alternative ways, canonically you got a plate with a pile of mashed potatoes, a pile of mashed turnips and a pile of haggis. Not the prettiest looking dish and I constantly wondered why no-one ever did anything different.  But I don’t think the Scots are generally known for their creativity – rather, the word conservative comes to mind.  But I do have to admit that the combination is a very successful one.  However, this being Australia, and me a foodie, I wanted to do something a bit more contemporary and aesthetically pleasing – especially when serving this rather confronting dish to people who had not tried it before (I’m always amazed at people’s reaction to haggis: generally its’yuck!!!!’ with looks of horror and distaste.)

So we searched and found a nice form of presenting this dish:  in a stack with a layer of haggis, a layer of mashed potatoes with spring onion folded thought and then a layer of mashed swedes (nice orange colour) brushed with egg yolk and cooked in the oven and then topped with asparagus tips wrapped in crisp pancetta and served with a whisky cream sauce.

I had one vegetarian guest so I decided that given this dinner centred around a haggis I would have to make a vegetarian haggis for her rather than something entirely different.  I also thought I’d better make a few extra just in case anyone was truly put off by haggis.  The vegetarian version had split peas, barley, chopped onion, garlic, carrot, steel cut oats (which are tiny and coarse) and lots of pepper and freshly ground and toasted allspice.  I was pleased with the end result – it had the same texture and flavour as the haggis (well, almost).  I was also pleased at how much people enjoyed the real thing.  Truly delicious – you just have to not think about what it consists of, but then again, if you don’t mind offal – pate anyone? – then you probably won’t object to haggis.

To start I had champagne and smoked salmon with horseradish and creme fraiche. For entree I made a dish of seared scallops on black pudding discs with a pea and mint puree, drizzled with chilli oil. And for desert, another classical Burns’ supper dish – Cranachan, which is like a trifle with layers of whisky cream, freshly pureed raspberries, toasted oats and flaked almonds and topped with fresh raspberries. Whisky is of course the canonical accompaniament to haggis – it doesn’t go too badly with the desert either – but of course a good red wine is also in order.

So my husband having said grace (see below) and then the address we ate and drank good plain Scottish food and gave Burns not another thought.


Burns’ Selkirk Grace
Some hae meat and cannae eat,
And some can eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit

Post Christmas grazing

What happens when Christmas is over and you’ve had the post Christmas Boxing Day veg out – late start to the day (or it’s already afternoon) and you lie about reading, watching movies a and grazing on leftovers: smoked salmon and ham. Lots of ham. So sandwiches and rolls with homemade habanera mustard. What do you eat/cook next?

This time of year – between Christmas and New Year  – always feels like quintessential holiday time. It’s hot and there’s absolutley nothing to do. So it should follow that meals will be simple and easy and quick. I cooked for and hosted two Christmas functions this year: Christmas Eve dinner – for friends of my daughter and my folks – and Christmas Day. I cooked a lot. Which means I planned and shopped and prepared a lot. On Christmas Eve we had:

  • seared tuna wrapped in nori with a lemon soy dressing and wasabi mayonnaise
  • pork loin (marinated in soy sauce, fish sauce, mirin, ginger, garlic and chilli) with freshly pickled cucumber and a watermelon, coriander and fried shallot salad
  • basil pannacotta with raspberry jelly and fresh raspberries and blueberries.

On Christmas Day it was a long, languid event with many breaks in between:

  • champagne jelly with white peaches and raspberries
  • oysters with a red shallot reduction
  • smoked salmon with tahini soy dressing
  • seared scallops on black pudding with a minty pea puree
  • bloody mary prawn rolls
  • baked ham with a waldorf(ish) salad
  • pork and green mango salad
  • sticky Orange Christmas pudding with whisky

Turned out we’d all had enough after the ham so the pork salad was left to another day.
Boxing Day however got the better of me and we opted for leftovers. So the pork was the next night’s meal. Simple and quick. So far so good. We’ve made do with everything on hand and there was no need to leave the house, except for a movie on Saturday and another on Sunday, which inevitably led my mind to thoughts of food: what to eat/cook next?

Try as I might, I cannot go for very long without thinking about food and what to make next. It isn’t just the eating, its actually about the making of food and the anticipation of flavours and textures. Cooking is not a chore for me, its a pleasure.  It is something that I genuinely take enjoyment in. And its a great thing to do to clear my mind; while I’m cooking I’m totally focussed.  That’s not say I don’t enjoy a conversation and a glass of wine when I cook: yes I cook with wine and sometimes I even put it in the food! (apologies, I couldn’t resist) Just don’t get me distracted – it never ends well.

And so to New Year’s Eve with a special friend who comes visit this time of year to indulge in all things Sydney.  What to cook?  Drunken prawns with wood ear mushrooms and mung bean noodles; duck salad with pomelo and lychees; tomato and lemon salad (courtesy of Ottolenghi) and seared tuna; oysters; freshly smoked trout and black russian baby tomatoes that are growing in our garden, and burrata. For a picnic: schnitzel and coleslaw and dill pickles in fresh bread rolls.  Mmmm…  food, glorious food.

Bon appetite and Happy New Year.

Easter indulgences

Easter is an opportunity to wind down, relax, reflect, be. There’s nothing to do. Gone are the days when we would go away on holidays, camping or otherwise with kids. Now its just the two of us and there’s something very indulgenet about being able to do nothing for 4 days. There are no expectations – everyone is away or with their families, shops are closed – well for 2 days – on the other days its like armageddon is about to strike and everyone heads for the supermarkets and grocery stores and specialty stores for their supplies of food and chocolates and buns and breads.

So for us its just a matter of what shall we do and cook/eat. Our plan was simple enough: on Friday there was a lunch time yoga class (12.15) which we could easily get to after a lie-in and late breakfast for which we bought a baguette, some chevre, tomato and fresh figs. After yoga, back home for a small picnic in the local park. This wasn’t planned but it was such a beautiful day and our apartment is dark and cold. There’s something special about April – the sky is blue, the weather is warm and sunny and there’s a sense of quiet and stillness.

So some leftover baguette, tomato, white anchovies, chevre, ham, a couple of plums, a bottle of verdhello and off we went. A short walk, a picnic rug, kindles and wine and food and glorious sunshine. Then back home to prepare dinner.

I had decided that a whole poached salmon would be nice – and simple. I had hoped that my daugther and her boyfriend would join us for lunch but they had other plans. Who could blame them. I sent my husband off to the shops on Thursday to get provisions and instructed him to go to the fishmarket for salmon. There’s a very good fish shop in our local shopping centre but I didn’t think they would have whole salmon and if they did, they would only have huge ones. Hence the instruction to go to the fishmarket. We only needed a smallish salmon.

My husband went to the local fish shop and was impressed with the two huge salmons they had and decided he would save himself a trip and so he bought one of the two salmons: 3.3kg. That’s a huge slamon. It was more than 60cm long. I don’t have poaching equipment for such a huge fish. I don’t even have an oven that’s big enough to hold such a big fish. Hell, I don’t have the ability to lift one of those into a pan. What to do? He helpfully suggested I could cut it in half. But the whole idea was to poach a whole salmon. So I cut the salmon in half. I removed the fins and then I left the half with the head for poaching and went about attempting to fillet the tail end to gravalax it. Honestly, If I had known I would have suggested he just buy fillets. Some rather bad knife skills later I had 2 half fillets of salmon ready for gravalax. Orange rind, lemon rind and a bit of lime, chopped dill, salt, sugar and vodka. Salmon now ready to be cured.

As for the poached salmon, I made a court bouilion and brought it to the boil then turned it right down and immersed the slamon and slowly poached it. Still there was enough fish to feed a family. I sauteed some leeks, blanched fresh green beans and chopped some heirloom baby tomators and then made a hollandaise sauce. The fish was delicious. But we have enough fish for dinner tonight (I’m steaming some baby potatoes and making a cos, cucumber and dill salad to accompany). There’ll be plenty fish left for another day. Tomorrow I’m cooking pork ribs with a Balinese spice rub and some long beans in a traditional Indonesian sauce (belacan). I’m hoping that my daughter will turn up for lunch (it was going to be dinner) otherwise, there’ll be leftover ribs to eat another night.

I’ve also made some traditional Russian easter breads and coloured some eggs. Its for Sunday lunch. Esater is a time of celebrating, traditions mainly. I like the festivities this festive season affords. Even though we celebrate alone, I still enjoy the sense of occasion. And with only the two of us, it really doesn’t matter when or how we eat. What matters is that we enjoy.

Happy Easter.image