Camping in excelsis

For me, camping (food-wise) is like an extended picnic: you have to plan for all the meals, and you have to do it well!  Just because you’re out bush with limited utensils and facilities doesn’t mean you can drop your standards.  Camping is not an excuse for slumming (although it can be an excuse to eat bacon and sausages).

So when we go camping I spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re going to have for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.  Of course it has to be easy; easy is the key to camping, as is pre-prepare.  If you can make your marinades and salad dressings before hand and put them in those tiny little plastic jars, then all you have to do is rub, mix, sear, toss and voilà. Dinner is served.

For our recent anniversary we decided that we would go camping.  Haven’t been camping for years (too busy travelling the world – see my other blog: travelling travails).  But a lack of funds due to redundancy and a sense of having already been to so many good restaurants, I thought it would be fun to do something different.  After all, eating out doesn’t have the same appeal when it’s for special occasions – its a “been there, done that” feeling.  Don’t get me wrong, I still love finding great little places to eat, but I’d much prefer to go and have a bite after a lunchtime yoga class and discover that the place does great share plates and fabulous bloody marys as well as a good wine list, rather than the special all-out eating … besides which, I somehow can’t help myself and want not just one cocktail but two (I always want a good martini) and the the wine.  So you can imagine …..

I won’t bore you with the details of our camping trip but I do want to share how its possible to eat well out in the great beyond.  Admittedly we took our trusty little asian butane burner – don’t leave home without this. Actually because I only have electricity at home, I’m often found squatting on the floor over a wok on this device – I confess to some distant asian heritage. And we took our portable weber.  All set.

For breakfast we brought muesli, almond milk, bacon, black pudding and coffee, though mostly we just ate some fruit and unfortunately I inadvertently picked up the box of long life chocolate lactose -free milk instead of the plain one – YUK).

For lunch: wraps with tinned chilli tuna, rocket, avocado and dips with biscuits and fruit.

On arrival Friday afternoon:

  • Traditional pork pies with radishes, dill cucumbers and cornichons (my husband prefers cornichons, whilst I can’t go by a dill pickle) pre-boiled eggs, some nice cheese and rye biscuits. Though by the time we had set up our tent it was closer to an early dinner/late afternoon tea, rather than lunch.

For dinner:

  • Salmon with a chilli lime salt (pre-prepared) and Ottolenghi’s wonderful tomato and pomegranate salad – dressing and roasted lemons pre-prepped.

Day two – our anniversary dinner was meant to consist of oysters with a shallot and red wine vinegar dressing, but in the end we couldn’t be bothered leaving our camping ground and travelling all those kms (around 30) to a place near Forster  (we were at Seal Rocks).  Amazing how lazy you can become, given the opportunity.  We’d been to the beach and by the time we came back it was afternoon – time for lunch and have a glass of champagne.  I had  brought  some spinach leaves ,a block of Dodoni fetta and nectarines.  So our late lunch was a salad with the spinach and slices of nectarines and crumbed fetta, dressed with some vino cotto and olive oil.  Unfortunately I realised that I had forgotten to bring the wooden salad bowl.  Merde.  However my problem-solving skills kicked in and I made up the salad in a plastic bag.  Brilliant (also saves on washing up).

Dinner was seared beef eye fillet with an anchovy dressing (essentially just anchovies melted on the grill plate with lots of freshly cracked black pepper) and asparagus with lemon zest, salt and pepper and a day of olive oil, seared on the bbq. And (because it was our anniversary) a bottle of Pol Roger.  Please note, it is essential that you bring good drinking glasses.  We have a set of nice chunky plastic glasses suitable for our G&Ts and stemless (plastic) wine glasses but you really shouldn’t drink good champagne out of plastic.  Better to go without (the champagne).

Day 3 dinner was chicken with a rub consisting of crushed garlic, smoked paprika, sweet paprika, ground cumin, lime juice and olive oil served with shucked bbq’d corn, avocado and a coriander and a tomatillo dressing (yes, this too was prepared in advance).

On the final day we cooked our bacon and had it in wraps with avocado and  tomatoes. And fabulous italian pork and fennel sausages – again in wraps with rocket and some hummus.  Simple but oh so satisfying.

So the trick to great camping is:  good simple food, good wine and a good campfire.  Oh, and don’t forget to bring the salad bowl. But if you do, all is not lost because with  plastic bag you can put all your salad ingredients in and then add the dressing and shake it all about (just like the hokey pokey) and all is well.


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

What happened to Barilla pasta?

For a long time, Barilla pasta has been my pasta of choice.  I have a number of favourites: penne lisce, penne rigatone, bugatoni any my all-time favourite – bavette.  Barilla had a pasta for every kind of dish, from a range of spaghettinis and capellini to thick bugatonis and even thicker tubular spaghetti just perfect for a rich ragu.

Penne lisce is great for a simple pasta with tinned tuna, chopped rocket, grated lemon rind, some chilli (or instead use Sirena chilli tuna), capers and of course, garlic.  You just mix all this together in a bowl including the oil the tuna comes in, and add some lemon juice and then fold through the penne.   Easy and delicious.

Penne rigatone is more suitable for a tomato-based sauce and goes very well with a rich ragu.  I sometimes make a very plain tomato sauce putting a bit of oil into a saucepan and adding a couple of cloves of smashed garlic, a couple of small red chillis just split in half to the stem and some basil and let it all infuse.  Then I add a tin or two of tomatoes, some chopped anchovies and a beef stock cube and voila.  5 mins and its ready to eat.  All you need to do is extract the basil, garlic and chili and then mash up the tomatoes with either a fork or a potato masher.  Sometimes I add chunks of egglplant that I’ve sauteed and for an even richer sauce, pork and fennel sausages, either cut into small slices or just extracted in little chunks from the casing.  The sausages get cooked in the tomato sauce and again, this only takes a matter of minutes.  Remember to mash the tomatoes before adding the eggplant and sausages.  I don’t like to use passata because I think the tinned tomatoes have more flavour and give a better consistency.  I always look for tinned tomatoes that don’t have any additives or sugar or salt –  just tomatoes and water.  Bavette is another great pasta to have with this sauce.  Its somewhere in between linguine and fettucine and is my favourite.

Spaghetti bolognese calls for something thicker that you can slurp up with the sauce. Bucatini is my pasta of choice for this dish.  Thicker than spaghetti and just perfect for a quick and easy bolognese. I make a spaghetti bolognese that’s very fast: garlic and chilli and basil and anchovies in some oil and then I add a tin of tomato paste and 2 tins of tomatoes and then throw in the beef mince and let it cook quickly so it doesn’t get all dry and overcooked, in this mixture.  My secret ingredient for this dish is bacon cubes – you’ll be surprised what a difference the flavour makes, it becomes rich and delicious withot having to cook for hours.  Its also relatively fat free.  Fresh ground pepper, grated parmesan and basil to serve.

For a dish such as spaghetti pangrattata, made with fresh breadcrumbs, garlic, olive oil and anchovies and chilli, I like a very fine pasta  but not quite angel hair – capellini – which I find too fine for the pangrattata (but perfect for a crab pasta). Barilla used to have a great range of pasta and their packaging was clever because there was a plastic window on each box which showed you what the pasta was. Now the packaging has a small dot and line to indicate is thickness.  But I can’t tell the difference and I can never remember which way the sizes go: is No 3 finer than No 7 or is it the other way around?

Used to be that Barilla was availabe in all good Italian delicatessens and grocers and in most supermarkets.  Now I can’t seem to find it so readily and when I do there are very few varieties.  What happened?  Why is this brand no longer being stocked?  I dislike the other supermarket pastas and I particulalry dislike the “organic” ones – they just don’t have the same texture.

So what’s happened to Barilla?  Why is it so unavailable?  I stopped eating a lot of wheat products and carbs – bread, pasta and rice –  in an effort to get healthy so I very rarely now cook pasta but when I do I’m always disappointed that I can’t find the pasta I want.  So many pastas, so few choices.


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.

Jellies for adults

Today I went and packed up my office.  Having just been made redundant at work – effective immediately – I had no opportunity to think about ‘what’s next’ or about what I would do with all the things I had accumulated in my office , my personal space for the last 5+ years.   It was where I spent the majority of my time.  Full of paintings, books, reference material, a pinboard with postcards I had collected on my travels and from colleauges from theirs as well as momentos from exhibitions and celebrations.  The usual stuff.  And my Bose stereo system. A quick half hour and a station wagon loaded and I was gone.  So much for 5+ years work.

The thought of just going back home to unpack was unappealing.  I needed to do something nice – a drink and nibble somewhere.  We headed to 4Fourteen (or is that Four 14?) in Bourke st – Colin Fassnidge’s place where at first opening it was difficult to get a seat. A few years on and its just walk in and not a fashionista in sight.  Pretty empty by the time we got there at 2.30 but kitchen staff all working hard.  Its an open kitchen so you can see everything.  The place is large and bright and beautifully set up – the banquettes at the back are gorgeous tan leather, they serve wine in proper glasses and the place has the feel of a NewYork loft.  But its the food that really makes this place worth coming to.

We just wanted a drink and something light: seared bonito with ginger ale jelly and apples accompanied by a glass of Duval Leroy champagne. It was a perfect match – more so because my husband had ordered the champagne before we had considered what to eat – champagne being the  drink for all occasions, and in this instance, to toast the end of one phase of my life and the start of something new.  What that new is, I don’t yet know.  But the dish was certainly one that suggested good things to come. When did jellies become so adult?  The flavours and textures just sang in my mouth.  It was so playful – beautifully cooked slices of just just cooked bonito scattered with the jelly and grated green apples in a dressing I couldn’t really figure out, but absolutely perfect. It was joyous.  How do people think of these dishes?  Its what makes the difference between just good food and really exciting food. Food worth celebrating and food for celebrating.

Our other dish was a chargrilled lamb tongue – and I’ll bet if this was presented to you without knowing what it was you’d just think it was perfectly cooked meat that your knife sliced through like butter – tender and succulent. Accompanied by a glass of Spanish red, again a perfect match and a perfect way to farewell 5 years of dedication and welcome my unkown future.

Occasions are worth celebrating, no matter what the event.  This quick meal did that for me.  Good food, good wine, good company.  Life’s OK.

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

The geese have gotten fat

Christmas Day began with some white peaches poached in lemongrass syrup. I’d made the syrup for martinis we were going to have later in the day so it seemed easy enough to use some of the syrup to poach the peaches in. Accompanied with a bottle of Lamandier champagne they were beautiful. Some fresh mangoes and perfectly ripe cherries followed.

And then it was time to prepare. Snapper carpaccio with shaved fennel, clementine segments, salmon pearls and shiso leaves. A white wine of some description to accompany.

I had planned on searing some tuna and serving it sliced with a jalapeno dressing and garlic mayonnaise but the range of fish available at the fishmarket the day before was limited. Apart from the ubiquitous prawns, crayfish, lobster etc. there was very little in the way of either whole or filleted fish. We did indulge in some prawns with a lovely presto of coriander, green chilli and preserved lemon the night before. And a most interesting bottle of champagne: Pierre Peters (there are so many good French champagne houses that I haven’t heard of.)

So Plan B became scallops seared with ginger and soy/mirin and served in their shell on a bed of finely grated cucumber and radish and topped with shredded nori and toasted black sesame seeds. Truly delish. The delicate texture of the scallops is a perfect match for the crisp and crunch of seaweed and seseame seeds and the mirin/soy dressing added just enough flavour to enhance the experience of these equisite sea creatures. I never knew how good scallops were until I tasted them just cooked. Why is it that so many people over cook them? They loose all flavour and become rubbery and dull.

And then it was on to the ham. Glazed with maple syrup, brown sugar and mustard it was warm and unctuous. To accompany I made a variation on a waldorf with celery, apple, red grapes, walnuts, witlof and raddichio. I cant’ remember what we drank with this. There was another bottle of champagne (Mumm) at some stage (earlier I think with the scallops) but it paled into insignificance compared to the Lamandier. I do recall drinking a rather nice French pinot (yes, they’re called burgundy over there). And then we had the lemongrass martinis. And then it was time for a nap. Which turned into a sleep. I woke at 8pm. It was time to get the feast going again.

I had marinated a neck of pork in some wonderful smoky chillies that someone had told me about (from northern Thailand) and palm sugar, fish sauce and galangal for about 48 hours and it had been slowly cooking for about 2 hours. It was the most wonderful flavour experience – all those sharp, salty, sour and sweet Thai flavours with the succulent pork served with chopped peanuts, fried shallots and fresh coriander. Oh, and a green mango salad. A lovely bottle of Vouvray set this off to perfection.

And then it was time for desert. I had made basil pannacotta and raspberry jelly. As I was straining the raspberries through the sieve I wondered why? I recalled that you could buy raspberry jelly in little packets in the supermarket. All you had to do was add boiling water! However, the taste, is not the same. Trust me. It was like eating gelatinous raspberries. I know that doesn’t sound very appetizing, but it was like mouthfuls of flavoured fun.

More drinks and then more couch time with videos till finally slices of American fruitcake and glasses of sauternes appeared. Our Christmas feast took well over 13 hours. It was quite a day. Relaxed, companionable, full of good flavours, tastes, sensations, easy going conversations and veg out times. All Christmases should be like this.