Sitting on the front porch, mango juice dripping down my arms, cicadas shrilling in the background. The dog chases flies, snapping at them as they buzz. Older cars that pass have their windows wound down, all the way, and snatches of their music filter into my garden. Party music, all thumping bass and angry words, alternates with the chatter of afternoon radio, a voice or two almost recognizable. Almost.
School is nearly over for the year. The dragging days, countdown to six whole weeks of freedom were, as a child, excruciating. A week, often longer, would pass before Christmas arrived. I'd play cricket in the street with my brother, calling as cars approached, slower than they do now. The forbidden thrill of roller skating on the Bennett's driveway, the most satisfying of surfaces to roll across, was noisy and wonderful, but only if they were out. We'd skate past nonchalantly just to make sure. Riding bikes full pelt down the steepest of roads, no hands, definitely no helmet. You fell, picked the gravel out of your knees and started again, winded, but laughing.
The difference between the cozy northern Christmas and the sunny southern one is vast. Despite this we share the same snowy imagery, an irony not lost on Australian children. So, our Santa is often depicted in shorts, fur-lined thongs (the shoes, thankfully, not the underpants) and sports a jolly beer belly. Kangaroos pull his sled, a cringe-worthy but amusing thought. He sometimes wears a hat strung with corks that dangle from the brim to keep the flies off. Sitting in the front yard, flies everywhere, I could do with one of those hats. Luckily the dog does what she can.
Holidays again. Off to Sydney, to blue carpets of Jacaranda petals and the squealing of parrots as they settle colourfully in my parent’s leafy suburban yard. Glimpses of the harbour, sun-sparkled, caught between blocks of flats; congested streets but knowing all the short cuts, all the back ways. Seeing mum, dad and my brother (my brother!) who has, I think, fallen in love. Cooking with mum, who shares her daughter’s obsessive interest in food and literature. Talking, properly, with my dad. Friends. Jo especially. She’s had a tough year, but it’s been good. This is what Christmas holds for me.
Until then, though, we still have a week or so up our sleeves. Just like that break between the last day of school and Christmas itself, it stretches ahead of me. But it’s passing way too quickly. Something tonight, then, for just the two of us. A quiet night in before the silly season gets into full swing.
Coconut and date chutney
Adapted from Claudia Roden’s unbelievably useful Book of Jewish Food. This addictive fresh chutney, easy to make and easier still to eat (said as she pauses to dip in yet another cracker) is from the Bene Israel community of India. You’ll need to be an unabashed coriander-lover (cilantro) to enjoy this and while a combination of mint and parsley might work, I love coriander. Adore it. Great with fish, especially the fragrant banana leaf-wrapped parcels below, but wonderful too with slices of fried eggplant. Try serving it as a dip with crisp papadams, rice crackers or those mini toasts that the French make. Hard to stop eating, I tell ya…
1 tablespoon of tamarind paste 1 ¾ cups (about 125g) of shredded coconut 2/3 cup (about 150ml) of warm water 1 large bunch of coriander (cilantro), well washed 12 dried, pitted dates Juice of 2 limes (or one juicy lemon) 2 cloves of garlic, crushed ½ teaspoon of sea salt ¼ teaspoon of hot chilli powder
Dissolve the tamarind paste in 2 tablespoons of boiling water. Tip the coconut into a large bowl and pour over the warm water. Leave both tamarind and coconut for 20 minutes.
Discard the roots of the coriander and roughly chop the rest. Push the dissolved tamarind paste through a sieve, pressing to extract as much liquid as possible, making sure to scrape anything that accumulates on the underside of the sieve too. Place all the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and whiz until well chopped. Add a tablespoon or two of water down the chute to make the chutney smoother. Keeps for a few days, tightly lidded, in the fridge.
Banana leaf snapper parcels – for 2
We had these with tiny, pebbly new potatoes, boiled in their skins until tender (10 minutes), drained well and then sauteed, whole, in 2 teaspoons of ghee. 1 tablespoon of garam masala was added moments before serving.
Preheat the oven to 200 C (400 F). Take 2 banana leaves and lay them out flat on the bench, dull-side up. Place a fillet of snapper (or any firm-fleshed, white fish) in the centre of each leaf. Top each fillet with a sprinkling of freshly ground cumin, a few slices of lime, 1 long green chilli, sliced on the diagonal and some thin slices of ginger. Season, then wrap securely, tying the parcels with kitchen string or using bamboo skewers. Bake, on a tray, for 15 minutes. Unwrap at the table. Serve with the coconut and date chutney.
So, over to you. How will you be spending the festive season?
Busy? My word. You must be too. Won’t keep you long.
Mushrooms, the cultivated ‘normal’ variety, sweating quietly under their supermarket-friendly plastic wrap are not my cup of tea. Not for want of trying, mind you. A big field one smothered (and I do mean smothered) in garlicky parsley butter, baked until it oozes dark, earthy juices then quickly, drippingly, sandwiched into a mustard-smeared roll, Nigella-style, is a delicious, decadent meal for one. Chopped small and snuck undetectably into croquettes, mushies are just fine. But given a bundle of smarty-pants exotic mushrooms, things change dramatically. Not that oyster, shiitake or enoki mushrooms are very exotic nowadays – the variety of funghi that turn up at the market is truly surprising - it’s just that they, ahem, look a whole lot prettier.
There you have it. I am, in truth, shallower than you (may have) imagined.
Oyster mushrooms, pale, delicate fans, pretty as a picture, are by far my mushroom of choice. Clusters range in size, some as tiny and sweet as a pinky fingernail, others larger, just, than the soft fist of a newborn babe. Those with palates more refined than mine will tell you that oyster mushrooms taste, vaguely, of the bivalves they unwittingly imitate. Alas, I cannot tell. I love the way their gills and frilly edges crisp in the pan. I love the way they absorb flavour. And yes, I love, love, LOVE the way they look.
Until now I’ve been pan-frying them until golden and, at the last moment, melting in a generous knob of butter laced with lots of finely grated ginger. Simple, elegant. Then a comment left here caught my attention. Heather’s suggestions using sesame oil, the pale, buttery stuff, got me cooking and playing. I made this three times in as many days.
Thank you, Heather, very much indeed.
An Asian mushroom salad - for 2
Okay, so a lot of the ingredients here are, like my choice in mushrooms, smarty-pants ones. I went through a macrobiotic phase, you see, and some of those ingredients, umeboshi vinegar particularly, have stuck. The marinated mushrooms will keep for a few days, refrigerated, in a tightly lidded container. They are a very good addition to anything needing a ‘meaty’, umami hit.
For the mushrooms:
1 very large handful of oyster mushrooms (about 100g) 1 very large handful of fresh shiitake mushrooms (about 8) 1 tablespoon of pale sesame oil (not the dark stuff) 1 tablespoon of Chinese black vinegar 1 tablespoon of tamari (or a good soy sauce) 2-3 drops of dark, toasted sesame oil
Gently tear any large oyster mushrooms in two. Discard any stalks that look too tough. Destalk your shiitakes and slice the caps thickly.
Warm the pale sesame oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Toss in the mushrooms when the oil is hot and sauté them until golden in patches (5-7 minutes is ample).
Remove the mushrooms to a shallow dish or a large bowl and pour over the remaining ingredients. Toss well and leave to marinate for at least 1 hour. Cover and refrigerate if you’re keeping them for longer. Drain before serving.
For the dressing:
Whisk 1½ tablespoons of pale sesame oil with equal quantities of sweet white miso and rice vinegar in a small bowl. Add a large splash of umeboshi vinegar and ¼ teaspoon of hot English mustard (or prepared wasabi). Whisk again.
For the salad:
Take 2 heads of bok choy and separate. Wash and dry thoroughly (sticky sand always seems to accumulate at the base of bok choy leaves). Cut the stalks from the leaves and sliver the stalks lengthways. Keep any very small leaves intact and cut any large leaves in half. Toss them into a large salad bowl with 4-5 handfuls of salad leaves (I used baby spinach) and 1 golden shallot, very thinly sliced. Dress (see above) and toss over and over. Add the marinated mushrooms (see above) and toss again. Serve immediately.
Viewed from the kitchen table, the bright red flowers of the scarlet runner beans stand out against their climbing foliage. An impossibly cheerful shade of red, and a gorgeous thing to wake to. I have of late been consciously sitting myself right here looking out over the fledgling garden at breakfast. A book, my journal, a favourite pen and a pot of fragrant green tea my dining companions; a bowl of muesli with home-made rice milk and blueberries or a slice of these wonderful breakfast bars are regulars on the menu.
Breakfasting is something new, something of a work in progress. A slower, gentler beginning to the day. Still, my anxious nature, twitchy legs and fingers struggle to stay still for the full half hour. This solitary meal is good, I tell my legs, good for the soul. My organised parents (she a tidy virgo, he an earthy capricorn) set the breakfast table, properly, each night before they go to bed. For years this ritual has baffled me, their leonine, misfit daughter. Breakfast, mine, has always been scoffed hurriedly, flying out the door. Why someone who spends a large amount of time thinking about the importance of eating well would ignore a meal so intrinsic to well-being is quite baffling. So, I’m learning to give myself time to wake, think and organize the day over a little nourishing breakfast. And slowly, slowly, the early morning chatter in my head is beginning to quiet, just a little.
Reading books over breakfast (as opposed to reading emails) is becoming an integral part of the self-prescribed therapy that chatter requires. A neat pile of books now sits on a corner of the kitchen table, a version, I guess, of my parent’s table-setting ritual. Writing in her exquisite, enviable style, Marion Halligan’s memory of a warm weather Christmas lunch – a huge platter of fresh, glistening prawns eaten with thin slices of dense black bread, lemons and lashings of butter, washed down with cold, cold white wine - read over this morning’s breakfast got me thinking. Not of Christmas food, though there will be some of that in the weeks to come. Rather it’s made me aware of a need in December for things that, like a generous, elegant, festive platter of prawns, can be prepared with a minimum of fuss. ‘Do I really need another potato salad recipe?’, I hear you ask. I think so highly of this delicious Nepalese street food that you may feel, as I have discovered, that yes, you do.
A spoonful of leftovers, raided at the entirely inappropriate time of 7am one Saturday morning, confirmed Madhur Jaffrey’s instruction to make it well ahead of time. It’s good after two hours, but better after twelve and will keep for up to 3 days. It’s a brilliant, multi-seasonal, make-ahead potato salad. God, it’s good. I serve it with pan-fried fillets of silver-skinned garfish, dredged in rice flour, made by grinding black rice to a powder, a tablespoon at a time, in a spice grinder - a sensational combination.
Nepalese potato salad (Aloo Achaar) for 4
Adapted, slightly, from this book.
This quantity can be doubled, tripled, even quadrupled easily. Four chillies may seem like a lot (it is) but the heat mellows a little on standing. Feel free to use one small green capsicum (pepper) in their place. Lots of vitamin E from the sesame seeds and vitamin C from the chillies.
6 medium-sized waxy potatoes (Desiree or Nicola are good) 4 tablespoons of sesame seeds Juice of 4 lemons 1 teaspoon of sea salt 2-4 green chillies (see above), finely minced 4 tablespoons of macadamia or sesame oil (NOT the dark, toasted stuff) Pinch of asafoetida powder 10 fenugreek seeds 1 bunch of coriander (cilantro), chopped
Place the potatoes in a saucepan of cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until tender all the way through when speared with a skewer.
If you have a gas stove, warm the remaining tablespoon of oil in a metal ladle directly over a low flame. If you don’t have gas, a small saucepan over a high heat works just as well, if not a little less dramatically. When the oil is hot (moments) tip in the asafoetida and fenugreek seeds and as soon as the fenugreek seeds darken, remove from the heat and whisk into the sesame seed emulsion. Add the chopped coriander, mix well and set aside.
When the potatoes are cooked, peel them while they are still hot, using a tea towel to protect your hand. Dice the potatoes into 2 cm (¾ inch) chunks. There’s no need to be too precise here. Toss, gently, in the sesame dressing while still hot. Cool, cover and refrigerate until serving. Best eaten at room temperature.