Two things you should know before you embark on yet another delectable recipe from the ever-wise, rightfully-adored, Mr Ottolenghi.
The key, as suggested in the headnote in the book, is to fry them in "plenty of butter", an instruction guaranteed to send me into a state of mild panic, thus I cheated with a mixture of butter and oil. No great loss, but next time I'll be brave and go for more butter than I might, ordinarily, think sensible, as the richness of the fat in which they are fried contibutes volumes to the whole. Anyways, point two is this. Should you be stuck for what to feed people during Passover, may I recommend these little golden cakes? If you sub fine matzoh meal for the flour, they tick every kosher-ma-fied box I can find, and who (apart from silly old me) doesn't love sweet potato?
Two road lead to the Blue Mountains. The Great Western Highway takes you through the vast, flat plain of suburban western Sydney, fast and furious, all a blur, straight to where the tourists want to be. The other is the Bells Line of Road, a slow wind upward to where it is misty and cool, bellbirds chiming clear from their hiding spots, high among the trees that line the hairpin turns. We always wind the windows down to hear them, hushed, waiting for that first heralding call.
We are bird lovers every one of us, in my little family.
Bilpin, where the apples grow, was our destination, just me, mum, dad and Miki, a furry little ball of warmth pressed up against my thigh in the back seat on a grey Friday morning. Striped Fuji's (a glorious, butter-yellow flesh) were the mission, but we what we were really looking for was Autumn Proper.
Hard to avoid, really. A serious hedge is my next project, I swear.
On the way back, we took a right into Kurrajong, heading to Bowen Mountain, in search of a little wilderness. Blink and you'd miss it, so unassuming is the signage. Honeysuckle Cottage.
The kind of garden nursery I dream about. Romantic, yes, but not so prettypretty to be without purpose. I like a useful garden. Culinary herbs - bronze fennel, angelica - medicinal herbs, and heirloom vegetables meander among overgrown roses (old ones, not much in the way of frou-frou here) and salavias, flowers gracefully bending, seducing tiny, lightweight birds. Primroses in shades of butterscotch and gold. A place to explore, to get lost in. Heaven.
A few days ago, chatting with Fiona and Ganga about moving home, I realised that I've moved 15 times in the 20 years since that first awful student house on Cleveland Street, next to the petrol station, right near the corner where the semi-trailers would turn, compression brakes hissing all day and night, making their way to the airport.
That's a lot of kitchens.
Some I have fond memories of - a galley kitchen in Clovelly with Em, and the huge slate-floored number we shared in Camperdown in third year - some not - the less said about the dark one in Bondi, the better, though I dearly miss my then-flatmate Shane - but each of them offered some kind of lesson. The one in Peter's drawing of me up there was the first really grown-up kitchen I've had, with its view onto a neighbouring orange tree, wooden benches I would lovingly oil in big, sweeping arcs, and the first dishwasher I'd ever loaded. I hardly knew what to do there, it all functioned so smoothly.
I've worked with gas ovens, electric ovens, and scarily wonky ovens. One particularly stubborn beast I had the pleasure of learning twice over in different cities. (Obviously the cheap-skate landlord special.) I've had electric elements that take f-o-r-e-v-e-r to get going (equally, an age to slow down), and gas burners that, if one wasn't careful, could singe the eyebrows of innocent kitchen bystanders. The one thing that all of these situations has taught is that, no matter what, food is cooked when it is cooked. How often I've wanted to write, "bake at a moderate temperature until cooked", no hand-holding, no precision, just ready when done. Wonkiness, you see, is the best of teachers. But I'd never dream of leading anyone astray. We all learn in our own way, at our own pace.
Still don't really like dishwashers. Rather do it by hand, not in order to martyr myself to some antiquated kitchen cause, but because I like washing up, it's what I know, and I like the rhythm it gives to the day. There are times when you give in to the machine, but really I just like to get my hands in there, to get them working. Come winter, hot sudsy water warms cold fingers, too.
Mostly what I've learned - perhaps the best lesson of all - is that it doesn't matter what kitchen you have. What matters is that you use it, that you cook and feed and be kind to yourself in it, no holds barred. There's no better cure for almost anything life can hurl your way than a well-cooked, home-made meal. Glad we're staying put for a while.
A few months ago I wrote about roses, a post that garnered some interesting responses, not least of which was an email from Wakefield Press, the Australian distributor of The Scented Kitchen. Long story short, they like what I do here enough to put me on their reviewing list. We all know it's important to be honest, right? To say this post is sponsored by, even if it's not quite like that. Well, this post isn't quite like that, but it's enough like that for me to tell you yes, I was given this book, but I'm under no obligation to love everything. That's what reviewing is all about. That I happen to like it a lot is testament to its content.
Flip Shelton is a poster girl for vegetarianism. The woman glows, people, a shining example of what a balanced vegetarian diet can do for a person. The recipes in her new book Veg In: Simple Vegetarian Dishes From Around The World are solid, basic vegetarian fare, global in their pull, based on the premise that it's cheaper and healthier in the long run to eat in rather than eat out. Using takeway (take out) food as a leaping off point, Shelton takes classic fast food recipes - from Greek to Chinese to Burgers and beyond- and gives vegetarian recipes within that genre that come together easily in your own kitchen.
The layout is easy to read, with plenty of space for your own notes, and the spine of the thing is well constructed, sturdy even, enough so that the book opens out flat on a kitchen bench and - with a little pressure, yess! - it stays open. (Cannot tell you how much this simple necessity, oft overlooked by publishers, irritates me. One of my pet hates.) Highly recommend for anyone looking to eat less flesh, new vegetarians or for students moving out of home.
The Seaweed Salad above might not be your first choice, but I often think that good cookbooks are made (or indeed, broken) by the simplest recipes, and I'm very pleased to say this was a hit, far better, as is the premise of the book, than any I've had out.
flip shelton's seaweed salad
2 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp tamari
1 tbsp water
2 tsp sugar
pinch of salt
Combine all the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and mix until well-combined. Using scissors, roughly cut wakame into strips, cover in warm water and soak for about 5 minutes or until softened. Drain. Place wakame in a small bowl and cover with dressing, toss gently. Allow to chill for about 30 minutes for flavours to infuse. Drain excess liquid before serving.
(Oh, and by the way, the brick oven book? I bought that book waaay before this began. Just so you know...)
So, you've finished your base, built it solidly, let it all set nicely. The next stage is the dome. Jeavons suggests you "...start thinking of fresh-baked bread and your favourite pizza about now."
Do. It'll help, I swear.
You need about 100 bricks for the dome, each cut in half. There's an art to bolster-cutting (as opposed to machine-cutting) bricks, but as I was only there to photograph the aftermath, I cannot tell you what's involved. Peter tells me it's easier than you think, and far easier than Jeavons makes it out to be in the book. Be not afraid, therefore, of the cheaper, more physical option.
Our floor is recycled pavers, which make a great flat surface to cook on. That's the easy part.
We had a steel arch made (the plans are in the book) for the oven door. "Have it made at your local metal fabricator or bash out your own at home." If you read that sentence (as did I) and thought, "what the? local metal fabricator??!!", let me assure you that The Renovators Goldmine in Trentham can help. Phew.
Then, you lay courses of half-bricks around the dome, rough-side out, backfilling with mortar, and angling each up a little as you go. About halfway through, you'll be feeling great, looking on it at the end of the day with pride.
Then - OY - you get to the part where you start to worry about your sanity, and WISH that your partner wouldn't be so damned afraid of following rules. Believe me. Bricks, being heavy, even when cut in half, do not like to defy the laws of gravity.
This is the part of the process when I got a little peeved with Mr Jeavons. Peter had already lost it with his extremely casual approach a number of times - I think this guy's a bit of a knob - but I found his description of how to make the bricks meet at the top altogether too brief. Anyway, we fudged it and, using cardboard boxes and straw to form a kind of dome inside, layed the bricks - with a lot of angst - and finished the damned thing.
We crossed our fingers...then I noticed that Peter NO LONGER HAD ANY FINGERS. The mortar, combined with the sharp bricks, had eaten through his gloves and completely eaten away his fingertips. Mine were a bit rough and really sore, but his...fark. He was shaking...a brave man, mine.
Some of us needed a good lie down to recover.
Others, namely me, decided to make chicken soup.
And even though the onions and garlic stung my fingers so much that I sobbed, it was worth every second, 'cos everyone knows that chicken soup is Jewish penicillin, right?
chicken soup, for a man who left his fingers in the wall of an oven
Take one good chook, give it a rinse, and pat it dry with kitchen paper. Place it in a large pot, cover with cold water and add chopped carrots, celery, onions, a head of garlic, lots of herbs (especially bay - bay is really nice, here) and a good lot of salt and whole peppercorns. Bring slowly to the boil, lower your heat to the odd rising burble and simmer as such for 2 hours, more if you like. Turn the bird halfway through, at which time I added quite a lot of lemon balm (bloody-bloody invasive-bloody lemon balm) and was glad I did.
Strain, pressing down with a wooden spoon to release all that goodness, and reserve some of the flesh for serving with the soup. Save the rest for the children who will, when they turn up late on Easter Sunday, tell you they've, "gone off chicken" as they've, "had it all Passover at mum's". Serve it to the dog instead, who has not.
You know what? Next day, we gingerly pulled the boxes and straw out...it worked! Gravity-defied!! Well. All worth it, thank you Mr Jeavons. All is forgiven. For now...
Of course my preferred choice is your top-notch, bio-dynamic, super-cool variety of vegetable of which these King Edward's were a shining example. Finished The Botany of Desire over Easter, and it's got me thinking.
Toward the end of The Potato (read GM debate) chapter, Pollan - isn't his webpage beautiful? - offers this:
A fishmonger told me about a Martha Stewart tip for keeping grilled fish from sticking to a barbecue: rub the grill with a raw potato sliced down the middle. It works , by the way.
That this was the sole use Pollan - an avid home vegetable grower - could find for his GM NewLeaf crop speaks volumes. The book's great. Get thee to the bookshop immediately.