Back to my roots

Wild fennel, but not as wild as a dancing tuba player

And so we almost come to the end of another year. A year that has (almost) ended pretty much exactly how it began – with a sore lower back, tight calves and temporary but profound deafness. Monetise This’s 2013 started with one of its brave bids for youthful summer freedom – Hot Chip at the Enmore, and Two Door Cinema Club and The Vaccines at The Hordern. It lost its mojo through the middle (much like every year, really), then had a brief bolt for the door with the brilliant (but still irritatingly upper-cased) Cody ChesnuTT at The Metro, before crying ‘Hallelujah!’, leaping into the arms of Urthboy and The Roots (also at the Hordern) and galloping off into the sunset with the band’s dancing tuba player last Friday. In my dreams…

I would have liked to have taken an iSnap or two of The Roots show, we were that close I almost didn’t need to wear my glasses (not for us the dispiriting benches up the back of the Hordern full of 40-somethings, no sirree Bob), but that would have pushed my tragic, age-inappropriate behaviour one step too far.

So here’s pictorial proof instead that my year has not all been They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, and that I am not, in fact, a young Jane Fonda (though you’d probably guessed that already). The siren call of Aldi may have me in its evil grasp, but at least I know how to forage a decent crop of wild fennel when I see one.

Golf does have its use, it seems. This bunch was harvested from one of the many courses that suck up our local groundwater.

This year has brought with it trials – physical, emotional, political (occasionally all at the same time) – to many of my family and friends near and far (foraging being the least of these). For many of them it’s been a complete shit of a year (starting even before the eviscerating debacle that was 7 September) and I’m hoping that the next one will be a little happier, healthier and easier for everyone – unless you happen to be poor, old, young, sick, homeless or stateless, that is. ‘Fraid you’re on your own in that case – sorry, but I didn’t vote for the bastards.

So much for needing to talk about Kevin.

Don’t mess with the good stuff

Instead, I count myself lucky that I’ve been able to keep a roof over my head and a pavlova on the table when it matters most (when it’s raining, obviously, like on Christmas Day). As luck would have it, we’d been invited to spend the day with friends at an iconic Sydney mansion, where, as I’ve crowed previously, we would spend the day pretending to be deeply rich and fiercely glamorous by the sparkling waters of the harbour. Instead, we spent the day being deeply damp and fiercely resentful at the hand the weather gods had dealt us.

“I hope this isn’t my last Christmas,” whispered Mrs F, as I plied her with a dessert selection that ranged from said pavlova to a sugar-free raspberry cheesecake (a culinary abomination so unspeakable even Lucy the labrador shuddered and averted her eyes). Thankfully, I was able to assure her that the sugar in my pavlova should keep her (and Lucy, given half the chance) preserved long enough to see in 2016.

For Monetise This, the last few hours of 2013 will be spent with her peeling nose buried in a brick of a book, lying on a shimmering South Coast beach while Lucy digs holes by the water’s edge. Until we meet again, have a sweet new year, gentle reader(s). Wishing you health, peace and a well-calibrated oven.

Deep and crisp and even

Silent night…

All is calm, all is very, very bright here on the mean streets of Botany, whose inhabitants, especially Danny of Bay Street, and Kris of Daphne Street, seem to have put in a bit more effort into putting a dent into the electricity grid this year. That’s the Coalition government for you – Christmas decorations just got a whole lot better.

We had a slump for a few years, as the old Christmas-light show ponies moved out or dropped off the peg to make way for more sparkle-averse, aspirational residents without utes (ourselves included, although the silver fox and I are, in fact, very intimately in touch with our sparkly sides – and utes; I was once the doting owner of a 1961 Holden FB ute back in my glory days – so, not so aspirational really).

Indeed, our courtyard has its wall of sparkling lights (although many bulbs dimmer, such is our seasonal refurbishing ennui). The disco shed, while not requisitioned this year for our usual Christmas party, still has balls – mirror balls, that is – spotlit through coloured filters. We have made liberal use of these festive tokens over the past few days to entertain our continuous parade of overnighting visitors. They do so complement the EXTREMELY LOUD music we’ve been pumping through the disco shed speakers each night, to drown out the hellish, interminable, tear-our-heads-off screams of the excited, sugar-loaded little kiddies and their desperate parents next door.

So… not so silent, then.

But, praise be, while the halls have been decked with nought but a bowl of pine cones stolen from the golf course surrounded by a coil of tinsel (yup – it really does look as bad as it sounds), I have managed to send handmade cards to overseas friends and relatives. I had intended to send them to friends and family in Australia too, but an excess of red cardboard eventually defeated me.

So… not so calm, either.

A frenzy, actually, of shopping and cooking and washing sheets and remaking beds and shouting at each other over the music in the backyard. Just like everyone else really.

But now it’s Christmas Eve, and the tomato kasundi that roiled and boiled for an eternity on our outdoor gas ring in 35-degree heat this week has been dispatched in poorly decorated jars to deeply suspicious neighbours. It’s a recipe that will appear in an upcoming issue of ABC delicious. magazine, so I can’t give it to you as it is not mine to give, but verily, it is good and the neighbours will thank me for it, you mark my words.

The pavlova is cooling in the oven with the requisite wooden spoon sticking out of the oven door, irritating my uber-minimalist silver fox to distraction. He has refused to wrap the dog’s presents in protest and is lying on the couch watching Miracle on 34th Street for the 34th time. Sigh.

It seems I got it all wrong about bringing a salad (I was put down to bring dessert – the fools, the fools!). The pav is a Bill Granger recipe – and was recommended by a friend who had some success with it recently.

But I live in hope. The meringue is, so far, deep and crisp – if not even – and will be duly immortalised in its full splendour once slathered with whipped cream and piled with sharply rebuked fruit via Instagram and Facebook on the morrow – unless I’m too drunk and forget, or it’s a complete disaster (odds are the usual 50-50).

Queen of the street lights, Kris (her real name), of Daphne Street.

Merry Christmas, and may all your mince pies come true.

 

Lettuce with a gladsome mind

We say it every year, don’t we… Don’t we? Well I say it every year, then… How is it suddenly Christmas again? And how could I have missed the signs?

Neighbours, eh? Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live with ‘em. Which is why they’re called neighbours, I suppose, rather than husbands, or friends, or paying guests.

Neighbours and Christmas parking… The couple over the road from us have started putting out two orange and white witches’ hats on the road outside their house to “save a space in case visitors come”. This year they’ve refined their black art by laying a slender plank between them (the witches’ hats that is, not between the couple). I can only assume that this means I’ll need to ask them to check their diary before I can book an extra space for friends who might care to visit us over the Season To Be Giving.

Obviously, I’ve not been able to get out do any Christmas shopping, as it’s too risky leaving the car space we’ve managed to cling on to. So it will, as usual, be a hasty, last-minute guilt-trip to Easthell, my local Westfield gulag, in the dead of night. Sorry, in anticipation, for the novelty scrapbook with matching glue stick.

Happily, the Actual Day To Be Giving will be spent by the harbour with friends and family, all of us gaily pretending to be extremely, extremely rich in a mansion none of us owns or has to pay the window cleaner for.

And all I have to do is bring a salad. Which is quite handy really, as salads are what have been consuming me in the past couple of weeks – and, indeed, what we, in turn, have been consuming – which was even more handy, seeing as it was dinner time.

This mild obsession was sparked by a plea from a friend who had been deprived of anything remotely resembling fresh, nourishing – nay, edible – food, during a prolonged and challenging stay in (where else?) a hospital. That mortal enemy of nutrition and palatability.

So when I’m not working at my desk or someone else’s, or buggering about in my courtyard fiddling with my succulents (settle, petal), I’m chopping stuff up and throwing it together in bowls. And cooking a lot of it, too – that’s a prerequisite for my friend – raw’s not so great for her right now.

It started with the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Niçoise Niçoise Salad. But this was hardly the first – merely the one I remembered to photograph before we ate it. No, the composed salad is not new to me. It is how I most like to cook. No weighing, no praying.

So, here are three rather toothsome examples I’ve made over the past week or so using ordinary-ish ingredients. They require little skill and no technique and have always depended on the kindness of strangers. Not really. I made that last bit up. Sorry Blanche.

Not hospital food, oddly enough, but a potato and broad bean salad, badly framed with a tomato, green bean and beetroot salad

Potato and broad bean salad

Serves me very well, thank you

Small-ish potatoes that you can quarter prettily, scrubbed but not peeled

Broad beans (I used frozen ones – I love ’em)

Finely chopped spring onions

Loads of chopped dill

Lemon

Dijon mustard

Jolly nice Australian extra virgin olive oil

1. Chuck the potatoes in a pan of cold salted water and bring them to the boil. Why? Because they’re potatoes and that’s what you do. Ask anyone. It’s something about starch. Cook them, checking neurotically, until they’re done.

2. Meanwhile, throw a couple of handfuls of frozen broad beans into a heatproof bowl.

3. Find that jar you found for the last salad under the sink again, make sure it’s clean, then squeeze in at least half the lemon, a large teaspoonful-ish dollop of Dijon, a good couple of tablespoons of olive oil, and some salt and pepper, then stick the lid on and shake vigorously. Set aside. Whichever side you prefer.

4. Once the potatoes are just done enough (be vigilant, dear friends, with that skewer or knife tip), drain them in a colander OVER THE BROAD BEANS IN THE BOWL! Is this not truly week-night-cooking short-cutting genius? But make sure you don’t flood the bowl in your Superwoman exuberance. You will get burnt. Remember – vigilance, always vigilance.

5. Take the potatoes outside to dry in the colander on the garden table. Dead-head a couple of geraniums, then, as soon as you can put your hands in the bowl of broad beans, start peeling them and slinging them in your serving bowl. If I can be bothered, I’ll dry them on paper towel after I’ve peeled them. Sad, but true.

6. When the potatoes have cooled enough, cut them into quarters and add to the beans with the spring onion and dill, then pour over as much of the dressing as you like (I like plenty) and gently toss it all together. Season it with more salt and pepper if so desired. Lovely with sausages, delightful to know.

The first class cabin of garlic travel

Tomato, green bean and beetroot salad

Serves to remind us to always wear an apron around beetroot

A bowlful of green beans

A large, contented garlic clove, preferably from a bulb grown by Patrice Newell, which was delivered in a purple box, nestled with its brothers and sisters on a strawy mattress

More fabulous Australian extra virgin olive oil

Balsamic vinegar Ideally, voluptuous, juicy home-grown tomatoes, redolent of the Italian sunshine; realistically, Amoroso truss tomatoes from Coles, because Lucy the labrador has eaten any I’ve tried to grow myself

Cooked small beetroots (yes, I admit it, I have been known to use the Love Beets™ that come in a handy packet from the supermarché, so sue me)

Chopped flat-leaf parsley (although I admit to a fondness for the curly stuff too – there will be a revival of that much-maligned herb soon enough – you mark my words)

1. Chuck the beans into a saucepan of boiling water. Why? Because this time they’re beans and that’s what you do. Ask anyone. No starch to speak of. Cook them for about 5 minutes, or until they’re dead enough to stop squeaking when you bite into them but alive enough to still feel plump and giving.

2. While this mortal battle is going on, smash the garlic and chop it to within an inch of its own sweet life, then put it in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 1 of the balsamic.

3. Chop the tomatoes however you deem fit – I like quarters or sixths, especially after a glass of wine to concentrate the mind – then cut the beetroot into similar proportions.

4. Once the beans are cooked to the tenderest of limbo, drain them and IMMEDIATELY (or face the wrath of the gods) add them, hot and steaming, to the bowl where the garlic, oil and balsamic wait in breathless anticipation. Toss them all together and leave them to stand idly by for a couple of minutes, while you inhale that soft tang of garlicky goodness.

5. Add the tomatoes, beetroot and parsley, and gently toss to combine one more time. Season with salt and pepper, and, if you’re feeling particularly louche, dollop some goat’s cheese over the top. I wasn’t, so I didn’t. One has to draw the line somewhere.

Absolutely-bloody-delicious,
even if I do say so myself

And finally, the roast cauliflower salad

Serves no other purpose than almost erotic pleasure

1. There is no better way to cook cauliflower than roasting the f—k out of it at about 200C after you’ve broken it into florets, slathered them with olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper and maybe lemon juice, and tossed it all with a dozen halved, peeled cloves of aforementioned cosseted garlic.

2. Once it’s all caramelised and nutty and sweet, put the lot in a bowl with handfuls of chopped parsley and mint, currants, and toasted slivered almonds or pine nuts.

3. Drag out that jar again, give it another wash, then add a large dollop of black olive tapenade, a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and another cheek or so’s worth of lemon juice. Shake it up, then pour enough of it over the salad to make it a teeny, weeny bit unhealthy but oh, so lush. Gently toss to combine and check on the seasoning. If it’s not home by midnight, you’re locking the back door.

4. The pièce de résistance (and only ingredient I’m ever prepared to eat that squeaks) is a batch of freshly scorched slices of haloumi, cooked with a little bit of olive oil in a hot frying pan or on a chargrill at the last minute and thrown with gay abandon over the top. Eat the lot with relish – but not mango chutney.

And save some for the next day if possible. Even better then.

A little bit country… redux

Country Style, December 2013

Oops! Well, that will serve me right for getting over-excited. I’ve just posted (and swiftly removed) a piece about my latest foray into the world of magazines, talking about the wrong restaurant. I think they call this hubris…

Suffice to say, what I really wanted to promote was the latest issue of Country Style, which goes on sale tomorrow, complete with a story I wrote about St Isidore, a fab restaurant on the NSW south coast in the edge of the buzzy little town of Milton. Chef Alex Delly and his partner, Jo Thomas, have created a garden paradise, where they grow most of their own produce and create gorgeous, modern-rustic food, and a warm, welcoming haven for lucky locals and an ever-increasing band of travellers. Apologies to them, and to you, for rushing into the previous post. I’ll just put it down to over-excitement.

Now for a Valium and a good night’s sleep…