Bring Out the Branston

If music be the food of love, I’ll have cheese and pickles, thanks.

Someone told me today that she was nervous about cooking for me at an imminent 50th-birthday girls’ weekend away because I’m a “food critic”.

Ha! Little did they know that only minutes after that brief email exchange, I would be standing at the kitchen bench bingeing on Branston pickle, Aldi Far-Too-Salty Sea Salt And Cracked Black Pepper Biscuits, Cracker Barrel Extra-Ancient Tasty Cheddar, and a long-forgotten scrap of brie – sans plate, sans napkin, sans taste, sans everything.

Well, maybe not sans taste.

And that shortly afterwards, I would be making a cup of strong, milky Rosie Lee, all the better to dunk what remains of a packet of Aldi’s Belmont Biscuit Co Dark Chocolate Palazzo Cookies.

Two, it turns out.

It’s week three of life sans the silver fox, who is back in Old Blighty for a month, steadfastly gaining weight and developing sclerosis of the liver under the watchful eyes of his family.

Back here, keeping the home fires burning in Royal Botania has meant a smug and healthy series of toothsome Big Chopped-up Salad Dinners, much like the ones I posted recipes for a few months back, when my cooking – and writing – mojo was in better shape than it is at the moment. Thank you Meat Free Week – always an inspiration.

Stupidly, rather than taking full advantage of my temporary singlehood and going out partying every night, I loaded myself up with so much work that most evenings have been spent hunched over a laptop at home after a day hunched over a desktop somewhere else. Ditto weekends.

Any spare time I’ve had has been spent doing back stretches on the floor to counter all the hunching, with the full dead weight of a sleeping chocolate Labrador crushed against my side. We’re both missing the silver fox.

Except when there’s something decent on the telly.

But tonight was different, my work was done. Lucy had been walked and had: a) not dug up the garden for the third consecutive working day; b) not succeeded in any self-harm by ingestion while on said walk. It was a good night – a night full of salady promise.

All I had to do was put the bins out: “Look over the road to see what the neighbours have put out,” quoth the silver fox as he bid me adieu. “That way you’ll know if it’s recycling week.” He was right.

His advice heeded, I returned to the kitchen, flushed with victory but overcome by a violent post-work, post-walk, post-bin low-sugar plunge, which only large volumes of crackers and the aforementioned cheese and pickle could cure, and which in turn ruled out eating, let alone cooking, anything else for a very long time.

Which is a pity, because today is Monetise This’s second birthday, and I’d have liked to have cooked it something nice.

 

Boojay, boojay!

Allons enfants de la Patrie!

Unlike most of you spineless ‘social justice’ bleeding-heart whingers, I am feeling much restored by the Budget. The Sydney Morning Herald’s letters pages, of course, have been offering succour and a splendid sense of solidarity, as the silver fox and I partake of our first lethal cocktails of the evening after a day at our respective unentitled coalfaces. Indeed, my relationship with my liege grows ever stronger, as we lean in together, spectacles brushing, poring over those letters and opinion pages, searching for meaning. And oh how we talk, long into the night – until the start of QI sometimes – about honesty, about morality, about freedom, about justice, about opportunity. Ah yes, comrades, plotting the overthrow of a government while tightening one’s belt is a heady mix, and cheaper than a $200 relationship counselling voucher.

When not breathing deep of the scent of revolution that hangs seductively in the air and, occasionally, on the bus, I am busying myself with the making of some pretty excellent food, even if I do say so myself (which is the whole point of a vaguely food-smeared blog such as this, obviously). I find I cook better when I’ve come over all Vanessa Redgrave in Julia. And how could I not, when our current political grist is so damn millable.

Inspiration has come from many quarters of the culinary, if not fiscal, kind. The Budget is the antithesis of inspirational, whatever that word is. I’ll leave it at ‘f**ked’ – much like that odious car rental ad – and move right along.

To wit, to coq au vin, inspired by a top young fellow by the name of Warren Mendes, assistant food editor at ABC delicious. magazine, who’d been messing about in the test kitchen and come up with a cracking, speed-freak version.

It took me back to the good old days of MasterChef Magazine, when George Calombaris looked more like Mumble in Happy Feet than Crush from Finding Nemo, and Matt Preston looked like Dame Widow Twankey in man drag (and still does, which is why I’ve always liked him, by the way – he reminds me of childhood pantomime outings at Golders Green Hippodrome in North London). So, pumped with adrenalin and moral outrage, I thought I’d do it the hard way, The. MasterChef. Way.

Always read the recipe all the way through before starting, unless voting isn’t compulsory.

This recipe’s owner is Dominic Smith, another top young fellow, who was the assistant food editor of that briefly lived, even more briefly mourned food magazine. His coq au vin is a corker, too, even though my finished beeeeeautiful dish didn’t quite have the glossy, coppery loveliness of the shot you’ll see when you click on the link or rummage feverishly through your back copies for (it’s in August 2010). My fault, entirely, of course, because wrath got the better of me and, as so often happens on a Saturday arvo, I was too busy spitting political vitriol with my beloved to concentrate on the recipe, thus missing out vital elements – the caramelised eschalots, for one. But, like all good recipes, it was forgiving enough to shoulder the burden of a few omissions. Unlike Greg Hunt.

And, due to my small-‘L’-liberal use of a feisty Barossa red rather than the required pinot noir, the result was deeply and audaciously winey.

Much like I’ve been all week.

 

A knife less ordinary

Never look a gift-knife in the mouth

Someone sent me a knife by courier a couple of weeks ago. A very beautiful, very sharp, wooden-handled knife called the Messermeister Oliva Elité (note that this is no ordinary knife – not content to be merely Elite, no sirree; it’s an Elité). It is a very good knife. It comes in a sleek wooden box with a little brass latch.

It was sent to me, I’m assuming, because I’ve been writing the Quick Bites food news page for The Australian Women’s Weekly for the past year or so, and I get sent a lot of stuff to try. Of course, it could be a hate crime, but there’s nothing in the accompanying press release that would lead me to believe that. And I reckon a hate crime wouldn’t involve a sleek wooden box, either, latch or no latch, unless it was big enough for me, of course.

This knife has scored a fine line between pleasure and pain.

First – purrrrrrr – someone had kindly sent me an expensive kitchen knife to try. And verily, it was good. It slid through those tomatoes like a sharp knife through a tomato. She sent it to me because I might write about it for my next AWW page. Except – ouch – I’ve given up that particular day job, which means this Elité-st of knives has now been wasted on someone with little influence in the mass-media-sphere. Not that I’m sure how many people have actually read my AWW page, but I’m guessing it may have been slightly more than those who read this one.

And I feel a bit bad about that because I like this Messermeister, and it would have looked very handsome as a high-resolution image on my magazine page. And I could have written a punny headline like ‘Knife Work!’ to go with the copy. But not bad enough about it to send it back – I’ve never had any aspirations to be the NSW premier, anyway. So thank you. It’s fab. I hope whoever takes over my AWW gig will also receive one and do it media justice.

Using this paragon of knifeliness threw my kitchen-drawerful of bluntness into, um, sharp relief. So I did something about it, or at least Vicky Loomans, motorcyling Messerherrin of the mean streets of Botany, did. I am now happily (and harmfully) armed with an entire squadron of Messer at the peak of their shärfe.

Life is good when you have your own personal knife sharpener – especially one as cool as she is. She even does the serrated ones, tiny scallop by tiny scallop. I like that kind of dedication. I will definitely be entrusting my Messermeister to her care.

Vicky and I met while walking our respective dogs at Sir Joseph Banks Park. Sheer repetition does that to people. In the end, we wear each other down with our cheery hellos. Her dog, Ace, is a lean, spare little Staffy cross, full of smiley, bouncy good humour – unless you’re a rabbit. Mine, as you all well know, is none of these things, except for the smiley, bouncy good humour thing. Rabbits laugh at Lucy behind her back.

Vicky is one of a handful of regular pounders of our local mean streets and parks. There are Debbie and Basil – Debbie, a nurse, warm of heart and lover of a chat with the girls over a sav blanc, who specialises in breast cancer care; Basil, a taciturn, preoccupied Schnauzer, who leaves the talking to her. Theresa and Skye – Theresa, a maudlin, late-middle-aged Croatian, all Eeyore-like gloom; Skye, her once-handsome German Shepherd, now sagging-hipped and bouffant-haired, a wistful victim of over-grooming and an unwavering (unrequited) passion for Lucy. And dear old Gerry and Max – Gerry being a chipper, chatty, Cockney fellow who likes to talk to me about my choice in cars; Max, his unfailingly amiable fat black kelpie, whom Gerry gets clipped regularly by someone with either a disturbing disregard for consistency or blunt clippers, thus rendering poor Max rather patchy, though so far blessedly un-scarred. I might recommend that Gerry seek out the services of Ms Loomans for the relief of all concerned.

As for anyone else in need of a damn good sharpening, here’s Vicky’s email address. Because you’re worth it. vjloomans@gmail.com

 

 

For the love of dog

The Four Ages of Lucy

Today Lucy is 10. That’s about a millennium in hamster years.

We will be spending the morning in Rushcutters Bay park with Grandma – a walk, a dip in the seaweedy corner with a stick or two (Lucy that, is; not Mrs F) and then a coffee and something small and delicious (for us that is; not Lucy – that would be a step too far) at the café by the tennis courts.

‘Grandma’.

To Lucy’s credit and my embarrassment, she now recognises this anthropomorphically challenged term, displaying the requisite Labrador-y joyous anticipation whenever it is uttered.

Full-body wag.

We met on a Sunday afternoon nearly 10 years ago. The silver fox was working on a refit at the snooty Scanlan & Theodore boutique de fasseeon in Paddington and kept coming home talking about the hot manager there. Turns out that the manager was only the half of it (sadly, only in his dreams). It was her dog – noble of head, green-eyed and velvet-brown, sitting serenely beside her in the shop – that he really wanted.

When the fox and I met – when he was more brown than silver, and I more brown than blonde – we were both newly minted puppy owners. Our respective friends had recognised a gap in our then-separate lives and taken pity on us. Neither of us was getting any, so we got a dog instead.

Mine was Annie, an intense, bordering-on-psychotic blue heeler who, from an early age, could amuse herself for hours by throwing her own ball from the top of the stairs of my shared terrace house in order to retrieve it.

Hours.

His was a shiny, coal-black, streetwise mutt called Judy, who spent the first six months of her life living in the back of his maroon VF Valiant, chewing through the back seat. There’s still never been a better $20 spent at Paddy’s Markets.

Annie was named for Annie Hall. I was going through a Woody Allen revival period, so sue me.

Judy is the Liverpudlian slang for ‘girl’. The silver fox has always been way cooler than me.

The four of us moved in together and lived in relative harmony for about 15 years, despite Annie’s fruitless attempts to cattle-dog Judy into bovine submission.

But then we were just two again – our first-generation family gone within a year of each other, ashes scattered solemnly and tearfully into the ocean at Little Bay.

Our official mourning lasted for three months after Judy died, cradled in my arms on the floor of the vet’s, just like Annie had a year before her. Such an aching loss, holding that soft, empty weight.

Those three months were a sad time of dog-lessness, of solitary walks and un-thrown sticks. Being a dog owner changes you in so many subtle and complex ways. I can no longer walk past a stick without appraising it for its throwability, for example.

But I digress. During those dark days, unknown to me, the quick brown fox had been, in his quaint, one-digit way, surfing the dogosphere to find a puppy of the same suave cut as that Scanlan & Theodore model.

So, on that fateful Sunday 10 years ago, we took a leisurely, middle-aged country drive to visit a place he’d been stalking online, which happened to have a couple of chocolate Labrador puppies available. Just to look, mind.

Lucy – noble of head, green-eyed and velvet-brown – felling us with a single blow the moment she curled up on the silver fox’s lap to sleep as we drove carefully back to Sydney. New parents bringing the baby home in a Doris Day movie.

And so has developed a deeply rewarding and loving relationship, weighted slightly in Lucy’s favour, despite every effort on her part to self-harm by ingesting dangerous substances. Indeed, we’ve managed to keep her in better condition than we’ve ever been in, or are ever likely to be if we make it to 70. That’s 490 in dog years.

Happy birthday, Lucy.

‘Lucy, after Warhol’, with thanks to Dan Peterson

Not talkin’ ’bout my generation

Living life, loving life: Lucy, 69, still loves surfing, Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain.

A new magazine hit the newsstands last week. A bright beacon of hope for trillions of Australian women aged 50 and above, hungry marketing analysts and (briefly) a hungry late-50s female writer of an optimistic bent.

Yours, it’s called, dear readership, and you’re welcome to it, because it sure as hell ain’t Mine, or Anyone Else’s I know.

Yours is the Best & Less of women’s magazines – a place where yea who enter should expect to abandon all hope.

It is the cultural equivalent of speaking slowly and loudly to the elderly, the infirm and the foreigners.

It is the design lovechild of a Reliant Robin and a life-size, creepy ‘baby’ doll that grips your finger.

And if, as has been intimated, it is targeted at us 50-plus female ‘powerhouse purchasers’ (I should live so long…), then it seems to have mislaid its bifocals while taking aim, dear.

Granted, as with every clichéd aunty, it means well: the call to community (with prizes); the jubilant affirmation beside Every Celebrity’s Name of Their Age, no matter where they are (The Bush), or what they’re doing (Sticking Acupuncture Needles into Dachsunds), wearing (Harsh Blue) or modelling (The New Bob).

The New Bob. Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?

Much like The Old Bob – still crap if you have curly hair.

There’s Short Fiction – so short, that no one – from the Empowered, Connected 50-Somethings, to the Feisty, Mountain-Climbing 80-Year-Olds – reading it need fear dying before they get to the end.

And among the Team of Experts is a Vet.

Because, in the not-too-distant future, voluntary euthanasia for humans will be legalised.

The Longevity Expert would be hoping not, I’m guessing.

Anyhoo, what I Just Don’t Get (apart from why they haven’t euthanised whoever chose that heinous comic typeface) is why we, being such f**king powerhouse purchasers and all, would spend our stylish, plucky, glass-ceiling-shattering, hard-earned dosh on Yours when we can buy Anything Else.

Extreme greens

Using topiary for good, Rose Bay

Walking the dog this morning, I spotted a car sticker on the back of an exhaust-belching, clapped-out 4WD. ‘STOP THE EXTREME GREENS,’ it hollered, and I couldn’t agree more – I’m so over headache lime and queasy emerald. Come back khaki and sage, I say, all is forgiven.

As my eyesight isn’t what it used to be, I couldn’t read the small print under that call to arms, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t mention fluoro runners, so I’m still pondering what is so extreme about a predilection for clean air and water, social justice, compassion and empathy, but hey, what would I know.

Best to stick to the greens I more or less understand, then, despite being increasingly baffled and buffeted (and I don’t mean that in a hotel-breakfast-bain-marie kind of way) by the plethora of contradictory opinion on what I should or shouldn’t consume. Most recently, I’ve been swayed (I am nothing if not easily led – just send me the link) by the alleged benefits of eating fermented foods including sauerkraut and kimchi – partly because it’s my job to keep abreast of these ‘food trends’ (such as they are, considering most of these comestibles have been consumed heroically since the dawn of time by hungry stoics without refrigeration – bet they’d have been the first to descend on Aldi’s biscuit section if they’d have had the choice).

Yesterday, I was brought to a screeching halt in my pursuit of non-bloating nirvana by the derisive snorts of Kate, a young (alarmingly healthy) nutritionist I know, who proceeded to inform me cheerily that any health- or digestion-enhancing probiotics in food are knocked out swiftly and efficiently by one’s own digestive juices. Our bodies will do what they will with whatever we shovel in our mouths, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it, apparently. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr Yakult.

Kate is part of the vanguard of a revolution – one in which people eat food, goddammit, not food groups and, while I prefer to stand with my back to the wall and let revolutions of any kind rush past me until it’s safe to proceed, I’ll be more than happy to trail along in this one’s wake.

So, let’s eat.

Not for the faint of heart,
nor the colour-blind

The latest salad to grace our table – so good I made it twice in as many days – was this vision of green and gold, which, if I were so patriotically inclined, I might suggest as a splendid addition to your Australia/Invasion Day/TripleJ Hot 100 animal-protein incineration party. Or you can just eat the whole lot straight from the bowl standing at the kitchen counter while your partner sleeps in front of the cricket/tennis/Chelsea game.

Green and gold salad
Serves 2 – 4 depending on your ethical standpoint

1 cob of corn
1 lebanese cucumber
1 avocado
2 tablespoons of pickled jalapeños (from a jar – one of my current addictions/additions to almost everything I cook)
A generous handful of Sicilian green olives (pitted will save you time and irritability)
½ bunch coriander
1 lime

1. Cut the corn kernels away from the cob over a serving bowl. No need to cook it, unless you’re fussy about things like whether you’ll grow an extra eye if you don’t use organic. I haven’t so far (grown an extra eye, that is, or at least as far as I can tell).

2. Halve the cucumber lengthways, then use a teaspoon to scoop out and discard the seedy centre (not Kings Cross, as some might assume, though that, too, could benefit from being discarded right now). I love doing this – so satisfying – particularly as I have the most perfectly designed kitchen on the planet, courtesy of the multi-talented silver fox, in which the rubbish bin pulls out as a drawer from under my benchtop. Genius.

3. Now cut the cucumber lengthways into thin strips, then chop it all to buggery and add to the corn in the bowl.

4. Cut the avocado into smallish, stylish cubes and add them to the bowl.

5. Finely chop the pickled jalapeños and add them to the bowl. Bored yet?

6. If you’ve been stupid enough to buy unpitted olives, sullenly cut the flesh from the stones and add it to the bowl, or just halve the pitted ones, whistling at your good fortune.

7. Finely chop the coriander, stalks and all (but not the roots – save them for when you hand-pound your own curry paste with a pestle and mortar, which is never, so just throw them away – who are we kidding…). Scoop it all up and add it to the bowl.

8. Cut your lime into cheeks or just halve it, then squeeze half over the ingredients in the bowl. Now go and wash your hands well.

9. Use your newly pristine hands to gently toss everything together in the bowl, then taste a spoonful of the mixture. Turn the other lime cheek (or squeeze it, anyway) if you so desire.

10. Serve the salad on its own or with seafood, poultry or meat. But not with sauerkraut or kimchi.

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.

Salad daze

Salad niçoise, but without the egg or Frenchness

Astonishing! I’ve had a request from a reader of this morning’s post for the recipe for the salad pictured here (not, I might add, as another wag pointed out, for the bowl of succulents and shells). As she’s in a particularly un-salady phase of her life at present, through no damn fault of her own, I am more than happy to share a bit of mild food porn with her.

So – it was Tuesday night, the silver fox was sulking on the sofa with a bad case of post-boating-weekend-induced man flu, and I’d eaten too many post-check-up Coles Anzac biscuits with tea over at Mrs F’s.

As usual, after too much sugar, trans fat and sitting down, I crave but two things – a brisk walk with an amiable chocolate labrador, followed by a hefty bowl of something fresh and green (but not succulent).

A salade niçoise was what I fancied. Too easy, I thought, smirkily, having stopped off on the way home to pick up some heinously expensive green beans from Parisi’s in Rose Bay, until I looked in the fridge and realised there was but one egg, a half-eaten tin of tuna, and some dodgy-looking greenery.

No matter – I managed to cobble together a totes delish dinner (eaten toute seule in the courtyard on that balmy nightas the fox didn’t stir from his feverish slumber until morn).

I am a good cobble-togetherer. I put it down to my being a lazy and erratic cook, and a haphazard shopper. I am frequently able to conjure gold from dross – although I draw the line at any kind of alchemy involving sow’s ears.

I adhere, more or less, in my cobbling, to the fashion rule espoused so forcefully by Steve Martin’s shrill and shiny girlfriend in LA Story, which I watched again in joyful solitude last weekend, while the fox was getting hammered both nautically and alcoholically on a rocky boat. Wear no more than seven items (though apparently this has now been reduced to five, according to my girlfriend, Kate, who is au fait with that sort of thing). And if in doubt, look at yourself quickly in the mirror and take off the first thing you notice.

Nuts and herbs occasionally have me reaching for that proverbial mirror, in the salad scheme of things. But what the what – rules, of course, are meant to be broken. Which is why I’m likely be issued an infringement  by the salad police with the following recipe.

No matter. This one’s for you Caroline. I hope that, even if you can’t eat it, you’ll enjoy licking the computer screen. And there’s plenty more where this one came from.

The I Can’t Believe It’s Not Niçoise Niçoise Salad

With apologies to Nigella and Audrey

Serves 2 (or 1 straight out of the bowl in front of Masters of Sex)

1. Place the cooking music of your choice on the stereogram*.

2. Using the slow-motion setting, shower some torn salad greens from a great height into a large bowl.

3. Next, add a goodly handful of soundly chopped parsley, a flushed and well-drained can of cannellini beans (discard the can), some small potatoes, boiled, drawn and quartered, and a Croesus’s fortune of green beans, steamed to bitey softness.

4. Swearing continuously, fossick around for 10 minutes under the sink for a small, clean jar with a lid that fits, then add a dollop of Dijon, a frisson of white balsamic dressing and a slop of extra vertiginous olive oil.

5. Make a double entendre while screwing the lid on, then shake it to the core or until the contents resemble the spun-gold tresses of Rapunzel.

6. Using your hands and whistling softly, toss through enough of the dressing to coat the salad mixture like a Chanel suit.

7. Scatter over the contents of a half-eaten can of tuna, then drape with a little more of the dressing.

8. Retire to your corner and serve immediately with Sonoma sourdough, a glass of something soothing and a healthy appetite.

*We used Pandora Radio, available free on your computer.