Celtic Christmas

With Christmas approaching some people will be retrieving traditional family baking recipes and getting the Christmas cake, pudding or biscuits underway. Celtic Christmas traditions often include shortbread. These are wonderful to give as gifts or stash in the cupboard for unexpected guests in addition to appearing at some point during the Christmas festivities. While shortbread is a simple biscuit to make its buttery nature does require a light hand and a cool day; not something you want to sweat over in the kitchen on a thirty-five degree day. However, if you leave your run too late or are not a baker then The Celtic Bakery have excellent sweet buttery and tender shortbreads for you. Made by hand with just butter, flour and sugar, they taste just like something your Scottish gran would make. Pick them up and other traditional tarts and biscuits from select Farmers’ Markets (the next Saturday market is at St Andrew’s Church, Brighton) or gourmet food stores. You can also ring to order batches for corporate Christmas events. 

Vibrant Green Broad Beans

It’s spring and it’s time for broad beans. Buy up big because after shelling you will have quite a pile for the compost heap and a more modest bowl of podded beans. To enjoy the real beauty of this vegetable don’t stop at this point, plunge the beans in boiling water for one minute, drain and cool under running water. The outer skin of the beans will now be a bit wrinkly and easily nipped with your thumb nail at one end, allowing the bright green jewels to slip out with a gentle squeeze from the other end. The tough outer casing is why so many people dislike this vegetable; many having unpleasant childhood memories of the wrinkled, grayish beans next to the Sunday roast. Give them another chance, double peel them and enjoy the vibrant green. Once double peeled the broad beans can be tossed into salads, added to a risotto in the last few minutes, gently heated with olive oil, garlic and herbs as a stand alone vegetable or further mixed with pasta, crispy bacon bits or goats cheese. Broad beans go well with mint, lemon zest, sorrel, crispy fried sage leaves, tarragon or rosemary and, in the absence of seasonal pomegranates, the bright green discs can enliven a Middle Eastern grain salad. If you have a surfeit from the veggie patch or have pods that are no longer their spring best, cook the doubled peeled beans until they just start the break down and blend into a paste with mint, garlic, lemon, salt and olive oil to pile onto bruschetta. 

If you want to go a step further add some ricotta to the paste and use as a filling for ravioli or agnolotti del plin, a simple version of ravioli made with a little pinch.

broad bean agnolotti del plin

Eggplant Angst

Eggplant is the vegetable people seem to love to hate and yet it is so versatile and delicious. I suspect the hate aspect is often not knowing how best to cook it coupled with a fear of having to use too much oil. Olive oil is the good oil, so relax; you’ll probably consume more oil with a bag of crisps, mayonnaise or fish and chips and I don’t hear too many complaints about the oil absorbed by those foods. There is also a good dose of the good oil in a simple salad dressing (3: 1 ratio of extra virgin olive oil to vinegar) which is a delight on fresh summer salad greens and tomatoes and enjoyed by many, not to mention its liberal use in skordalia and baba ganoush. What’s too much olive oil if you are eating lots of healthy vegetables? Summer is the best time to buy eggplants, so give them a chance next time you shop. Firstly, make sure you buy eggplants that are shiny and firm to the touch. Dull, soft ones are old, will probably be seedy inside and likely taste unpleasantly bitter. To the sceptics who are oil shy try the barbecue approach and cut thick slices lengthwise, lightly brushing them with olive oil and grill them on medium heat until soft on the inside and golden on the outside. Grill marks add a smokey, Mediterranean touch. Place the cooked slices on a platter and sprinkle (flamboyantly, like an Italian) with extra virgin olive oil, a pinch of sea salt and chopped herbs and serve with barbecued meats. Alternatively place a grilled round in a burger or used grilled slices in a vegetarian lasagna. For lasagna, eggplant goes particularly well with sautéed mushrooms and onion or tomato and ricotta. 

eggplant and mushroom lasagna

To reduce the amount of oil that eggplant absorbs during cooking, salting the eggplant for 30 minutes will help. Salting draws out the water and tightens the structure before frying. Counterintuitively, after salting the eggplant, you need to wash out the salt under the tap and then pat dry with paper towel. If I’ve lost you at this point, just stick to the BBQ method. For the crumbed eggplant shown, I salted the slices for 30 minutes first and as a result I needed little olive oil to fry them. Just dust the dried slices in flour, dip into egg and then panko crumbs, pressing the crumbs firmly onto the slices. The crumbed eggplant was crispy outside and soft, like melted cheese, on the inside. Putting a handful of grated Parmesan cheese in with the eggs added to that illusion. I made this dish a feature of a vegetarian meal, topping it with a fresh tomato salsa with sides of grilled asparagus and a spiced potato and pea warm salad with Greek yoghurt from Greg and Lucy Malouf’s book, New Feasts. Eggplant can take centre stage and really shine. You just have to show it some love.

Portarlington Mussels

There has been a recent retail seafood trend to sell shellfish, such as mussels and clams, already cooked and packaged in plastic bags. I’m sure the extra shelf life of this packaged seafood is hugely convenient for retailers and exporters but for customers who enjoy cooking their own shellfish it is a real disappointment. I thought the whole point of going to a fishmonger was to buy fresh, unprocessed seafood but it is becoming increasingly difficult to buy a handful or two of clams or mussels. Luckily fresh Portarlington mussels are available from various farmers markets around Melbourne. Mike’s mussels are sold direct from the farm and loosely, so you can have as much or as little as you want. A quick rinse under the tap, tugging and removing the little beard as you go, only takes a few minutes of work and then they are ready for a hot pan with a splash of white wine. I love them simply cooked with white wine and herbs until they just open but every so often I like to make a more elaborate dish of saffron risotto using the mussel cooking liquid as stock which I filter and dilute with water to adjust for saltiness. These Portarlington mussels are sweet tasting and very tender which is only possible if you start with raw mussels.

Check Mike’s facebook page or Melbourne Markets each Thursday for weekend market attendance.

Sat 17 October: Mike’s Mussels will be at Gasworks, Albert Park and Coburg Primary School and on Sunday 18 October at Alphington Food Hub.

Black Sapote

Yes, chocolate pudding does apparently grow on trees in the form of a weird fruit called black sapote. The black sapote is a relative of the persimmon and like its cousin is ready to eat when completely soft and pudding-like. The colour is intensely dark chocolate but the flavour is much more subtle with only a slight hint of chocolate. The texture is lovely and gooey, like a healthy chocolate fondant. In the back streets of Fitzroy there is a small warehouse green grocer complete with market truck parked inside. The Vegetable Connection has produce that is fresh and literally just off the truck and the black sapote was one of the curiosities or more unusual fruits that they also sell. I can’t tell you where else you can buy one but I can tell you to look out for it next time you are at a market or grocer. Spoon the flesh out and serve on top of natural yoghurt with a sprinkle of cinnamon, cocoa or a drizzle of honey. Just for the record there is also such a thing as a white sapote, but is unrelated, belonging to the citrus family. The white sapote is similarly soft with a delicate fruit salad or sometimes banana flavour. Both these fruit trees, although sub tropical, grow well in Melbourne in the right position. I encountered a very fine specimen in an open garden in Caulfield some years ago. The Vegetable Connection 85 Victoria Street, Fitzroy. 94173104.

When completely soft cut the top and spoon out the flesh. There will be about 5 large flat seeds that need to be discarded or saved for planting (Sapotes are a handsome but slow growing large tree that can grow in Melbourne in a North facing position).