Random Acts Of Kindness

The last 18 months or so have certainly changed the way we interact with people; whether that is remotely or by in-person contact with family, friends or neighbours. So many people have said a sense of community has developed with neighbors or that they have spent more time listening to their aging parents or their siblings. While we used to just say hello to locals in passing we might now ask about their kids, whether they are coping with work at home or whether they have work at all. It’s not just words, we also shared things like scarce groceries, puzzles, seedlings, tools, books and food. On one occasion we lent someone a soldering iron and received a pot of basil in thanks. Perhaps in the past they would have rather gone to a tool library or not even bothered to fix something than approach somebody they didn’t know. A friend told me he enjoyed baking sweet yeast buns over the winter and rather than eat them all he routinely shared them with the kids next door. I’d like to think future interactions with neighbors need not be confirmed to discussions about the deteriorating fence and invasive tree roots. Although we have been friends with a neighbor for a little while now it was lovely to answer a knock on the door and be offered a plate of strawberry muffins…. “made with organic ingredients and only as much sugar as one needs.” What could be sweeter than these random acts of kindness. I hope the enjoyment and support shown in your community endures as a legacy of the pandemic.

$10 Family Meals

Recently I have been costing  family meals for under $10 and confirmed what has often been said, that fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive for people with little disposable income. It really is not easy making a meal using fresh vegetables for two adults and two or three children for under $10. A bunch of silverbeet would blow half the meal budget and you can forget about salads, fresh herbs and other fancy garnishes like feta cheese, a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts or even crushed peanuts on a curry. It seems eating cheaply has always been a carb-heavy affair. In Australia, even buying protein, like chicken pieces and eggs, is relatively cheap compared with fresh fruit and vegetables. It seems that for $10 you either have meat or vegetables, not both. There are a couple of ways of adding vegetables on a tight budget; being strategic, such as buying on closing time at fresh produce markets and aiming for frozen vegetables, particularly peas and spinach which are good products and quite cheap. The other solution is to grow your own vegetables but a vegetable garden not only requires an initial outlay but knowledge and time to maintain in a cost effective way. However, at the very least a bed of easy to grow parsley can add much needed nutrients to a carb-laden meal. I am pretty sure that, apart from esthetic considerations, my mother put chopped parsley on just about everything to keep us healthy. 

While we are told to increase our vegetable intake over meat and carbohydrate for a healthy diet it remains something easier said than done for a lot of people. I’ve costed three examples of economical meals based on supermarket prices. While I have resorted to using frozen vegetables in some meals, a fresh head of cauliflower is quite economical at around $4 and can feed a family when made into fritters, a curry korma or a pasta bake. Spaghetti and meatballs, made my preferred way, with Italian pork sausage rather than mincemeat, happily turned out to be the cheaper option. I’m just very lucky I can afford a green salad to have with it. Even if your food budget allows for a lot more latitude it is a sobering exercise to cost every ingredient of some of your meals.

Spaghetti with Meatballs

To keep the cost below $10 I have suggested bought bread crumbs which are very cheap but you can use crumbs made from stale bread you have at hand. Coating the meatballs with flour not only gives it a nice crust but thickens the sauce. The meatballs can also be coated with breadcrumbs. I have suggested a tin of crushed tomatoes and tomato paste as an economical option to get two ingredients at one hit but a plain can of tomatoes is fine.

  • 2 Italian style pork sausages or chipolatas (approx. 230g) $4.50
  • 1 can Ardmona Rich & Thick diced tomatoes with tomato paste $1.80
  • 60 g bread crumbs $0.14 ($1.69/750g bag)
  • 50 ml milk $0.06 ($1.29/L)
  • 100 g plain flour $0.10 ($1/kg)
  • pinch fennel seeds, optional $0.14 ($1.46/100 g)
  • 100 ml olive oil $0.58 (Spanish $5.80/L)
  • Less than 500 g durum wheat pasta $1 (supermarket brand) (about 85 g per adult)
  • 100 g grated Parmesan cheese $1.60 (packet grated cheese)

Total $9.92

Soak the bread crumbs in milk until soft. Drain off any excess milk. Remove the sausages from the casing and add to the breadcrumbs with the crushed fennel seeds. Knead together well and form into small balls (as a rule of thumb, about the size of the first joint of your thumb). Roll the balls in flour and shallow fry in olive oil, rotating each ball with two forks until golden brown. Take the frying pan off the heat for a minute to prevent any splatter when you add the can of crushed tomatoes to the pan. Cook the meatballs and sauce gently for about 15-20 minutes. The flour on the meatballs should thicken the sauce nicely. Boil water in a large pot, salt it well and cook the pasta al dente. Drain the pasta and add it directly to the frypan with the meatballs, stirring to coat the pasta with the sauce. Plate up and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese.

Rice Bowl with Edamame and Mushrooms

Buying crushed ginger in a jar is much cheaper then buying fresh ginger. Edamame or soy beans are a nutritious and high protein vegetable and available frozen in their pods.

  • 2 onions 250 g $0.62 ($2.50/kg)
  • 20 g crushed ginger $0.24 ($2.80/230g jar)
  • 50 ml vegetable oil $0.40 ($3/750 ml)
  • 500 g button mushrooms $4.00
  • 100 ml soy sauce $0.57 ($2.85/500 ml)
  • 450 g frozen edamame $2.90
  • 400 g rice $0.56 or $1.60 (supermarket brand long grain $1.40/kg or Hinata short grain rice $4/kg)

Total $8.89 or $9.93

Cook the rice in a rice cooker or on the stove by the absorption method. Meanwhile cook the vegetables. Boil the edamame for about 5 minutes in a pot of water. Drain and peel the soy beans, discarding the shells. Slice the onions and saute in a frypan with the crushed ginger until golden. Slice and add the mushrooms to pan and cook until soft. Add the soy sauce, stir and reduce the liquid. Add the cooked edamame and stir briefly. Put cooked rice in the rice bowls and top with the vegetables. Extras-top with toasted sesame seeds.

Orzotto with Spinach and Peas

Orzotto is like a risotto but made with pearl barley instead of arborio rice. It is very nutritious, sustaining and has a lower glycemic index than white rice.

  • 2 onions 250 g $0.62 ($2.50/kg)
  • 100 ml olive oil $0.58 (50 ml for finishing)
  • 400 g pearl barley $1.04 ($2.60/ kg)
  • Approx 200 g pork sausages $4.70 ($23.63/ kg)
  • 1 clove garlic $0.12  ($1.25/head)
  • 250 g packet frozen spinach $0.95
  • 300 g frozen peas $0.60 ($2/kg)

Total $8.61

Chop the onions and saute in large saucepan with a little olive oil until translucent. Remove the sausage from its casing and crumble into the saucepan and stir until it has lost it raw colour. Finely chop the garlic and add to the pot along with the pearl barely. Stir to coat with the oil and then add water or vegetable stock to cover. Cook until tender, approximately 25-30 minutes, adding more water if needed. Add the peas and spinach and cook for a further five minutes. Add a few slugs of olive oil and stir well to create a creamy emulsion and serve.

Creative Zoom Dinners

While some work-from-home people that spend all day in meetings would recoil at the idea of dinner zooms, for others it can be a creative way of maintaining social connection. The mental focus of zooms do make them exhausting but if you can create a sense of excitement that comes from the planning as well as the zoom dinner itself then it can be rewarding. I always thought a large part of the travelling experience was the research done beforehand, whether it be a meticulously planned itinerary, cultural research or language classes. Over our protracted Melbourne lockdowns I’ve been regularly zooming with family and friends over themed dinners. These have included explorations of the cuisine of Malaysia, Vietnam, Croatia, Peru and Scotland just to name a few. We have also dabbled with master classes in risotto, gnocchi, pizza, dumpling and bread making as well as more artistic themes of cooking with flowers, royal foods and Michelin starred dishes. To keep us well grounded in reality we also worked on producing and costing a family meal for six for under $10. Food in Art was one recent creative zoom dinner theme which intrigued me and lead me to study the still life paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. I settled on the works of Pieter Claesz (1597-1660) who liked to use Römer glass goblets and a pie of some sort in many of his works.

My partner and I decided on a pie with a mix of the sweet and the savoury, much loved of the times; a duck and prune pie with dried mandarin, star anise, cinnamon and black pepper. The week before I practiced the set up for the photo shoot; a darkish room with only natural light from a small window and the requisite drapery and my attempt at the translucence of a peeled lemon. Come the time of the zoom and with the duck pie baked I just had to place it in situ.

Duck and Prune Pie

For four as a main meal.

2 duck Marylands

Poaching liquid

  • 250 ml stock (veal, beef or duck)
  • 2 small pieces of mace
  • 1 cinnamon quill
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp juniper berries
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 strip dried mandarin peel
  • handful of prunes, roughly chopped

Pie Filling

  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1 carrot, finely diced
  • 1 stick celery, finely diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely diced
  • sprig of thyme
  • salt
  • poached and deboned duck meat
  • prunes
  • strained poaching stock
  • a handful of chestnuts
  • 1 tbs cornflour
  • black pepper, to taste

Remove skins and poach duck in above ingredients gently until tender. Cool. Strain and retain the stock, prunes and duck. Remove meat from bones. 

Saute the mirepoix of onion, carrot, celery and four cloves garlic. Add leaves of a sprig of thyme. Saute with a pinch of salt until soft. Add the duck meat, prunes and strained stock. Add a handful of chestnuts. Dissolve the cornflour in a little water and add to the meat mix. Cook gently until thickened. Adjust seasoning. Cool and refrigerate until ready to assemble pie.


Pate Brisé

  • 320 g plain flour
  • 240 g unsalted butter
  • 1 whole egg with water to approx. 80 ml
  • pinch salt

Roll out pastry for the base and a lid and line a 22 cm diameter pie tin. Refrigerate for 15 minutes and then fill and bake. Bake at 180°C for 25 minutes.

When slightly cooled, dust with icing sugar

Tagine Technique

It would perhaps surprise you to know that a Moroccan tagine, Croatian peka and Hungarian kettle goulash have something in common. These seemingly diverse dishes all involve the same technique of cooking meat and onions in oil very slowly, with little or no added liquid, at least not until the meat and onions have progressed towards tenderness. The meat and onions in these dishes are cooked essentially in their own juices, the onions reducing to become part of the sauce and the liquid added later is to adjust the consistency and add extra layers of flavour. For a peka that liquid/flavour addition may be white wine and herbs, for a tagine it is often saffron infused water and honey. For a goulash it is water but variously also red wine vinegar and a little tomato paste. In fact Hungarian shepherds would cook the goulash to a very dry paste for travel and reconstitute it with water into a paprika laden soup or a stew; an early form of a packet soup. There is a tendency to adapt traditional slow cooked dishes to our quicker modes of cooking and notions of what makes a sauce or gravy. To that end lots of recipes add tinned tomatoes, lots of water or wine and let everything bubble away in a lot of liquid. It may well turn out to be a fine stew but textures and flavour stray from the original concept of slowly sweating meat and onions.

This brings me back to cooking a tagine in the very vessel that gives the dish its name. The ceramic dish with its tall conical lid is superbly designed to cook meat in its own juices. As the meat and onions cook, the moisture given off is constantly condensing off the conical lid back down into the stewing meat, keeping it moist. Importantly, the tagine base is quite a shallow dish, so there is no room for lots of liquid. What also sets this traditional Moroccan cooking apart from Western styles of braising is that it does not require meat to be browned thoroughly.  Most Western adapted recipes seem to do this, even browning the meat in a separate frypan and often not using the tagine at all, except for presentation purposes. As the onion cooks down, the meat will develop colour. It just takes time. 

Tagine cooking is a matter of layering the components as the cooking continues. Starting with a really good cover of olive oil on the bottom. Spread a layer of chopped onions over the base and then add the meat which has been marinated in the spices. After about 40 minutes of cooking, the saffron infused water is added and a layer of sliced onions that will make up part of the vegetable or fruit component (e.g., pumpkin, carrot, quince, pears, eggplant, peppers,zucchini) is also layered on at this stage. The denser vegetables like potatoes are added first with softer vegetables or fruit last. One or more hours later a garnish of separately cooked dried fruit and toasted nuts is sprinkled on top. Herbs, like coriander, parsley or mint can be strewn on top at the table.  A tagine is quite a dense combination of meat and concentrated gravy with infused vegetables and sweet fruit elements; a result of time and layers of flavour. So, if you have a cooking tagine put it directly on the gas stove, cook in it and present it to the table to spectacular effect. 

Here is a recipe for a goat tagine, using shoulder meat cut off the bone. Choose the combinations of vegetables and fruit you prefer to build layers of flavour.

  • 1 kg goat shoulder, boned and cut into large pieces
  • 1/2 tbs ras-al-hanout spice mix
  • 1/2 tbs ground ginger
  • 1/2 tbs ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1 tsp salt
  • pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
  • large pinch saffron
  • 1 tbs honey(optional)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • olive oil
  • one large onion, diced
  • 2 potatoes cut into quarters
  • green and red peppers, sliced
  • small Lebanese eggplant cut into quarters
  • purple onion, sliced
  • 1 cup dried sour cherries
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • handful of blanched almonds, toasted until golden
  • fresh parsley leaves for garnish

Mix the spices, meat and potatoes together with a little olive oil and massage well into the meat. Marinate for several hours or overnight in the fridge.

Heat the tagine on the stove. Cover the base with olive oil and fry the chopped onions. Cover the tagine and let the onions soften. Add the marinated meat, cover and cook for 20 minutes. Stir the meat and onions to brown all sides. Grind the pinch of saffron in a mortar and pestle and add a little boiling water to disperse it. Add the saffron in about 100 ml of water to the tagine. If using honey you can add it at this stage but add a good grinding of black pepper to counter the sweetness. Add a stick of cinnamon. Stir and cook over low heat for another 20 minutes. Add the vegetables and cover and cook slowly for another hour or so. Add a dash of water from the kettle if required but keep liquid levels low to maintain a thick concentrated gravy. In the meantime dissolve the sugar in enough water to cover the dried cherries. Add the ground cinnamon and cook in a small saucepan until the liquid is reduced and the cherries swollen. Add these to the tagine along with the almonds towards the end of cooking. Garnish with fresh herbs. Serve with flat bread, couscous or bulgar wheat salad.

I obtained goat meat from Lakey Farm, Sunbury which is available at Melbourne Farmers Markets. Goat is also available from John Cester, Prahran market and Queen Victoria Market.

An Altered Marketplace

Everything changes and 2020 has been a year of immense change. While we lost some food businesses, some new ones sprung into view and some old ones adapted to a new format during lockdown. Some eateries that pivoted to producing ready meals have decided the new direction actually suits them better. Small specialized food businesses like bakers and coffee shops have generally done well, retaining their loyal customer base and growing new ones. The Queen Victoria market was on a trajectory towards a more slimmed down and sanitized food precinct long before COVID-19 hit, its heyday long gone, when it served as a major Melbourne fresh food hub. Then you could find stalls such as the one that just sold watermelons, stacked so high and deep the young lad working there would climb to the top of the mound and toss down melons to his machete wielding dad who deftly cut them in half with one blow. Other stalls specialized in selling just oranges or in the meat section there was a stall selling all kinds of offal, all the soft bits from nose to tail. That colourful chaos of the market has largely gone along with peoples fondness for brains and lambs fry. During the COVID-19 lockdown Melbourne farmers markets limped along, some doing quite well, others merging and relocating with reduced numbers of stalls. We missed some well known traders, like Bridge Farm and their fabulous asparagus. It is uncertain whether they will return. More and more of us have turned to online food shopping and it will be interesting to see if that trend as well as the enthusiasm for home cooking will endure. It has been a bit of a strange growing season too with some vegetables not making an appearance while some have been reduced in size, quality or with a shortened season. Extensive bushfires, lack of farm workers, fluctuations in export markets and the weather have all had a substantial impact. Despite this we may not see a lot of difference at the supermarket as Australia is a large country with vast food producing areas in several geographic locations ensuring we nearly always have year round supplies. However, I have noticed some high prices in green grocers and if you are used to buying seasonal, local produce you may need to be more flexible. The loss of restaurant trade has meant that some specialty foods, like quail and game birds, will not be available until production ramps up again. On the bright side our Southern Rock Lobster is cheaper this year because of a halt in exports to China. After what we have all been through perhaps it’s best that we concentrate on friends and family around us this Christmas and not fret about the menu. Well, maybe not as much.

Have a wonderful Christmas.