Cooking In The Time Of Contagion

If you are going into a period of self isolation or just keeping a low profile during this pandemic you will have plenty of time to cook something. Instead of the usual rush to get a weekday meal on the table you can really take your time to cook something delicious from scratch, perhaps something you have never tried before. If you haven’t panic bought pasta then now might be the time to learn to mix flour and eggs into a silky fresh pasta; even without a pasta machine. Rolling and hand cutting is how my mother did it, so it is possible, even therapeutic! Heck, you have time to make a large lasagne and with a big pot of ragu simmering you can squirrel some of it away to the freezer for ready meals later. It is strange that we feel the need to panic buy when I am sure most people’s pantries are laden with stuff that needs to be eaten before best before dates are reached. Play a version of master chef and get the kids to devise a meal from what is in the pantry, with fewer ingredients scoring higher points. Stepping away from the siege mentality of stockpiling dry goods buy some fresh vegetables and meat and cook some casseroles or curries instead. This could be a day long project, involving the family in preparation or making sides. If planning a curry use the time to make a memorable Indian feast and prepare pickles, sambols and flat breads as well. Remember cooking simple economical meals only takes time, you don’t need to spend much money and you could actually save some money. Some stale bread, a couple of Italian pure pork sausages, a tin of tomatoes and a little patience hand rolling and you have a couple of delicious meals of meatballs. Don’t forget the comfort of home made chicken soup and when things start to get a little dull a moist chocolate cake will cheer anybody up, even in a time of contagion.

Pictured – a moist zucchini chocolate cake

Sauce Gribiche – lessons in technique

The cookbook writers and TV presenters that I really admire are those that always explain a cooking methodology – they manage to slip in a little gem of wisdom along with the pinch of salt without too much fuss. Too often writers or presenters will insist one must do this or that but never explain why and it is the why that tends to stick in my mind, not the detailed instruction. Omitting the explanation can lead to less than satisfactory results and the likelihood that you won’t cook the recipe again or investigate why it failed. Probably more is said about cooking an egg than anything else in the culinary repertoire but sometimes the suggested little tricks get in the way of the facts. A question most asked by home cooks is how to poach an egg without the whites breaking into messy strands and chefs will swear by using vinegar, swirling the hot water or fussing with sieves and cling wrap but the simple fact is that you need to use fresh eggs. A fresh egg has a very tight, globular white which, when it hits the simmering water, will keep its integrity. Older eggs, with runny whites, are fine for beating egg whites into meringue or softer peaks for cakes and souffles, the looser structure of the whites makes whisking by hand much easier. And yes, the pinch of salt helps to stabilise the whipped whites. Now let’s talk about egg emulsions. Egg yolks have a great capacity to absorb oil and this is the basis of a mayonnaise. This wonderful chemistry works so long as the oil is initially introduced gradually to allow dispersal of the oil droplets, giving them a chance to form bonds with the water in the yolks. While I’m good at making a mayonnaise without recourse to recipes or instructions I was caught out by my self confidence the other day when making a sauce gribiche. This sauce is effectively a mayonnaise made with hard boiled egg yolks. Easy I thought and proceeded to beat my yolks, vinegar and mustard while drizzling in the peanut oil. The mixture split, the egg yolks did not form an emulsion with the oil as usually happens in a raw egg mayonnaise and it looked terrible. 😕 I quickly checked the internet for recipes and could see lots of awful pictures of sauce gribiche that looked like runny mixtures that had clearly split but were “rescued” with the addition of the other ingredients of sauce gribiche, chopped egg white, herbs, cornichons and capers. I then reached for Mastering The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child*. According to Julia, for a hard yolk mayonnaise one should pound and mash the egg yolks in a mixing bowl with the mustard and salt until you have a very smooth paste. Unless the yolks are smooth and free from lumps, they will not absorb the oil. That last sentence is a pure gem of wisdom from someone who was the consummate teacher. I started again, according to MAFC, and with great success. My sauce gribiche had a firm, creamy base which was then lightened up by the addition of the rest of the ingredients. Perfect. I feel this lesson will not be forgotten because I not only have the memory of my failure but also the simple explanation for how to avoid it. Sometimes it is best to forget the internet and go back to the great classic cookbooks; while devoid of glossy pictures of artfully presented food they consisted instead of clear writing that taught basic technique.
Note. Some recipes on the internet say to mix all the ingredients together and do not not say to make a mayonnaise-like emulsion first which could explain the awful looking oily sauces I saw in photos. Just for the record, Wikipedia says sauce gribiche is a mayonnaise-style cold egg sauce in French cuisine, made by emulsifying hard-boiled egg yolks and mustard with a neutral oil …

Sauce Gribiche

  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tbs white wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 100 ml light vegetable oil
  • salt
  • white pepper
  • 2 tbs chopped capers
  • 2 tbs chopped cornichons
  • handful chopped herbs such as tarragon, chervil or parsley

Boil the eggs for 8 minutes. Drain, then cool under running water. Whisk mustard and vinegar in a small bowl. Season well. Shell the eggs, separate the yolks from the whites. Mash the yolks with the mustard and vinegar, pounding it to a paste so it is free of any lumps, then beat in the light oil gradually until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper. Chop the herbs and stir into the sauce along with the capers and cornichons. Chop the egg whites finely and mix it through. Loosen with a splash of water if required. Serve with smoked or cured salmon or grilled fish.

* Julia Child and Simone Beck. Louise Bertholle was involved in the first volume of MAFC. The Americans only notice their daughter, Julia, and not her French collaborators. 

Girt By Sea

For an island nation whose population largely inhabits the coastline, Australia has a strange relationship with seafood. Apart from the occasional fish and chips and lunchtime encounters with ubiquitous fast food sushi boxes and hand rolls we don’t seem to value fish that much. Fish is not something on dinner party menus or ever considered as a worthy substitute for the Sunday family roast, yet a whole salmon would amply feed a large family. Australians are meat lovers through and through. We consume about 90 kilograms per person per year, beating both the United States and Argentina, the two other meat hungry nations. Yep, we finally got the gold medal for meat eating. By comparison the stats on seafood consumption are around 15 kilograms per person per year, which includes frozen, smoked and canned seafood. Despite this there is a bit of a love affair for some people with fresh salmon. Health conscious types will regularly buy fillets of farmed salmon but any suggestion they try another variety of fish or, heaven forbid, a whole fish with head attached, will likely put them out of their comfort zone. As a consequence roughly a third of display cabinets at some fish mongers is given over to salmon fillets (New Zealand and Australian) and ocean trout fillets. A lot of our seafood is also imported, not just the fresh fish fillets and prawns you seen at Queen Victoria market but all the frozen, packaged and processed stuff we buy at supermarkets. We are net importers of seafood despite an abundance of local seafood and a large fishing industry. This skewed consumer demand coupled with our expanding fresh seafood exports and loss of commercial fisheries in Port Phillip Bay has reduced the availability of the best Australian seafood for Melbourne consumers, which is a real shame. I’ve really noticed this dramatic change in the last couple of years and it has affected the number of seafood meals I cook, down from three to one a week on average. Even this devoted foodie is finding it difficult, having to travel further afield for my seafood and with no guarantee of quality. If you don’t have an established rapport with a fish monger it can be a bit of a lottery; it’s hard to judge the freshness of a fish without its head on and if I ask if the fish is fresh what do you think the answer will be. One shining light has been the Japanese grocers (Hinoki, Collingwood and Suzuran, Camberwell) that sell sashimi grade blocks of salmon, tuna and kingfish of exceptional quality. I almost always eat it raw because it is such a shame to cook it but the fish is excellent gently poached for a few minutes or sliced thinly and tossed through hot pasta with cherry tomatoes, herbs and EVOO. It can be much harder to obtained quality seafood outside of the major cities but I have had some memorable seafood purchases while holidaying on the coast of Victoria, NSW, Queensland and Tasmania. Bermagui on the NSW Saphire coast has a wonderful seafood co-op, Bluewave, where the days catch is varied and oh so fresh. Bluewave have the regulation fish and chip cafe but further in there is a counter full of fish, some with their heads on. I was delighted too by the unshucked oysters available at nearby Smithies oyster farm. There are probably other great seafood sellers along this coast, so it is wise to do a bit of fishing around. It’s so sad to think what towns along the East coast of Australia have been going through with the devastating bushfires this summer. I hope holiday makers return very soon to help rebuild local economies. Portland in Western Victoria is the home of the Portland rock lobster, a major export earner for the region. Despite this, not all of these beauties are packed and air freighted to Asian markets, there are still plenty available to locals and tourists, alive and kicking in holding tanks out back of the Portland Fish Market shop or, if you prefer, cooked ones are for sale too. In Tassie a great place to pick up a local crayfish is at a roadside van. Paired with a regional cool climate sparkling wine your holiday is made. However buying fish along the Australian coast is often tricky and the best fish may not be at a town fish shop. Yamba, in Northern NSW, at the mouth of the Clarance River, is noted for superb king prawns but when I was there the fish shop seemed to cater more for fish and chip lovers, so when I inquired about Yamba prawns I was sent to the butcher to buy the local green prawns. This inability to buy fresh seafood for cooking yourself I also encountered on Kangaroo Island, a supposed foodie destination. Again, the main offering was fish and chips. If you want to make your own crumbed whiting with a lovely green salad or BBQ chilli prawns to eat with a cooling mango salsa then you have to work at the procurement side of things. In some small towns it’s best to look for the local fisherman rather than a fish shop; he may have a tatty sign on the road and a large fridge in the garage but no obvious shop front. You may have to be a bit patient as fishing depends on weather conditions. Take time to chat to get a sense of local conditions. Express your ichthyophilia and you’re likely to be told to come back on a certain day for that days catch. Consider it sort of hunting and gathering or retail fishing; when you hook one it’s worth the effort but really it shouldn’t be so hard in a land girt by sea.

Peeling The Onion

Peeling the onion is used as a metaphor for the layers of meaning, personality or complexity in life, the phrase invites a deeper look, beyond the papery skin, for answers. We usually think little of onions per se, they are just one of the building blocks, albeit very important aromatic ones, in cooking all manner of things from soups to stews, but onions are as diverse as people; sweet, tender, small, large, firm, sharp, pungent, flat, round, oval…. While the bedrock of a lot of cooking, onions can also be the star ingredient. A French onion soup, thick with strands of caramelised onion, poured over toasted sourdough bread and topped with melted cheese comes to mind. What a winter’s delight. Pissaladière, also from France, is a wonderful onion, anchovy and black olive pizza and in the same vein there is the famous Flammkuchen from Alsace, a pizza with onion, creme fraiche and Kaiserfleisch. From Morocco, a tagine of chicken and shallot or rather shallot and chicken is meltingly soft with more that half the bulk of the tagine given over to whole shallots, made extra sweet and luscious with the addition of honey. In Italy you can buy whole roasted onions in their skins at some specialty grocers. Peeling those onions reveals tender cooked layers ready to use; a great idea for Italians that don’t have a back yard complete with wood-fired pizza oven.

The onion can star in its raw state. I’m a great fan of the salad onion, purple or white, sold in bunches of 5 or more depending on size. Shaved into salads they are not astringent, just a pleasant bitey addition to a fennel and orange salad, a Greek salad or any other combination you desire. Tiny versions of bunch salad onions are perfect smothered in olive oil, wrapped in foil and roasted in the oven or on the barbecue until soft but still holding their shape. Dressed in olive oil, red wine vinegar and herbs these little morsels are a wonderful addition to a spread of grilled vegetables and dips. The multi layer architecture of the onion is perfect for hollowing out the centre, stuffing and slowly roasting in the oven. Stuff them with whatever you like but you can’t go wrong with herbs, breadcrumbs, chopped tomato and one anchovy rolled up in the centre and drizzled with olive oil. They will be delicious warm or days later served cold with grilled meats. A caramelised onion tart flavoured with a touch of grated nutmeg puts the beauty of the humble onion at the centre of the summer luncheon plate. There is a lot you can do when all you have on hand is a lonely onion, a packet of pasta and a few basic pantry items. Don’t despair, just crank up the Pavarotti, pour a glass of wine and start peeling the onion.

Dress Appropriately for Hot Summer Salads

It’s hot now and time for salads. Salads can be a meal in themselves and if you insist on a bit of protein consider adding some smoked fish, a nice easy addition, requiring no cooking. A mixed grain salad is a substantial meal as are roasted root vegetable salads or potato salads. A great way to jazz up a potato salad is to add greens such as double peeled broad beans, sugar snap peas or asparagus along with a flaked smoked trout fillet and there is your dinner. Kipfler potatoes are a good nutty and waxy variety for salads and can be eaten warm, room temperature or chilled in a potato salad. Slicing the still warm potato directly into the salad dressing in the serving bowl will absorb the tasty dressing, so make double the amount, which brings me to the important issue of salad dressing. I have a less is more philosophy. All that is needed for a dressing is a good quality fresh oil (walnut, hazelnut, macadamia, avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil or grape seed oil) and a squeeze of lemon or vinegar at a 3 to 1 ratio. If you don’t like the sour taste of lemon or vinegar, try a gentle apple cider vinegar but if you like a bit of bite whisking in a 1/4 of a teaspoon of Dijon mustard will result in a very creamy French dressing. To make your salad preparations easier forget the messy jar for mixing the dressing ingredients and instead put the dressing directly in your salad bowl, using the salad spoon as the measure and whisk it with the fork of the salad servers until emulsified (creamy consistency) and then place the salad ingredients on top and toss them only when ready to serve. Simple! What oil and acid component you choose is dependent on your taste and the salad you are making. A simple green salad warrants a good EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) and lemon or wine vinegar, while olive oil is a bit heavy for potato salad and a nut oil is best. EVOO and balsamic go with tomatoes or a rocket salad (the dark balsamic is not noticeable on the dark green leaves and their peppery taste can handle the sweetness of the balsamic) and a Spanish sherry vinegar is the best way to dress sautéed Pardon peppers or a grain salad. A sprinkle of Murray Valley pink salt is an excellent seasoning to use. Don’t be reluctant to buy the best quality oils and vinegar; remember you don’t use that much and you are aiming for a lovely flavour not just a bit of lubrication. It is a good idea to keep nut oils in the fridge and check use by dates as these can go rancid quickly. If you are a fan of Meredith marinated goats cheese remember to keep the jar of olive oil when the cheese is finished as it is a very tasty salad oil. Quality oils and vinegars, particularly aged balsamic vinegar make wonderful and much appreciated Christmas presents for people who have everything and enjoy a well dressed salad. If you are scratching your head about gift ideas try Enoteca Sileno in Carlton North, they have a great range of Italian extra virgin olive oils and aged balsamic vinegar, two ingredients that dress juicy ripe tomatoes perfectly. Farmers markets will also have stalls featuring local products, including flavorsome pumpkin seed oil from The Australian Pumpkin Seed Company in Victoria’s high country. For a quintessential Australian product you cant go past a delicate macadamia nut oil. Keep cool this summer and dress your salads appropriately.

jazzed up potato salad with herbs, broad beans, asparagus, capers and smoked trout

Padron peppers finished with sherry vinegar and pink salt