Mushy Peas and Bacon

Mushy peas and bacon is a tasty combination. This pea and pork matching takes many guises, the most familiar being pea and ham soup, although the peas are dried, split peas rather than fresh in that hearty soup. Cooking a bag of frozen peas and blitzing it with a tablespoon of butter is quick and easy to do if the crisper section of your fridge is bare. The blitzed peas and some fried bacon readily team up to create flavoursome meals. Nigella Lawson famously prepared grilled salmon with mushy peas and crispy fried prosciutto and it is still a winter favorite of mine and probably the main reason I always have a bag of peas in the freezer. While mushy peas and bacon does sound rather British a similar combination is dished up in Germany and Austria in the form of grilled knackwurst (fatter version of a Frankfurter) and mushy peas. Kids love this simple dish and it’s perhaps a little more wholesome than a sausage with chips and tomato sauce. The peas can be bulked out a little with boiled potato if you wish and a little water added to adjust the consistency to suit your needs. Season the blended peas well with salt and a few turns of the pepper mill and it’s ready to go for young and old. Another Nigella use of frozen peas is her curiously named green slime soup with added mozzarella. While these combinations appeal to kids and the kid in us a more sophisticated use of mushy peas and crispy bacon is with a simple vegetable based risotto. I enjoyed this striking combination in a lovely little restaurant called Aubergine in Split, Croatia. More sophistication takes the form of ravioli filled with a blend of peas and pecorino and then tossed with prosciutto. While the ravioli is excellent the mushy peas and bacon combo is probably more at home with the simple fare these two kitchen staples can conjure up. 

Recipe: Take bag of peas, boil, drain and then blend with a tablespoon of butter in a food processor. Season. Fry some bacon, prosciutto or pancetta until crispy. Combine as you see fit.




Winter Transformations – Potato, Pumpkin & Spinach

Potatoes, pumpkin and spinach are winter market staples. Each can be used to good effect independently but I’ve brought them together in one delicious dish: sautéed potato gnocchi with roast pumpkin and spinach. Potato gnocchi are easy to make and sautéing the cooked gnocchi in olive oil with a little knob of butter for taste really raises this to restaurant fare. Let’s face it a little sauté treatment makes many foods special, think sautéed potatoes with garlic and rosemary or pan fried gyoza dumplings or French toast. Sautéed gnocchi work best when the cooked gnocchi are drained, spread out on a tray to dry out a little before they land in the buttery fry pan. You want to get rid of some of that moisture trapped after boiling in water and firm the outside a little, making it easy to flip them to brown each side to golden crunchiness. I treat the spinach in the Japanese way by cooking a whole bunch of spinach and then squeezing out all the water when cool and chopping it up. This maximizes the amount of healthy spinach per serve while appearing balanced on the plate. The meager alternative is to toss in a handful of baby spinach leaves at the end but I prefer the Popeye approach. Finished with a little crumbled goats cheese and toasted pine nuts this is definitely going to be a favorite for dinner this winter.

Potato Gnocchi with Roast Pumpkin and Spinach

For Two

  • potato gnocchi made from 3 large Nicola potatoes
  • 1/2 butternut pumpkin cut into 1cm cubes
  • 1 bunch spinach
  • olive oil
  • knob of butter
  • 2 tbs goats cheese
  • toasted pine nuts*

Make the potato gnocchi with half quantities for two people as described in Gnocchi With Slow Roasted Tomatoes.

pushing cooked potato through a potato ricer to make gnocchi

Cook the gnocchi in a large pot of boiling salted water and scoop out the gnocchi when they rise to the surface. Drain the cooked gnocchi in a colander and then spread them out on a tray to cool and dry out a little. Roast the pumpkin cubes in a little olive oil at 180°C until tender, approximately 20 minutes. Remove the stems and wash the spinach well in 2-3 changes of water to remove any grit or mud. Place the washed spinach in a saucepan and wilt it with gentle heat and then drain and cool. Once cool enough to handle squeeze all the water out and chop it coarsely. In a frypan heat 2 tbs olive oil with a knob of butter and gently sauté the gnocchi until golden. Add the roasted pumpkin and the chopped spinach and gently mix. Plate out and top with crumbled goats cheese and toasted pine nuts.

  • I recommend the J C’s Quality Nuts brand. Look for the packet labelled Pine Nuts from New Zealand, available from quality green grocers around Melbourne.




Summer Vegetables With Ricotta

Summer vegetables with ricotta bring a freshness and lightness to meals during the hot months of the year. There are many ways to combine them to provide simple, interesting and healthy dishes. The important thing is to buy the freshest ricotta you can, preferably cut as a wedge from a large ricotta cake at a supermarket deli or cheese store. Italian specialist delicatessens will always have a fresh ricotta cake or little individual baskets of ricotta for sale. If you are using ricotta in a pasta dish the freshness will matter most but with a baked dish such as stuffed zucchini a supermarket tub of ricotta will be fine. A lovely combination is pasta tossed with ribbons of sautéed pale green Lebanese zucchini, fresh mint, lemon zest and finished with a very gentle crumbling through of ricotta. If you want to jazz it up, garnish with toasted pine nuts. This is a really lovely summer meal. The caponata recipe from my previous post is delicious spooned cold onto a layer of ricotta on toast. This combination is great for breakfast, lunch or a light dinner. Ricotta with slow roasted Roma tomatoes and fresh basil is another wonderful start to the day. One of my favorite ricotta-vegetable combinations is a variation on Corsican stuffed zucchini; the variation being the use of ricotta rather than the traditional Corsican goat or sheep soft whey cheese. These stuffed zucchini are very simple to make and delicate in flavour. They are best eaten at room temperature or cold, which makes them handy to serve as a snack with drinks or as part of buffet. Toscano’s in Kew always have lovely little pale green zucchinis which are just perfect for this dish.

Fresh ricotta is available from Carlton, still the home of Italian foods:
DOC Delicatessen, Carlton
La Latteria, Carlton
King and Godfree, Carlton 

also
Mediterranean Wholesalers, Brunswick
Alba Cheese Factory, Tullamarine – go Sun- Fri mornings for still warm freshly made ricotta
Alimentari, Collingwood

Corsican Style Stuffed Zucchini

  • 8 pale green Lebanese zucchini
  • 1 shallot, finely diced
  • pinch salt
  • olive oil
  • handful currants
  • 1 clove garlic finely minced
  • 1 thick slice while bread, crust removed
  • 200 g ricotta cheese
  • handful finely chopped fresh mint
  • handful pine nuts (optional)

Halve the zucchini lengthwise and blanch in boiling water for a minute. Drain and cool the zucchini. Using a teaspoon remove the flesh inside the zucchini, leaving most of the stem and enough of a rim at the rounded end to maintain a stable little boat for the filling. Chop the flesh finely. Heat the oil in a frypan and gently fry the shallots with the salt until translucent. Add the currants and garlic and heat gently until the currents puff up. Blitz the bead into crumbs in a food processor. Add the onion mixture, half the pine nuts and mint to the breadcrumbs and mix for a few seconds. Add the ricotta and pulse until just mixed through. Using a teaspoon fill the zucchini and top each with a few of the remaining pine nuts. Place on a baking sheet, drizzle lightly with olive oil and bake for 30 minutes at 170ºC.




Sicilian Caponata

I am reading In Sicily by Normal Lewis at the moment; a wonderful evocation of a tragically beautiful and complex Italian region. Greek, Norman, Spanish, German, French and Arab rule have left a mark not just on art and architecture but invariably on the cuisine of Sicily. A substantial Arab influence, where dried fruit, nuts and spices, like saffron infuse dishes with a particular exotic style, is coupled with the less extravagant, a legacy of periods of extreme poverty when much is made of a few gathered herbs and sun-kissed vegetables. Perhaps no dish says Sicily more than caponata. It is a Sicilian summer of vegetables all bright with colour and ripeness but with the brooding darkness of eggplant playing the major role. The many variations of this amalgam of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onion, celery and tomato with its spine of piquancy from red wine vinegar, sugar, sultanas, green olives and capers is as mysterious and multi-layered as Sicily itself. Some variations even include pieces of chocolate or a sprinkling of unsweetened cocoa. A garnish of toasted pine nuts and basil leaves leaves you in no doubt that this dish has a history. Caponata is perfect for summer as a side to grilled meat and fish, tossed with pasta or as a dish on its own to be enjoyed at room temperature or direct from the fridge, draped with a few white anchovies to help down a chilled white wine or beer at the end of a hot day. Whatever way you choose to enjoy it I am sure once you start to make it you will return to caponata every summer and perhaps make it your own in some way. This is my favorite version, where each vegetable is fried separately and the chopped fresh tomatoes are gently folded through at the very end once the heat is turned off. I like the individual flavors and textures to remain whilst enveloped in the sweet and sour sauce. The flavours only improve after a couple of days in the fridge.

Caponata

  • 1 large eggplant
  • 2 celery stalks, thickly sliced
  • 4 -6 purple pickling onions, cut into wedges
  • 2 zucchini (green or yellow), cut into 2 cm dice
  • 2 long red peppers or capsicum, cut into 2 cm squares
  • olive oil
  • handful sultanas
  • 2 large tomatoes cut into 2 cm dice
  • handful pitted green olives
  • 3 tsp salted capers, washed
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 2 tbs red wine vinegar
  • pinch salt
  • handful toasted pinenuts
  • torn basil leaves

Cut the the eggplant into 2 cm dice, sprinkle with cooking salt and leave to drain in a colander for 30 minutes while you prepare the other vegetables. rinse the eggplant under running water and then squeeze it dry with a few sheets of paper towel. Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large, deep stovetop casserole dish and fry the eggplant pieces, turning them until a golden brown. Remove to large bowl next to the stove. Add more olive oil and now fry the zucchini until golden and remove to the bowl. Next fry the peppers, tossing them cook evenly. Remove to the bowl of cooked vegetables. Add the celery and onions together with a pinch of salt and fry until the onions become translucent. Add the sultanas and stir until they plump up in the heat. Add the sugar and stir well to dissolve and slightly caramelise, then add the vinegar and stir. Add all the vegetables, olives and capers except the tomatoes and mix well. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes until well heated. Turn the stove off and fold through the tomatoes. Garnish with basil and pinenuts.




Small Bites Make A Big Impression

I like serving interesting small bites with drinks. I guess I have been influenced by my Austrian mother who always made little open sandwiches with pretty garnishes no matter what the occasion and for whoever dropped in unexpectedly. Somehow she always managed to rustle up something that looked appetizing and that’s what an appetizer should be after all. While there are a myriad of good quality dips and pates available at the supermarket there is something special about expressing a little style and individuality by making appetizers yourself. You can take inspiration from the tapas bars of Spain, the apperitivi hour offerings of Italy or the open sandwich bars that are so much a part of Vienna and middle Europe.  And if dips are more your thing, try making them from scratch; a baba ganoush is simply a matter of grilling a whole eggplant on the Weber at high heat for 30 minutes, removing the softened centre and blitzing it with lemon juice, tahini, salt and garlic. For extra smokiness hold the whole eggplant over the open gas flame of your cooker for a few seconds after grilling. It will taste amazing. Make stunning guacamole with ripe avocados mashed with one chipolte pepper from a can of La Morena peppers in adobo sauce for some real Mexican flavour.

small bites with tomato

Other ways to make wonderful flavoursome small bites is to take advantage of seasonal produce like really ripe tomatoes. You can make bruschetta with toasted slices of sourdough baguette rubbed with a piece of garlic and topped with chopped tomatoes and generously drizzled with extra virgin olive oil or top bread with crushed broad beans and mint in springtime. Take advantage of our wonderful local cheeses, like Meredith marinated goats cheese or the silky goat cheeses or fromage frais from Holy Goat. The latter goes so well with a little lemon zest, extra virgin olive oil and fresh herbs sprinkled on top.

A small bite can be a meal in miniature when you top a slice of dark rye bread with a smokey ham or poached tongue and tiny diced potato or Russian salad. Essentially meat and potatoes in a couple of mouthfuls. For fishy bites you can’t go past Tassie smoked salmon or trout fillets and, when in season, a handful of school prawns are just the right size for a small bite. Adding a little creamed horseradish to sour cream is a quick and tasty glue for your fishy bites.

A few condiments such as capers, cornichons and horse radish that kept for ages are worth  stocking in the fridge and a little pot of chives on the porch is very handy for a few snips of green to highlight your gems. Failing that, a bit of lemon zest also works wonders. None of these little open sandwiches I mentioned need baking and any cooking of components, such as potato salad, can easily be done the day before, just leave 20 to 30 minutes for plating before the first doorbell rings.