Friday, August 30, 2013

Toffee Apple Upside-Down Cake

More comfort food!  Do you have a recipe folder with hand-written and cut-out scraps of recipes that you have kept for years and years?  I usually get nicely sidetracked when I start looking through mine - lost in memories of people and places that have signposted my life.

When I was browsing through mine recently I found this recipe, which must be over twenty years old - and I had subtitled it 'bad back cake'  That's how I can date it because I must have made this cake for therapy when I injured my back landscaping and was off work for three months in 1990.

It started out life as an upside-down pear cake but somehow, when I was cooking it the other day, it evolved into one with a sticky apple topping.  As some famous chef said, I think it was Rick Stein, "A recipe should be a tune you sing your own song to" - well I definitely like the way this sounded - I think I'll record it - oh, and did I say that it's very scrumptious too?
The beauty of this recipe is that everything is cooked in one pan - less steps and less washing up - more time for sitting down with a cup of tea and reading your recipe folder!

1 tbsp maple syrup
60 gm butter
3 apples peeled, cored and thickly sliced
couple of grinds of sea salt (big pinch)

150 gm butter
1 cup caster sugar
3 eggs
1 cup ground almond meal
1/4 cup milk
1 1/4 cups self raising wholemeal flour
1 tsp vanilla essence

1.  Heat oven to 170oC
2.  Grease a 25 cm spring-form pan
3.  Put the 60 gm butter, maple syrup and salt in cake tin and place in oven to melt.  Remove from oven.
4.  Give it a stir to combine and then place apples in pattern over the base of the cake tin.  Put back in oven to caramelize and cook a little for 7-10 mins.
5.  Meanwhile, in food processor, cream butter and sugar together.
6.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating well - should be light and fluffy.
7.  Add all other ingredients and fold into creamed butter mixture.
8.  Spread over yummy smelling apples and place back in oven for 45 mins or until cooked.

I was thinking that these little handwritten notes might not be around in twenty years time.  In this keyboard age - how many of us send or receive handwritten notes any more?

Remember picture postcards from far away places - does anybody send those any more either?  I have a wonderful collection that my parents sent to me and my family when they literally trotted the globe, in a van, over a four year period in the late 1970's.  They drove from the UK to Australia - across  Europe;  then Turkey, Iran,Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (shipping it to Singapore) Malaysia, Thailand (then shipped to Western Australia), drove across Australia, finally arriving in Sydney. It didn't stop there - onward to Fiji, New Zealand and then USA and Mexico.  I store these treasured postcards in my book collection and every now and again one drops out and I find myself transported - somehow their handwriting always brings them closer to me even though we have lived a world apart for most of my adult life and my dad is now on his celestial journey.  With our present world of emails and virtual communication I wonder if our children will find anything more than cobwebs in our attics.

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK:  The Banner Headline in our local paper the Byron Shire Echo - 'Some People are so Poor All they Have is Money'

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Chicken with Peppers: Pollo con Peperoni

Buying some peppers in our Farmer's Market last Friday has lead me on a long journey down memory lane - which has had many emotional twists and turns that, while tinged with sadness to remember the most amazing time in my life, has brought back such a wonderful memories - and, as an added bonus, the family got a good feed out of it and we all get to go to the Veneto region of Italy for a few moments!

In 1990 I went with a band of 300 choristers from Australia to sing Verdi's Requiem in Verona's 2,000 year old ampitheatre. (You can watch a snippet from the concert on YouTube)

How did the concert come about? It was a tumultuous, but hopeful, time in Europe - the Berlin Wall had come down the previous November - Germany was unified - and the 40 year cold war with Russia was over AND Nelson Mandela had finally been freed from his incarceration in South Africa. This was a concert to celebrate the unification of Europe and proceeds to go to the UN Refugee Fund.  Princess Diana (looking stunning in pink) was the guest of honour, Pavarotti the tenor, Lorin Mazel the conductor, and the Moscow Philharmonic (all 100 members of them) the orchestra.

I was part of a choir of 3,000 - yes 3,000 - the World Festival Choir.  A concert of this magnitude had never been attempted before, and believe me, after the first rehearsal, I had serious doubts that we would be able to pull it off. The choir was so far away from the orchestra that we were hearing them with delay - so we could not rely on the music to guide us.  We had to memorize the whole score and just watch the conductor - maestro Mazel - listen to each other and ignore the music we were hearing - not an easy task.

Maestro Mazel had a big meltdown after the first rehearsal shouting at everyone that would listen that "this was just not going to work".  At that point Pavarotti approached the assembled musicians and choristers and told Mr. Mazel that "of course it will be alright on the night - everyone had come from half way round the world to make it right - and we were not machines - we had 3,000 collective brains to MAKE SURE IT WAS RIGHT".  You don't know how happy that made us - he was my hero from that moment on.

I ate a version of this dish for the first time in a memorable trattoria outside San Gimingano, Tuscany, after it was all over, and I'm happy to share it with you.  I have made it many times since - a real family favourite.  I served it this time with polenta - but great just with some crusty bread and an honest salad.

1 red and yellow pepper (capsicum) roasted to remove skin.  I do this on the barbecue, but you can do it under the grill in a conventional oven.  It's a rustic dish with few ingredients, but tastes really good - wholesome and hearty.

2 tbs olive oil
1 free range chicken cut into 8 pieces (ask the butcher to do it for you or consult your favourite cookery book for instructions on how to do it yourself)
2 brown onions sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic
2 sprigs fresh rosemary and thyme
1 cup chopped tomatoes or passata
Sea salt and pepper

1.  Heat oil in large, deep frypan and brown chicken pieces (the skin needs to be crispy) - about 10 mins., seasoning well with salt and pepper.
2.  Remove chicken from pan and saute onions and garlic in same pan until soft.
3.  Add tomato, herbs, salt, pepper and peppers that you have skinned, deseeded and cut into strips.
4.  Place chicken on top, skin side up, and cook for further 30-40 mins. on low heat.

Venice - arriving by boat!


*  Finally arriving at our hotel near Padova at the spa town of Galzigano Terme and the mostly Austrian and German guests - plus the local staff finding us Aussies a complete mystery (thinking we must also be Austrian) - the Northern Italians, unlike the Southerners, had no cousin or uncle in Sydney.  Why were we coming to sing in Verona?  Did we have churches in Australia?  What language were we speaking? Mind you we thought the guests activities pretty strange - they would arrive at breakfast in matching tracksuits straining over their big bellies and backsides, eat a mountain of boiled eggs and salami and then go into the bowels of the hotel for well - bowel treatment!!  Us Aussies were told off for doing laps in the pool - (it was just for taking ze waters i.e. bobbing up and down) - and the youngsters doing the ubiquitous shark alarm swim up and down the pool with dorsal fin - not funny!

*  Everything changed after the night of the first concert - which was televised live across Italy - they finally got it.  When we arrived back at the hotel in the wee small hours of the morning, whatever staff were still there lined up to meet the coach with a big bunch of flowers, applause and shouts of 'bravo'.
Villa Pisani , Padova - on the Brenta Canal

*  Rehearsing whenever the Arena de Verona was free - which usually meant in the scorching midday sun or after concerts at night - which was exhausting.  Us Aussies were amazed to find that most of the choristers - particularly the Scandinavians stripped off to their bikinis (or underwear) during rehearsal not wanting to 'waste' any chance of a good suntan.  Choristers are always instructed not to wear strong perfume and deodorant sooooooooooo!  But the beautiful thing about singing in an international choir like this is that, even though we did not all speak the same language, we could sing the same language.
The sopranos - always in a state of undress!

*  3,000 choristers in our voice parts, queuing up around the arena waiting to register - usual Italian chaos ensued.  Suddenly after about an hour and a half, us sopranos heard the bored basses, from the other side of the arena, start to sing "Va Piensero" - the song of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco.  Now all of us had learned this as a party piece to sing at a gala dinner to be held later for Pavarotti and guests of honour.  What I didn't realize was that this is the unofficial national anthem of Italy - and everybody knows it.  Unseen, but heard by us from all points around the arena, the tenors joined in, then the altos and finally us sops.  But, what also happened is that the traffic stopped  and every Italian around us stood up and joined in.  It was a truly spine tingling moment and one I will never forget.

Being swept off my feet by a tall, handsome Italian (props scattered around the Arena!)

*  Having a day off and sailing up the Brenta Canal from Padova, past the Villa Pisani and Villa Malcontenta, having a seafood lunch and then sailing out into open water and arriving in Venice and the Grand Canal by sea.  I found Venice to be heavenly.

*  Another wonderful day out in Vicenza and discovering Palladio and la dolce vita - and shopping, shopping.
Palazzo del Capitaniato, Vicenza

*  Taking a break from rehearsal and a prosecco in Verona's Piazza Bra and watching three handsome young men collectively turn their heads - like ventriloquists dummies.  I thought, for sure, they had spotted some young attractive girl, but no - they were watching an elegant, smartly dressed woman in her sixties (the age I am now) walk down the street.  What they were appreciating, now matter how old she was, was her beauty - ageless - and I realized it was something that Anglo Saxon men just don't seem to have an appreciation for.

*  After the last concert in Verona with the Moscow Philharmonic out on the tiles in their very dated dinner suits full of gravy stains and cigarette ash holes - playing like angels on their violins and drinking vodka - what a party!  We were quietly told by our choirmaster that  if we could afford it we should 'shout' the Russians because they had absolutely no money.

*  The sound of those 3,000 voices!  I was walking on air for months afterwards.  

San Gimigano, Tuscany - where I first ate this dish

TOP TIP:  If you have any of this chicken dish leftover you can make a ragu out of it and have it with pasta the next day.  Just strip the chicken from any bones, add a splash of dry white wine and some extra tomato and cook for a further 15 mins - I added mushrooms too. Adjust seasoning and sprinkle with parmesan and a little chopped parsley - and put on Verdi's Requiem while you're doing it.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
William Wordsworth

I was not that young - but bliss it was!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Pest Control & Companion Planting: Love your Bugs

Many people suffer from entomophobia - an irrational fear of insects.  Often, their first reaction is to recoil, or to stamp on them, or to reach for the spray can.  In fact, most bugs are not harmful at all and many are beneficial.  By not welcoming insects into our garden we are making a much harder job for ourselves.

Just a Little Story:  The very first street that that we lived in, when we first came to Sydney, was full of migrant families, like us, and lined with paperbark trees.  I was thrilled to see these exotic trees suddenly burst into nectar-heady flowering that set the whole street abuzzing. Next thing, the sound of sawing!  I rushed out to see my neighbour, and her very elderly mother, felling one of these trees on the nature strip outside their house.  When I threw up my arms and asked them why she replied - too many bees!!  They were not allergic to bee stings - just entomophobic.

This kind of flowering border will attract all kinds of beneficial insects.

Pests only become a genuine problem when there aren't enough predators to control them or if seasonal conditions cause a temporary plague.

So how do we make our patch a haven for good bugs and let nature do the work for us?

1.  Well-fed plants - preferably nourished with compost and good quality mulch - are much less pest or disease prone.  As always, the answer lies in the soil.

2.  Understanding plant families will make you a better gardener. For example, knowing that the cabbage white butterfly only attacks plants in the brassica family (cabbage, broccoli etc.) helps you to understand that mixing this family up with another has a double benefit:
  • the critters will be confused and hopefully fly off somewhere else.
  • plants from other families will be unaffected by this pest so you will always have some food to eat.
    Blended families - mixing up brassicas (broccoli,kale, Asian Greens) with strong smelling plants from other families - like fennel, garlic and leeks.
3.   By integrating flowering plants with vegetables and herbs you are copying the greatest teacher of them all - Nature.

FACT: The DPI (Department of Primary Industries) recently spent a day at our Community Garden in Mullumbimby looking to see whether a large integrated garden like that (i.e. everything all mixed up) had any impact on the insect populations.  
WHAT THEY FOUND - not only just about every beneficial insect you could think of but just about ZERO pests.
The Praying(or preying!) Mantid are useful because they are voracious generalist predators and are able to start consuming almost as soon as they hatch - so watch out aphids and potato beetles!

SO, WHO ARE THE GOOD GUYS? Ladybirds (but not the 26 spotted one, which is a significant pest), dragonflies, damselfly, earthworms, earwigs, lacewings, robber flies, tachinid flies, mantids, springtails, wasps, chalcids, hover flies, leopard slugs, mole crickets, centipedes, millipedes, spiders.  And these are just the insects - don't forget about creating a safe, inviting habitat for birds and lizards.
"Birds eat approximately 40% of garden pests.  It clearly pays to encourage birds"
Jackie French 'The Best of Jackie French'.  My mate Maggie would agree with her - she's never short of a feed in my garden.

HOW TO DESIGN A HEALTHY GARDEN? Go to my previous posts Kitchen Gardens: Top Tips for Getting Started and April in the Garden: Autumn Planting.

FACT: About 80% of caterpillars in Australia never make it to adulthood, thanks to native parasatoid tachinid flies (Source ABC Gardening's Jerry Coleby Williams from Dr. Tim Heard CSIRO entomologist)

WHAT SHOULD YOU PLANT TO ENCOURAGE BENEFICIAL INSECTS: Brightly coloured flowers with prominent stamens - like cosmos, dill, parsley, zinnias, echinacea, gaura, borage, dahlia, basil, cleome, flowering bok choy, marigolds.  Don't forget that all of these will also encourage pollinators for your fruit and vegetables.
Dill in flower - with friend!

JUST ANOTHER LITTLE STORY:  We used to run an environmental pest control company in Sydney - specializing in the novel ideas of education and biological control - so entomophobes were our bread and butter.  I vividly remember an hysterical  woman ringing up one day who had seen a blue tongue lizard in her garden and was screaming at me to 'just come round and kill it' - little realizing that this harmless creature was performing a useful job by keeping down the slugs, snails and cockroaches etc.  So don't forget that lizards are your friends too - they just need a safe place to bed down for the night.
I used to have lots of lizards in my garden before the neighbours got free-roaming cats.

A little pest damage doesn't do real harm to a garden - but the dill with the spray can full of pesticides does.  As Confucius said 'The Wise Man Does Nothing'

Monday, August 12, 2013

Preserved Lemons

It's that time of year when the trees around here are dripping with lemons and this recipe continues with the theme of 'cooking with abundance'.  What do you do with all of them?

Well, you can start by making a few jars of preserved lemons - they are such a versatile addition to so many dishes - including the lamb, lemon and pea tagine that follows this recipe.

A couple of friends (preferably one that has a tree with about a hundred lemons on it!)
A couple of hours
Lots of lemons
Lots of lemon juice
Lots of salt
Lots of sterilised jars
Lots of pebbles (pre-sterilized in boiling water)

NOTE: You don't actually need the production line that we had - you can make a few jars at a time whenever you run out.

Lemon preserving friends, Megan and Sharon

1.  Wash and scrub the lemons and cut into quarters - lengthways.
2.  Juice of lot lemons because you will need a few jugs full.
3.  Put some salt in the bottom of a sterilized jar and start packing in the lemons - squash them in so there is little space between them.
4.  Add some salt between each layer.
5.  Fill to the top of the jar with quartered lemons and sprinkle with more salt.
6.  Cover with lemon juice and tap a few times on bench top to bring air bubbles to surface.

TOP TIP from Sharon via ancient wisdom.  PLACE A PEBBLE ON TOP OF LEMONS TO WEIGH THEM DOWN AND KEEP THEM BELOW THE LIQUID or they may go mouldy.
7.  Leave in pantry until skin begins to soften - three weeks minimum.  Will keep for up to two years.

HOW TO USE THEM: Prepare by removing the fleshy part of the lemon (the fruit).  Wash under cold water to remove the brine.  Pat dry and slice the rind thinly.

TOP TIP 1. from Linda, cook extraordinaire and owner of LuLu's cafe.  To speed up preserving process QUARTER LEMONS AND PLACE IN FREEZER OVERNIGHT BEFORE SALTING THEM THE NEXT DAY.  The freezing starts to break down the cells and soften them.
TOP TIP 2. from Linda, add a spoonful of honey, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick a  couple of cloves to each jar.

Thank you girls!  I had a wonderful morning, learnt a lot and have lots of lovely jars of preserved lemons.

Thought for the day from Kingsley Amis
“No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home at Weston-super-Mare”. 

Lamb, Lemon and Pea Tagine

This dish is an absolute winner and come via 'preserved lemon' partner Sharon from a Tess Mallos recipe (a wonderful food writer inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine)

So, if you are wondering what the hell you do with jars and jars of preserved lemons - you can start here because it needs one and a half!
Lamb and Pea Tagine

I served it on a bed of cous cous with a tray of Moroccan inspired roast vegetables - sweet potato, cauliflower, carrots and potatoes sprinkled with za'atar (Syrian oregano)

Lamb Tagine with Peas and Lemons

Ikg boneless lamb (I use a trimmed shoulder)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 brown onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tsp paprika
3 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
3 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
2 teaspoon chopped fresh lemon thyme
11/2 preserved lemons...prepared for cooking (remove pulp and membrane....rinse rind and pat dry)
11/2 cups shelled peas
2 teaspoons chopped mint
11/2 cups water
Salt to taste
Preserved lemons (with weighting stone) and fried onions waiting to join the browning lamb

Add oil to heavy based pan and brown onion - remove.
Trim lamb into 3cm pieces, add to pan and brown.
Reduce heat to low, add fried onion, garlic,cumin,ginger, paprika and turmeric and cook for a few seconds.
Add 11/2 cups water and stir well.
Return lamb to pan....season with salt ...add chopped corriander,thyme,parsley and cover and simmer for 11/2 hours on low heat or until lamb is tender.
Give it a stir every now and again to prevent sticking.
Preserved lemons prepared to add to the lamb tagine.  These had only been salting for three weeks and tasted wonderful.  Just wash,  cut into thin strips to serve.

Cut lemon wedge into strips and add to lamb....cook for further 20 min.....add peas and mint Cover and cook for further 10 min or until peas are cooked.