Happy new year

Home from holidays a little early, and looky what’s in the garden:

first tomatoes

In other exciting news, the first food blog I fell in love with, Though Small, it is Tasty, has has resurfaced. Go bookmark it and check the archives at the old site to get a feel for what we’re in for.

Looking forward to posting more soon, once I can persuade the children that 9 o’clock is not a reasonable hour to go to bed. A happy and safe new year to all.


Joy to the World and the Menu for Hope

Menu for Hope is an international food blogger fundraiser begun by Pim of Chez Pim and organised in Australia by Ed Charles at Tomato.

Go here to buy $US10 tickets and list the codes of the raffles you fancy. The money raised – $90 000 last year – will support the UN World Food Program:

This year Menu for Hope 5 again raises funds for the WFP’s school lunch program in Lesotho, Africa. This is the second year we are supporting this program, which assist the WFP’s efforts to supply the program by buying directly from local farmers who practice conservation farming methods. With this program, we help feed the kids (which keep them in school) and support their parents and community farming. This sustainable approach to aid is something we believe in and strongly support.

You can enter any raffle (but check if they post internationally/require you to travel). The full list is here, and the Oceania list here. It closes Christmas Eve, so be quick.

Some standouts for me in the local selection:


As for us, we’re off up the highway with a trailer full of toys wrapped in plastic and a geriatric kelpie. Have a safe and festive holiday and we’ll see you on the other side of the new year.

Dr Sister Outlaw just loves butter/flour combos

Am currently feeling rather more prepared for Christmas than is usual. (Zoe made me feel very chuffed by asking me advice on pudding preparation by SMS). As a result, I am on top of the shopping and have accepted invites to (a) mother-of-boyfriend’s drinks (b) aunty-of-boyfriend’s Xmas dinner. Was a bit flummoxed when I realised that I really ought to take something to both events, but have no cash whatsoever (as going to Thailand and Vietnam shortly). So, in a fit of idiocy, I decided to make shortbread, using pretty angel, star and love heart cookie cutters that I bought today.

I haven’t done this since I was 24 or 25, which was quite some time ago. And, after I started, I remembered why. All that butter and all that flour, rice flour and sugar surely makes an unholy mess once you get going. Particularly if you have not yet made pastry in the new house and have no bench space. Particularly if you are so stupid as to double the recipe, as I did today (I’m not giving you the recipe, it’s the one off the McCormack rice flour packet, so you can’t go wrong).

I generally, genuinely, love making pastry and home-made pasta, because of that magic moment that occurs when the dry ingredients and the fat or the eggs just, you know, happen, and you get the elastic dough that you are aiming for. I learned a while ago that the old rubbing in method is pretty damned frustrating and that a blender works very well indeed (you do want lumps of butter in pastry, but that’s another story). However, even with a blender, f***ing shortbread just never seems like it is going to come together. This was not at all helped by my sudden discovery that I DON’T HAVE A ROLLING PIN. Jesus, how did I move out from the ex without the freakin’ rolling pin? How have I lived, in two houses, without one?

Despite these setbacks, it did finally come together, with a fair bit of manual handling. There is an old adage about how pastry cooks are supposed to keep things cold and use only the tips of their cool little fingers to rub butter and flour together, but, really, if you don’t use your toasty warm palms you will never, ever, get the butter and flour bits of the shortbread to hang together, let alone be able to flatten them into a nice even pattie and cut them with cookie cutters.

So, I used my palms and rolled out batches with the wine bottle I finished off last night with the boyfriend. God, it went on for hours, the rolling, cutting out and baking. But goodness me, it was worth it. Baked for about 30 minutes in my brand new fan-forced electric oven … yum.

AND I get to be all smug and say ‘yes, of course I made them myself.’ God, home cooking is brilliantly satisfying.

Kirsty Presents: Oz Mex

Cross-posted from Galaxy at Zoe’s request (the comments about Melbourne only make sense in the context of this incompleted series of posts)

While I was in Melbourne I went to a bookshop I had only previously read about: Books for Cooks. Ever since I first read about this shop on Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, I have known that I could while away an entire day there, perhaps a week if I had nothing else to do. I didn’t spend quite that long there, but I did fulfill the other expectations I had for my behaviour: I ran from bookshelf to bookshelf, picking up one book, followed by another, and another, before finally having to sit down, wipe the drool from my chin, and have a deep think about the merits of the books I wanted relative to my budget.

I’ll talk about the whole heady experience in more depth when I finally get around to completing the promised Melbourne posts, but for now let me tell you what I’m cooking for dinner tonight. Seasoned Chopped Beef (Picadillo) is a recipe from one of the books I bought at Books for Cooks, The New Complete Book of Mexican Cooking by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz. It’s the filling for Minced Beef Tacos (Taco de Picadillo) I’ll be eating.

Ortiz instructs you to use half of the following recipe for Picadillo:

Brown 900g of minced lean beef in a large frying pan. I used that other red meat, kangaroo, because I can’t really bring myself to buy beef at the supermarket anymore. I’ll eat beef when I’m out, but between what I have access to and what I can afford, kangaroo is a more ethical, environmental, and cost-effective choice for me. Add 2 finely chopped onions and 1 clove of garlic, also chopped. When these are cooked add the following: 2 green cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped; 450g tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped–I made half the recipe and just added a drained tin of tomatoes here; 3 tinned or fresh jalapeno chillies, seeded and chopped–again I went for the tinned; 1/2 cup of seedless raisins; 12 pimiento-stuffed olives, halved–I only had jalapeno stuffed olives, but I figured they weren’t out of place in this recipe; 1/4 tsp each of ground cinnamon and cloves–I just threw in a whole clove that I accidentally crunched on later; and finally, salt and pepper to taste.

Simmer over a low heat for 20mins. When this is done you can sprinkle it with 1/4 cup of slivered almonds that you’ve fried in a bit of oil–I missed this touch since I didn’t have any slivered almonds and didn’t feel like the trouble of blanching, chopping and frying regular almonds. I’d bother if someone other than me was eating this.

So that’s the filling for the tacos.

The Tacos de Picadillo are just a matter of assembly. I used some small, soft tortillas and filled them with the Picadillo, added some Salsa Verde Mexicana Picante, and some shredded ice-berg lettuce that came in this week’s organic fruit and vege box. Ortiz recommends guacamole as well, but as I didn’t have any avocado, I substituted with some Greek yoghurt–I didn’t have any sour cream either.

I should mention that while the recipe book has recipes for both tortillas and the salsa verde I went for the pre-made and tinned varieties. I don’t think I’ll be too hard on myself for not making tortillas from scratch. As for the salsa verde, it’s a case of lack of availability of the key ingredient, tomatillo, the green tomatoes that seem to be used extensively in Mexican cooking. The closest I could find to this ingredient in my, admittedly, rather short search was an enormous tin of them, as big as those Golden Circle juice tins. On that shopping expedition, I went for the much smaller tin of ready made salsa. It seems to be quite simple, consisting of the tomatilloes, serrano chillies, onions, and coriander, to comprise a rather refreshing sauce.

Overall, I found this to be a really tasty meal. I hope I haven’t come across as too flaky in my lack of purity about all the substitutions. I used to be really up tight about such things, but ever since the woman at the Indian Grocers advised me that ‘you cook with what you have’, I’ve felt a whole lot freer about making substitutions. Maybe what’s worrying me is that I used tinned things instead of fresh, but again, needs must.

When I first flicked through the book in Books for Cooks, I thought that the ingredients would be a bit more accessible than they’ve proved to be so far. Much of my decision to get the book was based upon the use of pineapple and banana and other sub-tropical ingredients readily available in South East Queensland. I was intrigued by the use of fruit throughout–and perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve since learnt that the used of fruit derives from the Spanish influence on Mexican cuisine via the Moorish influence on Spanish cuisine. Here I like to think that my use of kangaroo adds an Australian influence to Mexican cuisine.

Another reason I bought the book was because there’s a fellow post-graduate at uni who is Mexican, and on the subject of Mexican food in Brisbane, Australia even, she is dismissive. ‘Tex-Mex’ she sniffs when people ask her about Mexican food in restaurants. Her response has long piqued my curiosity because it made me aware that of course all I know of Mexican food is Tex-Mex, exemplified by the ‘Mexican’ section in the supermarket that consists entirely of Old El Paso products.

I guess at the moment I’m sort of stuck between wanting to know more about Mexican food and being faced with the trouble of getting the ingredients. I don’t think I’m ready to give up just yet, because clearly there’s a whole lot more to know–about all the varieties of chilli alone. First, I’ll be a bit more concerted in my efforts to find suppliers in Brisbane.

Araluen 2008: Paella


Please note that the family Virgo has already advised me that I didn’t stitch the pictures together too well.

My old and dear friend Stevie is a regular commenter here and blogs on his beefchange (like a treechange, but with cattle) at WoodenSpoon.  He and our friend  Captain Ken (that is his nom de progrock.  No, I am not kidding.) are part of a group of friends who started camping together at Araluen on the last weekend in November every year since their first year at university, 1983. When I was in Year 7. Just sayin’.

We first went three years ago, and again this November.  We had planned to go each time in between, but life and a Federal election intervened.

The hosts are Fabian and Judy, at the family property on the Deua River.  The valley is in lush stone fruit growing country, 30 clicks inland from Moruya and a couple of hours from Canberra.  There is a beautiful old wooden house with about 80 rainwater tanks, an Aga cooker and a big fireplace. At every turn there’s another little verandah with a couple more comfy chairs to sit in and admire the view.

A ten minute trek down the truly stupid hill takes you to a beautiful grassy flat near the river.  It wasn’t in flow this year, but there’s still a beautiful warm swimming hole surrounded by very steep treed banks.  And there’s a nice little flat shady spot where responsible parents can nurse their hangovers and respond when one of the kids shouts more loudly than usual from their floating crocodile.

As the years have gone by, there are more and more kids, but adults still slightly outnumber them.  There is a core of four-day campers, and others come and go for a night, or a day or two as they can manage.

There are some Big Serious Jobs that smooth the whole event, like mowing the flat with the tractor and chainsawing up enough wood to keep the fire burning all weekend.  Fortunately there are many big capable men who really get into those bits, which leaves the chicks some time for sitting around.

There is usually one big special meal together on the Saturday night.  The rest of the time, you make something when you or the kids are hungry and whoever fancies some is welcome.  Special meals in the past have included camp oven pizzas made to order by Simon, a whole fire roasted pig, a baked dinner, etc.  They are not always successes – the spectre of The Great Boiler Chicken Disaster of 1987 hang heavy over the air this year, when a paella with chicken and chorizo for sixteen was to be the main event.

Fabian was the Maestro of the paella and others brought tapas to share – huge green olives a, fiery spiced almonds, batatas bravas and anchovies with pickled chillies.

Fabian was planning to triple this Gourmet Traveller recipe for eight, and it had some specific information about how the cooking should be done for authenticity:

As with all classics, paella varies from village to village and even from household to household. Some say true paella Valenciana must be cooked outside over a fire made of orange branches, dished up with a boxwood spoon and eaten only at midday. In his book, Catalan Cuisine, Andrew Colman goes one further and writes that for men cooking and sharing paella, the only acceptable topics of conversation are “women, bullfighting and crops”.

The first stage was the lengthy browning of chicken pieces and chorizo.  Fortunately Fabian has a gargantuan wok from their Webber. While that was going on, the prep squad had mobilised. It takes a long time to infuse six litres of chicken stock with saffron on a gas ring, but there were many helpers.

Also, there was a bloke just standing around. Perhaps he was trying to work out whether the camping party had been infiltrated by one of the Milats.

One of the tricky things that the recipe didn’t mention was how to manage water from the tarp above you bucketing into the wok. We found that stationing a tall person there to artfully empty the pooling tarp worked OK.

It’s hard to serve paella glamorously when you’re to be eating off your lap wearing a headlamp and it’s pissing down, but you’re very unlikely to get any complaints. I had two helpings, and extra for breakfast. Next year: Woks of Fire!

There’s a set of the paella, and of the whole camp at flickr.

Dr Sister Outlaw: the food averse child is taking da heat

This summer I am having the biggest adventure ever and going to Asia for the very first time. It’s my 40th birthday present to myself, and although I initially planned the trip as a running away affair, I eventually decided to take the little one with me. Only problem is, he doesn’t like chilli.

I can understand that. I wasn’t raised to eat chilli, being Tasmanian as well as growing up in the house of a 10 pound pom with serious issues with flavour. It wasn’t really a feature of cooking in the student houses I’d lived in and I remember arriving in Sydney and perusing Thai and Sichuan Chinese restaurant menus in desperation, because everything seemed to have more chilli in it than I could bear.

My awakening was a Thai beef salad that hurt so much to eat it made my face burn purple and caused fat oily tears to roll down my cheeks but, once the 90 seconds of agony passed the flavour was so exquisite that you were prepared to do it all again. I never looked back, although I remain bemused by friends, particularly blokes, who seem to have permanently destroyed their tastebuds by overdosing on chilli. Nor would I ever eat an entire dorset naga. This Aussie bloke reckons it destroyed his sense of taste for 36 hours. Why would you do that?

The other extreme is, of course no chilli at all, and it has been hard living with a boy who is determined to avoid spice. He did make a concerted effort when he was five (announcing ‘I’m going to change my life’). Like most New Year’s resolutions, it didn’t last. But now we have to get into serious training, otherwise he’ll be stuck with Chinese food in Thailand, and what a shame that would be.

Fortunately he is prepared to take on the chilli challenge. Last week I bought a green chilli, and chopped the end off it for him. He ate it, apprehensively, but survived and was prepared to go one step further. My fingers were laden with the juice from the seeds so I placed one finger lightly on his tongue, and watched while he went ‘phwoar!’ and realised, for the first time, that chilli is joyous, as well as painful. Now he sees chillis in the supermarket and wonders …

We’re so excited about the trip, and I know that nothing we make here will ever taste as good as it does over there. I also know we can’t really prepare for the blasts of chilli to come and there will be tears – mine as well as his. But we’ve enjoyed upping the chilli ante and there have been some cool experiments, including chilli chocolate. One of those experiments, which I was inspired to make following a discussion on this blog about caramelising onions, was this nice quick chilli sambal. It involves my favourite chilli sauce, sambal oelek, which I love for its saltiness, particularly when blended with things like tempeh and Vietnamese mint.

Quick chilli onion sambal
Take two onions and slice them very thinly. Warm a tablespoon of sesame or peanut oil in a heavy saucepan. Add the onions and cook, covered, on a slow-moderate heat for at least 10 minutes until they go transparent and are beginning to brown. Take the lid off the pot, step up the heat a bit and add a tablespoon of brown sugar (or palm sugar) and a tablespoon of sambal oelek. Sit with it and cook it off until it’s a nice rich sticky, orangey brown, gloopy mess (don’t let it catch and burn). You end up with this;


The sugar and salt counter each other perfectly. It makes a terrific sauce for fish, or alongside spuds – it would be very good with tofu or tempeh. I also ate it with Francis Xavier Holden’s beef curry and it was fine. Obviously, if you want it properly hot, doubling the sambal oelek doubles the heat, and the onion can take it. Not sure the seven year old can …