Anthony’s Authentic™ Soupe ou Pistou

Mid-autumn in Melbourne coincided with a burst of hot weather, which meant fresh borlotti beans were in my green grocer’s at the same time I was contemplating how to cook summery meals. My thoughts turned to soup. Now normally, in Melbourne’s peak temperatures, the only soup that attracts is a cold and garlicky gazpacho. But my second favourite warm weather soup is soup au pistou. This is basically a pretty bland soup based around (ideally fresh) shelled beans, some pasta, potatoes and summer vegetables (zucchini, green beans) which is enlivened by a spoonful of pistou (which, as we’ll see, is just the Provençal version of pesto) stirred into bowls at the last minute.

<img src="https://progressivedinnerparty.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/borlottibeans.jpg&quot; class="center frame"

I was first introduced to this soup in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, but have more recently followed a recipe of Patricia Wells, which I adapt below.

The success of the soup as a summer tonic lies of course in the pistou. And the secret of a good pistou is a mortar and pestle, not a food processor. Patience Gray in her remarkable book Honey from a Weed has a whole introductory chapter on ‘chopping and pounding’. There she writes: ‘Pounding fragrant things – particularly garlic, basil, parsley – is a tremendous antidote to depression…Pounding these things produces an alteration in one’s being – from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure. The cheering effects of herbs and alliums cannot be too often reiterated’.

Before I get to the recipe, I just want to reiterate what a peculiar — in a good way — cookbook Gray’s book is. She co-wrote an earlier cookbook, published as a Penguin paperback, with Primrose Boyd in the 1950s, called Plats du Jour, then she absconded to Europe to make a life with a Flemish sculptor for the next forty or fifty years, living in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia: in effect, chasing the marble that a sculptor needs.

One remarkable aspect of her book lies in the subtitle: ‘Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cylcades and Apulia’. Not only does the word ‘fasting’ rarely appear in connection with contemporary cookbooks, but here it is given priority of place before the word ‘feasting’.

Many contemporary cookbooks on regional cuisines are embedded in some sort of narrative — explicit or implied — about The Quest for Authenticity. It is not enough to know that we are going to use olive oil in a recipe; we need to be told that the dish was originally tasted on a hiking trip near Carrara, using oil obtained from the first pressing from the gnarled trees of a domestic grove of a poor but honest Italian farmer and so on. This Quest for Authenticity along with a persistent nostalgia coalesces to give us the Mediterranean Diet as Culinary Pastoral. Yet what we today evoke as the Mediterranean Diet probably bears little relation to how most Mediterraneans ate for most of history. Up until relatively recently, the Mediterranean diet was one of long seasons of malnutrition, interspersed with episodes of famine.

Gray’s book is one of the few Mediterranean cookbooks to acknowledge this in its overall approach. She captures what the anthropologist Carole Counihan, writing about rural Sardinia, observed when referring to an ‘iron clad ethic of consumption: daily consumption took place within the family and was parsimonious; festive consumption took place within society at large and was prodigal’, there being a ‘rhythmic oscillation between these two different modes’.

So yes, Gray’s cookbook-cum-travel memoir does play the authenticity card, but without the reassurance and comfort and warm fuzziness that comes with most books of this genre. At one stage she watches, and describes for the reader, a Greek islander woman’s method of cooking fresh haricot beans into a soup over an outdoor fire. When Gray takes some of the surplus soup to a neighbour, the neighbour ‘believing them to be cooked by me and foreign in consequence, later threw them to the pig’. The Mediterranean diet, like Tolstoy’s ideal of love, can be a harsh and dreadful thing.

Anyhow, the promised recipe for La Soupe au Pistou:

If you have access to fresh borlotti beans, buy half a kilo which will come down to around 200 – 250 g shelled beans.

Warm some oil in a saucepan with chopped garlic and some thyme sprigs, parsley sprigs and a bay leaf or two. Add the beans and cook for a minute or two. Add a litre of hot water and cover and simmer for around ten minutes.

In another pot, start the soup: oil, onions and garlic sweated over a low heat. Add chopped carrots, chopped potatoes and again more bay leaves, some thyme and parsley sprigs. Saute all this for ten minutes or so, stirring regularly, to build depth of flavour.

Then add the beans and their cooking liquid to the vegetables with some diced zucchini and some tomatoes (fresh or from a tin, whatever’s at hand) and another litre of water. Simmer gently until all is cooked. Add some small pasta shapes and cook until the pasta is cooked.

Serve the soup hot, passing both pistou and grated pecorino or parmigiano cheese to swirl into the soup

Pistou:

For pesto or pistou, I’d go with a cup of basil leaves pounded together with a tablespoon of pine nuts, a clove of garlic, half a teaspoon of salt and four tablespoons of olive oil. Enjoy.

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‘Mum, you overgrew them!’: Dr Sister Outlaw’s bountiful home harvest

It’s been a lovely summer and autumn of eating in my vege patch. Every day since November I have been harvesting herbs, rambling for raspberries, slurping shockingly sweet strawberries and, when the alliteration got too much, unearthing spuds from mulch, snapping leaves of kale and silver beet and devouring zucchinis. The only disappointment of the season was the tomatoes, which resented the foot of rain we got in one weekend in January and sulked throughout the extended warm dry period we enjoyed until yesterday. I’m not bothered. That wet summer and long autumn made growing everything else easy. I still have strawberries!

strawberries

Easy is good, because I am not diligent in the garden (or many other places, if you really want to know). I am prone to fits and starts and sometimes ignore things. I’m not always cooking so I don’t get to things in time. In the garden, this forgetfulness can have spectacular results.

These Hollow Crown parsnips looked so pretty in the vege patch that I was loth to dig them up, but maybe I shoulda done it sooner, because they got a bit … large (that’s a full size 1940s sink they are sitting on). Notice the rather ladylike limbs on the top one? I did wonder if these were really mandrakes (or ladydrakes), but luckily they did not scream when cooked. Parsnips get a bad rap, as this story about Don Burke ripping Donna Hay a new one for daring to promote them reveals. He is wrong. Parsnips are delicious. Which doesn’t explain why I ignored them so comprehensively they grew legs.

But then my marrows got into a similar state, as you can see with this cucumber, modelled by my lovely assistant Aaron, who adores cucumbers but is not sure about this one.

I’ve blogged about the advantages of overgrown zucchinis before, but I love baby beets and slender parsnips, roasted with brown sugar and balsamic, so there’s really no accounting for letting things go to this extent.

Yet this neglect has had benign – nay, wonderful – results. OK, if you ever saw a parsnip the size and shape of the ones above in a shop, you would never buy it, and neither you should. It would be tough, woody of heart and bitter of taste, because it would have endured long periods in transit and storage. But when taken straight from the earth (with a giant fork and a lot of grunting), even massive parsnips are sweet, juicy and yielding. I casseroled some with a jointed chook, a cup of white wine, preserved lemon and a bit of sage and tarragon and the result was a sauce that looked like I’d added a cup of cream to it. I nearly died of pleasure eating it. I also made them into a vegan soup with vege stock and white wine – they smelled apple sweet. 

Same goes for the beetroot, which were so overgrown they stood up out of the ground but united heaven and earth when cooked into a soup with coriander and served with a dollop of tart yoghurt. But again, you wouldn’t buy beetroot like that in a shop. You’d surmise it would be past its peak of perfection, but you would be wrong.

It’s made me think a lot about how aesthetic notions of shop-ready produce lead to waste. What do the farmers do with the produce that does not meet Coles-Woollies specifications because it is too big, too small or looks like mandrake? I suppose some goes to canneries, but precious little would be returned to the earth via compost.

Growing to order can also afflict home gardeners, to their cost. If we only eat when vegetables reach a defined size, we miss the early tenderness of baby vegetables and shorten the eating season. If you cut the head off a cabbage or silverbeet or lettuce you kill it, but if you harvest outside leaves as you need them it will bear for months and months – over the course of a year a bunch of kale will become a palm tree. Peas and beans produce longer if harvested constantly, so it makes even more sense to pick early and often. If you leave things in the ground there is always something to salvage when you are hungry. And although most gardening books would tell you beetroots and parsnips take a lot of space, the fact is I’ve gotten almost six months of eating from stuffing a couple of dozen plants into a square metre of garden, and have not tired of either food. You see, even the instructions on seed packets guide you to producing shop-ready vegetables.

My slack gardening habits have led me to an epiphany. It’s time to break free from supermarket values. Don’t follow the directions on the seed packet but overplant and eat as you thin – the plants left over will fatten in the extra space and be there when you want them. Eat the leaf the caterpillar has chomped on, grow the artichokes to see their beauty, let the beets and parsnips stay in the ground until you are good and ready for them and save your harvesting energy for turning summer peaches into bellinis or racing the autumn frosts to tuck the tender things into the really deep freeze.

My name is Dr Sister Outlaw and I admit I am a pudding addict

There has been a fair bit of twittering and emailing going on between those of us who have made Christmas puddings this year using my tried and tested recipe.

There has also been more than a little fiddling. My Brother Outlaw added cumquats to his, and Zoe has added port and figs and various other things. I could, if I was that way inclined, get annoyed at the traducing of the recipe, and suffer a fit of pique at the failure of my friends and family to, you know, fall into line and follow my directions. But a brief survey of my relationship history would reveal that I am not myself the sort of girl who likes to do the same old thing year in and year out and, in any case, I am outrageously competitive.

Which brings me to another point. In the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Living mag this week there was a story about some chick called Kirsty who invites all these women around to make puddings, according to her recipe. Apparently she’s been doing it for years and years. Obviously she is much better at getting her friends and family to fall into line and maybe serving them alcohol helps, but probably she associates with timid wilting types who would never experiment with a recipe and are happy to be told what to do. Like sheep, or members of the NSW ALP Right Caucus.

Well, I’d like to remind readers that here at PDP we value free speech, free expression, and opportunities to spread pudding goodness far and wide. We’ve had our very own virtual and real life pudding competitions. The results were inconclusive, but the eating was very good indeed (as was the drinking and company).

And so, in that spirit, I launch this open thread, where we can share pudding tips and recipes (it really isn’t too late to make one, trust me), and share our thoughts as to the results. I know that, as I type this, Zoe is cooking hers. I cooked mine this week as well. Traditionally, I add 900 grammes of fruit, which is mostly currants and raisins (360g each) plus a mixture of peel/ginger/glace cherries (adding up to 180g). I also add some hazelnuts. This year I did 300g currants, 300g figs and a combo of dates, cranberries, ginger and peel (to get up to 900g). Kind of Middle East meets Northern Europe, and, as I add brandy and hazelnuts (Central Europe) and Vodka (Eastern Europe), my pud is gonna be totally Continental.

What have you done? (And Zoe, what’s in yours?)

(Zoe adds – if you’d like to include an image in your comment, post a link to an online version or email a jpg about 380 wide and we’ll magic it up.)

Emica is celebrating Slava

I have the good fortune to have married into a Balkan family – Montenegrin and Serbian, to be precise. One of the many great things about getting to know another culture intimately is the extra excuses for excessive eating. It was my in-laws’ Slava today, which, traditionally speaking, now makes it my Slava too. Slava is part of the Orthodox tradition and is a family’s saint day. Every family has a different saint day, although there are more families than saints so there’s a fair bit of cross over. Back in the day, Slava was a serious religious occasion, celebrated with a visit to church and the priest calling on the family and giving them a blessing. Traditionally, a bread decorated with the sign of the cross and other religious symbols was served along with “koljivo”, which is boiled wheat with nuts and spices.

Celebrating Slava was not generally encouraged in socialist Yugoslavia, although many people did still observe it. These days Slava seems to be celebrated as an occasion to get the family together and eat pork. I am very enthusiastic about both family get togethers and roast pig, so today I did sticky pork ribs with rum glaze (thanks Nigella) and homemade coleslaw, plus smashed potatoes (thanks Jill Dupleix) and rye bread – minus the family bit, seeing as we’re on the other side of the world. I have to admit, it was a bit off piste with the rum glaze – a whole pig on a spit would probably have been more authentic – but it was in keeping with the two Balkan mainstays of pork and cabbage. And, anyway, the other thing I’ve learnt about Balkan culture is that they really know how to have a good time and these ribs were really, really finger licking good.

slava

Saltbush City Limits

I haven’t been blogging, but of course I have been eating. Rather well, actually. And although twitter often provides a distraction from actually writing something on the blog, occasionally it fuels it too.

A couple of weeks ago, I won a twitter competition held by Tim Elwin of posh wholesale delivery firm Urban Food Market (he’s @urbanfoodmarket). If the words “twitter competition” make you think of winning a lollipop or nice warm feeling, think again – I scored a $150 box of Bultarra saltbush lamb.

Bultarra lamb

I’ve only had saltbush lamb once before, and was disappointed. I bought it from a person at the Farmer’s Markets in Canberra who was an agent, not the producer, and there was nothing about it to justify the extra cost. I’ve since found out from friend-of-a-friend Graham Strong who runs Arcadia Saltbush Lamb that many producers don’t graze their flocks on Old Man Saltbush for the extended period that’s necessary to really ramp up the flavour. As always, it pays to investigate your food, particularly if you’re buying a premium product.

Still, I was eager to try it because I’d read very high praise for Bultarra lamb from Neil of At My Table, whose blog has happily come back to life. It’s free range, naturally grazed, doesn’t have any nasty shit in it and the lambs aren’t mulesed. And, according to Neil, “the salt bush confers a concentrated lamb taste, not gamey in any way, just full on, robust, flavour; it was almost like eating lamb for the first time“.

When Tim announced he’d be giving some away, I sat glued to the computer. I whizzed in superfast with the answer to his question (about his site) and did a little happy dance when I found out I was in luck, because I am always greedy keen to try new artisanal Australian produce.

Urban Food Market is a Sydney-based business, but Tim arranged delivery to the in-laws when we were passing through town for family visits and packed it in an esky to bring home. As it lasts well refrigerated for a couple of weeks in its packaging we decided to not freeze any and have a lamb-fest instead.

The pack included a couple of rib racks. I’ve only encountered lamb ribs once before, and it wasn’t a happy experience. We’d bought a whole beast from my sister in law’s farm, Coolumbooka, in Southern NSW. It’d been butchered down there, and they’d bagged up the ribs in some vile sweet gunk that was no doubt purchased in an industrial drum.

With meat this good, I wanted to keep it fairly simple and focus on its inherent flavour. Serendipitously, the November Gourmet Traveller has a recipe for lamb ribs that looked perfect. You make a paste of lemon zest, dried oregano and mint, a tiny bit of chilli and EVOO. Fortunately oregano and mint are the only dried herbs I believe in, and it all was on hand to marinate overnight.

lamb

I copped the 34 degree heat today to bake them at 150 degrees. You need to use a rack in a baking dish to drain the fattiness, and cover the trays with foil to keep them moist. Then a rest until dinner time.

lamb 2

You finish the racks over a hot chargrill, which leaches out any last too-fatty bits, and crisps and colours them. I decided against the GT salad, but made one with watercress, cos and fennel from the garden. I had some fresh borlotti beans, and some broad beans from my friend Lyn’s garden, so used the GT’s thyme and mustard dressing on them. I also made a tiny bowl of cherry tomatoes with chilli and lemon juice and some fritters of corn and our own asparagus, adapting a recipe from Michael Ruhlman’s brilliant cookbook Ratio.

eating lamb

Owy started eating first (I was still pouring the wine) and he made some very odd noises. I asked him if it was OK, but he kept chewing and didn’t say anything. He finally answered in two words, the second of which was “Yeah!” and first one of which was rude. Very rude, in fact. Then he said “Spectacular”.

The meat had the depth of flavour and rich intensity that I was hoping for, but the real blowout was the incredible melting texture. I finally get why people rave about Saltbush lamb – and I’m very excited about the other cuts still waiting. A big fat thank you to Tim and Urban Food Market. Any suggestions or recommendations for particularly delicious ways of cooking the other cuts (a beautiful rack, shanks and an easy-carve leg roast) are welcome.

15 November – updated to add: we’ve just had the second meal of the lamb, this time a rack seared quickly and finished in the oven on top served with a saute of dutch cream potatoes, asparagus and broad bean and a rocket salad. It is now officially Best Lamb Eva.

Emica has a disappointment at Nahm

I mentioned to Zoe that a couple of weekends ago The Man decided it was about time he took me out- gosh! – and we went to Nahm, and she forwarded me a Terry Durack article praising Nahm in a recent piece on Sydney Thai food. Terry’s right about London having few great Thai options, but I am sorry to report that I’m not as convinced as him that Nahm is one of them. For us, it was a 50/50 experience, which, given we had such high expectations, was disappointing.

I was initially surprised that, located in the lobby of a posh hotel, Nahm looks like any restaurant located in the lobby of a posh hotel. I’ve no idea what traditional Thai decor is, although I’m pretty sure the kitschy knick knacks festooning my local Thai up the road aren’t, but the rather hootchy-kootchy bland light gold hotel chic room felt at odds with a cuisine that is so punchy, sweet/ sour, salty/ hot and fragrant. Not exactly something to complain about, but not what I imagined a Michelin starred temple of Thai food would look like.

After a bit of confusion on our part following complicated instructions about how to order from the five separate menu sections to ensure a balanced meal (soups, stir fries, salads etc), we ordered the tasting menu that had one thing from each section. An early disappointment for me was the entree, which was a beautifully presented crispy noodle net with prawn and herb salad. It was nice, and the crispy noodles were very cool, but it didn’t sing with the Thai flavours. It tasted a bit beige.

Apparently the kitchen was saving all the seasoning for just two dishes. The main fault with our meal was two dishes that were so salty we could only manage a couple of mouthfuls of each. There was an eel & pork stir fry and a mallard salad which were Dead Sea salty. It was such a shame because the duck in individual pieces was lovely but the overall effect was overwhelmingly salty and really killed any other flavour. The eel thing was scorched earth on a plate. I got the impression they’d salted it to get a crispy skin, which it had, but went overboard. I don’t know if that’s how they’re meant to taste and I’m just a soft westerner who can’t take a bit of enthusiastic seasoning, but after those two bad boys, the inside of my lips felt like when I’d been swimming too long at the beach – sort of pickled and wrinkled. However, the hot and sour soup with clams could raise the dead! It was poetry in a bowl – no, actually more like old skool motown (y’know- get up, get on up etc). And the grilled kingfish was beautifully marinated.

We had been told that the tasting menu is served in the Thai style, with everything served at the same time. But the tricky bit about that, especially when there are just the two of you, is that everything gets cold while you eat other things, which kinda made me feel rushed to get through each thing before it got stone cold – even the rice ended up cold! I can now see the point of those slightly daggy rice buckets they have in Chinese restaurants. I’m not quite as hung up as my mum on scalding hot food, but I am the kind of girl who always heats my plates, so food that’s the cold side of lukewarm isn’t great.

The desserts were interesting. I just had a plate of exotic tropical fruit, only two I could name but delicious. The Man had something called ‘ash pudding’ which was a rice pudding – yummy salty-sweet in the same way as salted caramel- and a sort of quenelle of black sticky stuff. It really did taste like vaguely aniseed flavoured dirt.

It was a shame we weren’t blown away because we’d been so looking forward to it. The Man and I agreed that, actually, our local Thai outclassed this meal in many ways and at a fraction of the price.

What are your Thai eating experiences? Dr Sista Outlaw, I would be interested to know about your experiences of ‘real’ Thai food versus restaurant Thai.

When you’re the tool of the day…

Why would the fifteen-year-old Tom opine such a comment from the back seat of his Dad’s car as we wend our way out of Cooma on Sunday night? Being one of four tired, sore, happy boys on their way back from the snow? Research data has its price.

tool

Since 1977 there has been a Greek milk bar/café/restaurant just north of the main roundabout in the main street of Cooma. My research data tells me so. We visited this restaurant, the Tourist Cafe Restaurant & BYO, three times on this trip. The first time, at 7.30 on Thursday night, was to discover that they only do takeaways between 7.30 and eight, as they try to clear the dining room of guests. On Thursday there were two more-elderly-than-any-of-us grey-haired gents busy writing at tables at either end of the dining room as we waited for our takeaways, and they weren’t budging. But a nice touch, which added to the ambience, we thought.

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