Christmas Food Open Thread – Hits and Misses at table

Eating at this time of year is often spoken of as if it’s some kind of naughty thing – in a world where high fructose corn syrup invades every aisle of the supermarket, some are eager to pile shame on centuries old traditions of festive indulgence.

Well, they’re idiots. Give me the life where a family celebrates each other’s company with day after day of endless deliciousness or where a group of vegan friends build their own traditions, blowing each other’s minds with tables laden with goodness, year after year.

In this spirit, contributor Anthony has suggested an open thread on Christmas food failures and successes – he’s going to tell us about curing his own ham, which I’m pretty excited to hear about as it’s something I’d love to do.

As for me, this year’s failure was the Coffin Bay Oysters, which were not fresh enough. Boo! My sister in law had bought them (opened) the day before, they’d been in the fridge the whole time (wrapped) but they smelt odd and had a weird black slick on the shells. That’s why the flesh is still there under the piles of crayfish, served with butter melted with a touch of their mustard – sublime, and all the sweeter for the oyster disaster.

Despite being a bit crook (nothing serious, don’t worry) I still managed to glaze the ham, but instead of leaving it to marinate for hours and hours I whipped up something in five minutes. Fortunately I reaped the benefits of years of consistent kitchen-pottering and pantry-filling, basing the glaze on a tart apricot sauce made from our own apricots. Sadly, the aged tree has since had to be cut down and the sauce will never be the same – your own apricots always make the best sauce.

This year’s real triumph however was a masterpiece of Christmas leftovers, the ham and prawn bahn xeo:

All the virtues of using up the leftovers, with lots and lots of crunchy fresh things and a zingy sour-and-hot sauce. Perfect Boxing Day fare. Rather than include chillies in the sauce, they were on the side and the kids loved them too. Based on this Ottolenghi recipe from Plenty.

Open thread, so at it – what did you get right and wrong this Christmas?


Kirsty Presents: High-Tea Princesses

This time last week I was in the throes of preparing to cater for my niece’s 7th birthday party. Last week, right about now, in fact, I was studying the shelves at Woolworth’s Indooroopilly, hesitating between the standard packet of Dollar Sprinkles and the fairy-themed one. At that point I hadn’t fully decided on how I was going to manage to decorate the requested princess cake. I knew I was going to attempt to fashion a semblance of a princess atop a coconut cake using icing and my cheap cake decoration piping set, but as to the details of the glitter and sparkles, well, I was making those up in the supermarket.

I had offered to host my niece’s birthday party a month ago, after my family had celebrated my sister’s birthday at a garden centre cafe. While the garden centre’s cafe was perfectly fine, as we discussed Hannah’s forthcoming birthday, most of us still had memories of the over-priced outing that was my mother’s birthday a few months earlier: $45 for an average high-tea amongst some very pretty decor. The decor, while lovely, certainly wasn’t worth $15 dollars more than the usual price of a high-tea in these parts.

I’m not certain why my family has this high-tea obsession. Something to do with coming from England and wanting to play at being the Ladies we’re not, I suppose. Or perhaps it’s an excuse to eat way too many cakes, the sandwiches merely being a face-saving preliminary. Yes, the latter is more likely. Anyway, it seems the older members of this family have had a corrupting influence on the youngest member, since Hannah now associates all birthday celebrations with fancy, miniature cakes, delicate sandwiches and champagne-flutes of sparkling apple juice. When I volunteered to host her family party–her mother’s side of her family, anyway–Hannah put her own twist on the occasion and requested tiaras and sparkles. And since I’m a total push-over when it comes to my niece, I was determined to throw the best princess-themed party I could.

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Live blogging the after-party party

[By Ampersand Duck] Aloha from chez PDP, where Jethro is mushing up tinned tomatoes in the tin with a bread & butter knife whilst yelling like a ninja, Zoe is explaining how hard the Bhutanese neighbours can party to my lovely brother-in-law (S) who has been to Bhutan and loves it, all the other kids are battling at deafness level in the loungeroom, Best Beloved and Dr Sista Outlaw are quietly and tired-ly drinking their way through some of the Studio Warming leftover booze, and Owen is supervising the Pudding-Off boiling on a couple of gas burners in the front yard.

We are all high from a great afternoon, where I did not much more than stand and talk to most of the guests (I missed some, or pretty much anyone who didn’t push in and make themselves known)and take lots of kind and gushy compliments — but I was only able to do this because of this fabulous bunch of people. They cooked, chopped, plated (!), laid out glasses, poured, cleaned, washed and picked up. I’ve never been in the position to need that sort of back-up, and I can see how it could be pretty addictive [Naomi, aka Dr Sista Outlaw, requested that I mention that Underground Lovers are on in the background. Wow, so they are. The layers of sound in this room are amazing.]; I’m jealous of people who have agents and managers.

We are going to celebrate a successful celebration by eating. My initial thought was to go to a restaurant, since I thought everyone would be sick of kitchenwork, but generous Zoe wants to feed us all, so she’s whipping up a quick bacon & tomato pasta for the kids, and we’re having a mushroom and truffle risotto (she made me smell fresh truffle at the markets this morning… OMG). But we can’t eat too much because we have not one, not two but THREE full-size Christmas puddings to taste and discuss… three versions of the same pudding, cooked by BB, Naomi and Zoe, and the differences and quality will be taken very seriously.

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Paying homage – Dr Sister Outlaw’s Tassie scallop and flathead pie

In Tasmania you have to work hard to find land that is not regularly kissed by salt air, so it is no surprise that our national dish is the scallop pie. Scallops are cute, lively shellfish that skitter and flutter along the sea bed, particularly in estuaries, and are delightfully easy to pick up with a trawler. They were overfished to breaking point in the 1980s and the fishery was closed, but valuable lessons about sustainability were learned and now, while lots of other people around the world also snap them up, we Tasmanians can, once again, put them in our pies.

Pies are a great way to stretch a luxury ingredient a long way, although the traditional Tasmanian scallop pie might, by some, be seen as bastardisation. It consists of a flaky pastry case containing a small number of scallops smothered in a sometimes gelatinous bechamel sauce, flavoured with Keens curry powder and tomato sauce. Note that no connoisseur criticises the use of Keen’s curry powder, as it is intensely Tasmanian, but the tomato sauce is controversial – see my friend Scott’s scallop pie ratings for details. Of course they are magnificent if eaten on a cold day, on the end of a pier that stretches into the tannin-stained waters of the Huon and Derwent estuaries, when the flathead are biting. But it’s hard to translate the sensation this far from the sea, so I created this one to capture its essence.

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Pamela Faye says: Beet this

Glorious beet, the queen of the garden: vibrant, voluptuous, earthy and packed full of more goodness per gram than any other vegetable. If beets had beds they would insist on a four-poster with velvet curtains because the humble root just doesn’t get lusher than this. Even the six rather pathetic looking specimens I picked up from an almost empty tray in the back corner of the local Woolies proved capable of filling the pot with an explosion of colour and flavour.

A gathering of disparate friends in a small suburban kitchen on a cold winter’s night (a thick frost had formed on the cars outside even before we had finished mains) was the perfect occasion to bust out a bit of beet action in the form of a borsch. What I love about this particular recipe is the degree to which each guest can nuance the taste and texture of their bowl to suit their mood. Feeling like a little tart? Add a bit more sour cream. Need to carbo-load for the ten minute walk to the shops in the morning? Add some potatoes. Your razor-sharp wit getting in the way of small talk with the cutie sitting next to you? Add a little dill. Served with a cheese board of cheddar, stinky blue, organic figs, dried apricots and roasted almonds, and a choice of fluffy white or fruit loaf, this went down a treat.

Two cattle dogs wrestling under the table and oodles of red wine added considerably to the pleasure of the borsch and the general chaotic atmosphere of the evening. The conceptual-artist-turned-art-blogger hypnotised my puppy, and then called the independent-activist-documentary-filmmaker on her paranoia about all things ‘nano’. At the other end of the table myself and another anthropologist grooved to some Italian lounge jazz, while an expert in Taiwanese art tried to get her head around the difficulties of building houses in remote Aboriginal communities being explained by a bureaucrat in a position to know. The only time the ruckus died down was when the historian of Jewish Lithuanian execution sites shocked us all with a detailed account of how to identify mass graves using ground penetrating radar.

If it sounds like I’m bragging about how interesting my dining pals were it is because I am. They are all ace individuals whose munificent friendship, along with the borsch and the wine, helped to take the chill off my winter blues for at least another day.


Luscious Borsch


6 beetroots
Veggie stock to taste
1 large onion
2 sticks of celery
Lemon or vinegar
4 boiled eggs, chopped into chunks
4 boiled potatoes, chopped in to chunks
Sour cream
Salt and pepper to taste


Trim and boil the beetroots for half an hour or so, until tender. Cool, skin and dice into small cubes. Brown finely chopped onions with celery, add beetroot and stock and bring to the boil. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for twenty minutes. Add finely chopped dill and juice of one lemon, or a tablespoon or so of vinegar, and simmer for another ten or until done. Puree, and if too thick add a little water.

Serve hot. Provide sides of chopped boiled potato, sour cream, more dill, chopped parsley, and chopped boiled eggs (or anything else you think might go well – pickles? chives?) and add these to your bowl with generous whimsy reflecting the mood of the moment.

Masterchef fantasy restaurant menus – here’s mine

Tuesday’s Masterchef this week featured the remaining contestants (other than Lucas and Julia) being given an opportunity to make a three course meal that they would love to serve in their own restaurant/cafe. There’s much entertaining to-ing and fro-ing about the structure of the program, etc, at Reality Raving. I for one assumed that they’d been given some notice so that the ingredients they wanted – unusual in Chris’ case, unseasonal in Sam’s – could be organised.

While I will never enter Masterchef, wanting neither a career as a chef nor a role in a reality TV show, I can indulge for a few minutes a happy fantasy about what I might cook given a similar challenge.

My fantasy joint is both local, and seasonal, so to start I would offer a little glass of creamy Jerusalem artichoke soup with truffle straws. It would look a little like the fennel/orange/truffle soup from this post at Helen’s Grab Your Fork, but homelier rather than foamlier. Jerusalem artichoke soup has great depth without weight. It also provides lots of opportunities to make comments about flatulence, which might get any first date awkwardness off to a flying start. FWIW I think the soup is so good it’s worth a fart or two.

For a starter, I would offer a tasting plate of charcuterie and preserved veggies. With the Mountain Creek Farm heritage breed meats I so love I’d make a rustic pork terrine, accompanied by a tapendade made with the oily black Homeleigh Grove semi-dried olives, and a little medallion of poached and pressed beef tongue topped with some of my home-pickled, home-grown plums from last summer. I’d serve it with a herby salad – radicchio, baby endive, parsley, hazelnuts and thin tangelo segments in a mustardy dressing made with new season olive oil.

Main course would be a perfectly baked free range chook (that means a LOT of butter, some garlic, lemon and thyme) with a cauliflower gratin. Yep, cauliflower in cheesy white sauce – it might be naff, but hands up who hates it? The chicken would be sauced with a very simple puree of eschallots and sorrel which had been sweated in butter and finished with splash of cream and OK, I never said the Heart Foundation loved me, butter. There’d be some black (aka Tuscan aka lacinato aka dinosaur aka most alternatively named vegetable available or what) kale braised with olive oil and garlic, and some sweet baby carrots. The chook might look a bit like this:

But that’s not all for you, don’t be greedy. For dessert, I’d make a more elegant (and smaller) version of this Skye Gyngell – sourced recipe I made recently for a dinner party at my dear friend Cath’s place in Elizabeth Bay. I would make her give me her dear old dead Nan’s golden edged plates to use again (that’s Cath, not Skye). Little meringues, gooey inside their crisp shells, with a quenelle of chestnut poached in milk with vanilla bean* and chestnut honey, poached prunes and runny cream. Pardon the horrible flash photograph but it was a lovely long dinner and by her own admission Cath has more wine than God:

meringue cooked

Is that something you’d like to eat? And what would I be eating at your fantasy restaurant?

* Vanilla bean in Canberra I hear you ask? I’m not a purist on the seasonal and local thing – it’s a matter of emphasis, not a religion.

Pamela’s End Notes on Food and Direction


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As I type this a gentle rain is falling on an empty vegetable patch in my backyard in Canberra. There is little evidence of the tomatoes and chillies laden with fruit that I left behind three months ago. The plants are gone and the soil has been turned over and the garden is now littered with the newly-chewed bones of a desert dog called Sailor, my sole companion during the four day drive home from the Lands.

The journey south was broken up by a week in Melbourne spent re-civilising my wardrobe and my palate. I dodged swine flu but not the inevitable hangover that accompanied a night of fine dining with the man you may know as Nabakov. Should any of you ever have the pleasure, take note: he doesn’t do sardines or tofu, or any combination of the two, and likes his Scotch neat and in large quantities. I would have written a review of the evening but due to my own excessive consumption of wine and whiskey, details have been lost and I am left with only fragments and vague impressions. I do recall the barramundi was excellent and the cognac expensive, and that I laughed rather a lot and probably too loudly in between smoking all of Nabs’ cigarettes.

When I first got back to Canberra I took a few days to unpack, catch up with friends and try to get my head around the fact that I now have to write a very large thesis. It wasn’t until yesterday when I baked a batch of muffins that I finally began to relax. Baking, I have come to realise, makes me feel at home. For what it’s worth, here are some other reflections related to my original motivation for this blog. Over the past few months I have been constantly struck by the great efforts that people go to in order to eat well when they are living in difficult circumstances. Good food is celebrated and treated with respect. In this generalisation I include not only the many non-Aboriginal staff I met who delight in devising elaborate menus from basic items, hoard special ingredients and pay outrageous amounts of money for fresh green vegetables, but also the many Aboriginal men and women, some of whom are greatly advanced in years, who continue to make the effort to walk great distances across country in pursuit of the foods that they love: tirnka goannas, yams, kangaroo, bush onions etc. Sure, we are all guilty of the occasional chicken wing-ding from the local roadhouse, but that’s just what you eat when getting the food you really want is just too hard or too expensive.

My other observation is that it is the most temporary of places with the most transitory clientele that suffer the most from lack of care about food: the roadhouse restaurants along the 800km stretch of the Stuart Highway between Port Augusta and Alice Springs; the cafes at Yulara resort servicing the many thousands of tourists visiting Uluru every year; and the make-do meals I prepared for myself when spending a night camped on the side of the road.

One final recipe to share from my travels. During my last week in Lands I finally managed to secure the meal I had so greatly desired and long pursued without success. In their humble Warburton home, made cosy with a mix of boho Melbourne decor and wild desert paintings, the lovely Kate and Ben served me a fabulous feast of roast of camel. Our humped friend had been secured by the local camel hunter and did not disappoint: tasty without being overwhelmingly strong, firm but tender, no stringy bits and very little fat. Meat doesn’t get much better than this. With half a million feral camels wandering around Central Australia, I have to wonder why we aren’t eating more of it. Let’s get more humps on tables, I say.

Mr Fox’s Roast Camel

Embed numerous garlic cloves deep in the flesh of a large fillet of camel, preferably obtained from the back strap under the hump. Baste with red curry paste and top with bacon and other stuff as takes your fancy. Cook for a couple of hours in a slow oven – the longer it is cooked the more tender it will be. Serve with sides of baked polenta, rocket salad fresh from the garden and a spicy green tea. Yum.