Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Breakfast at Sweethearts

My favourite meal to eat out is brunch. Toasted granola muesli, fluffy ricotta hotcakes, silky poached eggs or a big breakfast with the works, washed down with a fresh juice and a strong black coffee - nothing sets you up better for the day. It's a relaxed way to start a weekend, whether you and your partner eat in silence, pouring over different sections of the newspaper, or you're meeting with the girls for a chatty catch-up.

We're blessed in Melbourne with an abundance of cafes, bars and restaurants and many of them do good brunch. You could eat at a different place every day and just scratch the surface. And there always seems to be a new place opening up that goes onto my "must try" list.

Although I love trying new places, there's always a spot for old favourites, a place where you end up always ordering the same dish just because you love it so much. Cafe Sweethearts in South Melbourne is such a place for me. It's an institution that is best known for its 18 different egg dishes, ranging from the traditional such as eggs benedict and eggs florentine to less traditional dishes involving eggs with avocado, beans or chorizo, with names such as Mexican, Italian and Forestiere.

My personal comfort-food dish at Cafe Sweethearts is Eggs Forestiere. Two poached eggs are served on toasted English muffins, accompanied by rashers of bacon and a generous scattering of button mushrooms, all topped with a silky hollandaise sauce. It is a divine dish. On this visit, the bacon was done in my favourite way, super-crispy with curly, charred edges, providing a nice counter-point to the runny egg yolks and soft mushrooms. Adam ate the Eggs Mexican, which featured two perfect poached eggs on top of toasted English muffins, accompanied by red kidney beans and chunks of avocado. It was a fresh-looking - and tasting - dish.

We're both full to bursting after we finish but we manage to squeeze in coffee - a smooth long black for your caffeine-addicted writer and a satiny cafe latte for Adam. The service is swift and cheery (even on bustling weekends) and we leave, well and truly fortified for the day ahead.

If eggs aren't your thing, Cafe Sweethearts has plenty of other offerings to tempt you: muesli, organic porridge, pancakes (the lumberjack is served with eggs and bacon, while sweet-tooths can choose between blueberry and chocolate), rye bread with preserves, smoked kippers, and Persian fetta and rocket fritters (I was sorely tempted to give these a whirl - perhaps next time I might make myself try something new!)

Cafe Sweethearts is a small venue, with perhaps a dozen tables catering for group sizes varying from two to six, but it appears bigger as light floods into the cream-coloured interior through two large windows looking out onto Coventry St and the side lane. Don't even think about coming here on weekends without a booking, as you're likely to go away disappointed. If you can come here on a weekday, you'll have a much more relaxed atmosphere and can probably take your pick of the tables. It's also right near the South Melbourne Market, so bring along your trolley or basket and grab some fresh produce bargains while you're there.

Cafe Sweethearts
263 Coventry St, South Melbourne
Monday - Friday 7am - 3pm
Sat and Sun 8am - 3pm
9690 6752

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A day in the kitchen

Have you ever had a day where you planned to cook just one dish but one thing leads to another and, before you know it, you've spent the whole day in the kitchen? It usually happens when you're the recipient of bounteous home-grown produce or you're reaping your own bumper crop, and is a joy if you have the time and energy for it.

Yesterday was such a day for me.

It all began with passionfruit. Our passionfruit vine, planted only two years ago, is rapidly taking over the back fence and growing up into the neighbour's apple tree. I love passionfruit but I've never had ready access to the fruit before, so haven't collected many passionfruit recipes over the years. I was keen to try passionfruit creams (a Jill Dupleix recipe featured in The Age's Epicure Summer cookbook), a blend of cream, caster sugar and lemon juice, topped with tangy passionfruit pulp. But when I went to the garden, I discovered at least a dozen passionfruit - many more than I would need. Before I had time to peruse my recipe books, the latest issue of Gourmet Traveller arrived in my mailbox, featuring, in a wonderful coincidence, an article on passionfruit. I wanted something easy and that used ingredients I already had in my cupboard, so a twist on an old favourite was the easy winner: passionfruit yo-yos.

But there were other dishes to think about before I could get to biscuit-making. The passionfruit creams were whipped up within five minutes and left to cool and set in the fridge. Then it was time to give the ice-cream maker, a Christmas present from Adam, another whirl. I had made a flurry of ice-cream in the weeks after Christmas as the ice-cream maker and I got to know one another, but it has languished in the deep freeze for several weeks. It was time to try blackberry and honey ice-cream, with some of my recently picked blackberries. Most ice-creams are made with an egg custard base of milk, cream, sugar and egg yolks (there'll be much more about my ice-cream discoveries in a future entry), which always leaves me with left-over egg whites. Not being a huge fan of pavlova, I've been searching for other recipes to use up these egg whites. In her column in The Age's Epicure last year, Stephanie Alexander featured several fabulous meringue recipes. One was chocolate meringues with a chocolate ganache icing but, alas, my cupboard is (unusually) bare of chocolate, so the brown sugar meringues got the nod. It is amazingly easy - whip the egg whites, add some caster sugar and brown sugar, put blobs onto a lined baking tray and bake for 50 minutes in a low oven, then prop open the door with a wooden spoon to let the meringues cool. Usually I use a hand-beater but today I pulled out my fabulous Kitchen Aid mixer and it made such a difference - the meringues tasted like a puff of sugary air on my tongue.

While the meringues were baking, it was time to tackle savoury dishes and dinner. My dad has come to stay for a few days and, as usual, he arrived bearing gifts. There is a big bag of juicy red roma tomatoes, massive bunches of basil and parsley, a container of cherry tomatoes and some small red onions. I've already planned to turn the basil into pesto and decide that it might be nice to accompany this with a tomato tart. I took a sheet of puff pastry from the freezer (but I think pita bread would also work well if you didn't have any pastry handy), spread on some dijon mustard and bake for a few minutes. I then sprinkled over some chopped spring onions and red onions (if I had more time, I would have sauteed these in a little oil with some crushed garlic), and topped the tart with slices of roma (seeds removed). A little drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper and it was back into the oven for 10 or so minutes. Depending on what you have in your pantry, I think olives or anchovies would also work, and some fresh herbs, such as basil or oregano, would also add some flavour.

There was just time to mix up the passionfruit yo-yo pastry (which needed to rest in the fridge for an hour) before dinner. For a day where I had planned nothing beyond using passionfruit in the garden, I instead managed to fashion a three-course meal that was the essence of summer and received an enthusiastic response from my dinner guests (who hadn't yet seen the mountain of dishes in the kitchen that was waiting for them!)

After dinner, the passionfruit yo-yos went into the oven, while I made the icing. The recipe called for a rich passionfruit and white chocolate ganache icing but I was all out of inspiration and patience, so a basic icing, flavoured with passionfruit juice, was enough to sandwich them together.

My feet might be aching but what a sense of achievement it is to turn a pile of fresh, seasonal produce into delicious goodies for all to enjoy.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Pick of the crop

This year's berry season is sadly drawing to a close. Plump, luscious berries of all colours are my favourite fruit. All winter, I look forward to the first appearance of the new season's berries. Usually I have frozen some of last season's fresh-picked berries to tide me over but it's not the same as dipping into a container full of fresh berries that taste like you're eating sunshine.

Half the fun of berry season is the picking and gathering. Berries are easily picked, as long as you watch out for thorny bushes, and it is cheaper and more rewarding than buying them ready-picked. Although you can get a wide variety of berries from the markets (sadly I'm yet to find punnets of mulberries), there are several excellent berry farms close to Melbourne and it makes for a fun day out.

As children, berry season meant stained mouths, hands and clothes. Our neighbours had a magnificent mulberry tree growing on their farm and they would often invite us to come over and pick our fill. Mum would dress us in our very oldest clothes, as mulberry stains are impossible to remove, and we would arm ourselves with buckets and ice-cream containers. The tree had big, broad branches, so it was easy to climb and find a comfortable perch where we would proceed to fill our buckets and stomachs with the dark wine-coloured berry. Mum always made mulberry swirl afterwards, a cake-like pudding with rich berry juices bubbling through the crust. Mulberries remain my favourite berry, perhaps because it is not readily available unless you are lucky enough to have a tree or know someone who does (sadly, our neighbours' tree has long since died).

Although the blackberry is classified as a noxious weed in Australia, another favourite childhood memory is blackberry picking at Bright, a picturesque town in north-eastern Victoria. We'd put on big sun-hats, wear long-sleeved tops to avoid scratches from the bush's thorns and carry big buckets. Our stomachs were usually faster to fill than the buckets!

Because mulberries are rare to find, raspberries are my favourite berry. As Stephanie Alexander says in The Cook's Companion, raspberries are "the most heavenly of fruits. One swallows a perfect berry and the flavour swells around the mouth like the finest wine."

I've visited berry farms in both Kinglake and the Otways. Kinglake Raspberries is about an hour's drive north-east of the CBD (you can get there either through the Yarra Valley or the Plenty Valley). As well as offering PYO (pick your own), you can buy jams, sauces and cordials and there is an annual raspberry fair with live jazz, entertainment, childrens' rides, food and wine, market stalls and, of course, lots of berries!

Although it is further away (about two hours from the city), my current favourite berry farm is the Pennyroyal Berry Farm in Murroon (between Birregurra and Barwon Downs). This is because it is about a 10-minute drive from my grandfather's former farm at Deans Marsh and I remember visiting this farm as a child when it was the Pennyroyal Herb Farm. As my grandfather died 15 years ago, it's an area I've rarely visited since until I discovered the Pennyroyal Berry Farm and its near-neighbour, Gentle Annie's Berry Gardens and Tea-Rooms. For the past two years, we've picked at both these places. Pennyroyal Berry Farm has raspberries and many blackberry hybrids, such as boysenberries, youngberries, marionberries, brambleberries and jostaberries. The first year we went on the last weekend before the season ended and had to scavenge hard to fill our buckets. This season, we went before Christmas and the berries were abundant, despite the drought. We quickly filled our buckets and then it was time to retire to the tearooms for enormous scones, fresh from the oven, served with homemade raspberry and blackberry jam and a big pot of thick cream. The scones are made to a secret recipe and are to die for!

Gentle Annie's is a bigger farm and is on the Pennyroyal Valley Rd. It has raspberries, gooseberries, red and black currants, silvanberries, boysenberries, marionberries, blackberries and blueberries. You can also pick heritage apples, nashis, plums and apricots and their tearooms serve devonshire teas and light lunches with many berry dishes, including pancakes, pies and sorbets.

The first thing I do with my fresh raspberries when I get home is make a batch of raspberry jam. Raspberries make a wonderful jam because they are high in pectin and set easily. I also like to mash some berries into butter to serve on hot toast and crumpets and I've included a family favourite dessert that Mum discovered years ago in The Age's Epicure section. This dessert was often served up at her dinner parties.


Place 500g (1 pound) raspberries into a saucepan and mash with a wooden spoon. Stir over medium heat until the pulp boils. Warm 2 cups of sugar and add. Continue stirring until the mixture boils and then cook rapidly for six minutes. Cool slightly, then pour into sterilised bottles, cover and label.


Place 1 cup of berries (I think blackberries or brambleberries work best), 1-2 tablespoons of caster sugar and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice into a saucepan. Bring to the boil and then reduce heat and simmer until syrupy (about five minutes). Soften 125g (4 ounces) butter in a bowl and whip until light and fluffy. Mix through the berry mixture. Spoon into a small bowl or ramekin and refrigerate, covered, until required. This is delicious spread onto hot sourdough toast, muffins and crumpets.


1 cup yoghurt
4 tablespoons caster sugar
grated rind of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup cream
1 cup raspberries
100g (3 ounces) dark chocolate

Mix the yoghurt, sugar and grated lemon rind together. Lightly whip the cream and fold into the yoghurt mixture. Crush the raspberries on the back of a plate. You want some juices to run but you also want some pieces of berries. Scrape the chocolate with a knife and add to the cream mixture, along with the raspberries. Don't mix too thoroughly, as it should have a nice marbled effect. You can serve within 30 minutes or leave to stand for six hours before serving.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Pancakes on Shrove Tuesday

One of the great things about having children is sharing and passing on the food rituals and traditions that you grew up with. Favourite recipes are handed down through the generations and provide a link with the past each time you make them, even if the recipe might have been modernised in some way.

Christmas and Easter are obvious occasions for food rituals. The mass influx of migrants to Australia has exposed us to Russian pashka, Greek dyed eggs and tsoureki, Italian panforte and panettone, and German lebkuchen, among others. All of these new dishes find a place alongside plum pudding, mince tarts and hot-cross buns.

Shrove Tuesday is the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting before Easter. According to Christian traditions, it was a day of both celebration and penitence, as people celebrated before entering the austere Lenten period. Observant Christians did not eat many foods during Lent, including butter, eggs, fats, milky food, fish and meat. So no food was wasted, families would hold a feast on Shrove Tuesday to use up these foods. Shrove Tuesday is usually known now as Pancake Tuesday and feasts of pancakes are a great way to use up these traditionally forbidden foods, even if you don't believe in, or follow, the tradition.

My mother always made pancakes for us on Shrove Tuesday. Some years it was pikelets dolloped with jam and cream or sprinkled with lemon and sugar for breakfast or dessert after dinner. Other years we would have crepes filled with fish cooked in a creamy, white sauce.

The tradition Adam and I have developed is Canadian pancakes. I make buttermilk pancakes from Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion, which are the lightiest, fluffiest and most delicious pancake recipe I've found. We serve crisp bacon on the side and douse the lot in maple syrup (make sure you buy proper maple syrup and not the disgusting maple-flavoured syrup, which does not remotely compare).

The best thing about this recipe is that the batter can be mixed up the night before. The egg whites are whipped and mixed in the next morning, meaning that the pancakes can be made even on a work morning (but you might want to get up 10 minutes earlier just in case!)

As the smallest carton of buttermilk available is 600ml, there's always one cup left over, so I make up a buttermilk cake from Bill Granger. It's a moist cake that is finished off with a delicious raspberry syrup poured over the top.


From "The Cook's Companion" by Stephanie Alexander

3 eggs, separated
2 cups buttermilk
60g (2 ounces) butter, melted
300g (10 ounces) plain flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
extra butter or oil spray

Beat egg yolks well, and whisk in buttermilk and melted butter. Sift the dry ingredients over the egg mixture and fold in. You can store the batter in the fridge overnight at this stage.

When ready to cook the pancakes, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks and fold into the batter. Lightly grease a heavy-based frying pan and ladle in about 1/4 cup of batter. Cook until bubbles form on the uncooked side. Flip with a spatula and cook the other side. If you like, transfer pancakes to a plate and keep warm in the oven until you've finished cooking, then serve without delay.

We love these with bacon and maple syrup but, for sweet variations, add fresh blueberries or raspberries on the uncooked side before flipping, or replace 50g (2 ounces) of the flour with 50g (2 ounces) of cocoa.


125g (4 ounces) butter, softened
250g (8 ounces) caster sugar
2 eggs
250ml (8 ounces) buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250g (8 ounces) plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powser
1 pinch salt

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit). Using electric beaters, cream the butter and caster sugar together until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well on low speed. Beat in the buttermilk and vanilla extract until just combined. Sift in the dry ingredients in two batches, mixing well. Spoon into a greased and lined 20cm (8 inch) cake tin and smooth the top. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes. Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a plate and pour syrup over the top.


Stir 60g (2 ounces) sugar, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 60ml (1/4 cup) water in a saucepan over medium to high heat until the sugar dissolves. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then add 220g (8 ounces) raspberries and lightly crush with the back of a spoon. Cook for another three minutes, remove from the heat and puree in a blender.

Serve cake with whipped cream on the side.

From "Bill's Food" by Bill Granger

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ode to pesto

My family always ate very well when I was growing up. Growing up on a farm in country Victoria meant that we were quite self-sufficient. We grew most of our own vegetables and fruit, Dad butchered our own meat (we had beef, lamb and chicken and could source pork from neighbours who were pig-farmers), and we milked a few cows to provide milk for us, my grandmother and my uncle's family. The modern buzzwords of seasonality and "from paddock to plate" were a way of life to us, rather than something that had to be reclaimed from the year-round, available-in-all-seasons produce of today's supermarkets.

Although we ate well, our meals could not be described as adventurous, particularly by the standards of today's multicultural cuisine. Dinner (or tea, as my dad called it - what he called dinner is what the rest of us call lunch) was usually meat (lamb chops or steaks) and three veg - mashed potato, peas and carrots. There was always a roast for Sunday lunch. Chinese food was pork spare ribs with fried rice and Italian food was covered by spaghetti bolognaise and lasagna. It was good, honest, home-cooked food that was quickly put together with a minimum of fuss. Written down like this, it sounds like a boring menu but it never felt like that. While we lacked glossy cookbooks full of specialist and exciting new ingredients, we also didn't bother with calorie counting or have any problems with the modern scourge of obesity, despite devouring plenty of mum's homemade cakes and biscuits.

As I got older, I got a glimpse of a different world of food. Mum's university friend Norma and her partner Peter would often come from Melbourne to stay for the weekend, bringing bags of European cakes and florentine biscuits from the Monarch cake shop in Acland St, St Kilda, a case of wine and other assorted foodie items, such as fresh, pungent cheese and crusty bread.

It was Peter who first introduced me to the glorious wonder that is pesto. He gathered big bunches of the basil running rampant in mum's garden. After carefully washing and drying all the leaves, my job was to keep mum's trusty Sunbeam blender running while Peter tossed in basil, olive oil, garlic cloves and handfuls of pine nuts. We thickened the resulting aromatic green paste with grated parmesan, tossed it through fettucine and served it up with crusty bread and a bottle of light red.

To this day, I think of basil as the essence of summer and it is the first thing I plant in my summer vegetable and herb garden. I always think of Peter when I make pesto and remember my first experience of this wondrous dish.

Pesto is one recipe that I find doesn't really require precise measurements. I take as small or large a bunch of basil as I have, wash the leaves and put into my food processor (I find it makes a smoother sauce than the blender, and, although traditionalists call for pesto to be made in a mortar and pestle, I'm far too lazy). I add garlic cloves (1-2 for a small bunch, more for larger), a handful or two of pine nuts and enough olive oil to make a smooth sauce. Just before serving, I add grated parmesan (about half a cup but, again, to your taste). If I'm freezing the sauce to have in winter, I don't add the cheese (I add it once defrosted and ready to serve).

Although most of our pesto is devoured with pasta, I find an easy and glamorous dinner party dish is to pile pesto on top of chicken breasts and bake in a moderately hot oven (180 degrees Celsius/375 degrees Fahrenheit) for about 20 minutes. Serve with roasted potatoes and steamed beans.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Something fishy this way comes

One of the highlights of birthday dinners as a child was that we were allowed to pick the menu for our birthday dinner. Dessert was always a birthday cake from the classic Australian Women's Weekly birthday cakes book. I would pore over the book for at least a month in advance, agonising over which cake to choose. Between myself and my two sisters, we managed to get through most of the cakes in the book. My favourites included the piano, with keys made of white chocolate and licorice, and the sweet shop, with dinky little pans filled with jewel-like boiled lollies.

My birthday entree was always prawn cocktail. Mum used her special 1970s glass cups for the occasion. A generous mound of juicy pink prawns perched atop a lining of pale-green iceberg lettuce leaves. The crowning glory of the dish, which lifted it from pedestrian to special was the seafood sauce, a spicy mix of mustard powder, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce.

Seafood has always been one of my favourite foods but usually eaten only on special occasions because of the expense and difficulty of getting fresh seafood when I was growing up in rural Victoria. A highlight of our family holidays in Queensland was the bounteous offerings of seafood at restaurants, from plates of plump oysters to large piles of king prawns or mounds of juicy Moreton Bay bugs.

Now that I live in Melbourne, fresh fish and seafood is more readily available, and more reasonably priced, than it was when I was growing up. When I shop at the Queen Victoria Market, it's always so difficult to choose because of the huge displays on offer. Recipes flash through my mind as I contemplate thick fillets of flake, rockling and blue grenadier, glistening slabs of salmon, fat sashimi-grade tuna steak, green prawns or a special marinara mix that I love to fry up with garlic and mix with chopped mint, basil, parsley, capers, tomatoes and a hint of chilli and serve with spaghetti.

I've recently discovered the delights of Conway, a fresh fish shop in Footscray that is a 10-minute drive from my house (and more accessible at the moment for me, as I have not yet had the courage to tackle the Queen Victoria Market with my nine-month-old son, pram and trolley!) Everything in the shop looks enticing but on my last visit I was particularly taken by the gleaming orange salmon fillets.

When I told Adam that dinner was salmon, he groaned and said "I don't like salmon." I was surprised at this display of fussiness, as we both have fairly robust and healthy appetites, so I persuaded him that he should try it before he dismissed it outright. I mention that I'm trying a new recipe from my Christmas present of Bill Granger's latest cookbook, Every Day and that seems to satisfy him that he should give it a go. I love Bill's cooking, as it's easy and always full of fresh, local ingredients to be turned into delicious dishes with a minimum of fuss.

The recipe I try is "caramel salmon" and is Bill's version of a traditional Vietnamese caramel dish. It is extremely easy to make: the salmon is seared and then coated with a rich, syrupy sauce of brown sugar, soy sauce and fish sauce. Bill tags this recipe as "almost-no-cook dinner for friends", which is an accurate description of a simple but impressive dish that would have your friends putting you in the "superwoman" camp if you were to serve this up to them on a weeknight.

Caramel salmon is an absolute hit with Adam, who immediately demands that I cook it again tomorrow night. "It doesn't taste like salmon I've had before. This one is more flavoursome than fishy," he explains. A happy diner makes for a happy chef and therefore a happy household!


This recipe makes enough for four people; you can successfully halve the ingredients without the final result suffering.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
800g (1 pound, 12 ounces) salmon fillets, with skin, cut into large cubes
1 red onion, sliced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
115g (4 ounces) soft brown sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon lime juice

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over high heat. Add the salmon (you may have to do this in two batches) and cook for two minutes until lightly browned. Turn over and cook for a further minute before removing from the pan.

Reduce the heat to medium and add a little extra oil if needed. Add onion and garlic and cook for three minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in soy sauce, sugar and fish sauce. Return the salmon to the pan and cook for one minute until the sauce is rich, dark and syrupy. Sprinkle liberally with black pepper and stir through lime juice.

Stir with steamed rice, with a little sauce drizzled over the top, and with lime wedges on the side.

From "Every Day Cooking" by Bill Granger

Friday, February 9, 2007

Sizzling on a summer's night

One of the best things about summer's endless hot nights is barbeques (BBQs). Walk the neighbourhood streets on a hot night and the smell of sizzling onions and meat will have your stomach rumbling and mouth watering. BBQs are attractive for many reasons: the kitchen's hot enough without turning the oven on to cook; it's a simple meal to put together - buy some excellent meat at the local butcher, throw together a salad and dinner's done; and, best of all, barbequing is a man's domain, so you can send him out with a platter of meat, a cold beer, and make the salads in peace.

I'm fortunate that my local butcher, Eddie the Butcher in Newport, has a fabulous array of good-quality products to choose from. I often drop in on my daily walk, tempted by the enticing window display. In winter, I buy chunks of lamb or beef that become meltingly tender in casseroles, or a good roast that will fill the kitchen with delicious smells for hours. In summer, his tasty rissoles and award-winning sausages are perfect for a BBQ dinner.

BBQ cookbooks often rave about kebabs or fish or seafood grilled on the BBQ but I'm simple and old-fashioned with my tastes and a thick steak, some juicy chops, tasty rissoles or fat sausages are about as adventurous as I get. (I'm not averse to any of the other offerings, but much prefer someone else to be organising and cooking this for me!) I often par-boil slices of potatoes that are then crisped up on the hotplate and no BBQ is complete without a mountain of sizzling onions, sliced into thin rings.

The meat is easily taken care of. There are plenty of simple marinades you can use to flavour the meat (my current favourite is a steak marinade of hot English mustard, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and crushed garlic), and it is easy to mix up your own tasty rissoles, livened up with fresh herbs, if you prefer to make your own.

This leaves the more delicate task of salads. I like to have a few on the table to choose from: a simple green salad of lettuce and tomatoes, perhaps given a Greek twist with the addition of black olives and feta chunks; a tasty coleslaw, made with sliced cabbage and grated carrot and onion, mixed with some good home-made, or store-bought, whole egg mayonnaise; and perhaps a potato salad, with chunks of tender potato slathered in mayonnaise and finely chopped chives.

My latest salad delight is a simple pasta salad that I first tasted at a BBQ at my Auntie Jess's house. Made by her friend's daughter, we discovered there was a secret ingredient that gave the pasta a delicious twist: sweet chilli sauce. The salad is very simply put together: cook one packet of farfalle pasta according to the packet instructions. Drain and combine with one finely diced red capsicum, one finely diced red onion, and 125g (4 ounces) (or more, according to taste) bacon rashers, cut into squares, fried and drained on paper towel. Combine equal amounts (about one-third of a cup, but use more or less according to your taste and current diet status) of whole-egg mayonnaise and sweet chilli sauce and stir through the salad. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Cake of glace jewels

Christmas has flashed past once again, leaving me with some new cookbooks and foodie must-haves, a pile of shiny paper to recycle, some lovely memories of the food we ate and the new dishes I cooked, and lots of itsy-bitsy leftovers. (Is it just me getting older or is Christmas coming around faster each year?) There are half-empty packets of dried cranberries that went into the pistachio and cranberry nougat I made as gifts for friends (it also gave me the chance to try out my latest gadget - a sugar thermometer). I tried a new panforte di siena recipe, an aromatic concoction of spices, glace fruit and chocolate that was designed specifically to accompany a glass of rich Rutherglen muscat and that left me with a pile of glace figs and ginger. There are also many small bags of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts taking up space in my pantry.

My new year's resolution is to try and buy fewer cookbooks, as they are rapidly pushing every other book out of my bookcase and leaving little room for my stack of foodie magazines. But my resolve is being sorely tested as more and more glossy books full of luscious pictures and recipes pour forth from publishers. So I've decided to road-test the latest cookbooks through my local library. A recent loan was the interestingly titled How to cook absolutely everything cookbook by The Australian Women's Weekly. It's an impressively hefty and thick red-covered book with hundreds of recipes sorted according to ingredient type (salads, pasta, seafood, cakes etc). There were versions of many tried and true recipes, such as caesar salad, beef pies, chocolate cake and Christmas pudding, but also many new recipes. As I flicked through the cake chapter, I came across a recipe for fig, walnut and ginger cake that instantly took care of most of my Christmas itsy-bitsy leftovers.

The fig, walnut and ginger cake is dense but moist, with sweetness from the figs, zing from the ginger and an addictive crunch from the walnuts. It also looks very pretty, with the jewels of glace fruit studded throughout the texture. I tweaked the recipe a little, substituting natural yoghurt for sour cream and adding extra glace fruit and nuts. Next time I will add a sprinkling of cinnamon or mixed spice for some extra tang.

It's an extremely easy cake to make, with the only drawback being the time-consuming task of finely chopping the ginger and figs. But the end result is worth it. A nice wedge of this cake, accompanied by a cup of Earl Grey tea, makes a perfect morning tea. It's so delicious that I won't be waiting for leftovers to make this again!


185g (6 1/2 ounces) butter, softened
165g (6 ounces) caster sugar
3 eggs
160g (6 ounces) glace figs, finely chopped
70g (2 ounces) glace ginger, finely chopped
70g (2 ounces) walnuts, finely chopped
75g (2 ounces) plain (all-purpose) flour
75g (2 ounces) self-raising flour
80g (2 ounces) natural yoghurt

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit). Grease and line the base of a 14cm x 21cm (5 1/2 x 8 inch) loaf pan with non-stick baking paper. Cream butter and sugar together in a medium bowl until light and fluffy, then beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in the figs, ginger and nuts, then fold in the sifted flours and yoghurt. Put into the prepared tin, smoothing the top. Bake for about one-and-a-quarter hours. Stand in the tin for five minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool.

Adapted from a recipe featured in "How to cook absolutely everything" by The Australian Women's Weekly.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Essence of summer

It's a common complaint that fruit and vegetables these days don't have taste; that they're bred for their looks and shelf life rather than flavour. Perhaps it's the rose-coloured glasses of adulthood but so many fruits and vegetables don't seem to have the intense, juicy flavour that I remember from childhood. I think the biggest disappointment is tomatoes. I'm so sick of eating watery, tasteless tomatoes that I've actually gone right off them. I eat canned tomatoes by the truckload in stews, casseroles and soups but fresh tomatoes are much rarer in my kitchen.

One of the favourite food memories from my childhood is the fresh tomato sandwiches at my mother's Saturday afternoon tennis matches. Once all the tennis players had eaten, the kids were allowed to devour the leftovers. I always went straight for the tomato sandwiches: fresh white bread, smeared with butter, filled with fire-engine-red slices of tomato and finished with a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. It's been years since I ate a tomato that could compare. I told this story so often, and lamented the state of modern tomatoes so much, that the first thing my husband Adam made for me when we grew our own tomatoes last year was a fresh tomato sandwich. So simple, yet so divine!

Whenever my parents come to visit, they bring bags full of home-grown produce from their vegetable and herb garden: huge bunches of basil to turn into pesto; handfuls of parsley to flavour dumplings to simmer on top of a beef stew; bunches of tangy spring onions for my stir-fries; leafy green silverbeet to chop into frittatas; and, this visit, a kilogram of Dad's first tomatoes for the season, as well as a handful of baby red onions. The tomatoes were plump and juicy, a little blemished on the skin, but glowing with flavour. I boiled them with some water for an hour and strained the juice to make an intensely flavoured stock for risotto, one that had the essence of tomatoes rather than the texture or colour.

This recipe had been given to me last year by a work colleague, John, an infrequent cook who found the recipe years ago in The Age's Epicure section and used it at a dinner party to impress his friends with his cooking skills. I have been waiting for the right amount of fresh tomatoes to make this recipe. Melbourne supermarkets might be open 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and you might be able to get most fruit and vegetables every month of the year, but this recipe calls for fresh tomatoes at the peak of their season. Sometimes you have to ignore modern-day convenience to get old-fashioned flavour.

The preparation of the stock is slightly unusual, but the end result is an absolutely delicious risotto, and the quantities are easily halved if you have, like me, only a kilogram of tomatoes available.


Serves 8

2 kg (4 1/2 pounds) ripe tomatoes (big, juicy ones, not the fleshy roma types)
water or vegetable stock
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
50ml (1/4 cup) olive oil, or 25g (1 ounce) butter
400g (14 ounces) arborio rice
150g (5 ounces) cold butter to stir in at the end
200g (7 ounces) parmesan
sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Score tomatoes and place in a non-reactive heavy-based pot. Add about 100ml (3 1/2 ounces) water and heat slowly, with the lid on tightly. After about 10 minutes, the tomatoes should be cooking in a clear liquid. Don't stir and let the tomatoes cook for about 40 minutes at a gentle simmer.

Strain the liquid through a fine sieve. Don't crush or press the tomatoes but use their own weight to allow the clear juice to drain through. The remaining liquid should be a clear broth with an intense tomato flavour. Don't reduce any further, as you will lose the freshness of taste. Set aside. Dilute with one-third water or vegetable stock.

Heat the olive oil or butter in a pan and saute the shallots and garlic for a few minutes, until they are soft but not coloured. Add the arborio rice, making sure each grain is coated with the oil or butter, and heat through. Add the stock in small batches, stirring after each addition. You may need to add extra water or stock until the rice is cooked.

Once cooked, stir in the butter and parmesan cheese and season with salt and pepper. Rest for three minutes with the lid on. Stir once and serve.