Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Nigella's meatballs

Garden

I’ve been humming that Supertramp song “It’s Raining Again” because, you guessed it, it’s raining again. Seems that summer 2008 will pass us by.

Action Man has plans to pick the grapes for our annual winemaking on Sunday or the week after. The grapes have been one of the few success stories in our garden this year. There are so many of them! However, if this rain keeps up, we fear they may split and it’s goodbye to this year’s vintage. What to do? Pick early to avoid grapes splitting, or leave it a little longer so the grapes can ripen properly, and risk losing the lot?

Such dilemmas!

Kitchen

For the umpteenth time, my version of Nigella Lawson’s Summer Meatballs from delicious. magazine’s February 2006 issue was on the menu at our house tonight.

Before we go any further, let’s talk about La Lawson for a moment. In the culinary world she’s kind of hard to ignore isn’t she? Whenever she’s on the telly, the whole family sits, mouths agape, mesmerised by her……overblown descriptions. Food isn’t just food to her, is it? She’s an artist, dammit, it just happens that food is her media.

I bought her book “How to Eat” when it came out, and have thoroughly enjoyed reading it over the years. Somehow, her hyperbole doesn’t seem so well, hyperbolic, on the page. And she does have an endearing turn of phrase that makes you warm to her. I still pick up “How to Eat” and read it as if it were a novel. Nearly every recipe is preceded by a long narrative, with a recipe being the ending. And what better ending could there be to any story?

Nonetheless, it’s one thing though to read a recipe, but what is it about any recipe that makes you get off the couch and into the kitchen? Despite all Nigella’s florid descriptions, I very rarely feel moved to try her recipes. Why is this? After some thought, I think it is because :

a) Her recipes are emphatically English, and I don’t think they translate particularly well, well not to my kitchen they don’t. So many of her recipes feature ingredients that are hard to get in Australia. Immediately these recipes go in the too hard basket.

b) When it comes to recipe methods, I need clear, to the point and slightly bossy - the sort of method writing Delia Smith does so well. I suspect Nigella is congenitally incapable of writing short, succinct methods. Rather, her methods are wordy, extravagant, full of little asides and therefore, slightly confusing - everything you don’t need when you are in the heat of battle.

So why did I decide to give Summer Meatballs a try? Well, mainly because it features ingredients that are readily available, and for once, her method was fairly straightforward. Also, mince and kids is a good match. But even this recipe is not without its idiosyncrasies. For one thing, I double the quantities (Except for the tomato passata. I still use one bottle) to feed my family of two adults and two children. 500g of mince for four people for dinner? Unfortunately, not on my planet. And, I use plain old beef mince instead of the chicken and pork she stipulates, but that’s because it is far easier to source beef mince than chicken and pork mince in the regional area where I live.

Other issues: One of the ingredients is fresh breadcrumbs. Nigella notes “I make mine from processed pita bread for ease”. Why is it any easier to make breadcrumbs from pita bread than from any other bread you may have on hand? I don’t have the foggiest about why this would be, and Nigella doesn’t elaborate.

Finally, the method directs you to take teaspoonfuls of meatball mixture to make about 50 meatballs. Aside from the tediousness of making fifty meatballs with a teaspoon, from a mathematical point of view, this just does not make sense. Nigella reckons on 50 meatballs from 500g of meat. That’s about 10 grams a meatball. Measure out 10g of meatball mixture. The quantity is so small, it is barely capable of making a ball shape. Rather, I scoop out the mixture with a 1/3 measuring cup, and get the job done in 1/10th of the time.

Despite all this, my version of All Year Meatballs, inspired by Nigella Lawson, are a big hit at our house. The meatballs are light and moreish. The recipe also makes a prodigious amount of sauce, which I heat up the next night as a sauce for pasta. Two meals from one dish? You have to love that.

All Year Meatballs

Meatballs

1kg low fat beef mince
2 chopped cloves garlic
3 slices day-old bread, whatever you have, made into breadcrumbs in the food processor
2 eggs
4 tablespoons parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt, pepper

Sauce

2 onions
2 carrots
2 sticks celery
A few glugs of olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 750g bottle tomato passata
1 cup milk (full fat is best)

Finely chop the onions, carrots and celery, or whiz them in a food processor. Place them in a large saucepan, with the olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and cook gently for 10 minutes or so. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Put the passata and 500ml of water into the saucepan and bring to the boil, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the milk and simmer for another 15 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, make the meatballs by mixing all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Place the bowl in the fridge to firm while the sauce is simmering. When the sauce of ready, use a 1/3 measuring cup to scoop up the meatball mixture, roll into a ball and drop into the mixture. You should make about 15 meatballs. Bring to the boil again, and then simmer partially covered for about 30 minutes. Serve with whichever carb (pasta, rice, couscous, polenta or mash) that takes your fancy.


Later…

I’ve just looked up How to Eat and found Nigella gives a recipe for Meatballs in Tomato Sauce on page 482 which is slightly different from her recipe in delicious magazine, and more like the version above I’ve been making off my own bat, honest! In How to Eat she uses 1kg of beef mince. Why did she change it for the Summer Meatballs recipe? She also uses plain white bread and soaks it in milk which seems more fiddly to me than making crumbs from “pita bread for ease”. Still, though, she insists on making micro meatballs. Why? Why? Why? I think that will down as one of life’s little mysteries.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fig to fig jam


Blogging is new, and therefore somewhat baffling. Since I've been posting I've tried to post photos, without any success. Today, I figured out what I've been doing wrong - not checking the "accept conditions of service" box. D'oh! I am such a technology amateur.
Anyway, here are photos of fig jam I made last week, glistening in the sunlight in my kitchen. Don't they look good?


Fig jam

There are some aspects of cooking that require perseverance aren’t there? For me, baking has required concerted effort, and pastry still remains a bugbear. Jam-making too, as I have explained in previous posts, also presented problems. But like a kid learning to ride a bike, sometimes you just have to get back on and give it another go.

We are in the midst of a fig glut, so there was nothing for it but to make fig jam. This time, though, I decided I had to bring the jam to the boil slowly, and once it was at a boil I had to forget my normal multitasking and hang around the bubbling pot for half an hour.

Result? Sweet success! And what’s more I repeated the success with a second batch the next day.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Figs

I hate summer. Hate it. I hate it so much that when I was required to write a poem for a Creative Writing unit I did at University a few years ago, I decided to write an anti-ode to summer. Here it is:

SUMMER

Summer’s breath of unpitying intent scorches land into
Desiccation
While we marinate in merciless sweat

The cantankerous sun lasers hard-won melanomas into foreheads
Unyielding
Then leaves the scene of the crime

Capricious storms are left to finish the job
Violently
Summer, you are a sick joke


See, I told you I hate summer. And I didn’t even mention stuff like humidity, mosquito bites, endless lawn mowing and snakes.

Summer’s only saving grace as far as I can see is culinary, speci

fically, cherries, mangoes and figs. And happily, these fruits come into season sequentially, so I can savour cherries before Christmas, slurp on mangoes afterwards working up to my very favourite, figs.

Now, we don’t grow cherries or mangoes where we are. It’s too warm for cherries and too cool for mangoes. But for figs it is just right. We have one producing fig tree, nearly four years old, which has been fruiting for two years for not much effort. Fruit fly doesn’t seem to like these babies, fortunately.

At the moment, it is all systems go with our figs.

I have been eating 1-2 figs a day for the last two weeks, we have such a glut that I fear we are going to end up feeding figs to chooks so I am going to have a go at fig jam. I’ll let you know how we go.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Peach jam

When we bought our house nearly five years ago, the only edible plant, on the whole 2.5 hectares was a lone lemon tree. Count it. One. Vast swathes of ultra-fertile land (or land was once part of a dairy farm, so has benefited from decades of cow pats) and one lone lemon tree. I still shake my head in disbelief. What we were the previous owners thinking?

Well, we soon put that to rights. One of the first things we did was plant an orchard. I grabbed a catalogue from Daley’s Fruit Nursery and spent many happy hours dreaming about the possibilities of our new orchard. What to order? There was so much! In the end, we went for broke. Anything that was vaguely do-able went in: Apples, pears, oranges, mandarins, grapefruit, mango, lime, Brazilian cherry, guava, feijoa, figs, nectarines, plumcots, plums, peach, quince, black sapote. Some we had well-founded doubts about, mango being one. We thought we would be too far south for mangoes, and so it has proved. Others, like feijoa, black sapote and Brazilian cherry, we had read about only in books. We planted only because we could. Of these three, only the feijoa has produced any fruit. The Brazilian cherry looks good, but hasn’t produced any fruit. Meanwhile, the black sapote immediately dropped all its leaves on planting, as if to say “I don’t like it here!” We have since replanted it elsewhere, where it has started to look quite handsome, but alas no fruit here either.

The story with the rest of the trees has been more promising . Last summer, after three years of careful tending during the drought, the trees started producing. We'dcome back with something from the orchard nearly every time we went to inspect the trees. We were proud of our efforts and proud of our trees. We were on a roll, and expected big things from our orchard in 2008.

This year, it’s been quite a different story. Oh, it started out all right. Really well, in fact. The end, though, has been tragic. The problem? Too much rain, and everything that goes with that. It’s been a very sorry tale.

Take, for example our Golden Queen peach tree. Last year she gave us about 10 kilos of sunshine yellow peaches. Delish.

This year, we did everything we thought we needed to do. We sprayed for brown rot with Bordeaux mixture in August before bud burst and afterward. We pruned judiciously. We fertilised. We were rewarded with a tree was covered with tiny peaches by the end of September. By January, though, those peaches were mostly ruined by an incredible attack of fruit fly. My view is that our very wet summer has created a bonanza for these little blighters.

Yes, I know we should have been more vigilant. We should have put out traps far earlier than we did. Sorry. Won’t do it again, Miss. The alternative is to spray with scary chemicals. My feeling on that is, what’s the point? One of the main reasons I like to grow food is avoid pesticides and the like. If I have to spray my own fruit, I might as well buy my fruit and save myself the angst.

Anyway, I managed to salvage a couple of kilos of damaged fruit, and decided the best thing to do was make some peach jam, using a Skye Gygnell recipe from the November 2007 edition of delicious. magazine.

Now, jam-making is something I do only rarely, and I’ve had mixed results. Last year, I made some very nice feijoa jam, and I have made good marmalade in the past. On the other hand, I’ve burnt a few batches of jams, and this batch, alas, was no exception. The recipe I was following said something like “boil rapidly for 30 minutes, until the jam reaches setting point”. Which I did, but I looked away for a few minutes and came back to find the sugar had caramelised and burnt way before setting point was reached.

How do I avoid this dilemma? Next time I reckon I’ll just have to hover over the saucepan and watch it like a hawk. Any other ideas about where I am going wrong out there?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ratatouille

One thing that I have learned in the gardening caper over the last 5 years is that you can never assume you’ve got something nailed. Just one you come over all smug, your garden soon contrives to knock you from your own pedestal.

Our first four years of vegie gardening were done during a drought. No rain for months on end. Endless days of summer temperatures up in the 30s. We tended our vegies carefully, hand watering and mulching like mad all the while. We were rewarded for our assiduousness. We had vegies of all descriptions coming out of our ears during summer. I barely bought a vegetable for months on end.

Well, this summer has been the summer of reckoning. The drought has broken. This should be a good thing, right? Oh no, it isn’t because now we’ve had too much rain, see. Two weeks ago we had 225mm (or about 9 inches) of rain over a 48 hour period, and since then we have barely had a sunny day. And this is after a few months of way above average rainfall. It has hasn’t hit 30 degrees Celsius for weeks, now. All we have is mild temperatures, humidity and rain.

Now, the vegie garden is a jungle, but it isn’t fruiting. My theory: lots of rain = no bees = no pollination = no vegies. Eggplant, capsicum, zucchini, cucumbers, pumpkin, corn - all are a dead loss. Where there is some fruit, it’s taking it’s time to ripen. And of course, as I’ve explained in a previous post, the rain has encouraged those damn fruit fly. Bummer all round.

So this week, as I made a batch of oven-roasted ratatouille, I mused on how last year every ingredient would have come out of the garden. This year, everything except the tomatoes was bought at the market. Such is life.

Oven roasted ratatouille

3 medium eggplant, diced
1 red capsicum, sliced
3 zucchini, diced
4 tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 red onions, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 400g tin chickpeas
Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 200◦C . Place all the ingredients except the chickpeas in a large roasting tin. Roast for about 30 minutes, then add the chickpeas after giving the vegetables a stir. Roast for another 10-15 minutes.

Delicious hot, at room temperature or cold.

© growgirl 2008

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tomatoes

Last year was a great tomato year. We harvested heaps tiny toms, Grosse Lisse, Black Russians and Romas for months.

2008, on the other hand, has been an utter disaster. The bushes themselves have been growing like mad for little return, alas. Too much rain, I think, and a diabolical case of fruit fly has meant that we have fewer tomatoes on our luxuriant bushes, and what does grow gets stung, despite our organic fruit fly traps.

How have we been dealing with the fruit fly? We’ve learned the hard way that dealing with fruit fly calls for a pre-emptive action. By the time you have a problem it’s far too late. At this late stage, the only thing to do is to get rid of the stung fruit. Every fruit that looks stung gets put into a plastic bag and left in the sun for about five days. Then we hurl them in the bin and sigh. At the moment though, we have had precious little sun, so the bags are being left out for quite a bit longer.

Despite this, I had about 5 kilos of tomatoes with only minor damage, so this morning I decided was the day for a pasta sauce cook up.

I really wanted to make bottled tomato sauce, but haven’t been able to find a recipe in any of my books. Despite my Italian heritage, my family never really went in for the tomato sauce making ritual. Mum tells me that this is because I family is from Friuli in the north east of Italy, where tomatoes did not flourish in the 1950s. My Nonna would grow tomatoes but they weren’t a big success and they were quite acid. Colder weather in their area, so shorter growing seasons, see.

So I have opted simply to make a simple napolitana sauce and freeze the result. Here’s my recipe:

Napolitana Sauce

5 kg tomatoes
5 onions
10 cloves of garlic,chopped*
Olive Oil
Salt, Pepper


Skin and de-seed your tomatoes by pouring boiling water on them and let them stand for a few minutes. The skin should come off fairly easily. Cut off the tops of squeeze to de-seed. Meanwhile, chop your onions finely (I did mine in the Magimix) and soften in a large saucepan with 4 or 5 glugs of olive oil over a gentle heat. After about 10 minutes or so, when the onions is soft, slightly golden add the chopped garlic and cook for a minute or so, then add the tomatoes. Bring to the boil, season with salt and pepper and simmer for 30 minutes or so.

At this point, after letting the sauce cool a little, you could freeze as is if you like a chunky sauce, or whiz the sauce in the food processor for a smooth result. I’ve pushed the sauce through the mouli for an in-between texture.

*Note the symmetry? One onion and two garlic cloves for every kilo of tomatoes, so you can adjust your quantities accordingly.