Thursday, April 30, 2009

Frugal comfort food

Winter has arrived, seemingly overnight, and it amazing how quickly my stomach’s fancy has turned to a big steaming bowl of pasta e fagioli, or pasta and beans (I think it sounds better in Italian, don’t you?).

Pasta e fagioli is a dish from the Cucina Povera (or Poor Kitchen) school of Italian cooking. Cucina Povera cooking takes the most basic of ingredients and wrings every last bit of flavour out of them. Pasta e fagioli is a dish famous in north-east Italy from where my parents hail. I grew up on this stuff. To me, this is the ultimate comfort food. It is light but bolstering at the same time, warming you up from the inside out. A big bowl of this, a chunk of hopefully homemade bread, and a bit of cheese and I'm done.

It is also super easy. Here is the recipe.

Pasta e fagioli

1 ½ cups dried borlotti beans
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 litres water or stock
1 tin tomatoes
2 handfuls of small soup pasta

Soak the beans in water overnight.
In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and soften the onion and garlic. Add the beans and water/stock, add salt and pepper to taste, bring to the boil and simmer for one hour. Add the tomatoes and simmer for another hour. (NB. I cooked this in my pressure cooker for 20 minutes).

You can leave the soup chunky if you like, or put all or some through a blender to make a smooth soup. Personally, I use a mouli because it’s quick and the soup retains a bit of texture.

Bring the soup to a simmer, add pasta to the soup. Stir frequently until the pasta is cooked (otherwise the pasta will sink and adhere to the bottom of the pan. Not good). This is good sprinkled with parmesan cheese, if you have some.

Like a lot of soups, this soup benefits from being made a day ahead.

Now, how cheap is this soup? By my reckoning, it would have cost me no more than $1.50. It fed four of us last night, with leftovers for lunch me for at least two days.

Incidentally, my kids love this soup too, despite calling it “jail soup”. My reply:“Prisoners would only dream of this type of food!”

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cooking under pressure

Did your mother have a pressure cooker? Mine did. I clearly recollect the hissing pot on the stove many times. Fortunately, my mother’s pressure cooker never blew up, but my aunt’s did once, spraying split pea soup all over the kitchen at such a pressure it made dents in the ceiling.

I guess incidents like this are what caused them to go into disuse.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard an interview with the cookery editor and author, Suzanne Gibbs (daughter of Australia’s cookery doyenne, Margaret Fulton, Australia’s Julia Childs) on Radio National’s Life Matters programme. She has just written a book of pressure cooker recipes. Of course, she was extolling the virtues of the pressure cooker, and my ears pricked up at phrases like “quick”, “energy efficient”, “money and time saving” and “healthy” She then went on the describe the stews and soups you can knock up in half an hour with the aid of a pressure cooker. She reassured listener that modern day pressure cookers are far safer than the post war pressure cookers. Whew! That’s a relief.

My weeknight cooking possibilities are constrained by the short time frame I usually have. I arrive home between 5.30 and 6.00 most weeknights (whether working or not), with the aim of having dinner on the table by 7.00pm. Stews, braises, casseroles and soups are normally out of the question. In winter, stews, braises, casseroles and soups are precisely what I want to eat, too. Clearly, I had to investigate this pressure cooker caper further.

I bought Suzanne Gibbs’ book, borrowed an American book on pressure cooking from the library and did my research on pressure cookers on line. Yesterday, I bought my pressure cooker at my local hardware shop for an excellent price.

I am already in love with it. As soon as I got home, I made a ragu Bolognese for pasta. This took about 50 minutes, go to whoa, instead of 2 ½ -3 hours. It tasted great. This morning I went on to make a borlotti bean soup for dinner while we were having breakfast. Preparation and cooking - 30 minutes. Time saved: 90 minutes.

The great thing is not just the time saving, but in both cases, once the cooker was at pressure, it cooked on the lowest flame on my smallest gas hob. The energy saving will be substantial.
Could this be a revolution in the kitchen? And why doesn't the whole world know about it?
The link to the Radio National interview here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The good news and the bad news

Two bits of good news and bad some news around here today. 

First, the good news. My sewing machine  has returned to me after a hiatus at the repair shop. Nothing major wrong with it, fortunately. It just needed a service. The four years since its last service have just flown by, I guess! It is performing and behaving itself nicely, so I should  have something to show you from the sewing room shortly. 

The other bit of good news is that an article I wrote  about setting up your own vineyard has been accepted and will be published in an upcoming edition of Backyard Farmer, published by Earth Garden magazine. That should be some time in July. I'll let you know when to look out for it.

Sad and bad news, this time concerning our ducks.

Although I've posted photos on this blog recently, I  haven't written much about the animal life at our place on this blog yet. To fill you in, we keep chickens, ducks and sheep.

We keep our ducks in an enclosure with our chickens. They started out living on our fenced dam, but we lost two in quick succession to what we believe to be foxes. Note that the dam fence is very strong, and is topped by barbed wire. Anyway, that put paid to that idea, sadly, and we started to house them with the chickens, even though all the advice we have read is that this is a bad idea. We have found that it hasn't been too  bad though.

Our property backs onto forested council land which, despite baiting programs, is where the foxes live. Along with two ducks, over the years we have lost a couple of chickens and last year lost a new born lamb to foxes. It is always a distressing thing to lose any animal to foxes. It sure disabuses you of any notion of the benevolence of nature.

Knowing that  foxes are about, we keep the poultry enclosed for most of the day, letting them free range for an hour or two in the late afternoon. I would like to let them free range most of the time, but I don't think I would stop worrying about them.

Yesterday, I let the poultry and ducks out to free range at about 4pm. As sunset approaches the chooks will go inside to roost by themselves. The ducks, however, sit around outside, until Action Man shoos them into the enclosure and locks the door as darkness falls.

So yesterday at about 6pm, Action Man went out to do his duty. He came back inside a minute or two later, asking whether all the ducks were there when I let them out. Yes, I said, they were all there.

Action Man then told me he couldn't find two of the ducks, both males, an Indian Runner and a little grey duck of indeterminate type. He went out with the torch to find them, but came back about twenty minutes later, saying he couldn't find them anywhere.

This morning, the little grey duck was sitting outside the enclosure, waiting to be fed, I guess. No sign of the white male Indian Runner, but later we found a few white feathers with what looked like flesh clinging to the feather shaft, about 20 metres from our back door. You don't need to be a professional to surmise what happened.

It is so sad to think that while I was cooking dinner last night, our funny little duck was  in danger just a stone's throw away. So sad.

Monday, April 20, 2009

My Nonna

Probably because I’ve started making some of our own bread, I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother, who we called Nonna, lately. She always made her own bread in her wood-fired stove and it remains the best bread I’ve ever tasted.

Nonna was the only grandparent that I grew up knowing. I had a uncomplicated view of her as a child, as you do. To me, she was a gentle quietly spoken lady, who spoke pretty good English given it was a language she only started learning in her forties, who wore her long hair in a plaited coil, who lived in a cosy little house in the country and was a great cook. She was always busy cooking, sewing, knitting or tending her garden and chooks, Every birthday I would receive a $2 note in a birthday card, as would all her other grandchildren (there would end up being 17 in all. )

As I grew up, I found out about her life and appreciated her quiet heroism a lot more. Her mother died when she was two. She had only short time at school, so her life from an early age was mainly about work to support herself and her family. She married, but my grandfather was often away working in different corners of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. After the war, like so many other from their region of Italy, my grandfather migrated to Australia, and it would be four years before my grandmother joined him with the children at the age of 42. (It occurs to me now that I am the same age as was my grandmother when she migrated). She arrived to find her husband was sick, and had to find work immediately. No easing in to her new life. She was a gutsy no nonsense woman.

Nonna died nine years ago, after a long illness, a week before my daughter was born.
I often think about her, as I go about my business on this place. What she could have taught me about frugality and self sufficiency! She was an expert by necessity.

The other day, as my mother was looking for wool for my knitting project, she came across these pillowcases which belonged to Nonna, and handed them to me to keep. Apparently they were for her marriage bed. Given she married in 1937, they are at least 72 years old. The fabric is beautiful, soft but with body to it (why can’t we find fabric like that any more?) The lace on them is beautiful - it’s hard to tell whether it’s handmade or not. The handworked buttonholes on them are a thing of beauty.

I have other things that belong to Nonna. This is her everyday sugar bowl. I believe it was originally silver plated, but the plate has worn off. I think I prefer the worn metal. As a kid I thought the hanging sugar spoon was a remarkable thing. I use it every day too, and whenever I put sugar in my coffee or on my porridge, I think of her.

These marguerite daisies originate from her garden, via cutting from my mother’s garden. They flower twice a year in spring and now in autumn.

Nonna was never here, but I feel her presence here, in the simple things I have around that belonged to her, and in the rhythms of her life I am trying to recreate in some minor way. She was dignified woman who didn’t try to be anything she wasn’t. She was the real deal. I can't think of a better person to emulate.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Simply happy holidays

It’s school holiday time here, for both me and the kids. Action Man is still going to work.

I enjoy the school holidays. For two weeks, I can plan out my days without the possibility of a phone call to necessitate a rapid change of plans. Luxury!

For our family, holidays are a blessed chance to stop rushing about, and do things we normally don’t do, free from the demands of school, work, homework and after school activities. We do all sorts of things at home. We cook, paint, go to the beach, read, do jigsaw puzzles, scrapbook, ride our bikes and play board games. This holiday, the kids have learned to knit.

Having said that, I also make sure the kids get “nothing” time, that is, time when there is nothing on the agenda. A true rarity. I get on with something that wouldn’t interest them, and leave them to it. The games that evolve during their “nothing” are something to behold.

As the kids have grown older (they are now 9 and 11), I’ve introduced holiday chores. These holidays, they have learned to iron the tea towels, handkerchiefs and pillow cases. They’ll help me clean the outside windows at some stage during the next week. This is a job that takes me about 5 hours by myself, but takes about 2 hours when they help. They clean out their rooms, and sort out any junk and outgrown clothes (a lot of those, sigh) that needs to recycled or given away. They wash and vacuum my car (the only time it gets a wash).

Yesterday, I gave the kids the task of picking up the monkey nuts dropping from a palm tree onto a path near our house. There were a LOT of monkey nuts. My thoughts were that they needed to appreciate that not every job is interesting and varied, and that many jobs are long and tedious. And whether a job is interesting or not, you need to give it the best of your attention.

So they both went out with a big bucket, and a couple of dustpans. My son went and got a shovel as well. And slowly but surely, they picked up the monkey nuts. Miss 9 lost the plot half way, and came into me crying “there are so many nuts! It’s really hard!” But I gently “encouraged” her to go back and finish the job. She wasn’t impressed, but that’s the way it is sometimes in the real world isn’t it? Sometimes you are asked to do things that don’t impress you, but they deserve the best you can give it anyway.

But above all, we try to have fun together on our holidays. Today has been another magic autumn day, so we headed to the beach for a swim and a play. What could be better?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Desert Island ingredients and a tip for parsley

Have you heard about that radio show on the BBC (Radio 4?) called Desert Island Discs? A famous guest talks about their life, interspersed with music from their "desert island discs". That is, music they would take with them if they were marooned on a desert island.

The idea of "desert island" things is a fun one. Beyond discs, you could have books, movies, works of art, gadgets, clothes. The list could go on.

Today I was in the kitchen, and I started to comtemplate my "desert island ingredients". This came up as I was chopping parsley, and I thought to myself, what would I do without parsley? I use it all the time. Then I started to think about other ingredients that I couldn't do without, the ingredients I would take with me on a desert island. After a bit of thought, the list I came up with was as follows:

Olive oil





The common link among this lot is that while they aren't the star ingredient they make whatever they are cooked with taste a lot better. What would be your "Desert Island ingredients?"

Back to chopping parsley though, I thought I'd share a tip. I use chopped parsley in a lot of things. Is it just me, or do other people find chopping parsley a messy business? No matter how hard I try, I can't confine the little flakes of parsley to the chopping board. They end up from one end of the kitchen to the other, don't ask me how. I am definitely not chucking it about like confetti. Promise!

So chopping parsley is not one of my favourite pasttimes. One way I've found to limit the angst is to chop the parsley in bulk (sometimes I do this in the food processor, sometimes just with my mezzaluna knife), then store the chopped parsley in a jar, cover it in olive oil, and use it in cooking straight from the jar. It saves heaps of time and mess. The parsley stores for about a month in the fridge in this way.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wonders never cease

Since Saturday, I have knitted the one-and-a-half squares above. Seeing as this is the first knitting I have done in, oh, about 30 years, I’m quite chuffed.

My relationship with knitting has been a bit fraught. My mother is a good knitter, and tried to teach me when I was a child. Unfortunately, I couldn’t decipher her flying needles, and mum couldn’t understand why I didn’t “get it” simply by looking. A stressful time was had by all.

When I was in high school, there was a knitting craze, and a friend taught me to knit then. It didn’t take me long to realise I would never want to wear anything I made, I was such a poor knitter. Also, I just couldn’t understand how people became so enamoured with knitting. I always had better things to do.

Thirty years later, and this week circumstances have aligned themselves to have me give knitting another chance. My sewing machine is still in the repair shop. I have time in the school holidays. I have been inspired by the knit along on Rhonda’s blog. I’ve casting around for something portable to do while I ferry kids to their various winter sporting commitments. I was at my mother’s place on Saturday, so I could get her to teach me to cast on (I never learnt that bit), plus she had some leftover yarn and needles to get me started. Shazam, a couple of days later, nearly two squares of a lap quilt done. And this has been done in little dollops of time - 5 to 10 minutes here and there.

I’m enjoying the mini-project each square is. I will be able to change colour and pattern frequently, so boredom won’t set in.

This time I get the therapeutic aspect of knitting. I never understood that before. But the nicest part is that my kids look at me as some sort of knitting guru, and I taught them both to knit over the last few days (no tears from either). On Sunday night I was knitting while surfing the blogs (yes, my satellite broadband takes that long), and my 11 year old son sat on the floor next to me knitting. He did a good job too. That makes me smile.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Happy Easter

We have had a couple of good days around here. On Thursday we went to my parents’ place to help prepare for our traditional Good Friday get together. Our extended family always gets together on Good Friday: not only our family, but my aunts and uncles and cousins and their families. About 40 people all told. It’s a good, if exhausting,day.

Everyone contributes to lunch, which is based around fish. The centrepiece dish is baccala and polenta. Baccala is dried, salted fish which is reconstituted and cooked in a number of ways, and served with polenta. This is the traditional Good Friday dish from the region of Friuli in northeastern Italy, where my parents come from, but I believe it is common throughout Italy..

Yesterday we had a quiet day after returning home. I made a batch of hot cross buns, which we ate for breakfast on Easter Sunday morning. I was pretty chuffed with how they turned out.

I can bet not many people spent Easter Sunday the way I did: cleaning out cupboards. I cleaned and sorted out my wardrobe and my linen cupboard this morning. Sorting out cupboards is a job I try and do every six months, around the time of the autumn and spring equinox. (I wonder how many other people use the equinox as a trigger to do household chores?) I started last week with the pantry and the kitchen cupboards, and today was as good a day as any to continue!

The forecast of rain this weekend has turned out to be wrong, wrong, wrong. It was quite warm and humid today, so after lunch we went to the beach, about 5 minutes away. It was a perfect autumn day, the swell was gentle and the beach was packed! I went for a walk while Action Man and the kids went for a swim. It was a bit too cold for me.

Looking forward to another day off together tomorrow. Happy Easter to all. Hope you are all having a peaceful time.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Slapdash gardening

Sunday saw the end of daylight saving, and coincidentally, the end of the hot, steamy summer weather. Hooray! There is definitely an autumn nip in the air. Winter here we come.

Spent a couple of hours in the garden on Sunday:

Harvesting: lettuce, beans, zucchini, capsicum, cherry tomatoes, broccoli.

Planted: Lettuce (cos and radicchio), cabbage, fennel, leeks.

We are coming to the end of our peak production period of December to April, where 80-90% of the fruit and veg we eat comes from the garden. In winter we go down to about 50%. Early spring is our lean time. The amazing thing is that the garden produces this much despite me.

I admit I am a bit of a slapdash gardener. Take a look at our vegetable garden. Slapdash. No edges, wonky chicken wire fence, seedlings planted wherever there is room. Crop rotation? What a laugh. Note also the results of my tactical error in planting pumpkin vines in the main vegie garden. They have taken half the garden over, and I have run out of planting room for winter veg, so our winter harvest will be well down this year. You won’t see a picture like that in any gardening magazine any time soon.

I love my vegie garden and being in it, I really do. I can spend hours at a time tending it. Trouble is, I tend to do this every few weeks and literally nothing else between times. Good, conscientious gardeners will tell you little and often is the name of the game. That way, you can nip any problems in the bud. I know this, and can appreciate the advice. Acting on it is the issue.

I would like to start growing stuff from seed, but I know that my inconsistency would be a big disadvantage. Seeds need to be coddled along, and I can’t rely on myself to coddle. So I buy seedlings, and occasionally direct sow into the garden. That does me until I can get my act together.

The good news is that nature is very forgiving. It doesn’t matter that your gardens edges aren’t straight. Even my slapdash efforts yield impressive results - well, I'm impressed at least. The one thing I do that I think insulates me from total disaster is ensuring the soil is well fed to start with. I have a compost heap, I have worms, and I gather chook poo and sheep manure (fun!) and I fork this all in before I plant. I'm proof that if you have good soil, and you mulch well, you can get away with a certain amount of slapdashery.

So, all of you out there who would like to try their hand at growing their own veg but feel they may have slapdash tendencies for whatever reason, my advice is go for it. Some vegetables, however grown, are better than none.

A fruit fly postscript: A sad story. Over the last few weeks we have tossed kilos of feijoa and grapefruit into plastic bags to cook them in the sun before throwing them out. Such waste!
I have written before about our efforts to eradicate this pest. It seems now that all our efforts would be doomed to failure. We have become aware that a couple of our neighbours have fruit trees that they do not tend, so they are breeding grounds for fruit fly. In the face of this, we are always going to fight a losing battle with FF. Sigh. I'm wondering whether the orchard is worth it, to tell the truth...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sewing Room Blues

Last Thursday I sat at my machine. I was feeling good, I had the whole day at my disposal, there was no housework to do, it was raining, so I didn’t feel as if I should be outside. Beauty, I thought, I might actually get some good work done on the second muslin for Burda pattern 2561 that I blogged about here. I was feeling so good that I started to think I might actually finish the whole project by Easter.

Pride goeth before the fall, or something like that. No sooner than I was overcome with an attack of the smugs, that my sewing machine stopped. Just stopped, midseam, jamming the threads so there was no chance of any more sewing. Mmmm.

I did everything I could think of. I rethreaded, I cleaned it out. No change.

So instead of spending the day sewing, I had to do an emergency dash to the sewing machine repair shop.

The repairman was sympathetic, but pointed to his full workroom and said, “it will be something like 3 weeks”. Mmmm.

I told him to call me if it was going to cost more than $150 to fix. If it is more than this, I’ll have to investigate my options.

While my frugal, no-waste self was whispering “just get it fixed, it will be fine!”, the other half of my brain was saying “you’ve always had your reservations this machine. If it’s going to cost a couple of hundred to fix, why not get a new one?”

My machine is a 10 year old Husqvarna 350, which at the time I bought it was a good step up from the machine I was using. But now it is driving like a 10 year old Commodore with a lot of mileage. It gets you from A to B, but the ride is a bit rough, and you have your doubts it will do the job. It has always had a problem with stitch length, it’s buttonhole function is below average and it rattles! And you have to call the NRMA from time to time.

I’ve had an idle glance at the Bernina website. I have a Bernina overlocker and the ride on it is like night and day. More like a foreign sportscar, and it’s stitch is a beauteous thing.

What to do? Honour my mindful consumption philosophy, or cut my losses? Given that I’ve been doing more and more sewing over the last year or so, and it is becoming so important in my life, perhaps an upgrade is in order. (How’s that for rationalisation!)

Above is a bit of sewing I managed to get done over the last week or so. It is another apron using a pattern I downloaded from the burdastyle site. It’s a great apron, easy to sew, with good coverage. Highly recommended. The main fabric is a cotton drill remnant from skirt I made when I lived in England more than 15 years ago. The ties and pocket are a remnant from curtains I made for my son four years ago. I’m quite happy with how it turned out…

Friday, April 3, 2009

I LOVE the Library

It’s hard to pick up a newspaper at the moment without an article talking about how ordinary people are reining in their spending. And almost without fail, someone says something like “I’ve stopped buying books and magazines and started going to library”, as if that is something you only do as a last resort.

Well, that’s one thing I’ve always done, ever since I can remember, wherever I’ve lived, at every stage of my life, no matter my income. I love reading, and read more books than I could ever afford. I’ve always looked forward to my monthly trawl through the library.

My son said to me one day, “Mum, you get a funny look when we go to the library”. And it’s true! I can feel my brain switch on to hunter/gatherer mode as I walk through the doors of the library, to be confronted with thousands of possibilities. I can’t wait to see what gems I’ll pick up that day.

One reservation a lot of people have about libraries is that they can’t find the books they want to read. The secret of successful library borrowing is to have no fixed idea about particular books. You need to be flexible. I go in with a general idea about my interests, and just go with the flow. I’ll borrow 8 to 10 books, and on average, a few will be glance-and-flickers but I’ll also pick up some great books. That said, sometimes I’ll look for particular books I’ve read or heard about , or I’ll go to the bookshop just before I go to the library, and see if there is anything there I want to read. Then I’ll go around the corner to the library and look for that particular book. You’ll be surprised how often it is there.

It doesn’t always work though. Sometimes I lose my library mojo, like my visit about two weeks ago. Despite close scrutiny of the shelves for about an hour I just didn’t find anything I wanted to read. I resorted to re-borrowing some previous favourites.

But yesterday, I hit library pay-dirt. Call it magic, luck or serendipity, within ten minutes I was in possession of 6 books I’d been wanting to read:

“Dead Aid - How Aid is Not Working and How there is Another Way for Africa” by Dambisa Moyo. I saw Ms Moyo interviewed by Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report and immediately wanted to read this.

“The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” by Alain de Botton - the latest by one of my favourite writers.

“The Slap” by Christos Tsiolkas. An Australian writer with an enthusiastic following and good reviews for this book.

(All these books are recently published and I am the first borrower! Love that!)

“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” by Paul Torday - vaguely remember reading about this book a while ago. The blurb includes a recommendation by Marina Lewycka, author of “Two Caravans” and “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”, two of my own recommendations.

“Queen Camillla” by Sue Townsend - Sue Townsend’s books (she wrote the Adrian Mole series) are always good for a laugh, and a satirical look at modern day Britain.

“The Time We Have Taken” by Steven Carroll - This won a major Australian award last year - perhaps the Miles Franklin ?

My only problem now is which one to read first.

It seems such a shame that libraries are seen as places you go to only when money is tight. Quite apart from the books I get to read, I see it as a way to mindfully consume. I can read as many books as I like from the library, but they are read again and again by others. Another way we can tread lightly.

Any other library lovers out there?