People who know me know that I cook for the pleasure of it, and that I am perhaps more of a feeder than an eater – I am compelled to cook for others, to nurture, love, entertain and delight friends and family with copious amounts of delicious food (well, usually delicious, sometimes ordinary and occasionally woeful). This is not to say I don’t like to indulge in sumptuous eating myself, but my focus is often more on the production and distribution side of the equation. And I love to cook with others who are as passionate about cooking as I am, especially when their motivations are similar.
The world is full of people cooking, but their drives to do so can be wildly disparate. Folks cook because they have to, for the pleasure of the creativity and results, to nurture community, to show off, and to accrue cultural capital, amongst other rationale (many subconscious). I suspect most of the time our motivations are complicated.
As a keen cook, I have many friends who are also passionate cooks, as well as many reluctant or aspiring cook friends. I love having opportunities to cook with friends and family, especially when our motivations are aligned, as that makes for the most comfortable sort of communal cooking. Those inclined to regale me with the expense of their ingredients, or to dictate to me a ‘better’ way to do something (though thoughts and advice are very welcome, controlling my creative process is not), or to rabbit on about how ‘there is only ONE extra virgin olive oil to use, and it must be Italian’ (etc ad nauseaum) are the ones I find to be kitchen killjoys, frankly. Admittedly, sometimes we will all comment on the high cost of a much-coveted item we are delighted to have, or go through a phase (it’s always a phase) where we will only buy a particular variety of something from a special place of origin, but for those in the market for more cultural capital, it’s a modus operandi.
And so it happened that the beautiful gift economy of the Twitterverse brought me a new friend who matched me fantastically in the kitchen these holidays. I met Zoe (@crazybrave, who also blogs here) in real life a few months back in Canberra (where she lives with her partner & two adorable children). That day she showed me her garden full of artichokes and chooks, the bathtubs housing the newly planted water chestnuts, and her copious shelves of a droolworthy cookbook collection, then made us a lovely impromptu lunch of grilled chicken and white bean salad before giving me a lift to the airport. A friendship was struck, and it was obvious to us both that fruits would be born of it.
Which brings us to our recent holiday near Crookwell in southern New South Wales. A trip that should have taken the Jonai about eight hours in the Volvster in fact lasted two days, due to a blowout just over an hour into the trip. Of course, we were travelling on the Sunday after Christmas, so nobody was open to sell us a new tyre. We limped at 80km/hr the 200km up to Albury, where the kids at least got to have a lovely swim in the Murray, intending to buy a new tyre the next morning for the final 400km. Alas, Monday was the Boxing Day holiday – everything was still closed – and even the cafe where we broke our fast added a 10% surcharge for the pleasure of serving us on a public holiday (think insult to injury). Twitter was consulted, then mostly ignored. The Jonai were unstoppable. Wild horses would not keep us in Albury for another night. And so we hit the road, at the zen-like speed of 80km/hr, and drove all the way to Mark and Antonia’s gorgeous country retreat, Hillview, wondering whether intrepid would at any moment become just plain stupid. It didn’t, we made it, and the feasting began.
The peace of Hillview cannot be overstated. Some years ago Mark accidentally cut the phone line, and they decided that suited them very well, thank you. And so it does. There’s no mobile reception for the most part either, so it’s kind of like camping, but in a really beautiful old Edwardian house, in beds, with a toilet and a shower. And electricity. Okay, it’s not at all like camping except that you disconnect from all social media, and just plain socialise with loved ones. And read lots of books. Lots and lots of books. Oh, and there’s an oven…
Before Zoe and the kids arrived (her partner Owen came up two days later), we feasted on such diversities as lamb marinated in yoghurt, garlic, lemon and salt, cooked out on the brazier, and Gado Gado another night, but things really got going with the new arrivals. Digging through Mark and Antonia’s awesome collection of cookbooks old and new, I found a Marcella Hazan recipe for a sort of baked risotto with layers of eggplant, sugo and parmigiana. I had a frozen ratatouille with me, so we improvised a Risotto Ratatouille Parmigiana that was out of this world.
The next night, we worked out our menu around the enormous t-bone steaks Zoe had brought from her sister’s farm near Bombala, complemented beautifully with a fresh horseradish sauce from the garden. As Zoe moved to prepare some green beans with cashews, I whipped up a garlicky cheesy pasta for the kids and some roast potatoes to go with our steaks. All of this was achieved with such ease and camaraderie you’d think we’d been cooking together for years, not a day. There were tastings, suggestions and questions, advice sought, notes compared on our usual techniques, and plenty of chatter about all things Twitter, food and family.
Did I mention we both brought the same knives? Each of us brought our ten-inch chef’s knife and our Chinese cleavers. Zoe’s was sharper than mine (for shame, tammois), but we managed to find a sharpener that was ‘not a gadget’ and rectify the situation.
The day of Owen’s arrival, we decided to roast the Wessex Saddleback pork shoulder the ever-generous Zoe had brought along, taking inspiration from the beautiful big horseradish leaves. So Zoe laid the leaves in the roasting dish, studded the pork with garlic and fennel flowers plucked from the roadside, rubbed it with lemon and salt and poured a bit o’ bubbly over the top. It marinated for a couple of hours and then we roasted it for about an hour and a half. Meanwhile, I stuffed tomatoes with garlicky breadcrumbs made from the end of my homemade bread (I got a starter going the first day and subsequently baked fresh bread every second day – this is a new thing for me, but watch this space!), as well as some fresh pecorino and lovely reggiano, and the basil we brought in a pot with us from Melbourne. Next, I threw together a potato gratin, steeping the milk with herbs from the garden before straining it onto the ‘taters, along with plenty of mozzarella, reggiano and Stuart’s home-cured olives. It was a spectacular dinner out on the patio with its marvellous views of the surrounding hills.
The final night we were all together, ravioli was on the menu. I figured I’d do a simple spinach and ricotta filling (Oscar’s favourite) and an even simpler burnt sage butter sauce with a little garlic thrown in (’cause it just ain’t a Jonai dinner without plenty o’ garlic). Simple, right? Sure, except that I left my brain elsewhere when I didn’t suggest we let the frozen spinach thaw and then strain it, resulting in a very watery filling that did its utmost to destroy the integrity of the pasta. When we realised where we were going so horribly wrong (much later than I should have recognised the problem), Zoe tried making pasta band-aids for the ill affected and I tried straining the filling through a clean chux. This helped, but the difficulties continued. Stuart even came in and did a big manly squeezing of the filling through a linen tea towel, after which I made the final tray of picture perfect ravioli. The earliest ones by this stage, we were referring to as the ‘crapioli’. Those that were clearly not going to survive a rolling boil I popped into a baking tray with water and put in the oven to cook, then served to the children first – to my surprise, they were highly acclaimed! And so were the many more that followed. The lesson? Well, aside from start cooking earlier (we didn’t eat until 8:30pm, which is a wee bit late for the kiddles), make sure your filling isn’t too wet, and be resigned to chaos if you want a bunch of kids to help, the main lesson Zoe and I took was that we all make mistakes, and in most cases, they’re salvageable. Sometimes, even delicious.
Of course there was more food than just the dinners, like the garlicky, basily, lemony hollandaise on mushies one morning, many pancakes, Zoe’s magnificent salad of air-dried beef, white beans, roast capsicum, pine nuts, baby spinach, olive oil, balsamic and mustard, Stuart’s delectable roast garlicky baba ganoush, endless loaves of fresh bread and the final quiche/pastie/pie making extravaganza to use up leftovers and dregs of ingredients. And although a lot of time was spent on the labour, it felt quite effortless, and often seamless. What a treat and a pleasure to cook together in this way, without competition or posturing, just for the love of it. All nine of us felt nurtured and nourished, bodily, emotionally and certainly for me, spiritually. Such is the joy anyone can have if they choose to cook with passion and pleasure, and to do so with others who take the same approach.