Who has time to make bread? You do.

Nearly two years ago I set out to make reliably good sourdough, and in the last two months I think I got there. There have been many months of experimenting, unreliable record keeping, distracted successes and focused failures along the way, and for those of you who don’t want to wait two years to make good bread, I’m going to give you my recipe.

I use a stand mixer for mine, which does save time and makes working with a wet, sticky dough a lot easier, but it can easily be done by hand without a lot of extra time required as I use a minimal kneading technique. I’ve learned that supermarket, stock standard flour doesn’t make great bread – these days I’m using 12.5kg bags of pizza flour from UCG Wholesalers. Pizza flour is a ‘strong flour’, that is, it has a higher gluten content, which is better for bread and pizza. Low gluten flours (which are typical of most self-rising and plain flours in the supermarket) are best for cakes and pastries. As I bake almost every day, I get through 12.5kg every three weeks or so, and it’s great value from UCG (there’s one in Melbourne CBD and one up on Bell St in Preston). I play with other flours occasionally too, especially rye, but my results are a lot more variable to date.

As for my starter, Fran, I feed her about a tablespoon of flour & a bit less of water each day, give her a quick stir and leave her on the bench with a lid loosely perched on the plastic honey jar in which she resides. In really hot weather I usually pop her in the fridge or she gets a bit manky (we must be related). It took me ages to learn not to add too much starter to my bread – the acidity keeps the gluten from making a lovely, stretchy, chewy crumb.

I’ve stuck with adding a bit of commercial dry yeast to get a reliable rise, and if I need to speed it up (when there’s no time for an overnight rise), I just add a bit more.

The key to sourdough is long rises, not loads of labour, in my experience. Hence putting a dough on in the morning, popping it into tins before bed, and into the oven in the morning seems to work perfectly, with minimal effort on my part and maximum time for farming all day. πŸ™‚

Recipe

1T starter (give or take – I often make double quantities, but only up the starter by about half)

2C pizza flour

1C tepid tap water (I reckon our rainwater has improved the bread too, by the way)

pinch flake salt

1tsp dry yeast

drizzle olive oil

Method

Pour starter into bowl. Add flour, dry yeast, salt, water and oil. Knead on lowest setting or by hand for about 1 minute – just until combined. Let stand 15 minutes. Knead again for about 30 seconds.

Brush a light covering of olive oil on top and leave to rise (prove) for 6-10 hours. The wetness of the dough and temperature and humidity in your house will determine the right length of time, but you can also make it suit your schedule. If you get home late from work, it may have fallen from the top of its rise a bit, but it doesn’t really matter, you’ll still get great bread from the second rise.

For the second rise, I don’t really ‘punch it down’, I simply pour it out of the bowl and fold it over like a book, turned at 90 degrees repeatedly, to form bubbles inside until it’s quite tight and doesn’t want to stretch any further. Then I put it into a lightly oiled (and usually with polenta on bottom) bread tin for the final rise. NB oil your hands and the board for this bit to avoid loads of sticky dough everywhere. Allow to rise overnight.

A quick note on stickyness – I love the results of a wetter dough, but too wet and it doesn’t rise with structure (so needs to be in a tin, not on a tray), too dry and you get dry bread. A really wet dough may rise beautifully but collapse before you hop up in the morning to bake it – the result will still be good, but just a bit shorter with a tougher top crust. Keep experimenting until it’s how you like it best.

Sunken loaves from a wet dough left to rise too long - still noms!

My favourite bit is waking up with a gorgeous sunrise washing through the house and turn on the oven to warm the kitchen.

I bake my bread on the lowest rack at max temp (which on my oven is around 250C) for about 20 minutes – until the top is golden & the bottom makes a hollow sound if you tap it. Occasionally I remember to put a water bath on the top rack or spray some water in for more yummy holes in the bread.

Enjoy your warm, fresh loaves every morning and take time to reflect on what a mood enhancer they are.

There’s no doubt that making bread feels good – it’s homely, nurturing & nostalgic – and if you’re making good bread, it’s especially satisfying. And given I devote around 10 minutes prep time to mine (that includes all stages), I no longer believe anyone who says it’s too hard or too time consuming, or that it’s some Little House on the Prairie anti-feminist practice.

What’s the best thing since sliced bread? A whole loaf you made yourself.

Mood leaveners

Rural rhythms…

Rhythms are so much better than schedules. One day might be at a super fast tempo, the next a slow, dreamy waltz. As someone who has never enjoyed regular schedules, I revel in developing rhythms.

In cooking, as in life, rhythms should respond to the seasons. When warmth comes from the sun, it’s the season for light, sharp chopping and cold, crunchy vegetables. When the woodstove warms the hearth, it’s time for slow-simmering stews, endless loaves of bread and a bottomless pot of chai.

Frosty mornings

Jonai Farms is teaching us its rhythms. Frosty mornings call for a hot oven to bake the sourdough that rose overnight as we watch another perfect sunrise.

Bread rising with the sun...
Love that big new oven

Days that can’t break 10C beg for a chai station on the woodstove, which also doubles as a temperature regulator for the nighttime yoghurt making brought on by the endless supply of fresh milk from a local dairy.

Chai station

Perfect spot for setting yoghurt
Real milk

A farmer’s life of physical toil from sun-up to sundown justifies fresh eggs daily on the morning’s sourdough with thick lashings of butter, and sometimes Greenvale Farm‘s most excellent bacon.

A farmer's breakfast

Warm days invite us out for lunches al fresco, but the mercury drop that trails just behind sunset demands enamelled cast iron be filled with luscious lamb shanks, a huge pot of dahl, or cinnamon-spiked chili.

Dinner our first night at Jonai Farms - big pot o' chili

When a big storm knocks out the power for the night, break out the hurricane lamps and shift that osso bucco out of the electric oven and onto the gas stovetop.

Cooking like they used to

A couple days of meaty wintery dishes lead us naturally back to gado gado or palak paneer kofta.

gado gado
Palak paneer kofta, masala dahl & fresh yoghurt

And no matter where we are or what the season, ‘peace and happiness begin, geographically speaking, where garlic is used in cooking’ (Marcel Boulestin).

These are the rhythms making the Jonai happy beyond our wildest expectations of farm life. What a privilege to be both grateful beneficiaries and mindful custodians of the land.

Motorhome Mama Cookin’

I have my first Motorhome Mama Cookin’ post up over on the wonderful @crazybrave’s Progressive Dinner Party. You can read all about my cast iron and knife fetishes, as well as our current Mexican binge, buttermilk biscuit-making & sourcing local produce for inspiration. πŸ™‚

Camp cooking, cast iron style

Cast Iron Camping means a loaded car!

One of the major highlights of camping for me is the opportunity to cook and eat outside for days on end, coupled with the wonderful challenge of limited cold space and cooking with only two burners. When we accepted our lot as ‘car campers’ after having children, with whom we’ve been camping since the eldest was 5 months old (and #2’s first camp experience was at 11days old!), we discovered the joy of Cast Iron Camping and have embraced it in all its tasty results.

First, some basics. Although I would never suggest you *must* travel with these items to make good food (you need only look to Great Depression Cooking with Clara for proof), it certainly makes it more pleasurable for me. Therefore, I travel with two good knives (usually my Chinese cleaver and a 10” Dick – ahem, this isn’t a joke, it’s the brand), preferably my big chopping board, but a medium-sized one will do, a 10” le Creuset (any enamelled cast iron large pot will do – we scored ours on somebody’s nature strip in North Carlton) and a 10” cast iron frypan. The lid for the le Creuset comes in handy for camp pizza on the frypan too.

I bring along a smaller stainless steel pot as well for cooking the odd sauce or hot chocolate for the kids. Obviously, a spatula & wooden spoon, plus a mixing bowl is helpful. I also try to bring one or two more plates & bowls than we need for dining to hold ingredients as I chop. Arguably not essential but rather pleasant to have along is a stovetop espresso maker… you can indeed make coffee old-school in a pot, but we all know which is tastier.

I like to bring a tupperware of my favourite spices, and absolutely essential (for me) is a container of salt flakes and a pepper grinder, as I can’t bear iodised, granulated salt or powdery pepper. Oh, and this year I started taking my sourdough starter along to make a leavened damper, and let me tell you, it’s worth it! But I’ll get to that…

You never know what spice you might need...

We picked up a secondhand ‘Eva Kool’ esky a couple years ago after admiring our friends’ on repeated long, hot summer camping trips. This thing will keep brie in good form for 10 days, and in fact we’ve seen it keep ice for that long when kept in the shade and with wet towels over it in 40C weather. Between that and our vintage Coleman stove Stuart picked up at a garage sale, we are indeed happy campers. So what do we eat?

Sourdough Damper

As mentioned previously, this is now a staple for us when we’re camping. I’m very glad I only took half of Fran, my starter, as a wallaby ate her halfway through the trip. She made some brilliant bread before she went though. My total aversion to supermarket bread also means we have to make our own while camping, as no good bakery bread will keep well enough. We do, however, rely on tortillas & Sorj bread as our ‘long-life’ option.

The recipe is simple. Pour some starter, flour, salt, water & a bit of olive oil into the mixing bowl. Mix/knead for a minute or two. Put dough in the le Creuset (this is why I bring enamelled cast iron, btw) with some oil in the bottom, rubbing a bit more on top. Cover & let rise overnight. In the morning, it will take about half an hour to bake – you should flip it after about 20 minutes (conditions of your stove, the weather, your pot, etc will make this vary, of course). The result is a lovely, airy loaf with a crispy crust, thicker than foccacia but not as tall as a normal loaf usually, perfect to enjoy with eggs.

Breakfast

Brekky is important to me. (Stuart would say that’s an understatement.) Having grown up in America with a love of cooked brekkies, I’ve maintained my desire for nearly two decades in a land of muesli eaters. Don’t get me wrong, I like raw oats with nuts & Stuart’s stewed plums, but not as much as I like eggs and roast tomatoes. So here’s a sample of our camp brekkies:

  • ham/cheese/tomato scramble on turkish rolls – this was simpler than an omelette with the same ingredients as I would normally cook the fillings separately and re-introduce them to an omelette. While camping I was minimising extra washing up, because no matter how fun the cooking is, I’m less enthusiastic about washing up (especially with cold salt water…). I prefer mozzarella for this for the gooeyness.
  • poached egg on mushies with prosciutto & pecorino on fresh sourdough damper – I poached eggs in sea water with spectacular results.
  • breakfast burritos – egg, tomato, prosciutto, tasty cheese, optional yoghurt – Mexican, or American versions thereof, is standard on our menus, and brekky burritos make a nice change to the regular fry up, as well as being a simple option on a day without damper.
  • fried eggs, Boks bacon, fried tomato, fresh sourdough damper – we sought out local produce wherever possible along our Tasmanian adventure, and Boks bacon, though apparently only ‘bred free range’ instead of fully free range (and there is some controversy around all of this that I won’t go in to as I don’t know the story well enough), is really delicious bacon.
  • roast tomatoes & avocado with hand-whisked hollandaise (on very boring local ‘bakery’ bread) – I’m cheating here as we made this in a serviced apartment at Port Arthur, but I wanted to include it both to give Ev (who slept on our floor as we all escaped the endless rain) kudos for hand-whipping the hollandaise. It wasn’t as a thick an emulsification as if he’d had so much as a whisk to do the job (I gave him a fork…), but it was delicious nonetheless. You could definitely do this camping, and just fry the tomatoes.
  • french toast from leftover Zum bakery sourdough, zucchini flowers stuffed with chevre & egg, egged & fried in butter – I couldn’t pass up the zucchini flowers at the Hobart Farm Gate market, and we weren’t sorry.
  • fried tomato & Rare Food bacon on fried day-old sourdough – I know, we had bacon and we fried the bread. It was so bloody good we did it two days in a row. It’s an excellent solution to stale bread. The Rare Food bacon is from Matthew Evans of Gourmet Farmer fame’s pigs, which the Cygnet butcher then cures. It’s quality product, but the bacon is a little smoky for my palate.

    Zomigod, fried bread is *good*.

You admittedly couldn’t eat such rich breakfasts every day of your life, but hey, we were on holiday and couldn’t resist all the local free range eggs, amazing produce, free range bacon and stunning range of cheeses. Besides, it was important that I share the amazing variety of options one has when camping with you, dear readers. I did it all for you, and I liked it. πŸ™‚

Lunches

Lunches are typically a deceptively simple affair when we camp as brekky and dinner are ostensibly the main acts. Their simplicity relies on picking up high quality local produce and making lovely rolls or a ploughman’s lunch with them.

  • Ploughman’s lunch – fresh baguettes, avocado, chicken liver pate, Bruny Island Cheese ‘Tom’, green olive tapenade, beetroot dip, tomato, cucumber, pickled walnuts – we sourced most of these ingredients at the lovely Pasini’s Cafe in Bicheno.
  • Wineglass Bay picnic – fresh rolls, salami, cheddar, avocado, tapenade, tomato
  • Hobart’s Botanical Gardens – oysters, BISH smoked trout, Bruny cheese ‘Tom’, tomatoes, cucumbers, Zum Bakery bread

    Happy picnics every day
  • camp pizza – quick pita/pizza dough, passata, salami, tomato, mushie, shallot, feta, pepper – make a pita dough from flour, baking soda, salt & water – you can add a little oil to keep it from sticking. Set aside and prepare your toppings, roll out your dough (I don’t carry a rolling pin as a bottle of wine does the job nicely) and cook it first on one side, then flip it, add the toppings & cover. It should be ready in less than 5 minutes.

Dinners

  • oysters, oysters, oysters – my new year’s resolution was to eat oysters every day we were in Tassie. Sadly, I failed to eat them on five out of 20 days, but I’m pretty sure I still ate my own weight in them. We reckon the best ones came from Get Shucked on Bruny Island.
    Another reason to carry a pepper grinder
    Prosecco goes rather well with oysters

  • beef stroganoff a la bourguignon – I often do some kind of beef stew when we camp, mostly because I’m happy to store beef for longer in the esky than most other meats, and it makes a very simple meal on around the fourth night. I improvise each time, and as I made this one, I chuckled to myself that I wasn’t sure whether I was really making stroganoff or bourguigon, nor could I remember exactly how I usually make either, hence I reckon this one was kind of both. I just cook up some onions, shallots & garlic, then add the beef and mushrooms. In the other pot, cook the pasta. Once the beef is just barely cooked, I push the bits aside, add a knob of butter (& a little reserved pork fat from that morning’s brekky), melt, then add flour and brown off before pouring in a bit of wine to thicken. Mix all the bits back through, strain the pasta and mix together in the big pot. You can add a bit of yoghurt or sour cream at this stage, as well as a healthy dose of freshly cracked pepper. VoilΓ  – a two pot bastardised but tasty dish. πŸ™‚

    Nothing fancy here, just noms. πŸ™‚
  • Chipolata sausages with onion, capsicum & garlic on cheesy polenta – polenta is a genius camping starch, as is cous cous. I like to mix some mozzarella & pecorino through it to give it some creamy flavour.
  • Soft tacos/fajitas with spicy bolognese, onion & capsicum, fresh tomato, cheese, yoghurt, fried corn tortillas – I had some frozen bolognese, which served first as an ice pack in the esky, & later a very simple addition for a delicious dinner. I just added a bit of cumin and chili to change the flavour profile, fried up some onion & capsicum, & lightly fry the corn tortillas in oil to improve their store-bought texture. The kids go nuts for these.

    Soft taco
  • Sir Loin Breier Butcher’s eye fillet in shallots, served on fried potato/onion/garlic, topped with creamy mushies – this butcher in Bicheno (never mind the silly name) is turning out high quality grass-fed beef, as well as a range of sausages and apparently smoked mutton bird in season. This very simple dinner is another camping staple for us. Also, as we had one and a half two many steaks (they were big!), the next day we had more lovely fajitas with them. I do this with lamb usually, making kebabs with garlic sauce and doing my own pitas.
    Steak and potatoes

    Sir Loin Breier Butcher's eye fillet day 2 - fajitas!
  • scallops with onion, garlic, capsicum, fish sauce, sugar, lemon, Vietnamese black pepper, rice – once again, picking up the local produce pays off, and the scallops from the Freycinet marine farm were excellent cooked very quickly and served with rice.

    Bounty from Freycinet Marine Farm
  • pasta with mushie/garlic/shredded zucchini cooked in passata – I know I say everything is simple, but seriously, dried pasta for which one makes a sauce with passata and a couple of vegies, topped with the last of your pecorino (another great camping cheese as it lasts for ages) is easy enough for even the most reluctant cook, and an excellent choice after a week or so of camping when you’re meat free (assuming you were eating meat at all, of course) and need ingredients that keep.
  • quesadillas made with Bruny Island ODO – cheese, tomato, spring onion – we always travel with tortillas, and quesadillas are a Jonai staple whether at home or away. Very quick, lovely served with yoghurt, guacamole, jalapeΓ±os, and/or Tabasco. These were a guilty pleasure using Bruny Cheese’s excellent ODO (One Day Old).
  • vegie curry – last jar of my green tomato curry with zucchini, ginger, garlic, shallots, garam masala, coconut milk, served on cous cous, enjoyed with Bruny Island Pint Noir – I can’t imagine camping without at least one curry, and this one was particularly delicious. I credit the garam masala.
  • stir fry with zucchini & egg, bit of vinegar with shallot, garlic & ginger, cooked in pork fat – yep, you read it. There’s that pork fat again, making everything more delicious. It also means you’re saving and re-using fat instead of working out how to dispose of it responsibly in pristine wilderness. Another nice excuse, eh?

Dessert

Those who know me or regular readers here will know that I’m not really a dessert person. I have a relentlessly savoury palate, much to Stuart and the children’s chagrin. However, some local nectarines and goat’s cheese inspired me to make one dessert on the Tassie holiday.

  • nectarines cooked in butter, topped with chevre and local honey

I should mention that for a long camping trip without a re-supply, I would usually cook & freeze one or two lunch &/or dinner options the week before, such as lasagne, quiche or stroganoff. This means you’ve got extra ice in your esky for the first couple days, and have a substantial, delicious meal as fresh stuff starts to run out. For our Tassie trip, we were only camping 3-4 days at a time with a break to re-stock and do some washing in between, so I didn’t bother.

Another useful trick is to freeze water in ice cream or yoghurt containers for the esky so that when it melts, you have containers for leftovers. πŸ™‚ And always pre-chill your esky the night before loading it up for the big trip!

May your produce be fresh, your cast iron strong, your knives sharp, your esky cold and your cooking fuel never run out. πŸ™‚ Happy camping, all.

The banal pleasures of cooking

I was recently asked to peer review an article about gender and food preparation, and it brought me back to an old pet peeve when it posited ‘food prep’ as separate from ‘leisure time’. I’ve written about this before in a variety of ways, but the central point for me is that cooking is leisure sometimes, and when it’s arguably not, that is, even when you simply have to get dinner on the table after a long day, it can still be a very pleasurable activity if that’s how you frame it.

Banal activities are too often framed as ‘chores’, ‘exhausting’, ‘tedious’ or even ‘hard’. While I reckon not many people love vacuuming (though I know some who do), cooking has all the ingredients to be anything but boring or a chore. It’s a creative process, it’s nurturing, it can require dexterity and finger memory, linking one to family traditions and far flung places once visited. To reject cooking as leisure or pleasure is a life sentence of perceived drudgery. What a waste it is not to take pleasure from something most of us need to do every day of our lives.

This brings me to the summer holiday we’re on at the moment down at Stuart’s family’s beach house. We gathered here for Christmas with the family, and all up we have been eight grown ups and five children. Summers here are always full of good food and wine, with a heavy emphasis on seafood. This year I arrived with a clear desire to cook myself back into a homely space after a very busy year that saw me interstate constantly for work. And cook I have! I actually feel a bit guilty at my total dominance of the kitchen, and only hope I haven’t kept anyone else from cooking when they really wanted to (though they assure me they’ve been happy with the constant stream of dishes…). I’ve barely even sat down to read for a week, as my mind constantly ticks over what ingredients are in the fridge, formulating new combinations even as the last meal digests.

It started moments after we arrived, when I learned that a family friend who traditionally gives us loads of prawns, crayfish, mangos and cherries had in fact come through with the noms (though we got lychees instead of cherries as I understand this year’s harvest was destroyed by the floods – I wish all the farmers out there better luck next season, and hope the disaster wasn’t too debilitating for you). Immediately ‘shrimp and grits’, which I so enjoyed in Mississippi last year and have made a couple of times since, sprung to mind. I had polenta (grits being rather hard to come by in Oz), a selection of lovely cheeses (I used an aged cheddar and pecorino) for the ‘cheese grits’, and a beautiful eye of Fernleigh Farms free range bacon. A hint of cayenne pepper, plenty of garlic, the prawns and a garnish of spring onion finish the dish off.

Christmas Eve it was time to play with the crayfish. With a decadent half a cray each, obviously I needed to make aΓ―oli. πŸ™‚ Some small sourdough rolls made from leftover pizza dough (which were actually like little stones, oops!), lightly steamed asparagus and a fresh salad was the perfect dinner the day before the real feasting would begin. We concluded dinner with a fabulous round of D’Affinois provided by my generous father in law, who is renowned for his excellent choice of sensational cheeses. Lucky us!

A highlight of Christmas was receiving a KitchenAid mixer, leading to even more bread making than usual, and much dreaming of the sausage attachment. But let’s get onto Christmas dinner…

We had two small turkeys (only about 3kg each) – one free range from Birregurra and one conventional turkey, which was a lot plumper than the rather lean organic one. I did two different styles – one the way my American brother in law shared with me from Thanksgiving, and the other roughly following what I remember of Stephanie Alexander’s that I’ve been making for years. My version of the recipe from Gary involved cooking at a high temperature (220C) for about 45 minutes with no stuffing under an aluminium foil tent, then out of the foil at 200C. It produced hardly any juices and was a bit dry, but still tasty with the onion, garlic, olive oil, butter under the skin, salt and pepper.

The other turkey goes in at about 210C on its side with a stuffing I made from onion, garlic, free range bacon, bread crumbs, red wine, parsley, thyme, salt and pepper. After 15 minutes you flip it onto its other side for another 15 minutes, before popping it on its back at about 195C for the final hour. It was totally delicious, as was that stuffing. In fact, I reckon I’d be happy to just eat stuffing for Christmas dinner every year.

For sides I did green beans with toasted almonds and a balsamic reduction, roast beetroot with feta and pepper, smashed potatoes with rosemary, salt and pepper, and someone threw together a simple roast pumpkin. And of course there was a huge free range ham that we’re still enjoying in many forms.

Boxing Day lunch was a very simple affair of ham and fresh bread with a coleslaw made of cabbage, capsicum, spring onion & Stuart’s olives, dressed with more aΓ―oli and the leftover balsamic reduction. Wayne brought out the D’Affinois again, as well as a lovely English Stilton and a Saint Agur – in the war of the French and English, I reckon the French win in the soft cheese department.

For dinner that night I was inspired by a recipe in one of Stefano Manfredi’s cookbooks, Seasonal Italian Favourites, to make a parsnip soup with the lovely turkey stock from the day before. Parsnip, leeks, garlic, Swiss brown mushrooms and a few potatoes made a glorious soup, topped off with a dollop of yoghurt and a few fried slivers of the ham, served with a fresh loaf of sourdough and luscious Lurpak butter.

My KitchenAid also inspired me to attempt croissants for the first time, which is rather hilarious as the mixer is only useful for the initial kneading, and after that, all the fiddly work is manual. Fiddly it was, but I was pleased with the results of my first attempt. Antigone helped me roll them and reckons next time we should roll them out thinner and then do a looser roll – and I think she is exactly right, the clever girl!

For breakfast the next day I did a simple omelette with the ham, tomato and mozzarella, served with another fresh loaf of sourdough, which I’m finally working out how to give a chewy crumb. I’ve been adding too much starter, I think, creating too acidic an environment to get strong gluten, so I’ve reduced the amount and kept to minimal kneading and long proving times (usually overnight). Thanks to Steve and Collette for your advice on the twitterz!

Lunch was inspired by a visit to the local fish shop, where we found Coffin Bay oysters and local mussels. Obviously this called for a simple Provençal style mussels as we had loads of gorgeous tomatoes asking to be eaten up. Onion, garlic, tomatoes, white wine and a hint of basil, served with sourdough sliced, coated with garlic and olive oil and toasted into crostini. Mollusc heaven!

My last effort was to finish off the kilos of prawns, so I made a tom yum goong last night. I had a quick look at the Gourmet Forager’s post on David Thompson’s recipe from Thai Street Food, and adapted it to what I had to work with. Inspired by Stuart’s desire to make a prawn stock with all the heads from our copious bounty, I fried off of the heads and skin briefly, then added water and coriander roots and brought it to the boil. After 15 minutes I strained it out and there was my base stock. I also grabbed the final leg of turkey and made a small stock with the bones & gristle, plus some celery in want of using. I only had it on for about an hour and a half, but it still contributed to deepening the flavour of the prawn stock, which would otherwise have been a bit insipid.

Into the stock went a bit of sugar, then bruised slices of galangal, lemongrass, lime skin (I didn’t have kaffir lime leaves) and chilies. Once I got the piquancy of the chilies, I added quartered mushrooms and tomatoes and cooked for about five minutes, before adding some of the delectable Phu Quoc fish sauce I hauled back from Vietnam and lime juice. A few little flavour adjustments to ensure I had the sweet, salty, spicy, sour combo right, and then I threw in the pre-cooked prawns just long enough to heat them through before serving topped with coriander leaves. I cannot explain how happy I was with the result of this soup!! Years of cooking and paying attention has finally paid off, and constant tasting throughout preparation has got me to a point where I can wing it like this and pull it off. Happy happy happy!

For those who’ve read this far, thank you for indulging me. πŸ™‚ I love writing and thinking about cooking almost as much as I like doing it. Having developed such a profound love of this banal activity has been one of the most rewarding choices I have made in my life. Thank you to all the eaters who provide me with the opportunity to indulge my passion.

Simple lemony, garlicky, basil-y hollandaise

You can’t beat a hollandaise soaked stack of goodness on a slow weekend morning. My lovely fellow cook Shel introduced us to the wonders of homemade hollandaise on a decadent flyaway weekend in Merimbula back in 1997 and we haven’t looked back. I’ve Jonai’d the original recipe as we really like to give it a lift with the basil and garlic.

I’m sure Larousse would not be happy with me, as this version requires no reducing, but I’m willing to bet that you, dear readers, will not be disappointed. The lovely Zoe (of Progressive Dinner Party fame) and her family were instant converts to homemade hollandaise when we enjoyed this on our summer holiday, and her son apparently dubbed it ‘Tammandaise’, a name we now use as well. πŸ™‚

Hollandaise Sauce

3 egg yolks

splash of white wine vinegar

juice of 1 lemon

1 clove garlic

handful basil

salt & pepper to taste

200g butter

Method

Put all ingredients except butter into a tall cup and hand blend (or you can put them in a blender). Heat butter on stovetop or in microwave until just boiling. Pour very slowly into cup with other ingredients, blending constantly. Pour over stacks of goodness, add freshly ground black pepper, and enjoy!

Some options for the stacks on which this heaven will be poured:

Eggs from your ladies in the back garden (poached in slow boiling water with 10% vinegar)

Free-range bacon, for those who like Benedict

Spinach leaves for the Florentine-inclined, but nice with Benedict too

Mushrooms (sliced and fried up, a nice addition or to substitute for the eggs so it’s not so rich)

Roast tomatoes

Avocado

Good quality (homemade?!) sourdough bread, toasted

How do you do it? On good cooking and finding time.

This is not a post to make others feel guilty about what you’re not doing, though it may have that unintended effect on some. I apologise in advance to any who take it that way. But while we have a quick look at the life of the Jonai, here’s a brief bit of background:

I was raised in a family with two working parents who outsourced most domestic labour, including quite a lot of what cooking was actually done (very little, in truth). Our ‘junk cupboard’ (full of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Chips Ahoy, Ruffles potato chips, etc) was precisely half the size of the ‘real food’ pantry, which was stocked with tins of vegies, soup and other highly refined items. There was minimal fresh produce in the house beyond bananas and apples. My mum hated to cook, but would occasionally produce a dinner of pork chops cooked to cardboard consistency (to ensure we didn’t get salmonella) and mashed potatoes (made from real potatoes). Many dinners were toast or a bowl of Cheerios we made ourselves, though we could sometimes convince Ma to make french toast, waffles or pancakes (from Krusteaz). She also made oatmeal to order as we all chilled out in front of the tv at night.

Stuart, on the other hand, was raised in a family where fresh food was paramount and readily available. Hardly any refined foods sullied their pantry, and his mother was a steady and plentiful cook of quality meat and three veg. Neither of our fathers cooked, though mine would man the barbecue at parties (Stuart’s still doesn’t like to do so) and mine also taught my mum to whip up a damn fine southern-style fried breakfast (he’s from Alabama).

The point is, I certainly wasn’t raised with any cooking skills, let alone positive food memories from childhood, except for the beautiful restaurants my folks would take us to during our regular travels. Our housekeeper did teach me a lifelong love of quesadillas, which I have passed on to my own children, though with many added vegies and my own refried beans.

So here we are, late thirtysomethings, both working full time, with three children. I work as well as doing my PhD, and this year my role as President of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) sees me interstate on average one night a week. Yet this year is the year I am learning to make sourdough, it is a year we are slaughtering chooks and eating them, a year our garden has proven extremely bounteous (and we rent, by the way), and we manage to put a home cooked meal on the table nearly every night. How do we do that, we’re often asked?

I’ve written plenty on the importance of skills – competence is the friend of efficiency. The other thing I’ve written about is the pleasure of competence, and the need to take pleasure in the everyday, including ‘chores’ such as cooking, gardening and tending the chooks. Finally, I’ve also pointed to the benefits of teamwork and the further efficiency of a larger household to reduce waste, a point supported by last year’s report on household waste, which showed that smaller households waste more, though large share houses that are not families still tend to waste more as well. Just briefly then, here’s how we do it:

  1. We don’t do exhaustion. Our philosophy is that everything is achievable if it’s a priority, and cooking when you’re tired can actually be a way of relaxing if that’s how you see it. For Stuart, this extends to foraging on the way home, doing a bit of harvesting or staking tomato plants, etc, and for me it extends to finely chopping a number of ingredients for a quickly fried Thai basil, chili garlic fish instead of ordering takeaway. This is not to say we never get tired. We do, but perhaps we think of it differently to others, and reasonably expect ourselves to still cook a meal for the family, which may be something as simple as rice and avocado on a really lazy night. (NB We do order takeaway sometimes – perhaps once a month.)

  2. We share the shopping, and make do with what’s in the house when necessary. Stuart pops into the Vic Market once or twice a week on his lunch break to pick up mostly fruit or a bit of meat. I stop in at the butcher, Italian grocer, organic grocer or fruit shop in our local shopping street after dropping kids at school on a day when I work at home, or on the way home from working in the city. When we’re really low on fresh food and too busy to go get some, we raid our freezer, which is always full of stock, homemade pasties and sausage rolls, and frozen meat for ’emergencies’. Plus we keep a lot of beans, both dried and tinned, for quick and simple meals. Having chooks means we always have eggs on hand, and my breadmaking obsession keeps us in bread!

  3. Although I’m the primary and more passionate daily cook, we share the cooking as well. Like I said, if we’re very busy, sometimes the meals are incredibly simple: rice and avocado, pasta with a jar of passata from last summer’s harvest, lamb chops with roast potato and a simple salad, or Stuart’s stir fry, much beloved by the children. When there’s time to do something more, we do. I love nothing more than having time to get into the kitchen by 5pm so I can serve something delectable between 6:00 and 7pm. Sometimes I’m overly ambitious and dinner is late – in which case I let the children graze on nuts and fruit to tide them over.

  4. But you even make bread during the week? Yes, and I can do this because I believe in a lackadaisical approach that makes it possible. You can see my post on how I wander through the kitchen, giving a dough a quick knead here and there, before letting it rise overnight to pop into the oven when we get up. This takes me no more time than someone else might spend reading the paper or watching the news (in fact, much less). Much of my bread is fairly flat because I leave it to rise for too long – it’s still totally scrumptious! Stuart also regularly brews beer of an evening, and does so quickly and efficiently after more than a decade of practice.

  5. What about all the preserving? Harvesting and processing the masses of plums, tomatoes, pumpkins, olives, apricots, and more is one of the pleasures of our ‘down time’, though some of it can be rather tedious as well (ie pitting plums!). We do most of this on the weekends, though Stuart, who never rests, will often do some after work as I make dinner (does this cause some tension in the kitchen occasionally? Yes. ;-))

  6. How do you manage to have a social life, take children to lessons and sport, and do any exercise, etc? Okay, a confession: I’m a little allergic to exercise. When I commute to the city I try to ride my bike (8km), so I get exercise that way sometimes, but admittedly not enough. Stuart rides every day, rain or shine, so does about 20km a day. He also brings crazy amounts of stuff home on his bike, so perhaps he is a little superhuman and not everyone is inclined to do what he does. We socialise plenty, but often by having people over or going to their houses for dinner. Our kids are not heavily scheduled, though Antigone now does gymnastics (shared between 3 families, so only have to drive once/three weeks) and piano (the teacher comes to us). The boys aren’t keen to do lessons, and we don’t push. We’d rather have more homely time here, cooking, reading and playing, which we think will give them what we regard as more important life skills than many other things we could outsource, though we’re not knocking the value of those other things – they’re just not priorities for us.

So how can everyone ‘find time’ to cook more delicious and nutritious foods? First of all, through practice. The ability to use limited time well requires skills. Skills lead to competence, which is pleasurable. It feels great to know you’ve dashed in with a few ingredients and knocked up a lovely meal for the family, which leads to you wanting to do it again. Rushing in and throwing a frozen or takeaway dinner on the table doesn’t feel that great, but you’ll probably do it again if you don’t know how to cook something better, leading to a dreadful cycle of bad food and related guilt/bad feelings. It’s a no-win cycle, but skills are the way out.

An important part of this skill-building is reframing cooking and food shopping as ‘fun’ and ‘relaxing’, leading to ‘delicious’. It’s also great to spend time as a family doing the harvesting and cooking – we think it’s ‘good parenting’ to cook with your kids. πŸ™‚ Ultimately, the creative process of imagining what’s in the garden/fridge/pantry and how you might transform it into a meal to nurture yourself and others is deeply and viscerally joyful, in my experience. ‘scuse me while I go knead the bread…

Check out other awesome food posts over at Food Renegade!

All bread is not created equal…

If you’ve been here awhile, you’ll know I decided to learn to make good sourdough this year. Well, here we are on the 1st of March, and by golly, I made a bloody good sourdough ciabatta last night. So tasty, with such a lovely crumb and crust that 10 year old Oscar declared, “Mum! This is amazing! And you said you needed all year to learn how, and it’s only been what, two months?” Major brownie points for eldest child. πŸ™‚

But let me caveat last night’s loaves – they were indeed sour, with an excellent crusty yet chewy crust and a good crumb, but not as chewy as I think a ciabatta should be. It was really good bread, but still doesn’t fit my imaginary endpoint for this year.


Some detail then. For these ciabatta, I did a series of short kneads of a fairly wet dough, though not so sticky I couldn’t handle it, with ever-increasing proving times. So maybe 10 second kneads three times with about 10 minutes in between each, then about a 2-hour rise before splitting the dough, stretching it carefully and allowing another half-hour rise. Into a very hot oven (250C) with a water bath on the top shelf & a quick spray of the loaves at the beginning & one midway through baking. My starter, Fran, is currently mostly organic wholemeal flour, and the flour I added for these was organic unbleached. I didn’t add any commercial yeast as I was looking for a flat bread anyway. This was lazy baking at its finest, and the results were lovely.

A few nights earlier, I whipped Fran up into some rye dinner rolls to have with our soup.They achieved exactly the soft, pliable texture you want from rolls, with crusty crusts. This dough was wetter than the ciabatta, and I added some commercial yeast for a better rise to great effect.

I’ve also embraced the joys of sourdough pizza crust, which goes perfectly with the salty, spicy combination of Stuart’s home-cured olives, anchovies, bacon and chilies, plus garden-fresh tomatoes and basil and a thin lashing of homemade passata.

So it seems my ‘specialty’ breads are the winners thus far, as my loaves have often been unwilling to give me a good rise. They do say that sourdough starters are unreliable leaveners, and I’m finding this to be distinctly true. Check out my most hilariously unintentionally flat loaf, which still tasted quite nice, though a bit dry (and hell on the toaster, let me tell you!)

When I’m looking for a higher loaf, especially for toasting, I’m learning to add commercial yeast. It doesn’t affect the flavour, which is invariably sour, but gives the bread the lift that Fran seems unable to offer.
I should add that the sourness is wildly variable as well, though predictably so. If Fran hasn’t made some bread for more than a few days, she gets rather sour. If I’m making bread every day or two, she’s less sour. The metaphors write themselves, so I won’t bother here.

This last loaf below was my sourest to date (and by the way, given my California origins, I’m looking for the sourest of the sourdoughs!), and it also had the best crumb, even though it didn’t rise much. If you check out the dough below, you’ll see I really took Annette’s advice to heart on this one and worked a really sticky, wet dough. In fact, it finally inspired me to get a proper dough scraper to assist with this rather messy method.

I feel almost guilty that for those of you out there looking for a scientific account of breadmaking, I’m just tossing around vague generalities. But these days, I cook by touch, smell, taste and imagination, rather than ratios. There are obviously ratios involved, but given my propensity to constantly adjust them by a smidgen, I’m afraid I can’t really offer much insight into quantities of what’s in my bread.

I think one of the best things about my relaxed approach has been the way it makes breadmaking seem like a simple and lovely thing to do, much like making the children a milkshake rather than mastering a croquembouche. It means I wander into the kitchen, see Fran on the bench and think, ‘Hey, I might get some bread started,’ and then wander in and out of the kitchen to tend to the dough over the afternoon or evening. The other positive outcome is the exciting array of outcomes – this is no McDonald’s where you can expect the same burger every time, no matter where you are – open your palate and be prepared to be surprised at every new loaf of bread. πŸ™‚

2010: The Year My Sourdough Obsession Gets Personal

Many years ago I made a feeble attempt to bake bread, and the results were sufficiently disappointing to keep the local bakeries in business. A decade or so later, inspired by Jess Ho’s regular breadmaking success, I decided to try again.

On our trip up country over the holidays, I read a simple recipe from an early Stephanie Alexander cookbook, in which she instructed me to put the yeast, sugar, water and flour all together and let it rise. Having left my critical faculties at home that day, I literally piled the ingredients together, stirred a bit, and waited. Of course, since I hadn’t got the yeast active with the sugar and water before adding the flour, the resulting sponge was rather firm and somewhat dry, but I persevered with my obtuse instruction following and left it to catch some wild yeast. Each day I simply re-wet a cloth and put it back over the starter. It gained a bit of that beery smell, but was a bit of a lump – not that exciting, though I was, in fact, still excited. After three days, I added starter to a new dough, let it rise, punched it down and formed loaves, let it rise, and baked some beautiful looking but rather boring tasting bread. It was still better than supermarket bread, but let down by poor-quality flour from the local country Woolies and poor process, it was ye olde white bread incarnate. But then we came home…

After a trip to Whole Earth in Smith Street Fitzroy, I had plenty of flour to play with. I also happen to already have a number of great references on this topic, all of which I spent a few days reading in preparation for the challenge of making good sourdough bread. I should also explain that as I am formerly from the west coast of the US, I have a strong predilection for very sour sourdough, which is the first bread I intend to master. And I’m determined to do it with wild yeasts, hence the need to commence my own sourdough starter with just flour, water and a plum plucked from our tree.

So the starter was simply equal parts flour and water (I did 2 cups water, 1 cup rye flour and 1 cup unbleached, all organic) and a plum, which will help introduce wild yeasts more quickly. Stir, cover with a muslin cloth, and wait. O_o

Next morning, Fran (I’ve named her with a nod to my favourite San Francisco sourdoughs, and in the tradition of @thatjessho’s ‘Rusty’) was bubbling merrily, and had filled the house with the smell of a football team on the pints. I moved her closer to the back door, fed her a little more flour and water, stirred eagerly, and left her alone to get wild. Which she did.

Next, to be honest, I went to Brisbane for two days, then came back to a bunch of office work, so poor neglected Fran (Stuart was feeding her, but by now she really wanted to make bread) got a bit lonely. I popped her in the fridge for two days, and then pulled her out yesterday afternoon to reactivate the yeast, and a couple of hours later mixed her with some more flour and water, kneaded for about 10 minutes, and then left her to rise overnight. (Remind me to write a poem about the deep, visceral pleasure of kneading…)

As I wanted Stuart to taste Fran’s first loaves, we were up at 6:30am to divide her into two loaves, knead them briefly and then allow to rise on a lightly floured pan for about half an hour. Finally, into a hot oven (200C) for about 40 minutes, tapped the bottom to check for the hollow sound, and out she came to finish cooking and cooling on the rack.

10 minutes later, we sat down to a delectable brekky of scrambled eggs, fresh rye sourdough, with sea salt and cracked pepper.

In terms of the results, I reckon the loaves wanted another five minutes in the oven and five cooling as they were a little too dense and moist for my palate, though very tasty. I look forward to making one that has all of those lovely chewy well-aerated holes throughout. I hope to post regularly on Fran’s loaves this year until I perfect the art, so stay tuned…

On Cooking and Feasting, Merrily

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.