Category Archives: food

Camping in excelsis – some tips

For me, camping (food-wise) is like an extended picnic: you have to plan for all the meals, and you have to do it well!  Just because you’re out bush with limited utensils and facilities doesn’t mean you can drop your standards.  Camping is not an excuse for slumming (although it can be an excuse to eat bacon and sausages).

So when we go camping I spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re going to have for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.  Of course it has to be easy; easy is the key to camping, as is pre-prepare.  If you can make your marinades and salad dressings before hand and put them in those tiny little plastic jars, then all you have to do is rub, mix, sear, toss and voilà. Dinner is served.

For our recent anniversary we decided that we would go camping.  Haven’t been camping for years (too busy travelling the world – see my other blog: travelling travails).  But a lack of funds due to redundancy and a sense of having already been to so many good restaurants, I thought it would be fun to do something different.  After all, eating out doesn’t have the same appeal when it’s for special occasions – its a “been there, done that” feeling.  Don’t get me wrong, I still love finding great little places to eat, but I’d much prefer to go and have a bite after a lunchtime yoga class and discover that the place does great share plates and fabulous bloody marys as well as a good wine list, rather than the special all-out eating … besides which, I somehow can’t help myself and want not just one cocktail but two (I always want a good martini) and the the wine.  So you can imagine …..

I won’t bore you with the details of our camping trip but I do want to share how its possible to eat well out in the great beyond.  Admittedly we took our trusty little asian butane burner – don’t leave home without this. Actually because I only have electricity at home, I’m often found squatting on the floor over a wok on this device – I confess to some distant asian heritage. And we took our portable weber.  All set.

For breakfast we brought muesli, almond milk, bacon, black pudding and coffee, though mostly we just ate some fruit and unfortunately I inadvertently picked up the box of long life chocolate lactose -free milk instead of the plain one – YUK).

For lunch: wraps with tinned chilli tuna, rocket, avocado and dips with biscuits and fruit.

On arrival Friday afternoon:

  • Traditional pork pies with radishes, dill cucumbers and cornichons (my husband prefers cornichons, whilst I can’t go by a dill pickle) pre-boiled eggs, some nice cheese and rye biscuits. Though by the time we had set up our tent it was closer to an early dinner/late afternoon tea, rather than lunch.

For dinner:

  • Salmon with a chilli lime salt (pre-prepared) and Ottolenghi’s wonderful tomato and pomegranate salad – dressing and roasted lemons pre-prepped.

Day two – our anniversary dinner was meant to consist of oysters with a shallot and red wine vinegar dressing, but in the end we couldn’t be bothered leaving our camping ground and travelling all those kms (around 30) to a place near Forster  (we were at Seal Rocks).  Amazing how lazy you can become, given the opportunity.  We’d been to the beach and by the time we came back it was afternoon – time for lunch and have a glass of champagne.  I had  brought  some spinach leaves ,a block of Dodoni fetta and nectarines.  So our late lunch was a salad with the spinach and slices of nectarines and crumbed fetta, dressed with some vino cotto and olive oil.  Unfortunately I realised that I had forgotten to bring the wooden salad bowl.  Merde.  However my problem-solving skills kicked in and I made up the salad in a plastic bag.  Brilliant (also saves on washing up).

Dinner was seared beef eye fillet with an anchovy dressing (essentially just anchovies melted on the grill plate with lots of freshly cracked black pepper) and asparagus with lemon zest, salt and pepper and a day of olive oil, seared on the bbq. And (because it was our anniversary) a bottle of Pol Roger.  Please note, it is essential that you bring good drinking glasses.  We have a set of nice chunky plastic glasses suitable for our G&Ts and stemless (plastic) wine glasses but you really shouldn’t drink good champagne out of plastic.  Better to go without (the champagne).

Day 3 dinner was chicken with a rub consisting of crushed garlic, smoked paprika, sweet paprika, ground cumin, lime juice and olive oil served with shucked bbq’d corn, avocado and a coriander and a tomatillo dressing (yes, this too was prepared in advance).

On the final day we cooked our bacon and had it in wraps with avocado and  tomatoes. And fabulous italian pork and fennel sausages – again in wraps with rocket and some hummus.  Simple but oh so satisfying.

So the trick to great camping is:  good simple food, good wine and a good campfire.  Oh, and don’t forget to bring the salad bowl. But if you do, all is not lost because with  plastic bag you can put all your salad ingredients in and then add the dressing and shake it all about (just like the hokey pokey) and all is well.



Poriyal anyone? Joys of South Indian cuisine

So what’s a poriyal you’re all thinking. Essentially its a vegetable dish tempered with spices. It’s South Indian – which is a much lighter and fresher than the heavily sauced, rich northern Indian food.
A lot of the food in the south of India is vegetarian. But it’s the blend of spices that really differentiates it from its northern counterpart.

We tend to eat a lot of spicy food but I was never a fan of Indian food until I discovered south Indian cuisine. My preference is for light and fresh. So I was very surprised when I first came across it (thanks to my husband who lived in India for many years and spent much time holidaying in Goa – then a somewhat rustic haven for poor travellers and locals. Sadly now taken over by too many Israeli and Russian tourists with their demands to have it all). 

Usually I cook Thai and Vietnamese style foods while my husband cooks Indian. However we recently come across a couple of great cook books with more contemporary adaptations on traditional food and I decided to learn the basics. In fact we first came across the modern incarnation at a fabulous resort restaurant in Kerala – but that’s another story.

So back to the poriyal. It consists of a basic tempering spice mix:

  • 1 tspn cumin
  • 1 tspn black mustard seeds
  • 1 tspn urud dhal
  • 1/2 tspn asafetida
  • Curry leaves
  • Red chilli split lengthways but still intact.

Heat a pan until hot and add a tablespoon oil or ghee.
Once the oil is hot throw in the spice mix but stand back – the mustard seeds pop as do the curry leaves. You need the oil to be hot enough to do this otherwise the spices just steam and don’t release their flavours.
Then add the roughly chopped zucchini (you can use any vegetables for this, e.g. green beans, or a mixture of finely chopped, beans, carrots and capsicums) and stir to mix the spices through. Then add a splash of water and let it cook – briefly – until the zucchini is just cooked but still firm. Stir through a tablespoon or so of shredded or grated coconut. And you’re done. Easy.
And to go with that poriyal? We had a spice-crusted fillet of beef (seared and then cooked on the BBQ for 15 mins) and a tomato relish (tamatar ka kut) which is east Indian; but its also good with fish, dhal, rice – the possibilities are endless.


I love picnics. There’s something festive and relaxing about eating outdoors – especially on the grass on a warm sunny day. Our picnics were often quite spontaneous: we would just go to the local Italian deli and pick up some baby boconcini, prosciutto, stuffed little capsicums, some white anchovies, some good bread from the local bakery (Italian) and some fresh fruit – strawberries, peaches, figs or whatever is in season; a bottle of wine and perhaps some good cheese and we were set.  Other times we’d get some oysters and cooked prawns and I’d make a coriander and chilli salsa to go with them.

Picnics are about enjoying the great outdoors in simple style (although I do like to take proper plates, linen napkins and proper wine glasses; makes the picnic basket a bit heavier but it’s well worth it). Nothing fancy, just good produce and great flavours: fresh watermelon and peaches or strawbs with vino cotto. In summer this year with a good friend staying we went to Neilson Park to laze about and swim. I decided on schnitzel in bread rolls accompanied with a wonderful fresh coleslaw (finely shredded cabbage, radish, mint, red onion, caraway seeds and a lemon dressing), dill cucumbers and homemade habanero mustard. Simple but utterly more-ish. I was surprised at how many people passed by and asked if they could have our leftovers!  A Petit Chablis and then a moscato to accompany the food. Fresh juicy big cherries and a mango to finish.

On Sunday we went to the Royal National Park for a picnic and swim. We went primarily because my daughter needs to get her driving hours in. What a blessing that was; we otherwise wouldn’t have gone and it’s such a beautiful spot; it was glorious: sun, sand and sea. And a lagoon where people jumped from great heights off a cliff into the water below. A family friendly place – casual and relaxed. I made steak tartare burgers (finely chopped beef with chopped onion, cornichons, capers, parsley, tobasco, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard and egg yolks) freshly cooked in situ on a little portable burner and inserted into fresh Italian bread rolls spread with some homemade mustard on one side and hummus on the other and topped with rocket, slices of home grown tomatoes and dill pickles (I don’t think you can have picnics without dill cucumbers ). Then watermelon. That was it.  Simple but delicious – and good fun to eat, trying to keep all the filling from falling out (as is the way with hamburgers) and all those juices running down our hands and onto our legs.  Necessitated a dip in the water to clean ourselves up, but we really didn’t mind. Picnic perfect.

Burns’ supper – a contemporary twist

January 25 is Burns’ Night (the date of Burns’ birth) and tributary suppers are held not just in Scotland but all around the world – wherever there are Scots.  Burns’ Supper was originally started by a group of his friends and acquaintances a few years after his death, to honour his memory.

The menu is iconically traditional with a haggis as the centrepiece.  Burns referred to it as the  ‘great chieftan o’ the puddin’-race’. The  accompaniments to the haggis are neeps and tatties  – turnip and potatoes – served  mashed. Traditionally the haggis is piped in and then addressed – the recitation of a Burns poem called ‘Address to a Haggis’ (go figure).
If there is a large gathering there is an ‘Address to the Lasses’ – which commemorates Burns’ fondness for them.  If a small supper then its usually just the ‘Selkirk Grace’. Essentially its a celebration of plain country food and plan country folk of whom Burns was a champion.

Plain country food in Australia, haggis is not.  Cooking your own haggis is out of the question.  There are a number of butchers scattered around Sydney who make haggis but usually you have to order these in advance or else travel to the ends of the earth (St Mary’s).  Fortunately we found a supplier (Farmer Giles) selling these and other Scottish fare at the Bondi markets.
Hot, hot, hot on Saturday so husband and daughter sent off early to the markets to purchase produce, leaving me to sleep.  Daughter is learning to drive so this was a good opportunity for her to get in some much needed practice hours (otherwise I doubt she would have chosen to embark on that journey).  Unbeknownst to me, having obtained all things necessary at the markets they then went off to the beach for a swim.  I meanwhile sat sweltering in a lounge chair outside reading the digital news.

Haggis is something I absolutely adore.  When we’re in Scotland I take every opportunity to eat it.  Its generally not served at home other than for a Burns’ Supper but many pubs serve it.  I was always on the look out for a pub that had it on its menu.  And while the neeps and tatties might be served in alternative ways, canonically you got a plate with a pile of mashed potatoes, a pile of mashed turnips and a pile of haggis. Not the prettiest looking dish and I constantly wondered why no-one ever did anything different.  But I don’t think the Scots are generally known for their creativity – rather, the word conservative comes to mind.  But I do have to admit that the combination is a very successful one.  However, this being Australia, and me a foodie, I wanted to do something a bit more contemporary and aesthetically pleasing – especially when serving this rather confronting dish to people who had not tried it before (I’m always amazed at people’s reaction to haggis: generally its’yuck!!!!’ with looks of horror and distaste.)

So we searched and found a nice form of presenting this dish:  in a stack with a layer of haggis, a layer of mashed potatoes with spring onion folded thought and then a layer of mashed swedes (nice orange colour) brushed with egg yolk and cooked in the oven and then topped with asparagus tips wrapped in crisp pancetta and served with a whisky cream sauce.

I had one vegetarian guest so I decided that given this dinner centred around a haggis I would have to make a vegetarian haggis for her rather than something entirely different.  I also thought I’d better make a few extra just in case anyone was truly put off by haggis.  The vegetarian version had split peas, barley, chopped onion, garlic, carrot, steel cut oats (which are tiny and coarse) and lots of pepper and freshly ground and toasted allspice.  I was pleased with the end result – it had the same texture and flavour as the haggis (well, almost).  I was also pleased at how much people enjoyed the real thing.  Truly delicious – you just have to not think about what it consists of, but then again, if you don’t mind offal – pate anyone? – then you probably won’t object to haggis.

To start I had champagne and smoked salmon with horseradish and creme fraiche. For entree I made a dish of seared scallops on black pudding discs with a pea and mint puree, drizzled with chilli oil. And for desert, another classical Burns’ supper dish – Cranachan, which is like a trifle with layers of whisky cream, freshly pureed raspberries, toasted oats and flaked almonds and topped with fresh raspberries. Whisky is of course the canonical accompaniament to haggis – it doesn’t go too badly with the desert either – but of course a good red wine is also in order.

So my husband having said grace (see below) and then the address we ate and drank good plain Scottish food and gave Burns not another thought.

Burns’ Selkirk Grace
Some hae meat and cannae eat,
And some can eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit

What happened to Barilla pasta?

For a long time, Barilla pasta has been my pasta of choice.  I have a number of favourites: penne lisce, penne rigatone, bugatoni any my all-time favourite – bavette.  Barilla had a pasta for every kind of dish, from a range of spaghettinis and capellini to thick bugatonis and even thicker tubular spaghetti just perfect for a rich ragu.

Penne lisce is great for a simple pasta with tinned tuna, chopped rocket, grated lemon rind, some chilli (or instead use Sirena chilli tuna), capers and of course, garlic.  You just mix all this together in a bowl including the oil the tuna comes in, and add some lemon juice and then fold through the penne.   Easy and delicious.

Penne rigatone is more suitable for a tomato-based sauce and goes very well with a rich ragu.  I sometimes make a very plain tomato sauce putting a bit of oil into a saucepan and adding a couple of cloves of smashed garlic, a couple of small red chillis just split in half to the stem and some basil and let it all infuse.  Then I add a tin or two of tomatoes, some chopped anchovies and a beef stock cube and voila.  5 mins and its ready to eat.  All you need to do is extract the basil, garlic and chili and then mash up the tomatoes with either a fork or a potato masher.  Sometimes I add chunks of egglplant that I’ve sauteed and for an even richer sauce, pork and fennel sausages, either cut into small slices or just extracted in little chunks from the casing.  The sausages get cooked in the tomato sauce and again, this only takes a matter of minutes.  Remember to mash the tomatoes before adding the eggplant and sausages.  I don’t like to use passata because I think the tinned tomatoes have more flavour and give a better consistency.  I always look for tinned tomatoes that don’t have any additives or sugar or salt –  just tomatoes and water.  Bavette is another great pasta to have with this sauce.  Its somewhere in between linguine and fettucine and is my favourite.

Spaghetti bolognese calls for something thicker that you can slurp up with the sauce. Bucatini is my pasta of choice for this dish.  Thicker than spaghetti and just perfect for a quick and easy bolognese. I make a spaghetti bolognese that’s very fast: garlic and chilli and basil and anchovies in some oil and then I add a tin of tomato paste and 2 tins of tomatoes and then throw in the beef mince and let it cook quickly so it doesn’t get all dry and overcooked, in this mixture.  My secret ingredient for this dish is bacon cubes – you’ll be surprised what a difference the flavour makes, it becomes rich and delicious withot having to cook for hours.  Its also relatively fat free.  Fresh ground pepper, grated parmesan and basil to serve.

For a dish such as spaghetti pangrattata, made with fresh breadcrumbs, garlic, olive oil and anchovies and chilli, I like a very fine pasta  but not quite angel hair – capellini – which I find too fine for the pangrattata (but perfect for a crab pasta). Barilla used to have a great range of pasta and their packaging was clever because there was a plastic window on each box which showed you what the pasta was. Now the packaging has a small dot and line to indicate is thickness.  But I can’t tell the difference and I can never remember which way the sizes go: is No 3 finer than No 7 or is it the other way around?

Used to be that Barilla was availabe in all good Italian delicatessens and grocers and in most supermarkets.  Now I can’t seem to find it so readily and when I do there are very few varieties.  What happened?  Why is this brand no longer being stocked?  I dislike the other supermarket pastas and I particulalry dislike the “organic” ones – they just don’t have the same texture.

So what’s happened to Barilla?  Why is it so unavailable?  I stopped eating a lot of wheat products and carbs – bread, pasta and rice –  in an effort to get healthy so I very rarely now cook pasta but when I do I’m always disappointed that I can’t find the pasta I want.  So many pastas, so few choices.


Post Christmas grazing

What happens when Christmas is over and you’ve had the post Christmas Boxing Day veg out – late start to the day (or it’s already afternoon) and you lie about reading, watching movies a and grazing on leftovers: smoked salmon and ham. Lots of ham. So sandwiches and rolls with homemade habanera mustard. What do you eat/cook next?

This time of year – between Christmas and New Year  – always feels like quintessential holiday time. It’s hot and there’s absolutley nothing to do. So it should follow that meals will be simple and easy and quick. I cooked for and hosted two Christmas functions this year: Christmas Eve dinner – for friends of my daughter and my folks – and Christmas Day. I cooked a lot. Which means I planned and shopped and prepared a lot. On Christmas Eve we had:

  • seared tuna wrapped in nori with a lemon soy dressing and wasabi mayonnaise
  • pork loin (marinated in soy sauce, fish sauce, mirin, ginger, garlic and chilli) with freshly pickled cucumber and a watermelon, coriander and fried shallot salad
  • basil pannacotta with raspberry jelly and fresh raspberries and blueberries.

On Christmas Day it was a long, languid event with many breaks in between:

  • champagne jelly with white peaches and raspberries
  • oysters with a red shallot reduction
  • smoked salmon with tahini soy dressing
  • seared scallops on black pudding with a minty pea puree
  • bloody mary prawn rolls
  • baked ham with a waldorf(ish) salad
  • pork and green mango salad
  • sticky Orange Christmas pudding with whisky

Turned out we’d all had enough after the ham so the pork salad was left to another day.
Boxing Day however got the better of me and we opted for leftovers. So the pork was the next night’s meal. Simple and quick. So far so good. We’ve made do with everything on hand and there was no need to leave the house, except for a movie on Saturday and another on Sunday, which inevitably led my mind to thoughts of food: what to eat/cook next?

Try as I might, I cannot go for very long without thinking about food and what to make next. It isn’t just the eating, its actually about the making of food and the anticipation of flavours and textures. Cooking is not a chore for me, its a pleasure.  It is something that I genuinely take enjoyment in. And its a great thing to do to clear my mind; while I’m cooking I’m totally focussed.  That’s not say I don’t enjoy a conversation and a glass of wine when I cook: yes I cook with wine and sometimes I even put it in the food! (apologies, I couldn’t resist) Just don’t get me distracted – it never ends well.

And so to New Year’s Eve with a special friend who comes visit this time of year to indulge in all things Sydney.  What to cook?  Drunken prawns with wood ear mushrooms and mung bean noodles; duck salad with pomelo and lychees; tomato and lemon salad (courtesy of Ottolenghi) and seared tuna; oysters; freshly smoked trout and black russian baby tomatoes that are growing in our garden, and burrata. For a picnic: schnitzel and coleslaw and dill pickles in fresh bread rolls.  Mmmm…  food, glorious food.

Bon appetite and Happy New Year.

Chooks and geese and ducks and things

Duck breasts with figs and pickled walnuts

Duck breasts with figs and pickled walnuts

Duck breasts are one of my favourite foods though I eat them rarely – they’re so rich and it always feels like a great indulgence – which it is. Cooking duck breasts is tricky – don’t cook them long enough to render the fat and they’re impossibly tough. Cook them too long and you’ve lost that wonderful ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ texture, flavour and succulence. Plus they go grey – never an appealing colour to have on your plate.

My favourite duck breast dish is one accompanied with cabbage and roasted pears. Doesn’t sound very enticing but it is a perfect accompaniment to the richness of the duck. Finely shred cabbage and mix with half a finely sliced red onion. Briefly saute in some of the leftover duck fat – the cabbage should just be wilted but still have a crunch and a gloss to it. Season with salt and pepper and a splash of verjuice or white wine. I put the pears (beurre bosc or corella), peeled and halved in a small baking tray, cut-side down with a drizzle of oil and a good splash (ok, a generous pour) of white wine to cook for around 20 mins. The duck only takes 10 minutes in the oven so timing is key: I first pan fry the duck then put them in the baking tray with the pears. By the time the duck has rested (sigh) the pears should be cooked. I sauté the cabbage at the last minute so it doesn’t wilt further.

Recently I’ve been trying other recipes. One was a Maggie Beer recipe for cabernet jelly glazed duck breasts with a salad of baby beetroot leaves, pickled figs and walnuts. Seriously. It looked good and I assumed that the Maggie Beer cabernet paste and  pickled figs would be readily available from places like the Essential Ingredient. I found the cabernet paste but no-one had heard of pickled figs. Oh well, time to get creative. Beetroot leaves ditto. I did however find walnuts!!!
This recipe just didn’t work:

  • Place duck breasts, skin side down, into a pan over medium heat and leave to render the duck fat.
  • When crisp on skin side, turn breasts quickly over and seal the underside for 1 minute.
  • Pour out fat and brush skin side with cabernet jelly and turn.

You have to repeat this process every 2 minutes, turning and brushing the duck with the cabernet jelly until its cooked to medium rare – approx 10-12 minutes. Problem is, the jelly burns and then the duck skin burns. Maybe it would have worked on a gas stove but on my electric one I couldn’t really control the temperature. Admitedly the flavour was lovely but it seemed like too much of a process.

Having an extra packet of duck breats in the fridge I decided to try this recipe again –  but with a variation. Nowhere could I find pickled figs but I did manage to find a jar of pickled walnuts and some lovely fresh figs.  I cooked the duck in the usual way and made a salad with the following:

  • Rocket
  • fresh figs, halved and grilled
  • lightly roasted walnuts
  • pickled walnuts (sliced)
  • pomegranate seeds (just because I had them)
  • dressed with some vino cotto and olive oil. Delish.

Unfortunately I was on the phone while cooking the duck breasts and lost track of time.  At first thinking I hadn’t cooked the underside long enough I left them in the oven a little bit too long.  Damn.  Although the duck was tender it was a bit over cooked for my liking (I like them to be pink).  Fortunately I could hide their greyness amongst the green rocket leaves and the bright red jewels of the pomegranate.  And for those who are wondering what pickled walnuts look and taste like:  the walnuts are pickled whole in their shell and are very soft to slice through – they really no longer resemble walnuts – and they taste much like caper berries.  Nice amongst things (and perfect in a pigeon terrine) but not something you would eat on their own.

My endeavor to master the perfectly cooked duck breast continues.