I’m not sure how you feel about what goes on behind closed doors in your pantry or kitchen cupboards, but I know that my pantry can be a place of mystery and intrigue. My pantry-room is quite large and this is not necessarily an asset. There are dark corners of it which have become repositories for seldom-used domestic items, shopping bags, jars (none of which seem to have a matching lid), empty boxes and languishing, unloved purchasing lapses in judgement. While, at the time, I was utterly convinced I would use a popcorn maker/seed sprouter/turbo-roasting oven, it seems I was wrong and The Husband was right. But we won’t go there.
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Winter has been nipping at our heels in the Adelaide Hills of late, with a notable sartorial focus being placed by the locals on fleecy track pants, flannelette pyjamas, fluffy slippers or uggies and woolly hats. This is a time of the year when comfort takes precedence over elegance (for anyone over the age of 25, that is) and some among us begin to wonder just exactly what time is considered too early to slip into the aforementioned cosy night attire. Please be warned – anyone knocking on our door after about seven in the evening will not find us in a fit state to formally receive guests unless forewarned. This is also the time of year when winter is at it’s deepest, but this weekend saw the passing of the winter solstice – the shortest day and longest night of the year – thus the summer light begins to glow ever so faintly at the end of the tunnel.
The winter solstice has much more significance in the icy northern hemisphere winters where it gets a good deal colder than here. In ancient times, winter was a hazardous and uncertain season with no guarantee that the subsistence rural communities of the colder climates were going to make it through to the end intact. Much depended upon careful planning during the harvest months and even more careful use of resources during the winter and the solstice celebrated the success of surviving the worst of it. Some communities observed it before the worst of the deep winter, making it the last of the feasting celebrations, using the fresh meat afforded by the killing off of cattle to avoid having to feed them through the winter.
The rituals associated with the winter solstice vary depending upon the cultural background of the tradition. Many pagan rituals include the use of fire to signify warmth, cleansing for the coming new season and the renewal of light . The ancient Romans kicked up their heels with feasting, gift-giving and days of Bacchanalian partying. While we complain of the cold here in the southern hemisphere, we really don’t generally do it all that tough so I stop short of celebrating with days of decadence and debauchery, but did invite some friends over for dinner.
I had some irresistibly soft and sticky Willabrand dried figs that I’d bought at Adelaide Showgrounds Farmers Market and wanted to combine them with some of the beautifully fat fennel bulbs that are in season. I surfed around on the interwebz for a bit searching for inspiration and eventually developed this chicken, leek, fig and fennel dish. It’s not the loveliest and most photogenic dish in the world, but it’s right up there for flavour and boasts something of the “wow” factor. If you can’t find fig syrup or vincotto, use honey instead, but do try to find the fennel pollen. It won’t overpower the dish with a fennel flavour, but adds a final burst of freshness that will surprise you. Add that to the fact that it is another of my simple one-dish-wonders and it’s ticked all my boxes. I hope you like it.
- 1 kilo chicken chops (chicken thighs on the bone, with or without skin - you decide)
- 1 large (or 2 small) fennel bulb, sliced into wedges with base attached to hold together
- 2 large leeks, sliced thinly
- 4 large carrots, chopped in chunks
- 250 gms soft, dried figs, roughly sliced
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup white wine
- 100 mls olive oil for frying
- fig syrup (or vincotto)
- fennel pollen (available in gourmet stores)
- Preheat oven to 180C.
- Heat olive oil in shallow fry pan, season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and brown all over, in small batches. Set aside.
- Add more oil if needed, then add sliced leeks and sweat down until soft and just beginning to caramelise. Spread out in a large baking dish.
- Check oil again, then add the fennel wedges, browning on each side, but taking care not to break them up when turning. Distribute them in baking dish.
- Add browned chicken pieces to the baking dish, nestling them in on top of the leeks, among the fennel.
- Add the carrots and chopped figs.
- Pour over the hot stock and the wine.
- Cover with foil, place in the oven and cook for 40 minutes, until thighs are cooked through.
- Remove thighs and set aside in a warm place.
- Stir vegetables gently then, leaving baking dish uncovered, return to oven and cook vegetables for further 5-10 minutes until the liquid is reduced and thickened.
- Return chicken to the dish, stir gently to coat with vegetables and sauce.
- Drizzle with fig syrup, sprinkle with fennel pollen and serve.
All of the photos used in this post were taken on my Iphone and, if you think they look familiar, were previously shared on my Instagram account. For these, and more, follow me on Instagram here.
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There are days when even a domestic goddess such as my humble self struggles for the inspiration and motivation to put a meal on the table. I enjoy cooking – no, really, I do – but the mind-crushing tedium of deciding what to cook every, single, bloody, night really burns my biscuits sometimes. The best way around those occasions is to be the type of efficient paragon who sits down on a weekend and works out the week’s menu. No last minute head-scratching, anxiety-racked ravaging through the freezer or panicked eleventh hour shopping visits in those homes. No sir – just happy, shiny faces around the table and a wholesome, home-cooked meal on it. Every. Night.
Probably no teenagers and young adults with fascinating lives and prevaricating plans in those homes either. The number of people expecting to put on a nose-bag at dinner time in my house can vary wildly and with almost no notice. One evening a few weeks back I went from anticipating six for a family roast dinner to buying take-aways for two – all in the space of three hours, as the numbers dwindled in the face of better offers. For reasons like these and because I can be very lazy at times, I like to keep some quick cheats in the pantry. There are the old stand-by’s of tinned beans and fish, but also a locally produced and wittily named range of “Thistle Be Good” products that I adore, made by the delightfully Celtic Jacqui Good.
Originally from Kirkcaldy in Fife, Scotland, Jacqui found herself in Australia in 1999, having indulged a fanciful wanderlust which took her nowhere in particular and everywhere in general. Still wafting on the breeze (yes – a little like thistle down) it took her nine months to make her way to Adelaide where she promptly lost her heart, but found her home. Settling with her Australian partner south of Adelaide, Jacqui was surprised to find how quickly she felt at home. “I feel I belong here more than I ever did in Scotland” she told me. Which is all just as well really, as she has become such an integral part of the South Australian and southern region food scene.
Jacqui took her first steps into the food world while working in the wine industry at a well known McLaren Vale cellar door. Local well-respected food icon Russell Jeavons had taught Jacqui how to make the now popular Egyptian nut and spice blend, dukkah, and she was making it for functions and selling small amounts of it at the cellar door. The passing mention of its possible use as a meat rub by a customer sent Jacqui scurrying off to her books to learn what a meat rub actually was. It wasn’t long before her range was extended to include “The Rub”, followed a few years later by a range of prepackaged risotto and couscous blends and now her quinoa mix.
Jacqui and Thistle Be Good are a wonderful example of the role farmers markets have to play in developing and incubating small business – the Willunga Farmers Market is where Jacqui began to sell her range to the general public. It quickly became clear to Jacqui that she would need acceptable commercial facilities to produce her growing range of products and she was one of the group of local food producers who set about establishing the first council approved community kitchen in her area.
Thistle Be Good now boasts 18 products over five ranges, employs four people, is still produced locally, with the kitchen in the town of Willunga and the office in Aldinga, and is now also available nationally, with distributors in all Australian states. Jacqui is an advocate of “clean” food and always looks to local sources for her ingredients in the first instance so this is one product that I’m very happy to use to make my life easier. I was already a fan of both the couscous mix and the risotto mix, but the quinoa blends have really won my heart – especially the Persian Date and Pistachio mix. I used it the other night as the base for this very healthy, tasty and brilliantly quick Persian chicken salad. I added my divineconfit cherry tomatoes and this recipe is as good a reason as any to make them. The mix is delightful as it comes, but I admit to beefing mine up a bit with some added spice – just because that’s what I do.
- 1 Pkt "Thistle Be Good" Persian Date and Pistachio Quinoa
- 350 gms cooked chicken meat
- 4 spring onions, chopped
- 2 stalks of celery, sliced
- 1 cucumber, chopped
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved (or cherry tomato confit, if you have it)
- 150 gms fetta, cubed
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 bunch of fresh coriander, chopped
- 1 bunch fresh mint, chopped
- 1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Prepare quinoa as per the instructions on the packet. Fork lightly through to make it fluffy.
- Combine the quinoa with the rest of the ingredients, drizzle with the olive oil and toss it all lightly together before serving.
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I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to travel a little over the last few years. As we bid farewell to school fees (one more year, but who’s counting), school books, uniform costs, dependent offspring and their associated expenses, both The Husband and I hope to be able to do include quite a bit more of it in our future. If I assume we won’t be winning the lottery any time soon, I don’t suppose I’ll ever get to all the places I want to see, but I intend to prioritise and Morocco is going to be very high on that list.
I have long had a passion for the flavours of Moroccan and Middle Eastern food, neither of which is a cuisine commonly found locally to me. Thanks to some excellent sources of supply for the requisite spices, I like to think I do a pretty fair job of preparing my favourite dishes at home, but I long for the opportunity to lie around on some sort of cushioned arrangement, in a gloriously tiled courtyard, wearing something loose, drapey and flattering, listening to the gentle splash of a small fountain, while sipping freshly made, sweet mint tea and enjoying authentic Moroccan food. As you can probably tell, I’ve got the complete fantasy worked out – the whole lying around aspect is very attractive to this lazy woman.
Moroccan food is not difficult to make if you have the right spices – and they are readily available these days. Try to avoid buying the supermarket spices if you can – their flavours are often not really very good. I buy mine online or at gourmet stores and it is well worth the small extra expense. This delicious chicken tagine, served with steaming piles of golden couscous, is quite simple to make and so wonderfully fragrant that you will be very impressed with yourself – even my ungrateful teens enjoyed this meal and took the leftovers to school the next day for lunch.
One tip for the couscous – the boxed stuff is pretty ordinary, but will absorb surprising amounts of liquid and will reward you handsomely if you spend a little more time over it. Traditionally couscous is steamed three times (being rubbed between each stage) over the cooking stew and, in reality, that’s easily enough done if you have the right equipment. But if not, try this method. Place 2 cups of couscous in a wide, shallow dish with an equivalent amount of very hot (or boiling) stock, give it a stir with a fork, then cover for 5-10 minutes. Remove cover, melt 100 gms of butter, pour it over the couscous then, with clean (or gloved) hands, gently rub the couscous through your fingers to separate it, making sure the butter is distributed evenly. Cover again for 5 minutes, then fluff up with a fork (or fingers) before serving.
- 700 gms chicken thighs (on the bone if possible)
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, cut into large cubes
- 2 onions, chopped
- 2 Tbs Ras el Hanout
- 50 gms butter
- 30 ml olive oil
- 1 litre chicken or veg stock
- 1 can chick peas, drained
- ¾ cup prunes, stones removed
- zest of 1 orange, cut into strips
- orange blossom water
- ¼ cup flaked almonds
- Melt butter and oil together in a heavy based saucepan over moderate heat. Add Ras el Hanout and cook gently for a minute or two, until fragrant.
- Add chicken to spiced oil and brown quickly. Set aside.
- Add onions to spiced oil and cook over moderate heat until softened and golden.
- Return chicken to pot, add the sweet potato and stock to cover, stir to combine. Cover, bring to boil, then turn heat down to a slow simmer. Cook for 30 minutes.
- Add chick peas and prunes and simmer for 10 minutes more, then stir in orange zest and simmer a further 5 minutes.
- Serve on couscous, drizzling with a splash of orange blossom water and sprinkled with almonds.
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Excitement levels and blood pressure are rising in our house as it is only three more sleeps until I take off with my eldest daughter, the Cupcake Queen, for Vancouver to pick up the youngest from her student exchange. After spending a few days in Canada, the three of us will have the girls trip of our dreams traveling down the west coast of the US to Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. We will be leaving behind the two blokes, husband and son, who will have to fend for themselves – and keep the dogs, cattle and poultry alive – for three weeks. The last time I left the family for any length of time I spent a week cooking and freezing multiple meals. In retrospect, I think that little burst of domesticity was fueled by guilt and a misplaced sense of my responsibility for their nutritional and culinary well-being. I’m very happy to say that I’ve grown so much as a person in the last few years that neither of these conditions are an issue for me at all now.
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For quite a lot of Australians the transition between seasons can slip past without a great deal of notice as the climate in large parts of the country is very mild for most of the year. Here in the Adelaide Hills this is not the case, though. Summer is still hot here, but the nights are much cooler than down on the plain, and we slide into autumn with a riot of reds, burgundies and browns as the introduced trees which grow so well up here prepare for the coming chills. Winter is generally cold, wet and foggy, but worth it for the glories of spring. The blossom trees are breathtaking in their beauty and the dormant gardens start to kick into a life that is teeming with activity. The slightly warmer weather rouses all sorts of living things, not all of them welcome – brown snakes come to mind, from their repose and the atmosphere comes alive with birdsong and the satisfied buzz of what I like to think of as my own, personal bees as they go about the business of pollination and honey making.