What did you get for Christmas? Santa bought us a bushfire.
I think I hinted to you in my last post that our Christmas day wasn’t as full of fun as we’d have liked.
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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.
Winter Solstice Chicken, Leek, Fig & Fennel Ragout
- 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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Summer seems to be lingering in Adelaide at the moment. Not in a nasty “Oh, my god it’s going to be how hot today?” kind of way, but in a very pleasant warm, sunny “I think we’ll have lunch outside again” kind of way. Never mind that my summer clothes are starting to look just a little tired or that I am unable to get away with the five day stubble on my legs – I might as well enjoy the weather while it lasts. Although, if the weather gods are listening, it would be totally perfect if we could have some rain at night. My poor garden is very thirsty.
There are still lots of lovely, ripe tomatoes to be found and I’m happy to eat them while I can, but I haven’t quite finished stocking up on some for the duller days ahead. One beautiful way to save the fresh taste of summer tomatoes is to slow cook them in the oven and store them in oil. I used cherry tomatoes for this. These small, red bombs are gorgeously sweet and intense. Cooking them in this way deepens and compounds the taste, making them little explosions of potent summer flavours in your mouth – evoking the sunnier days gone by. I’m not too sure how long they will keep in your fridge as I’ve never had the opportunity to find out in this house – they are snapped up pretty quickly.
I’ve been known to eat these with a spoon straight out of the jar, but they are also good in salads, tossed through pasta or on foccaccia. For this batch I added fresh thyme and garlic, but rosemary, oregano and/or chilli flakes would be quite wonderful too. The taste of the olive oil will be important here, so try not to skimp on the quality. Make sure that your jars are very clean – wash with hot soapy water and dry in the oven, or run them through a hot cycle in the dishwasher. Like so much of my cooking this recipe is dead simple, but the end result is really, really more than the sum of it’s parts.
Cherry Tomato Confit
- 1 kg ripe cherry tomatoes stalks removed, halved
- 100 mls good olive oil
- 3 cloves of garlic peeled and very finely sliced
- Sprigs of fresh herbs of your choice thyme, rosemary or oregano are great
- Sea salt
- ground black pepper
- Extra olive oil for storing
- Preheat oven to 170C.
- Drizzle some of the oil over the base of an oven-proof dish and spread to make a film over base of dish.
- Place tomatoes cut side down in dish.
- Sprinkle with garlic and herbs, then drizzle with remaining olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
- Cook in oven for 40-50 minutes until tomatoes are soft and just collapsing, but not charred.
- Cool, then place in jars and cover with extra olive oil.
- Store in refrigerator.
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It’s the first day of autumn here in the Adelaide Hills today and there are signs of harvest everywhere. Driving along the winding roads becomes a little more hazardous as we dodge the large grape-picking machines which travel from vineyard to vineyard, the enormous double-trailered (there’s probably a name for these) trucks carrying the precious grapes to the wineries and various private cars, vans, trucks and utes (pick-ups) loaded with ladders and itinerate pickers heading to and from the apple orchards as the apple harvest begins.
Not so at our house, though. I managed to steal some of the plums away from the birds, but our other stone fruit and ALL of the apples are long gone – ravaged before ripening by the voracious galahs, corellas and rosellas. We still have our citrus fruit (thank heavens for bitter rinds), the quinces ripen quite late up here and I can always seem to find some ripe figs that the birds have missed.
We have a scrawny orange tree that I have been nurturing along for some years. That, and an up-until-recently unidentified citrus, have been overshadowed and stunted by a scruffy, unattractive Paper Bark tree whose existence has been the subject of intermittent marital disagreement. A recent visit by some horticulturally savvy friends shed light on the identity of the anonymous citrus – a Tahitian Lime, no less – and the tree next to it which I had never even really noticed. Seems that this is a White Mulberry and what I had always assumed to be it’s nondescript flowers are, in fact, the most ambrosial tasting fruit I have ever eaten. This tree, too, has been stunted by the increasingly ugly Paper Bark. In a calculated move a little like Eve (but plumper and older) with the apple, I lured the disputing spouse under the tree and fed him some of the White Mulberry fruit. One taste was all it took for The Husband to pronounce the death sentence upon the blot on the landscape and it is astonishing how quickly the citrus trees have responded to the extra light, water and space.
Our oranges don’t look like much, but they have an amazing flavour and I have been working on ways to combine them with the only other ripe fruit to hand at the moment – the figs. I made a vow at the beginning of summer to try to make more home-made ice cream and am proud of this gorgeously fragrant recipe which I eventually came up with. While there are a couple of steps, it really is not a fussy recipe and is well worth the effort. I found that the flavour of the orange blossom water tends to dissipate after freezing so you may need to beef this up a little. After I’d made it I also thought some toasted, slivered almonds would be a great addition – so feel free to play around with it. A Thermomix makes this easier, but is not necessary – I have given instructions for either stove-top or TM.
Orange Blossom Fig & White Chocolate Ice Cream - wicked!
- 1 cup fresh orange juice
- 2 Tbsp honey
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 500 gms fresh figs stems removed and quartered
- 2-3 tsp orange blossom water
- 250 mls pouring cream
- 250 mls full cream milk
- 150 gms white chocolate finely grated
- 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
- 2 egg yolks
- 70 gms caster sugar
- Place orange juice, honey and cinnamon stick into small saucepan and bring to the boil over moderate flame. Remove from heat and allow to steep for an hour or two then remove and discard cinnamon stick.
- Preheat oven to 180C.
- Place quartered figs in a shallow, greased oven tray. Pour over the orange juice and honey mix and roast figs until all the juice has evaporated and the fruit has caramelised - about 20 minutes. Watch carefully towards the end to avoid burning.
- Cool the fruit before placing in food processor and pulsing until finely chopped.
- Stir in orange blossom water.
- Combine the cream and milk in a saucepan. Add chocolate and vanilla paste and heat, stirring, until chocolate melted. Cool a little.
- Beat sugar and egg yolks together until thick and creamy.
- Add a small amount of the warm cream/milk mixture and blend well before gradually adding the egg yolks to the rest of the cream/milk over a low flame. Cook over low heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly, until mixture just thickens and coats the back of a wooden spoon. Refrigerate until cold.
- Place in ice cream machine and churn until frozen, place in freezer container, add figs and stir through. Freeze until solid.
- THERMOMIX INSTRUCTIONS for Ice Cream
- Grate the chocolate at speed 8 for 5 seconds.
- Add milk/cream and melt together 2 mins, 50C at speed 3.
- Add butterfly and vanilla paste and sugar. Process 2 minutes at speed 4, adding the yolks one at a time through the lid.
- Refrigerate until cold and then proceed as above.
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Before I tell you all about this fabulous event to celebrate a wonderful fruit and one which is probably a staple in most kitchens, I must come clean. Down on the plains I used to grow lovely tomatoes with almost no effort at all. Each year I’d pop in a few plants, throw some water and fertiliser on them and watch them grow like triffids, eventually harvesting bucket-loads of fragrant, red and flavoursome tomatoes. There would always be too many to eat so I’d cook the extra up into a simple sauce and freeze it ready for the wintry, tomato-free days ahead. I guess you could call those my salad days. 😉
However, since our tree-change into the Adelaide Hills, my tomato mojo has up and left me high and dry. I’ve tried repeatedly, and in many different positions around our house, to grow them here with absolutely no joy whatsoever. In fact, the only constant I can cite in my tomato growing attempts over the last 10 years has been the dreaded tomato wilt which has followed me from garden bed to garden bed. After extensive efforts to combat it last year I have now conceded defeat and won’t try growing tomatoes again. So if my words on the Tomato Festival seem slightly tinged with wistfulness and disappointment I hope you’ll understand. Sigh.
Held at Adelaide Botanic Gardens and following the success of the first Tomato Sauce Challenge in 2012, which received 113 home-made tomato ketchup entries, this event has now grown into the weekend-long Tomato Festival which will be celebrated on 23-24 February, 2013. The South Australian climate is ideally suited for tomato growth (except for the area around my house, apparently) and this ubiquitous fruit is an essential part of the cuisine of many of the cultures which now call Australia home. For many of us, our knowledge of tomatoes is confined to the limited range available in supermarkets. We have little knowledge of the huge number of heirloom tomatoes available but the Tomato Festival will bring together well known cooking and gardening experts, including Maggie Beer, Simon Bryant, Clive Blazey, Jon Lamb, Sophie Thomson, Rosa Matto, Walter Duncan and Jane Doyle, to discuss and share their passion and expertise with a range of activities which will occur throughout Adelaide Botanic Garden, including the Schomburgk Pavilion, Plane Tree Lawn and North Lodge, showcasing different areas of the Garden.
In partnership with Diggers Club (Australia’s most popular gardening club with the largest range of heirloom vegetables, cottage flowers and fruit plants available) and the Botanic Gardens Restaurant, the weekend will feature the Tomato Sauce Challenge, the Best in Show competition, tomato-themed workshops, the Great Tomato Debate, cooking demonstrations, the Tasty Tomato Trail, fun activities for kids, a tomato taste test, special guided walks and a tomato themed luncheon in the award-winning Botanic Gardens Restaurant. As general interest in home food production gathers steam,the aims of this event – to bring together tomato gardeners and home cooks from across South Australia to share the benefits of home-grown produce, promote the diversity of tomato varieties and inspire cooks to embrace the versatile tomato in new ways – couldn’t be more relevant today and the extensive Tomato Festival program promises to have something to interest every one.
If you fancy yourself as a crack tomato sauce maker, the Tomato Sauce Challenge will be judged by an expert panel, including champion tomato sauce maker Walter Duncan, SA Life resident chef Rosa Matto and Gardening Australia’s Sophie Thomson. The registration for this event has now been extended to February 15 2013, so you’ve still got plenty of time to be in the running.
An interest in food security seems to be becoming a more prominent community concern and sharing our food knowledge, skills and cultural history is one very real way to help protect and fortify our collective capacity. One of the primary objectives of the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide is to advance knowledge of the plant world through botanical, horticultural and ex-situ conservation programs. Botanic gardens are imperative to our future. Their role in helping us to understand the connection between plants, people and culture is vital in creating sustainable communities for generations to come.